28 hour bus ride down Route 40 from Bariloche to El Calafate

Patagonia is quite a bit larger than I imagined. It’s not until you look at the travel time between places that you realize it. For instance, getting from Bariloche to El Calafate takes 2 hours by plane and a whopping 28 hours by bus. I considered the bus for a split second, but opted for the flight instead.

As it turns out, though, the flight just wasn’t in the cards. On the morning of the flight, I arrived at the Bariloche airport and found that everything - everything was canceled. The workers were all on strike, protesting a proposed change in congress that would cut their pensions. None of the airline staff knew when the strike might end, but I got rescheduled to the same flight the next day with the hope that things might be sorted out by then.

My optimism was proven to be stupidity when I received an email that THAT flight was canceled as well. At that point, all of the flights for the next few days were probably booked out too, meaning that I might only be able to fly a full 3 or 4 days later than planned.

Well, bus it was then! At least I would be moving towards my destination, and I would make it to El Calafate only 2 days later than I had expected. I bought a ticket from the Marga office at the bus terminal, which looked like the only bus company that made trips down to El Calafate. Unfortunately, by then, they were out of cama seats for 2480 pesos and only had semi-cama for 2120 pesos. I wasn’t exactly sure what the difference was, but it sounded like it was going to be a loooong, long ride.

Bus essentials

Even if I couldn’t control the bus ride, I could try to make it as comfortable as possible. The night before the bus ride, I packed almost as if I was going on an excursion. It could count as one, given that they only give you “dinner” and the bus only stops once for an extended period of time.

My 24-hour bus packing list:

  • 2L of water, because there’s no place to refill on the bus
  • Yogurt, banana, and granola for breakfast on the bus
  • Bread, ham, cheese, and lettuce for lunch on the bus
  • Apples, oranges, chocolate, and chips for snacks
  • Knife and spoon
  • Fully charged battery pack to recharge mobile devices
  • Scarf to use as blanket
  • Packets of tissues, to use as napkins and toilet paper
  • Baby wipes, for nighttime cleanup without a proper bathroom
  • Hand sanitizer, because again, no proper bathroom
  • Toiletries
  • Ear plugs
  • Feminine hygiene products, because I’ll be damned if my period starts on the bus ride and I don’t have any on hand
  • Cable lock, because Ive heard many stories of people’s belonging getting stolen on overnight bus rides, and specifically in Argentina

The bus ride

 

Everyday, the bus leaves Bariloche at 6:30. I got to the bus terminal at 6:10 just to be safe, but the bus didn’t pull in until around 6:20. Our bus had a picture of the pope on it...that meant we would be blessed with a safe journey, right? The bus attendants loaded the pope with parcels for delivery, then they loaded our bags on the other side and ushered us on board.

I might not have gotten a cama seat, but I did at least get my favorite seat at the front of the second floor deck. Here, there’s a 180 degree view and a higher foot rest. I am just a little concerned about potentially hurling headfirst through the wonderful wide window in the event of an accident, but at least there’s a seatbelt across the waist. And the pope was with us.

For the first 3 hours, the bus wound through the mountains with some beautiful scenery, but I was so exhausted from rescheduling travel plans and waking up early that I passed out. 3 hours went by extremely quick, that was a great start!

I was hoping for some good movies, but no such luck. This first one was about a Chinese girl used by the Chinese mob for her extraordinary mental calculation speed and retention. For some reason buses here have Chinese films - on my way to Bariloche, the bus played a film about a group of men bonding with wolves in the Communist 1960s Chinese country side. ...why??

8 hours in, we made our first pit stop and were told that we had a 15 minute break. After using the bathroom and buying sandwiches, we all milled around the bus - not wanting to get back on it until absolutely necessary, but also not wanting to wander too far in case it left without us. 15 minutes turned into closer to 30, and some started getting antsy. If we only had one driver, though, as I suspected, then I hoped he took his time resting and recharging for the remaining 20 hours!

Around that time, the landscape started flattening out. So flat that you can see the reflection of the sky on the road as it fades into the horizon.

There are also some patches of road that are in need of serious repair. Like this meticulous patchwork here - why not just spread a layer of tar over the entire road?

