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Amistad en los Andes

“Emi?” Juli’s voice chime’s through the intercom, a gargle but still distinguishingly upbeat.

“Buen día Ju!” I reply.

Bzzz. The gate to her apartment building clicks open. I climb down the steep stairs, pack and all, to her front door.

Keys rattle on the other side, the lock ticks and the door opens. “Hola amiga!” Juli’s cheerful demeanor is a welcome part of any day.

We greet each other with a hug and kiss on the cheek.

“Hola! Cómo estás?” I reply. “Lista?”

“Sííí.”

 

Two women laughing and celebrating while wearing backpacks Image via Silvestre Seré

 

Juli’s apartment is neat and tidy. Her pack rests next to the kitchen table, ready for adventure. I hand her a few items to even the weight between our packs. As we chat, she arranges them in her bag, checks over her apartment one more time, grabs a bag of garbage to leave outside and we’re off.

As 2019 turns to 2020, Juli and I are setting out on an overnight adventure from Pampa Linda to Refugio Agostino Rocca to Puerto Frías along a route known as Paso de las Nubes and then back to Bariloche, Argentina, where we both live, by a series of boats and buses. I’ve heard about this trek from a few friends and am excited to embark on something new and unknown with one of my best friends.

Juli is from Esquel, Argentina. For the past eight years, she’s been studying physical education and working here in Bariloche—as a ski instructor at Cerro Catedral in the winter months, as a group leader for youth during the summer with Club Andino de Bariloche, at the local climbing gym on occasion and in other spaces.

I was born and raised in Michigan. In June 2017, after six months in Buenos Aires, I moved to Bariloche, as I had Patagonia on my mind and was craving a far closer proximity to nature and outdoor adventure. Since then, I’ve found myself at home here, sinking into a groove and building community, little by little. Juli is a key pillar of that community.

 

Two women standing on a rock Image via Silvestre Seré

 

She and I met around March 2018 at one of the local climbing gyms. For several months, we were in the same class together.

For me, in general, it can be easy to get lost in a group of people. That’s even more true with a group of mostly native Spanish speakers at play. And even more so when you’re learning a new skill or sport, as I was, and honing in on what you’re doing, learning, working to improve, etc.

From the first day we met, Juli was welcoming, fun-loving and patient. Whether it be climbing, sharing a yerba mate, grabbing a beer, hanging out or setting out on a hike, I’ve always felt at home in my friendship with her.

At Pampa Linda, we disembark from the bus, apply sunscreen, ready our packs and head out. The start of the trail is the same as the trail to Refugio Otto Meiling, which we both know. After a couple kilometers, the trail to Refugio Rocca veers to the right and we’re in new territory.

The day is hot—and I mean, hot—in Bariloche. Uncharacteristically so. I recently watched “Magical Andes,” a Netflix series, and a man from nearby Villa La Angostura explains that this region gets one or two stellar days a year—that’s, of course, an exaggeration—and on those days everyone forgets about the rain and gray and snow and remembers why they live here. Today is one of those days.

 

Two women backpacking Image via Silvestre Seré

 

The trail is quite flat to start, allowing us to walk alongside one another and chat as we go. Juli and I returned from a multi-day trip to Piedra Parada three days ago, so we talk about happenings in the days since as well as the flora all around us. I’m in awe of the flowers in bloom. This time of year, Patagonia’s lupinos, notros, retama and multitude of wildflowers color every landscape hues of violet, pink, yellow, red, white and more.

We reach a river. The trail flows alongside it for several kilometers. As an Aquarius, I love the water. I was born and raised in Michigan, surrounded by the Great Lakes. I was a competitive swimmer for more than 18 years. Water is my element, and I love hiking alongside it, especially Patagonia’s rivers with rapids and waterfalls. This region has some of the freshest, most delicious water. Patagonia was the first place I drank water straight from the source. A real treat.

We come to a wide bend in the river and stop for lunch. We sit in the shade of some trees. Juli eats rice with vegetables. I enjoy an egg salad sandwich, which isn’t easily understood by my Argentine friend. She thinks of it as more of a sauce than something heavy enough to occupy an entire sandwich. 

