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Visiting Patagonia, Argentina: Parilla, Malbec and nature at its purest

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Patagonia, Argentina, Argentinian cuisine, South America, South of Argentina

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Most people when they hear about Argentina, think of tango, steak and Evita - something that is more familiar and known very well to us about the Argentinian culture. And nothing is wrong with it, Argentinians pride themselves in their art of tango and delicious steak that they know very well how to make. However, there is so much more to the culture and country altogether and one could feel the true, raw at times, vibe of country by traveling to the south of the country - Patagonia, which offers the views and experience of untouched nature in its purest and conserved form.

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The many lakes and forests of the south Argentina are, in fact, protected by Unesco. This explains why they do not allow any kind of commercial development in the area, except for very few hotel resorts like Llao Llao in Bariloche and smaller ones in other parts of the south that seem to stay the same and do not expand, again, in order to preserve the nature. These hotels/spa resorts do not overtake the nature and all the outdoor activities they offer are harmless to the local nature. This is why they also do not allow the motor boats in the lakes and require a license to fish. That’s said, there’s plenty to do and see in the south, especially for those who love nature and outdoor activities in any season, because you would find no entertainment centers there, like clubs and casinos. The most activities these hotels and areas offer have something to do with the nature: biking, fishing, hiking, kayaking, and local food/wine tasting. This guide is perfect if you’re planning a short vacation to the south and you are under certain time and money constrains. I will help you to plan your perfect getaway with things I personally tried and found essential to include in this article.

Getting to the south of Argentina is not easy, if coming from outside the country. Almost all flights involve connection in Buenos Aires, where you will change to the local airlines. Nevertheless, thousands of people from around the world come to the south each year. Not to mention that it is a very popular vacation destination for the Argentans.

Last time I wrote about my travel and stay experience in Buenos Aires. When I was in Buenos Aires, the friends and family of my fiancée kept saying to me that I absolutely must see the south of the country. The ‘reviews’ were raving, not to mention that my friends from USA and Europe were saying the same thing, so it prepared me to see the true wonders of the south this last New Year’s. I looked at many pictures and articles about it to learn more, but no picture prepares you for what you’re about to see. In all my articles I write what I know and experience myself.

Patagonia

Patagonia is a region located at the southern end of South Argentina shared by Argentina and Chile. The region comprises the southern section of the Andes mountains to the southwest towards the Pacific Ocean and from the east of the mountain range to the valleys it follows the Colorado River south towards Carmen de Patagones in the Atlantic Ocean. To the west, it includes the territory of Valdivia through Tierra del Fuego archipelago. It's a vast area and one cannot visit it all in one trip.

The name Patagonia comes from the word patagoni used by Magellan in 1520 to describe the native people that his expedition thought to be giants. It is now believed that the people he called the Patagons were Tehuelches, who tended to be taller than Europeans of the time. Some of the earlier settlers were allowed to stay and have houses in the area, while the new arrivals are not allowed to build properties in the areas protected by UNESCO, which is why when you travel in the south you see little of the villages and the area is hardly populated. That adds that rawness to the enormous sights of pure nature.

On our trip we visited one of those little villages, where only a few houses stand and the residents of that village live by farming, producing preserves from the gardens, fishing, and growing stock on a very small scale, just enough to go by. They provide some meat, vegetables and fruits to the local restaurants and hotels.

Overall, there’s less than two million people living in Patagonia region, which, as you can see, is a very big spread that is why it feels so under populated and ‘naked’ and stands in no way to enjoy the pure nature.

Argentine Patagonia is for the most part a region of steppe-like plains, covered with an enormous bed of shingle almost bare of vegetation. In the hollows of the plains are ponds or lakes of fresh and brackish water, which is why you can find local fish, mostly trout, in any of the local restaurants. It’s an absolutely delicious treat, which I had almost every day, and still couldn't get enough of it.

Towards the Andes, the shingle gives place to porphyry, granite, and basalt lavas, animal life becomes more abundant and vegetation more luxuriant. That is why the hiking trips are very popular there, which allow to see some of the most amazing places and experience the local flora and fauna like the guanaco, the cougar, the Patagonian Fox (Lycalopex griseus), the Patagonian Hog-nosed Skunk (Conepatus humboldtii), and the Magellanic Tuco-tuco (Ctenomys magellanicus; a subterranean rodent) are the most characteristic mammals of the Patagonian plains. The guanaco roam in herds over the country and form with the Darwin's Rhea (Rhea pennata) formerly the chief means of subsistence for the natives, who hunted them on horseback with dogs and bolas. Vizcachas (Lagidum spp.) and the Patagonian Mara (Dolichotis patagonum) are also characteristic of the steppe and the Pampas to the north.