I was told that the bus ride came with dinner, the only food that we would receive during the ride. However, there was no sign of food throughout the evening. I had just but given up at 9pm when the bus staff started serving out boxed food. Not bad, for food served cold. Although maybe I was just starving, so almost anything would taste good.

At 9:30pm, we were treated to sunset from the bus. 15 hours down, only 13 hours to go. From here, it’s just a regular night bus...right?

At 4:00am, I woke up to see the sunrise. 21.5 hours in, still going strong!

I dozed off a bit more after that and woke again when someone jostled me on her way to the front of the bus to take a picture. I quickly found out why - we were on the edge of a storm, and we could see a perfect, complete rainbow end-to-end in front of the bus. There was even some double rain bowing going on.

Finally, around a full 24 hours since getting on the bus, we arrived in El Chaltén, the last stop before the bus finished up in El Calafate. I cheated and got off here, since I was going to visit El Chaltén anyway. Without a direct flight to El Calafate, it didn’t make any sense to visit El Calafate first and add 6 hours by bus to El Chaltén and back. So I shifted my schedule around by getting off in El Chaltén and buying a bus ticket to continue onto El Calafate a few days later.

In the end, I didn’t make the full 28 hours, but I’d say that 24 is close enough. It wasn’t as bad as I expected it to be, especially with a seat at the front of the bus.

The ride came with an unexpected perk too - extreme productivity. For the first time since I started traveling, I was completely caught up on all my blog posts! I actually ran out of things to write. I fell behind again just 24 hours later, but it was nice to be on toP of things, even if just for a little while.

Biking the Circuito Chico in Bariloche

Besides amazing hikes, Bariloche also has a popular bike route called Circuito Chico – a 27km loop through Llao Llao National Park. The park boasts many hills and lakes with spectacular mountain backdrops, so it’s a beautiful place to bike, though also not the easiest. At first, I was going to pass on the bike ride. But I got somewhat peer pressured into it after seeing how many people were doing it, and I also found an excellent partner to go with at the hostel. Well, why not? I was up for the challenge!

The starting point is a roundabout that marks the beginning of the loop. In this prime location is Circuito Chico Mountain Bike, a company that basically has a monopoly on bike rentals for the circuit. They played their cards well, man.

Bike rental for Circuito Chico

It costs 500 pesos ($27.90) for an ordinary mountain bike with 24 gears and 600 pesos ($33.45) for a fancier one with more functions, including 5 extra gears. Given that I’ve only used bikes with 5 gears total up to this point, I went with the less fancy option. All bikes came with a helmet, a lock and key, and a small air pump in case of a flat.

First, we got a debrief of the path. Going counterclockwise is recommended, since it results in fewer uphill stretches. On average, the circuit takes about 4 hours, with two optional detours, one to Colonia Suiza and one to Villa Tacul, which would each add an hour to the total time.

Overview of the bike route

After that, we signed the forms, paid the fee, and picked out our bikes. In the back of the rental location is a small dirt track that you can ride around to make sure that the bike size and seat height are appropriate:

The bike testing track

And we were off! Right away, the views were stunning:

3km in, we passed a bridge that also had paths down to the beach. A sparkling blue beach, more beautiful than most ocean beaches – but also far more cold.

The first long uphill started shortly after that, for which I was woefully unprepared. Having never really shifted gears on my bike before (read: having never really biked before), I was unsure of which way to shift when going uphill but figured that out fairly quickly. What took me a lot longer to figure out was that you have to shift the gears early and allow enough room to pedal a few times for the gear to completely shift, otherwise the bike doesn’t listen to you at all. Thankfully there were viewpoints along the way that served as convenient excuses to stop. But even then, I did a fair bit of pushing the bike uphill.

The view at the top of the hill was worth it though. From the official panoramic point:

About 1km further down, we arrived at the Patagonia Brewery. I had heard people at my hostel talking about this brewery over the past couple of days, so we stopped by to take a look (not for a beer, since it was 11:30am and we still had 21km left). The brewery was closed, but thankfully we could still go inside to take in the view. And what a view!

