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Biking the Circuito Chico in Bariloche, Argentina — and meeting an Argentinan playboy along the way

Posted by on January 5, 2012
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With just two days to spend in Bariloche, we knew we didn’t have time for much — not that we minded considering how active we were in El Bolson. But we knew we wanted to bike the 60-some km Circuito Chico, a popular route that can be driven, biked, or if you’re ready for a long day, walked. It takes you through lakes, mountains, hotel resorts and if you’re lucky like us, on an adventure with a crazy Argentinian man.

We went on the ride with a friend from our hostel — Annika from Germany — and early in the route we noticed a couple of guys had stopped to pick cherries on the road. Since that sounded like a genius idea, we joined them. Pretty soon we were chatting with them — Alberto, a half-German, half-Argentinian jewelry distibutor and his 19-year-old son, Juan, who was on holiday from university in Buenos Aires.

When we all got our fruit fill, Alberto invited us to ride with him and Juan to his favorite secret spot. Now, if I were alone, this would be a blazing red flag, and I’d high-tail it out of there. Solo backpacker female goes to secret spot with local man and son? No thanks.

I was comfortable with Eaman there, so we all agreed to follow Alberto’s lead. And that’s when the got equal parts crazy and hilarious.

The secret spot was a hidden lake ripe for swimming. How did we know that? Well, when we arrived to the lake, Alberto immediately dropped trou completely — with a just-to-be-polite “Is it OK if I…?” and into the lake he went with his son looking on, embarassed.

We hesitated to go in at first, but it looked so inviting and seemed like a good way to escape the incessant biting horseflies. So we jumped in, too — in our swimsuits, not commando-style! — and it was the most refreshing swim of my life.

Alberto, showing us the hidden lake:

The lake we swam in:


From that point, Alberto took it upon himself to serve as our personal tour guide, taking us to great pit stops and regaling us with facts and personal life stories. (The best moment was when we asked Juan if he had any siblings and he said no, only to have his dad correct him, explaining that he had a sister in Bali, where Alberto spends half the year. That Alberto…international playboy.)

But I gotta say, there was definitely something off about Alberto. Beyond stories of working for Colombians under the table in Amsterdam in his 20s, he told us he sells jewelry — casual stuff like shell necklaces — on beaches. OK, how do you spend half the year in Bali solely off selling fake stone necklaces? (Pretty sure the pendants are laced with powdery substances.) Second, he told us he avoids paying import tariffs by smuggling his necklaces across borders. Don’t worry, we made sure he didn’t drop anything into our drinks while we weren’t looking.

Stopping for beers along the way:

But joking aside, Alberto was what made a ride that everyone does so unique. He kept us entertained, showed us things the usual tourist would never see and motivated us on some of those excruciating uphills. Who knows, we may even see him in Bali later this year.

Also worth mentioning about this ride is the ash situation in Bariloche which plagued the tail-end of our ride. Remnant ashes of the June 2011 Chilean volcano eruption continue to move east toward Bariloche. It’s forced the local airport to close and has hurt tourism — mostly at the 4- and 5-star resorts — quite a bit. Mostly, though, it just creates a thick, foggy haze over the city, even now.

How bad it is each day depends on the winds, and at the end of our ride, this is how hazy it got (it’s mainly hazy in the high altitudes; visibility at our eye level was totally fine):

We didn’t totally mind because seeing it was also kind of a unique experience, but I could see how dealing with it everyday could become a nightmare.

Back at the bike rental shop some six hours after we began — Alberto said the typically three-hour Circuito Chico is better as a longer excursion with many stops — we exchanged contact info with Alberto and got a free chocolate treat from the rental shop:

Beyond this ride, the only other major activities included napping in our hostel’s garden and sitting out by Lago Gutierrez. We clearly didn’t do as much in Bariloche as we did in other places, and I’ll be honest, it was intentional.

Bariloche is supposed to be a big, sought-after destination for wealthy Argentinians and backpackers alike, but to us, it seemed rather unappealing. All we had heard about it was yes, it’s gorgeous, but it’s also incredibly touristy not to mention the fact that the ashes can put a serious damper on a day of sightseeing.

We were so unbelievably content in El Bolson that going to a more commercial city seemed like the exact opposite thing to do. (The scores of luxury resorts upon entering Bariloche confirmed the hearsay.) I’ll be the first to admit that we probably didn’t give Bariloche a chance. We didn’t even go downtown to try the famous chocolate shops! But I think that’s what’s so great about this big, big world we live in: There are so many places to go that you can always find the one that’s just right for you. And if you’re smart you’ll spend more quality time in the place that speaks to you most (ahem, ahem — El Bolson — ahem, ahem).

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