Archive for the ‘ Bariloche ’ Category




Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2013. All Rights Reserved.

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abstract: Bariloche has the reputation of being a tourist Mecca. Tourists are everywhere and act as if Bariloche is theirs. This paradise, however, has many other claimants. First is Nature that made it and periodically reminds us that it could easily destroy it. Argentina is next in line, claiming the area as a National Park. The Park, however, excludes pockets of private property owned by settlers who were there before its establishment. The more numerous permanent residents of Bariloche consider it simply their hometown. Finally, the Mapuche, recognized by Argentina as the Original People of the region, reject all others’ titles, asserting their own on the basis of their traditional belief that they are an inseparable part of Nature itself.  Embellished by them all, the object of their attention Bariloche shines as a wonder to behold.


Tourists and Residents

When I arrived, in January 2013, the town of San Carlos de Bariloche was crowded with tourists. We had been told that it was the second most-visited destination in Argentina, after the much bigger Buenos Aires. We found a sprawling community that stretched for miles along the narrow bank of a lake. Its compact urban part centered around a plaza which took shape some 70 years ago. On one side of the Plaza was the Civic Center building, completed in 1940, and on the other corner was the Museum of Patagonia which also opened in 1940.

The CivicCenter is one of the oldest buildings of the whole town. Both in architecture and in the use of stone and wood it reminded me of Swiss Alpine structures. The influence of the Swiss and other recent immigrants – German, Austrian and English- was also noticeable in several buildings of the downtown. In the midst of these were one-story high old structures with colonnaded sidewalks typical of any small Argentine town and multi-story modern buildings. Contemporary restaurants which catered to tourists  stood next to central-European style chocolaterias . This was a town still in the process of taking a coherent shape.

The public discourse of Bariloche’s local residents took place in the CivicCenterPlaza . Its rectangular ground in the middle was marked with signs of demands for accountability regarding those who were “disappeared” by Argentine’s past military rulers in their “Dirty War” of 1976-1983 against political opponents. As in Buenos Aires, here too bandanas were drawn in paint, emblematic reminders of what the mothers of the “disappeared” wore in their frequent protests. Written next to the bandanas were the names of local disappeared, such as Alejandro Sackamann .

Later in the afternoon, four women appeared in the Plaza, formed a small circle and began beating drums which were hung from their shoulders. Their message was displayed on a sign: “Return all that you stole! (Quienes roban – Devuelves todo)”. A supporter soon held up a more explicit sign: “No cyanide! (no cianuro)”. The reference was to the mining nearby that used cyanide which polluted the water. As new arrivals expanded the group of the protesters in the Plaza, they spread a huge blue sheet on the ground covered with their protest pronouncements.

Bariloche has “a hectic nightlife” in the tourist season, we were warned. “Dancing places open at 2 in the morning and do not close before 6.” I ran into the young customers of those establishments later when I rode the bus out to see the sights that attracted the tourists here in the first place. Just outside the urban area is the magnificent 40-mile long Lake Nahuel Huapi. Its blue water was inviting, but our tour guide had said it was too cold for swimming. This did not deter the young backpackers, like those on my bus, from jumping in.


We took a chairlift to the top of Campanario Hill for a better view of the lake. From the lookout there I saw, in fact, three lakes in the dramatic panorama before me. In addition to Lake Nahuel Huapi, there were the smaller LakeMoreno and CloverLake . Their azure water reflected the AndesMountains standing high to the west. On this summer day I could only see a bare line of snow on the peaks. The Mountains were, however, the sources of the glaciers which ages ago moved into the valley of Nahuel Huapi to make those lakes. We were told that there is now only one glacier left nearby, melting and adding water to the lakes.

That water of the lakes drains on the east end into LimayRiver. After a 30 minute drive from downtown Bariloche we boarded a boat for a raft trip on the Limay. This is an important river in the region. The captain of our boat said that many other rivers later join it before it pours into the Atlantic Ocean. On Limay’s long length many dams have been constructed which together produce 25% of the electricity used in Argentina. Its water is also used for agriculture. The stretch we covered was gentle and the floating allowed me to observe up-close the impact of the glaciers of its provenance. The rapids we ran were only “Class 2,” the captain said.