Bird-life is often abundant. The Southern Caracara (Caracara plancus) is one of the characteristic objects of a Patagonian landscape; the presence of Austral Parakeets(Enicognathus ferrugineus) as far south as the shores of the strait attracted the attention of the earlier navigators; and Green-backed Firecrowns (Sephanoides sephaniodes), a species of hummingbird, may be seen flying amidst the falling snow. Of the many kinds of waterfowl it is enough to mention the Chilean Flamingo (Phoenicopterus chilensis), the Upland Goose (Chloephaga picta), and in the strait the remarkable steamer ducks.

Signature marine fauna include the Southern right whale, the Magellanic Penguin (Spheniscus magellanicus), the Orca and elephant seals. The Valdés Peninsula is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its importance as a nature reserve. Again, you can arrange for the trips to see those. Just ask at your hotel and/or in the local tourist information offices about the tours.

Traveling in the area by car you will see many sheep farms. Many international clothing lines have sheep farms there, like United Colors of Benetton. Also, [mountain] biking is very popular in the south. While we stayed in Villa Angusturo and Bariloche, we saw many locals and tourists of various age cycling to explore the area by bike. You can find many bike rental places there, as well as the biking tours and maps of the area. I’d absolutely suggest doing the biking there!

Aside from the outdoor activities and trips you can take in Patagonia, some small towns in the area offer many local shops and crafts to browse through. For example, in Villa Angusturo, where we stayed, there was a small town that reminded me of the Lake Placid ski resort in New York and Caramel in California with cute shops and cafes around. Many shops sell local crafts, as well as local foods (produce) and drinks, like Mate (a hot tea-like drink made out of yerba), Malbec and meat cuts of deer, boar, trout, salmon and beef. Unless you are a vegetarian, I’d suggest you buy a variety of the cuts and a bottle of Malbec and do a picnic somewhere by the lake and/or in the forest. It’s allowed as long as you respect the nature. Many trails in the forests and mountains are equipped with wood benches, especially by the main sights and most lakes have decks. However, do note that they do not light those areas at night, as per preserving the wilderness.

Argentine Patagonian cuisine

South Argentans do know how to eat. Even Patagonian cuisine is largely the same as the cuisine of Buenos Aires – grilled meats, desert with dulce leche (caramel like cream), and a wide selection of the Argentan wines, but here in Patagonia they use extensively local ingredients. Lamb is considered the traditional Patagonian meat, grilled for several hours over an open fire. They call it Parrilla, here’s a video on how it’s being cooked and why it's so special and wanted by the visitors. It’s a true delight and can only be found in the south. The meat is cooked slowly and thoroughly over the open fire, but it still preserves juices.

Deer, boar and less guanaco meats are also popular in Patagonia cuisine. One night I tried a deer stew, which was made with the local wild mushrooms and cooked slowly in red wine, served in a dough bowl, like clam chowder at the San Francisco piers. It had an interesting taste to it, which was close to the taste of beef, but with more flavor. Not for everyone, but if you are adventurous enough - do try the local cuisine.

However, since the guanaco is a protected animal in both Chile and Argentina, it is unlikely to appear commonly as restaurant fare. Trout and centolla (king crab) are also common. Most restaurants serve the whole fish that’s spread in half and looks like a flattened fish. You can get it with a local specialty sauce or just grilled with lemon. Patagonia trout is with a pink color and looks like salmon, but tastes differently. Trout is in abundance in the south, because of all the clear water lakes around. However, the fishing is becoming more restricted there to preserve the fish.

In the area around Bariloche, there is a noted Alpine cuisine tradition, with chocolate bars and even fondue restaurants, and tea rooms are a feature of the Welsh communities in Gaiman and Trevelin as well as in the mountains. Since the mid-1990s there has been some success with winemaking in Argentine Patagonia, especially in Neuquén. There are also many Irish and German pubs, some of which cook very authentic food. This tradition comes from the fact that many Germans moved to and settled in Argentina after the WWII. This and the fact that there were many other Europeans settling in the area, explains why Argentans are the most ‘Caucasian’ looking nation among other South American countries. Most of the Argentans are of mixed blood, which I’ve learned when I started dating my fiancée. The roots of the Argentans go to Europe, Russia, Northern Middle East, South of Africa, and etc.

