Bariloche, the easiest way to visit Argentinian Patagonia
This resort town stretched out along the bay of the huge Rio Negro is a must-do for tourists in Argentina. Bariloche (full name San Carlos de Bariloche) is one of the most northern stops in Patagonia – Patagonia for beginners, if you will – and meant we got to experience the region without travelling too far or getting too cold. That being said, the area does experience a lot of snow in the winter, though thanks to its ski resorts and scenic roads there are always things to do in Bariloche, whatever the season.
What’s really lovely about Bariloche is its Swiss-style architecture in the centre, very reminiscent of the ski resorts you might find in the Alps. If that’s not your vibe, just outside the town centre things get back to normal Argentinian-style very quickly.
Keeping with the Swiss theme, Bariloche is a fantastic place for chocolate-lovers, with chocolaterías to be found on every street in Centro Cívico, i.e. the town centre. When it’s cold, sitting in an alpine stone house with a cup of hot chocolate is the stuff of dreams!
Because of Bariloche’s reputation as a tourism destination (it was actually purpose-built in the 1940s as a holiday resort town), expect prices to hike, especially during peak times (summer + winter ski season). We managed to keep our spending down by cooking meals in the hostel and doing our own self-guided hikes.
Luckily, Bariloche is very well connected by bus routes, though its position in Patagonia still means that it’s a fair way away from any other major towns in Argentina. A direct bus from Mendoza leaves daily at 1:30pm with Cata, but be warned that it will take 18+ hours, so check that you’ve revised our pointers on how to stay safe and comfortable on night buses in South America first. You can also get a 15+ hour bus from Puerto Madryn, or if you’re feeling particularly crazy a 21 hour bus from Buenos Aires. Luckily, to save you from this torture, Bariloche does have an airport, with domestic flights from Bariloche to El Calafate, Buenos Aires, Mendoza, Córdoba and others.
Bariloche is also right on the border with Chile, so we had the smart idea to go from Mendoza, Argentina > Santiago, Chile > Osorno, Chile > Bariloche, Argentina > Puerto Montt, Chile. Silly idea. Chile-Argentina border controls are pretty intense, with all the bags being hauled out from buses and scanned than dog-sniffed after the passengers have gotten through long passport stamp queues, so the kerfuffle this causes means a great line of buses and cars waiting in either direction. If you have to go from Chile to Argentina or vice versa by bus, do make sure you get the earliest bus you can find to avoid the backlog of vehicles at the border. If we had our time in Chile and Argentina again, we would make sure we went directly from Mendoza to Bariloche, then across the border to central Chile and making our way up to Santiago in good time.
7 things to do in Bariloche
1. Wander through the Centro Cívico
Now, this may sound like a cop-out for the first in a list of things to do in Bariloche, but really, it’s not to be missed. Walking through the town centre, known as the Centro Cívico, is a step back in time, and especially wonderful when the it’s snowing or the decorations have been put up for Christmas (confusingly, December is one of Argentina’s hottest months!).
2. Hit the slopes with a Bariloche ski pass
Bariloche is famous across Argentina as one of the best places to ski in the winter. When the mountains are thick with snow, expect this place to be bustling with skiing families and school trips. Cerro Otto and Cerro Catedral (from which you’ll have views of Lago Nahuel Huapi on a clear day) are some of the most popular ski slopes in Bariloche. Argentina is a relatively inexpensive place to ski; in 2019 the cost of Bariloche ski lift passes were between $43 and $63 USD depending on whether used for low or high season.
Even when it’s not ski-season, you can still take the cable car up Cerro Otto to see views of Bariloche and the landscape beyond it, but we decided not to as it was a pretty expensive ride. In 2019 the Cerro Otto cable car costs 650 pesos which at the time of writing is roughly £9/$12 each, though inflation has not been kind to Argentina recenty so that rate could change in a heartbeat.
3. Drive the Ruta de los Siete Lagos
La Ruta De Los Siete Lagos, or the Route of the 7 Lakes, does just what it says on the tin. Hire a car and drive the Ruta 40, taking you through 2 national parks – Nahual Huapi and Lanín – to see some of the most epic landscapes Northern Patagonia has to offer. The drive will take you through some of the quaint villages that surround Bariloche, such as Villa La Angostura and San Martín de los Andes. It will take at least a day to complete the Ruta de los Siete Lagos, but best if you can allow yourself 2 days so that you can enjoy your stops without worrying about the time. During winter, always check beforehand that the roads are safe for driving, and that you have all the equipment you need to tackle iciness.
4. Sail to Isla Victoria
This is a tiny island just a half-hour boat ride from Puerto Pañuelo, on the Llao Llao peninsula. There are tours that leave everyday, and give you time to stroll around the centre of Victora island (the terrain on the rest of the island is too difficult to walk over), taking in the beautiful scenery and finding cave paintings left by ancient inhabitant. The tours then take you to the Bosque de Arrayanes, or myrtle tree forest, further down the peninsula.