In the language of the original (“indigenous”) people who lived here Limay means “clear water reflection”. The water was so clear and pure that one could drink it. This river was also home to an abundance of large rainbow and brown trout making it a famous popular site for fly-fishing. We saw sports fishermen standing on the edges of the river. Limay was no deeper than 15 meters; its deepest points were the places where “the glaciers went forward for the last time,” our captain said. He pointed out an imperial (blue-eyed) cormorant that was on a log. “He is drying his feathers because they are not water proof.” These cormorants are among the few birds that can dive. It is not common to see them in rivers because they are usually found in marine coastal waters, we were told..

In addition to the glaciers, the LimayRiver has been affected by volcanic activities in the Andes. In fact the river was surrounded by volcanic rock formations. Close to its banks we could see tops of hills which were cut off the volcanic mountains long ago. There were tufa rocks, basalt rocks and rocks with green patches indicating copper content. Condors and eagles had made their nests in holes in some of the rocks. Our guide pointed out the result of the interaction between volcanoes and glaciers in the rocks laid on top of each other horizontally. “That is because of the rapid cooling of the volcanic lava hitting the ice of the glacier,” he said.

Toward the end of our tour we came to the edges of the northern Patagonian steppe which the moisture from the Andes did not reach. The landscape was dry. We saw some silver poplar trees. More distinctive was the occasional maiten tree. It was native and valuable as it shows where the water channel is “because its roots go way down,” the captain said. “Also its wood burns long.”

Coming out of the river, we drove through ashes left from the 2011 volcanic eruption. Such eruptions are not unusual in this region. The prior ones were in 1921, 1950. The mountain that blew off on June 4 two years ago was across the border in Chile. The wind here is west to east, however, and the ashes came to Argentina. Our guide described the impact: “Trout in the river died because of the pumice in their stomach. Villages closer to the volcano, across the lake from Bariloche were covered with ashes for days. In some of them roofs of houses collapsed under the heavy weight of the ashes. The Bariloche airport was closed for months. In Bariloche we had no electricity for a few days. Everything was blanketed with ash for a year. People wore colorful clothes to change the monotony.” We passed areas still covered with ashes, and saw ash that had gotten thick and solidified as stone.

National Park

Bariloche is located in a National Park. It was originally called the NahuelHuapiNational Park in 1934, but has since been renamed after the person who is called as the father of the National Parks of Argentina, Francisco P. Moreno. The Bariloche Museum of Patagonia, which is also named after Dr. Marino (1852-1919), describes him with no fewer than 8 expertises: “Explorer, Anthropologist, Paleontologist, Geologist, Geographer, Educator, Historian, Legislator.” Moreno’s accomplishments in this region were also manifold. The demarcation of the current border between Argentina and Chile is largely the result of his work.

The 1881 Boundary Treaty between the two countries which followed the Andes mountain range left room for dispute over whether the Patagonia drainage basins or the highest Andes peaks would be the frontier. Chile favored the former. Moreno, appointed as Pertito (technical expert) in 1902, disproved the Chilean claim, which was based on the continental divide, by showing that many Patagonian lakes draining to the Pacific Ocean were in fact part of Argentina’s Atlantic Ocean basin. War was avoided only with the mediation of the British King who established the current border in the region, by roughly dividing the many disputed lakes of the region. Those lakes still have different names on each side.

No love is lost between Argentina and Chile. As we were about to cross the border into Chile, our Argentine guide said: “Chile is not very friendly toward people from Argentina.” The conflicts between the two countries flare periodically. The last time was as late as 1992. “In 1978 we were almost at war,” our guide said. Indeed, the frontier between them at 1321 meters above the sea in the AndesMountains here is named: International Pass of Cardinal Antonio Samore, after the man from the Vatican who mediated their 1978 conflict over the BeagleIslands. The landscape of the “no man’s land” that separates the borders of the two countries was dominated by burned trees resulting from the hot ashes of the 2011 eruption of the Puyehue Volcano which we could now see.

