If you plan on meandering about Argentina, you have probably heard that you need to check out Bariloche, a city overlooking gorgeous Patagonian lakes.
It's true, it should definately be on your to-do list, but consider yourself warned. It is breathtakingly beautiful, but that beauty comes at a price. Restaurants are overpriced, the shopping is designer, and the vibe is more high-end European than it is third-world Argentina. The first time I visited, I was there for less than a full day before I needed to make a break for it and head into the mountains for sanity.
At the base of the local ski resort, easily accessed by bus, there is a trailhead to Frey, a refugio about 4-5 hours away walking. It is a moderate hike, and anyone in resonable physical fitness can do it. If you start early in the day, before 10am, you can return to town in time to enjoy dinner. If you prefer to camp, there are plenty of places to do so for free along the way, or you can stay at the refugio, which is kind of like a cabin/hostel at the top of the mountain.
Along the path, which I have to admit at times is not the best marked, you will have the opportunity to cross over numerous waterfalls. The water is perfectly safe to drink, so you do not need to pack a ton of bottled water. We just kept refilling our one bottle at every waterfall. You have views of at least two Patagonian lakes, and will make your way through rocky areas, forest, and at the top, snow fields depending on the time of year. I wore regular hiking boots and jeans, and was fine throughout this last part. I went in November and the snow was only the last forty five minutes to hour of the hike.
Once we got to the top, our original plan had been to stay the night at the refugio. Even there, the atmosphere was a little too fancy for my taste. I did not expect wine and gourmet dinners to be offered at a high price at a refugio in the middle of nowhere, nor did I expect to be charged a fee to cook some of my own pasta noodles in the kitchen. My hiking partner and I actually took off after a few minutes and returned an hour down the mountain to camp instead at the side of a waterfall, which for us was much more enjoyable.
Overall, the hike to Frey is relatively easy, and rewards you with some of the most spectacular views that Bariloche has to offer. If shopping and spending money is your thing, stay downtown Bariloche.
If you came to Patagonia for the natural beauty, get out of town as soon as possible and go hike Frey.
Written and contributed by Cathy Brown