Our friendship is comical at times. We’ve never spoken English together, though she understands some and speaks a little, and while more than conversational, I am most definitely not fluent in Spanish.

I’m grateful for a friend who’s so patient with me and my Spanish. Sometimes, Juli will be talking and talking. Often, I understand. But sometimes, I’m hanging on every word—and then, somewhere along the way, I get lost. I fall off the bus. I think I get a bit of a glazed look in my eyes and agree in some way with what she’s saying. But I’m not fully engaged, and she knows it. In those moments, she’ll look at me and say, “Me entendiste?” Sometimes I do understand, so I say, “Sí.” But sometimes I’ll say, “No. Perdón.” And we’ll burst out laughing before she repeats herself.

Language is quite a thing, so I’m grateful for a friend who’s willing to repeat things—especially the more serious stuff—and do so in a way that makes sense to me. It can be frustrating having the same conversation over and over again or not feeling understood. I know this. So with Juli, I’m grateful it doesn’t phase her. She takes it all in stride, and we keep going. Even if it takes three times for everything to fully click for me.

 

View of a river with mountains in the background Image via Silvestre Seré

 

We continue on our hike, leave the river—though I can still hear the rushing water from afar—and gradually reach a steep ascent through a forest. We each move at our own pace, Juli ahead of me. I focus on my feet, my breathing, the sweat collecting on my arms, legs and back and work to steady my thoughts. One step at a time. That’s the only way to go. We pass a large group of high schoolers from Uruguay who are also going to the refugio for the night. Crowds are typical this time of year.

As we reach an altitude where the shrubs and trees cannot thrive, we pause and take a break to drink water, eat snacks and chat, taking in the various mountains that surround us. I lie down on a giant rock. Juli jokingly tells me not to get too comfortable. According to a nearby sign, we have an hour to go.

We continue on, and after traversing some muddy sections of trail, we see the red refugio jut up from the foliage just below it. We hike five more minutes, pass below some colorful prayer flags and arrive at Refugio Rocca.

I sit down on a bench outside the hut, take off my boots and socks, put on my sandals and breathe in this quite different view of Tronador. I’ve never seen it from this angle, and while the Argentine Peak looks quite close, I know better.

 

Two women backpacking Image via Silvestre Seré

 

Refugio Rocca is a pristine hut, and while it has its own character and charm, it’s different from the personality-packed, rough-around-the-edges, cozy and altogether gritty refugios I know and love closer to Bariloche.

Inside, Juli and I chat with the refugieros, get the lowdown, set up our tent outside and sit on the refugio’s wraparound deck. We drink mate, eat snacks and talk, enjoying the late-afternoon warmth. Above us, a condor glides on the wind.

We talk about stuff both serious and silly and everything in between. I appreciate that, alongside her studies, Juli is also living a freelance lifestyle and moving with the flow of what feels right and fitting to and for her. I often appreciate our conversations because she just gets it in a lot of ways. She gets this alternative lifestyle. She gets the challenges and also understands the payoffs, those moments and feelings that make it all worth it.

As many of her friends and classmates graduate this year, I can see that Juli is eager to complete her college education. That she’s eager to receive her degree in physical education and dive into what’s next. She’ll be the first in her family to receive a college degree.

Juli has devoted herself to an active outdoor lifestyle and working with others, especially children. She’s a people person. She’s the kind of person who can connect so authentically with others in a matter of minutes. It’s her energy, her buena onda. I have a lot of respect for my friend—for who she is and what she does.

 

Two women backpacking Image via Silvestre Seré

 

As the sun sinks lower in the sky, we explore the waterfalls near the refugio that stream down the sides of Tronador from its glaciers and snow.

That evening, we cook dinner, a vegetable tortellini of sorts with tomato sauce, outside our tent. We snack on cheese and pass a bottle of Malbec as we do. As the sun sets and the night air grows cool, we take our meal, wine and chocolate for dessert into the refugio and enjoy dinner at one of the tables inside.