In recognition of Francisco Moreno’s services for settling the frontier problems with Chile, the Argentine government granted him 7500 hectares of land in the Bariloche area. In 1903, Moreno gave that land to the nation as the nucleus for the creation of the NahuelHuapiNational Park.



Like Moreno, the crew he brought with him were compensated for their services in land grants by Argentina. Unlike Moreno, many did not return their lands. They have been allowed to keep them as private property even though they are now located in the expanded National Park. We went to visit one such family in their estate which, like many others, now mainly caters to the tourist industry of Bariloche.

We drove east from the CivicCenter for some 10 miles. The road became increasingly dusty as we soon entered the dry steppe of Patagonia.  The ranch that was our destination was special in this area because it had a marsh with valuable water. At its gate, we were greeted warmly by Chango, the head of the family and a full line-up of his wife, son, daughter and grandson. Inside their house we sat in a vast room with windows all around which served as both the living and dining areas. They served us yerba mate in the highly stylized, ritualistic process that this herbal tea, the national drink of Argentina, is taken.

One of the women assumed the role of the preparer-server (cebador). She poured hot water into three small pots which had been set on a table. Inside each pot was a fistful of mate. She said “This mate comes from a bush which is tall, almost like a tree, in the Dagussa Falls region.” She inserted a straw (bombilla), partly made from silver, into one of the pots and sucked the tea water, making a loud noise. She said “That noise is not considered bad manner in our culture.” Then she refilled the pot with hot water and passed it to the person on her right. After he finished, he gave it back and she filled up the pot again for the next person on the right. This was repeated until everyone in the circle around her had their full sipping, all using the same straw. Indeed, “that sharing is what makes the mate a social event,” our local guide said. “We do this all the time and we never worry about passing our germs.” The guide added, this service by the cebador, always to her right in the round, would continue until the mate in the pot is “washed out,” except to the person who would say thank you (gracias),” indicating that he wanted no more when he passed the straw back to the cebador.

We were told that the Guarani, another Original People of South America, were probably the first to grow mate. The Jesuit missionaries who came with the Spaniards later learned about the mate from them. Mate literally means “cup herb;” and the traditional cup from which it is drunk is a dried gourd. With the mate, our hosts offered us torta freta (fried bread), which is usually fried in fat, but we were assured that “these were fried in oil.”

After the mate, Chango led us to the corral where he kept several horses. His son, Pancho, said “my father has a passion for horses.” Another man was saddling them up for us to ride. We mounted the horses and put on a helmet to follow Chango in a single file for a slow walk. Chango did not wear a helmet. Instead, he had on a traditional Basque hat. This had been made by her daughter in cotton, he told us, “but the real Basque version would use horse hair.” We rode through a large grassy field. Chango said the yellowing grass was native to the area. We saw bushes with white flowers which were also native. There were many Calafate bushes, typical of the Patagonian steppe. They had red berries on them which are edible. The Southern Cyprus trees we went through were indigenous but the pine trees in the distant forest had been planted some 25 years ago by Chango.  We heard the noise made by small frogs which were native in the wet areas of the ranch’s marsh. Chango’s dog that came with us chased rabbits. At one point the dog caught one and brought it back to his master. Chango came down from his horse and picked up the rabbit and tied it to his saddle. He said he would make a meal with it later.

When we returned to the ranch house, Pancho had already started the asado, barbecuing lamb. He had lined an open pit in the ground with rocks and bricks and had made a fire using chacay bushes and some pine cones. Big pieces of lamb were attached to a grill which stood vertically around the fire. The meat was “stretched up” so that the fire would cook all of it. It came from the lamb “one-year old with two teeth, or two-year old with four teeth.” We were told that Patagonians would bring their own knife to the asado. Our guide said that like others, she had several knives, her favorites being the one that had once belonged to her grandfather and another that was given to her on her 50th birthday.