5. Tour a chocolate factory
The Havanna Museo del Chocolate tour was short but pretty interesting, taking you from the Incas’ obsession with the earliest forms of chocolate to its role in colonialism and the chocolate brands of the present day. After a short video, you are given hot chocolate to drink as you go round, and are led in groups led by a tour guide, but be warned that the tour and all printed info are only in Spanish. At the end of the tour, there’s a café from which to buy more choc or have a drink.
6. Hike Bariloche’s forest trails
We hugely recommend visiting Llao Llao, a teeny settlement on the edge of the national park, which is mostly known for it’s ginormous castle-like hotel and luxury golf course. It’s from here that we did our second ever (but first favourite) hike. Llao Llao offers a number of different circuits that you can add or subtract from your hiking trail, and all trails except climbing the Cerro Llao Llao peak are pretty easy. For us, Llao Llao was a perfect introduction to forest hiking.
How to start your Llao Llao hike
To hike the Llao Llao trail, take bus 20 from Bariloche town, which you can flag down from anywhere along the main road on the waterfront. Note: to get the bus you will need a top-up bus card, which is the same one used in Buenos Aires but you can also get them from convenience stores and some hostels. It costs 35 pesos each per ride, no matter the distance.
Get off at the Llao Llao Hotel roundabout, which is bus 20’s final stop, head up the road to the right of the hotel (don’t bother going into the tourist info centre unless you need expensive snacks or a wee). Follow the road uphill for 5-10 minutes until you reach a small info hut on the left. From here, we recommend you ask for a hiking map from the very helpful rangers; they should be able to show you all your options for the different Llao Llao circuits.
Llao Llao circuits
We originally set out to do the shortest hike up Cerro Llao Llao, but once we got up there decided to keep going, reaching the beach at Villa Tacul, a series of miradores (‘viewpoints’) and a hidden lake (or ‘lago escondido’, where Andy was brave enough to have a swim despite forgetting to bring swimwear). All in all, the hike took us 5 hours with rest/swim stops, plus 30 mins each way for the bus. As beginner hikers, the only part we struggled with was the steepness of the initial Cerro Llao Llao and the fact that the soil was sometimes slippery, but the views at the top were certainly worth it. After that, the hike is relatively easy and at times flat.
7. Kayak on Lago Nahuel Huapi
Lago Nahuel Huapi is a glacial lake in the Nahuel Huapi national park, which sits just next to Bariloche. Though you can just please yourself by driving through the park, it’s certainly worth getting out on the water. You can take gentle tandem kayak tours on Lago Nahuel Huapi for an hour or two, or all-day organised tours for the more adventurous – and even 3-day camping tours in the national park for those that really love getting into the great outdoors. You can also arrange to kayak on Lake Gutierrez, which sits closer to the Cerro Catedral ski resort.
Where to eat in Bariloche
As we said, we tended to cook a lot in our accommodation kitchen in order to save money. But when we did go out for eats, we found a gastropub called Manush on the riverfront which provides all sorts of delights, from elaborate burgers to cazuelas (though this turned out more like an English stew if you’re craving home), each paired with a craft beer. It’s not the cheapest, but this is Bariloche.
Where to stay in Bariloche
Now, as you can imagine from a ski resort town in Argentinian Patagonia, accommodation in Bariloche is not cheap. Due to the touristic nature of the town, things tend to get booked up very far ahead for high seasons (the summer months of December to February + whenever there’s powdered snow on the mountains). If you want a highly-rated, inexpensive choice of accommodation, best to book well in advance.
In terms of where to stay in Bariloche, we recommend trying to get near the centre, as the things to do in Bariloche and places to eat & drink tend to fizzle out quickly as you head out of town. Getting somewhere near the waterfront both gives you the tranquility of looking out onto Rio Negro, and also helps you to avoid the hills than span south of it. You’ll also want accommodation with its own kitchen to be able to save on food costs in Bariloche. With this in mind, try to grab yourself a bunk at the well-located, superbly-rated Vintage Bariloche Hostel Boutique, or the HOPA-Home Patagonia Hostel & Bar just on the other side of the Centro Cívico.
If you don’t mind being a little further out of town in order to better appreciate the nature around you, don’t miss out on La Casona Hostel. It’s a beaut in the nearby cluster of residential roads called the Pinar de Festa district, and has lake views 2 minutes from the beach called Playa Bonita. You’ll have to get buses or walk if you want to get into the centre of town, but the buses are frequent and easy to catch from the one main road. You’ll need to get a top-up card to use the buses, like an Oyster card.
How long to stay in Bariloche if you’re not too big on hiking: 4-5 days
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