A map of this zone hangs on the wall. Mountain literature adorns the shelves nearby. Some photos hang from strings and clothespins. Around us, people play cards and games with dice. The atmosphere is light, relaxed.

We clean our dishes, go to the bathroom, brush our teeth and climb into our tent for the night. As Juli gets situated, I write a little. She climbs into her sleeping bag, and I laugh when I look over, as all I can see is one of her eyes peeking out. I read by the light of my headlamp. I get a few pages in and doze off to sleep.

 

Two women cooking dinner at camp Image via Silvestre Seré

 

The next morning our neighbors wake us. They get up about an hour or so before us, and since these campsites are all next to the refugio and all quite close together, I can hear their every move. At times, it sounds as though they’ll step on our tent. They are that close.

I wander in and out of sleep for that last hour before my alarm sounds. Camping with an alarm isn’t my preference, but today, we have to make sure we reach the port before the boat leaves, which means not sleeping the morning away.

Moisture coats our sleeping bags, pads and tent. We go about our morning routines, slowly packing everything up, going to the bathroom, brushing our teeth, etc. We let the tent dry out a little and drink yerba mate and eat cookies on the patio of the refugio, taking in the views beyond and below—studying all we’ll traverse that day.

Lago Frías doesn’t look that far away. I even say this to Juli, but without knowing exactly where the trail is, and what condition it’s in, looks can be deceiving.

We finish packing up our tent, pay the refugieros, stuff our packs and hit the trail again. 12 kilometers to the port.

We enter a thick and beautiful forest just below the refugio and speed down a steep trail for the first two kilometers. We pop out onto some rocks, entertain a photo opportunity and continue on. We cross a river—and pass three groups, who are also going from the refugio to the port, in the process. One of my boots collects some water but not uncomfortably so. We carry on.

This section of trail is a lot trickier to navigate, as it is muddy, uncut and requires navigating swamps and fallen trees. Though the trail is a mess, the shade of the forest is our saving grace today. We check in on our pace occasionally and wonder how the groups behind us will possibly catch the ferry in time. We eventually cross a river, at 10 of 12 kilometers, and the rest of the trail is a breeze.

 

Woman standing on a rock wearing a backpack Image via Silvestre Seré

 

We make good timing and reach the port among a flurry of tourists who’ve arrived on a boat that afternoon. It feels like a bit of a culture shock. In a matter of minutes, they clear out. I’m not quite sure where they go.

Juli and I sit down at a picnic table. I shed my boots and strip my socks. Ah, happy feet. We drink yerba mate, have lunch and eat snacks near La Poderosa, Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s motorcycle and a sign that details his South American adventure and how he passed from Argentina to Chile here.

The late afternoon unfolds in a series of steps. We take a boat across Lago Frías to Puerto Alegre. At that port, we take a bus several kilometers to Puerto Blest. We then wait around—again with yerba mate, always with mate—for the catamaran to arrive and take us from Puerto Blest to Bariloche.

 

Two women sitting on a ferry Image via Silvestre Seré

 

On the catamaran back to Bariloche, Juli and I study and discuss which “arm” of Lago Nahuel Huapi we’re navigating and the peaks around us—peaks we know and love but have never seen from this angle before. Juli pulls up a map on her phone, and we follow the mountains as we go.

Untouched wilderness surrounds us. While we’re close to Bariloche, I feel as though we’re in the middle of nowhere. It’s magical. I’m reminded that adventure lies around every corner here and that there’s always something new to explore—and good friends with whom to do so.

 

Two women looking at a trail map Image via Silvestre Seré

 

In November 2016, when I landed in Argentina, I arrived with a desire to live in a foreign country, learn Spanish and explore Patagonia. Beyond that, I came with few expectations. In Bariloche and my community here, I’ve found a sense of home.

With Juli, I treasure that we can have deep, meaningful conversations while also having plenty of laughs and not-so-serious moments. I love the ways our friendship transcends language, nationality, culture and more. We don’t always understand one another, but with patience, humility, support and some humor, our friendship grows stronger all the time.

Written by Emily Hopcian / Photography by Silvestre Seré

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