We sat down to eat at a long wooden table set by Chango’s wife and their daughter who had also made salads. Pancho stood up and told us about the history of the family and the ranch. Pictures of his clan were behind him on the wall [46]. In 1875 Pancho’s forefathers came from Germany to Argentina. The coat of arms in the house identified them as the Hanecks. When yellow fever hit Buenos Aires, they moved to Patagonia. Chango’s grandfather went to work with Moreno at the age of 14. He became a cook in his household. In return for his service he eventually received a grant of 1,250 hectares of land. He marked the boundaries of his property by planting poplar trees. When he died, several of his children sold their shares of the property. Chango’s father kept his. Chango and his brother also followed his example. The Hanecks’ property is now only 150 hectares, but it has become very valuable. The family continues to live on the ranch. As Pancho was telling us this history of several generations, Chango sat smiling with his grandson on his knees, each wearing one of those cotton Basque hats.

Original People

On the road between the Hanecks’ estate and Bariloche we noticed several ramshackle structures built in no particular order in the dry steppe with some bushes as their only shrubbery. “They were put up by the Mapuche as their homes,” our local guide said. “The land belongs to the Bariloche municipality. These Mapuche have no permit to build. They are squatters. They just raise a national flag next to those shacks and move in.” She said “They cannot do this elsewhere.” In the last five years, she continued, “there has been no eviction of them because many people in Bariloche are Mapuche.” Our guide had arranged a meeting for us with a Mapuche representative.

Christina was the “Speaker to the Outside” in her Mapuche community and she told us her story of the Mapuche in detail. She was one of the four officials in each community; the others being Speaker of the Community to the Inside, President and Vice President. The offices were all hereditary. There were about 60 persons in each Mapuche community, and about 120 such communities in this province of Rio Negro alone, according to Christina, but Mapuche were “distributed all over Patagonia.” The Mapuche people did not come from anywhere else, such as the Barring Strait or Polynesia; they “originated here.” Christina pointed out that “the Argentine Constitution recognizes the Mapuche as the ‘Original People’ of Argentina.

That was not always the Argentine government’s position. In 1872 Argentine authorities began expeditions to the areas occupied by the Indians, as various Original Peoples were then called, in a program aimed at taking possession of the whole of the national territory. By 1989 the government’s strategy in areas where Bariloche is located, evolved into the “Conquest of the Desert,” which meant that the Indians “were to be pushed away from the land,” Christina said. This policy was followed relentlessly even if it meant “killing the Mapuche.”

The Mapuche claim that all that land historically “belonged to them.” They did not “own” the land in the Western sense,” because they considered themselves “part of nature,” and for that reason assert that the land is “theirs.”  This problem of ownership of land has been treated differently by the recent Argentine governments. Christina said: “During President Peron’s Administration in the 1940s, the Mapuche were recognized as owners of all their land.” Under President Nestor Kirchner, 2003-2007, the Mapuche were declared the “legal owners” of their land. Christina said: “However, that is the Federal Law, and Argentine Provinces each are free to accept it or not. Two months ago Rio Negro adopted that law. Despite that, land is continued to be sold by people other than Mapuche who are on it. In the disputes that arise the Mapuche are too weak in asserting their rights in the legal process.” The result is that “Most Mapuche are now living in higher hills in what is really a reservation. They pay the National Park for the grass their animals use in the park.” They had to sign an agreement obligating them to pay these fees. They were illiterate and signed by thumb print, not knowing what terms they were committing to.

We would later see a copy of one of those agreements with the thumb signature. In Bariloche’s Moreno Museum I learned that before the Mapuche came to this area in the second half of the 17th century, it was inhabited by other Original Peoples, especially the Pehuenche but they were soon “absorbed by the stronger, more evolved one, the Araucano Indians from Chile.”  Those Araucano Indians were the Mapuche. The Mapuche were an agricultural people, while the Pehuenche had been nomadic and hunters. Today even the name Pehuenche is what the Mapuche called them in the Mapuche language (Mapudungun), meaning “people from the aracarian forest.” Similarly the name Bariloche is from the Mapuche language, pronounced Vuriloche, meaning “people from behind the mountain,” as is Nahuel Huapi which means “puma island.”

