Parque Nahuel Huapi, right out of Bariloche is one of the most popular national park destinations of Argentina. It´s the oldest park, founded back in 1934.
Ben and I decided to try out a popular route, from the ski town of Catedral to the Refugio Frey to Refugio Jakob. From Jakob we had the option of making a trek over unmarked terrain to another refugio, or to hike out.
The guidebook, Lonely Planet´s trekking guide to the Patagonian Andes, called this hike a medium to difficult trek with some of the best vistas in the region.
Departure day was delayed for two days due to Ben getting some form of food poisoning. He rested up for 48 hours before we headed out on the trek to make sure he was up to it.
The first day, Catedral to Frey, was very pleasant. The well maintained path winded up around the edge of the lake, then shot up a narrow valley. The last mile of the trek was on the difficult side: climbing over boulders in a continual upward accent. But it was short lived, especially after we stopped for some rejuvinating Maté.
That night we stayed at Refugio Frey. Argentine national parks have designated camping spots along their national parks at what are called Refugios. They are shelters up in the mountains, built by the park service. You can get a surprising wide variety of supplies there, from fuel to food. If you want, you can pay to sleep in their dormitories and eat dinner and breakfast. This was far too expensive for Ben and I, so we hiked in all our food and camping gear.
I don´t know which was worse, hauling all that gear, or paying for the luxury of only carrying a day pack. I think I prefer to be totally self-sufficient.
Day two was on the difficult side of Lonely Planet´s rating. Difficult is an understatement actually: It was the hardest day of trekking I´ve ever done. I´m no mountaineer, but I like to think of myself in decent physical shape with enough backpacking savvy to manage most of the public trails out there. This park had other plans.
In short, we ascended and depended on day two about 1,200 feet in less than half a mile. Sure, the topographical map showed this, but we silly Americans were expecting a real trail. Nope. The park´s version of a trail involved spray-painted red dots on rocks along the route: The trail was simply there because of continual foot traffic over time. There were no switchback trails up and down this mountain to help you out. Straight up, straight down was the route.
The climb up was fun. The vistas were excellent, and the climb was challenging but not unreasonable. The constant stream of day hikers coming from the Gondolas was disheartening though. All our work that day, and they just rode a chair lift up and were enjoying the hike down.
At the top, Ben and I got turned around and wasted about 20 minutes looking for the route down. We found the decent finally, and this is where the difficulty really started. There still were no switchbacks, and our thighs were already sore from doing an hour and a half of stair steppers with a 20 lb pack on. We made our way down painstakingly slow over loose rock, gravel and slick boulders. I generally don´t have a fear of heights, and looking down made my stomach turn. I couldn´t believe that this was a popular hike, ranked medium difficult by the guide-book and by the park employees we talked to.
Ben and I made it to the bottom of the valley with about three and a half hours of daylight left. The trek had us climbing up and down yet another ridge on the other side of the valley, but we opted to camp in the valley that night. ¨We probably could make it to Jakob tonight,¨ I said, ¨But it wouldn´t be worth it.¨ Ben agreed. I was so exhausted from that tense decent, I wasn´t enjoying the spectacular scenery around me. The fact that I was trekking in Patagonia was drowned beneath my sore legs and shoulders.
Camping that night in the valley turned out to be a good idea. At that point, the possibility of doing the unmarked traverse from Jakob to the third Refugio was slim to none. After such an intense day on a MARKED trail, we decided that three nights on the two-day circuit was worth it.
The next day we easily conquered the next ridge. This ridge wasn´t as high in elevation, and had more of a real trail on the decent. In addition, we were more prepared mentally for the traverse. We had a pleasant night at Jakob, and even got to BS with a couple of other backpackers from the US, who had the same feelings about the poor quality of the ´trail.´
The last day we hiked out, caught the bus at the next little town and spent that night drinking a well deserved beer in Bariloche. The trek was worth it, we were alive, but beer and a real bed have never tasted so sweet.