If you are looking for a very active nightlife, south of Argentina is not for you. It’s not that you are not going to find any bars, you would – even the small towns have a few bars, but it would not be a crazy busy spot, which is open all night long. Most of these night spots are more quiet, but nevertheless, the tourists who come to the Patagonia do know how to have fun at night: besides the many restaurants with the local cuisine, most resorts and hotels offer their own bars and areas of entertainment. Here are the two places I’ve been to with a detailed list of things to do.

Villa La Angostura

This is a small resort-like natural spot, which offers many outdoor activities, a small town full of shops and cafes and great views and access to some of the most beautiful lakes, mountains and forests in the area. Even if your hotel does not offer the views, there are many spots, where you can go and enjoy it.

Things to do and consider when visiting Villa La Angostura:

1. Visit the lake ports: besides the restaurants sitting on the decks overlooking the lakes, there are little ‘wild’ beach areas to walk around while enjoying the amazing views. These spots are great at all times, except night, as the lakes are not lighted up, so even if you are sitting at a lake restaurant at night, you would not see anything.

2. Craft markets: there are a few in the area. These markets sell many of the local specialties – from foods (preserves, breads, meats, cheese, etc.) and drinks (wines, juices, teas) to hand-made jewelry and souvenirs made from the local materials, like wood and leather.

3. Outdoor activities: I strongly suggest you do at least one of these – biking, hiking, boating, kayaking, trekking and/or fly fishing. Most of the hotels and tourist offices would have information on it.

4. Do excursions: Patagonia is famous for its flora and fauna. You can see penguins and whales, for example. We went on a boat excursion to the island, which is known for the most famous national park in Villa La Angostura - El Bosque de los Arrayanes, a forest that is over 300 years old and can be reached by land (a 12km walk) or by water. It is the only forest in the world of Arrayanes, an orange-red tree whose bark peels as the tree grows. It is said that Walt Disney got inspired for the idea of Bambi when he visited this special forest. So, if you watch Bambi cartoon, the amazingly beautiful forest featured there is El Bosque de los Arrayanes.

5. Transportation in the area is not widely available: some visitors rent a car to be able to reach the most isolated and far lakes and forests or they take local taxis, which are not very expensive and most people opt to walk to the nearby places and take taxi to the further ones. We rented a taxi, which driver was a local residents and at the end of the day we got a personal tour of many lakes and other nature spots, with a stop in the small village and with a lunch break at a lake tavern. Having a local guide definitely helps not only to see more but also to understand the local specifics.

6. Do indulge in the local cuisine: experiment and try something you’d never eat at home, like boar and deer meat, and if you are a seafood person, definitely go for the trout. For the wine lovers, couldn’t emphasize enough the quality of the local wines, especially Malbec. Note: some of the alcoholic drinks that might be very common and inexpensive in your country, would be much more expensive in Patagonia. In my own experience, I saw that a glass of Bloody Mary equals in price to a bottle of good Malbec. Besides, why drink something that you can get at home, when you can indulge in the local specialty? And do not forget to try the local deserts, especially dulce leche filled pastries (like their famous Havanna brand) and chocolates – you will find many chocolate factories and shops in the area with a very diverse offerings, like Mamushka and Heladeria En El Bosque Chocolate (here’s a full list of chocolate stores in Villa La Angostura.)

7. The local weather might surprise you: even though it’s in the south, due to the location and proximity to the mountains and lakes, the rains are more common in the area, as well as the fluctuating temperature between day and night. Even if you go in the summer, be sure to have warm and waterproof clothes and footwear.

8. Also, if you are not traveling with a local, like I did, and you don’t speak any Spanish, be prepared for the fact that not many people speak English in the south. Unless it’s a very big place – hotel and/or restaurants, there’s a likelihood that not many people and staff would speak English. So, either learn a few phrases to go by or have a dictionary/language guide with you.

9. That’s said, Argentans are very friendly people; even if they don’t speak your language, they’d be happy to help you as much as they can. At the same time, learn some of the local traditions to better understand Argentans. For example, in Argentina, they do not rush you out of the restaurants, so expect the service everywhere to be somewhat slower than in, say, you might be used to in your country. That’s just the way they are.

10. Also, if you are traveling on a budget, be aware that any service at a hotel would be much more expensive, but most of the hotels allow to bring your own wines and foods and enjoy them in the lobby, so locate local supermarkets and stock on some of the local specialties if you’re planning to spend an evening at your hotel.