The Mapuche came here because the Spaniards pushed them out of their land in present day Chile. They used canoes to cross the lakes we had seen at Bariloche. The Museum had an example of those early canoes on display. Today ships have replaced them to connect the two countries by waterways. Christina said that the Argentine Mapuche in Argentina are in contact with the Mapuche left in Chile “who call themselves the Pacific Mapuche, but they don’t agree with their activities.” She said “Those Mapuche are violent because their historical reality was different.” According to her, there were 24 groups of Original People in Argentina today, and they have formed a forum for cooperation. The democratic governments which have succeeded the military rule in Argentina after 1983 have been more responsive to the demands of the Original Peoples.  Their agendas, however, are not all the same. Christina told us her personal story of activism to protect the culture of her Mapuche community as an example.

Her grandfather had been murdered in a land dispute. Only 12 years ago the Mapuche won the right to have their Mapuche names on the national Identification card. Even today, although 65% of the population of Bariloche is Mapuche, most do not recognize or acknowledge themselves as such, believing that disclosing their ethnicity is not advantageous. Christina’s own father does not agree with her activism.

She became a physical education teacher, after finishing university. A few years ago, the Mapuche were allowed to have their own school but the government said because only 19 students attended it was too small and closed it down. Christina helped lead a sit-down demonstration with support from her grandmother. Failing to get results, Christina hitchhiked to Buenos Aires to obtain redress. While there she made friends with “the lady who cleaned the house of a of T.V. journalist who through that lady learned and became interested in” Christina’s cause and “became a supporter.” Especially to cover Christina’s “protesting grandmother,” now several members of the media came to Bariloche.” Their coverage of the news led the Argentine government to send officials from the Minister of Education. Finally, the authorities decided to re-open the MapucheSchool. At Christina’s insistence, the government agreed to make that a bi-cultural school.

Christina said that later there was a huge demonstration for the rights of the Mapuche children in Bariloche, “but the police intervened and in trying to stop it killed several people.” Two of them were Christina’s students. Since then her commitment has became deeper and her own husband and 3 children have joined her to help. They created an NGO (Non-governmental organization) to teach children, and thereby to take them off the street. They are taught, among other things, “how to repair computers.” Her NGO has made an agreement with Cuba to send Mapuche students to study medicine in Cuba. “Five of those students have finished and are back practicing in the community.” Three others have completed law school. Her NGO is supported by five Argentine labor unions. They help the students to attend university. Her NGO is the only such community organization for the Mapuche in Rio Negro, and probably in all of Patagonia.

Christina said she and her family speak the Mapuche language at home. Ten years ago she started a brochure telling the history of the Mapuche. The city of Bariloche provides support for this project. She was now preparing a book on the same subject in Spanish which would be the first of its kind. The Mapuche have kept an oral tradition. They do not have a “God.” Instead, they consider land to be the “mother.” Natural forces are elements of the land. They have two main sacred ceremonies, each lasting 4 days. Those are held in rural communities and in open air in a place thought to be where the rainbow took place.

One of those first ceremonies is held in February when there is full moon. At this ceremony the Mapuche dance, dressed up as the ostrich-like native rhea “because the rhea taught the Mapuche how to live in a community.” The dancers are all boys. They dance the way the rhea moves. She showed us a picture of the dancers. On this occasion the Mapuche introduce the new babies to the community and name them “according to the mother’s dream.” They also introduce the soon- to- be married.  Marriage is always across Mapuche communities and not within the same community.

The second major ceremony is on the occasion of the New Year which is their winter solstice, July 21. This ceremony is significant for teenagers.  Girls are given their first earrings and the first medallion which shows their lineage. Boys are given their first ponchos which used to be woven with guanaco hair, but now it is made with sheep hair. On the right of the poncho is the boy’s lineage from the father and on left from the mother. The boys are also given their first musical instrument which is wind at this ceremony. Finally, they are taught medical procedures.

In those ceremonies the Mapuche wear their distinctive hat, traditional colorful clothes, and silver jewelry. Silversmithing is their long-standing signature art. Christina was a fine silversmith. After her talk we went to a table where she had spread her silver art-pieces on display. Tourists stopped by and bought them as souvenirs -small consolation for compromising the pristine patrimony that Nature bequeathed her ancestors, Christina would think.