It was difficult to leave the brewery, but soon we were on the road again. By around 12:30, we arrived at the starting point for one of the side trips, Villa Tacul. There was a dirt road that led down to the beach for beautiful views, and we found a private beach to have lunch on. Score! Well, semi-private, since we soon had company. But still a beautiful and quiet spot.

Our private beach for a lunch picnic

12km go to to the end, which blew by like a breeze, to my great surprise. Within 45 minutes, we had biked all the way to the roundabout, when I thought we were only half of the way back. Maybe I had just finally gotten used to the bike? In any case, I always like it when things turn out to be much easier than I thought!

Ultimately, I’m glad I did the bike ride because it was a great way to see different sides of Llao Llao National Park. I also got to pass by the panoramic view point and Patagonia Brewery as well, which I might not have done otherwise unless I specifically made a trip there. It was a nice added bonus that it turned out to be less difficult than I thought!

Hiking to Refugio Frey in Bariloche

The hike to Refugio Frey is one of the top things to do in Bariloche, so I did it as soon as I arrived because the weather was best for the first couple of days. The night beforehand, some fellow travelers at the hostel who had just completed the hike complained about it being long (22km) and hot, with annoying biting flies along the way…a little off putting, but I still had to see for myself!

The Cathedral ski village in the summer

The hike starts at the Catedral ski area, one of the most popular ski areas in South America. However, in the summer, it’s completely dead, so don’t expect much. No place to recharge your Sube card (which you use to pay for all public transportation), no open ATMs, and no open shops except for a single kiosk that shut its doors at 6:30. There is, however, a lift that is open if you want to take it up to see the view. Some people I ran into before highly recommended taking the lift, but it’s a separate path from Refugio Frey, so I passed on it this time.

Because it’s such a popular hike, there are always people going and I found a group from my hostel to go together. We took the hourly 55 bus up to Catedral, the last stop.

When we first got there, it wasn’t really clear where to go. We wandered into the village with all the closed shops until one of the locals pointed us in the right direction, towards the other end of the parking lot. There, we found confirmation for Refugio Frey:

The start of the hike to Refugio Frey

The hike starts out fairly flat, circumventing the mountain. We crossed many little wooden bridges along the way, and were treated to beautiful panoramic views:

It’s a dusty dirt road, so prepare for all of your clothes and belongings to be dyed the same light brown at the end. And those horse flies: they’re a constant nuisance! They’re triple the size of ordinary flies and they bite even through clothing, which sends a sharp little stab of pain. We probably expended almost as much energy dancing to chase the flies away as we did actually hiking.

About two hours in, we arrived at a cabin that was literally built under a rock, Refugio Petricek. At this point, we saw signs saying that we were an hour away from the top. It didn’t feel like we had gone that far yet, but I’ll take anything in my favor!

Unfortunately, this is also when the uphill trudge started. It thankfully didn’t last long, though, and occasionally when the trees cleared, we were also treated to a great view:

Pretty soon, we could see the roof of the refugio in the distance. However, there was one last obstacle left: a river crossing. There are just enough stones that you might make the crossing without getting your shoes wet, but not quite enough for you to be confident that you won’t fall face first into the river. Thankfully there is a rope to hang onto, but it’s high up for us short folk and it’s not the sturdiest hand hold in the world. To be safe, I took my shoes off when i first crossed, but on the way back, I took a risk – and actually made it!

The river crossing right before Refugio Frey

Almost directly on the other side of the river is the refugio:

Refugio Frey

Visitors are asked to check in, and you can also buy some food and snacks here if you need it.

The view from the refugio is amazing, an icy lagoon surrounded by tall, jagged peaks.

After about an hour of eating lunch and relaxing by the lagoon, we made our way back down. The first downhill portion went by extremely quickly, but the flat area was seemingly never-ending. The last hour especially was hard on the feet, so I was extremely relieved to be sitting on the bus.

The hike was a bit tougher than I anticipated, maybe because I was influenced by the people complaining about it the night before in my hostel and maybe also because I was coming down with a cold. Yeah…let’s say it was that last one. In any case, I have a lot more hiking coming up as I go further down south into Patagonia, so this was just a warm up for me to get into shape!