We stayed at Sol Arrayan Hotel & Spa resort, which I absolutely would recommend. It had the most amazing views of the lake and was close enough to the town center. The bike path was next to it, so you could definitely use bikes as your transportation. It is a very cozy place and we happened to meet some great people there, with whom we spent our New Year’s night and danced till the early morning hours. It’s a happy place.

Another place we visited was Bariloche and Llao Llao restort.

Bariloche and Llao Llao Hotel & Golf Resort

Bariloche is another area one should visit on the trip to Patagonia, and while the town Bariloche is not the most exciting place to visit – as I found out, the area around is worth to see. I would strongly suggest staying at the absolutely fabulous jewel place in the area – Llao Llao Hotel & Golf Resort (pronounced “chao chao”).

If you pick this place to stay, you basically have no need to even leave this place. As we learned, as much as you’d want to go to the restaurants outside this hotel, they would not be any better than your dining experience at Llao Llao, unless you are willing to invest in a taxi fare to go to Bariloche (about 30-40 min away from the hotel), where you could find the restaurants with cheaper prices and more locals than tourists. But with the taxi fare, you’d ultimately pay the same price for your dinner as at Llao Llao, only at the hotel you get to experience the many amenities and activities offered to the patrons of the hotel – like live entertainment, kids’ room, spa, pool, beauty salons and 360-degree views of the mountains and lakes that surround this hotel (see the photos). Click here to get a bit of the atmosphere of Llao Llao in the evening.

Llao Llao offers the local cuisine – including Patagonian lamb that they cook the traditional way over the open fire and which you could see in-the-making, as well as trout and other local foods, including the many selections of the local wines.

If you don’t feel like joining the excursion group tours offered by the hotel on a daily basis – like hiking in the nearby forests, playing golf on their fabulous courses by the lake and/or going on a day long biking tour with tasting of the local cheese, meats and wine, you could do it yourself like we did. We took many walks around the lakes and in the forest by foot and enjoyed our alone time by the lake with wine.

Like at the Villa La Angostura, this place is also known for its nature – lakes, mountains, and forests, so people come here not for the wild nightlife, but rather to relax and unwind and breath the most delicious clear air I’ve had in a long time. This oxygen-full air can really put you to sleep, in a good sense, and definitely benefits your overall well-being.

The same 10-tips I’ve offered for Villa La Angostura applies to Llao Llao, with exception that the closest town to the hotel is Bariloche, which is much bigger and less attractive than the town in Villa La Angostura. But if you do decide to visit it, a few hours would be enough to explore it.

Here’s more tips on visiting Patagonia like best time to visit and how to get there:

We went at the end of December, beginning of January and the weather surprised everyone. It was relatively cold, windy and rainy, but this is not usually the case during the summers in Patagonia. However, most people visit Patagonia from December to February when the weather is driest, warmest and windiest. Our Argentinian friends from Buenos Aires come during this time. Some prefer October, November, March and April when the temperatures decrease but so do the winds. During the winter months (May to September), many of the Patagonian trails are closed. But many people come to do winter sports, like snowboarding and skiing.

How to get to Patagonia

Usually you fly to Patagonia, even if you live in Argentina. You first fly to Ministro Pistarini International Airport, also known as Ezeiza, located in the suburbs of Buenos Aires (about one hour away), where you change to the local flight or if you are flying from Buenos Aires, you’d most likely fly from their small airport, Aeroparque Jorge Newbery, conveniently located in the city.

Pocket money

Be prepared that in most places, even at some nice restaurants (not to mention small and local spots), they do not accept plastic cards, especially AmEx. Taxi also do not take cards. Be prepared to have enough of the local currency, which you could either exchange at home before your trip or at the airport, unless you know some locals who can help you to locate an exchange place locally that offers a good exchange rate. Right now, the ‘black market’ (or the price at a local exchange place in the town) the price for peso is: 1$ to 10 pesos, but if you exchange it at an airport or in the bank, it could be as low as 1$ = 6 pesos.

I dedicate this article to the family of my fiancée and his friends who helped to plan this great trip for us and whose tips were beyond helpful. This is why I’d suggest, if you have access to the Argentinians, learn as much as possible about Argentina, when you decide to visit. Nothing is as good as the local tips to enjoy it more like a local.

To see some of the videos I've made of Patagonia, visit my YouTube channel here.

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