How to See a Total Solar Eclipse in the Most Beautiful Place on Earth This Year
Bariloche, Argentina, two hours by plane from vibrant Buenos Aires, is the epicenter of the Lakes Region of Patagonia, a magical fairy-tale land of the green, snow-capped Andes, hikes with epic views of crystalline lakes and rivers, and a wild and free gaucho lifestyle. Nearby towns -- such as the rustic Junín de los Andes, swanky San Martín de Los Andes, upscale Villa La Angostura, and hippie El Bolsón -- are also good spots to make camp on a Northern Patagonia adventure. And the drive between them, along the famous Ruta 40, is one of the world’s most famous and epic road trips.
There’s no bad time or season to come to this gorgeous place. But on December 14, 2020 -- high summer in Patagonia, mind you -- the most beautiful place on Earth is also blessed with a total solar eclipse. It was a no brainer, then, to include it on our list of the 20 Best Places for a Big Trip in 2020.
We’ve provided a full 10-day itinerary to get the very best out of a trip to the Lakes Region -- though it’s best explored just by breathing the clean mountain air and seeing which way the wind blows you.
When to visit Bariloche and Patagonia’s Lakes Region in 2020
If you can swing it, come for the total solar eclipse in December 2020. There’s a reason why so many people are straight-up obsessed with chasing total solar eclipses. Those who have witnessed them in totality describe it as “freakin’ spooky.”
Join other free spirits for a week-long eclipse celebration and festival called Global Eclipse, which will gather people from around the world in the path of maximum totality. Dance the day and night away to the beats of world-class DJs while learning how to live in intelligent, conscientious harmony with oneself and nature.
Keep in mind that December is summer in the Southern Hemisphere and the start of the tourism high season, so plan well in advance for any chance of booking your first or second choice in accommodations. Otherwise, ski bums will appreciate the endless winter that comes with a snow season that lasts from July-September.
You’ll most likely fly into Buenos Aires first, so let’s assume that you’ll spend a couple of days there, partying well into the morning with the fashionable locals who somehow seem to never sleep.
Patagonia is where you will recover -- once you land in Bariloche, the pace slows down incredibly. It’s either a two-hour flight from Buenos Aires or a 20-some-hour bus ride (Argentine buses are very comfortable and long-haul bus rides are a great way to get around the country), but because the prices are comparable and the scenery doesn’t get that interesting until you are near Patagonia, opt for the flight. LATAM Airlines is your best bet, as Aerolíneas Argentinas is government-run and prone to absurd inefficiency and surprise strikes.
Once you’ve reached Bariloche, you’ll want to rent a car -- it is relatively inexpensive and gives you the freedom to stop along the side of the road whenever you want. You will be road tripping through some of the most Instagrammable scenery on Earth, so take advantage. Skip around with overnights in different towns, most of which are just a couple hours’ drive apart from each other. Those drives, and the many stops along the way, are the whole point anyway.
Days 1-2: Eat, drink, and take in unreal views in Bariloche
You may be confused, thinking the plane somehow took a wrong turn and ended up in the Swiss Alps. This scenery of a glittering lake fronted by wildflowers with a backdrop of towering mountains is so gorgeous it looks fake sometimes. Get settled in, eat Mamuschka chocolate until you are happily sick, then head to Blest Brewery for hearty pub grub in Patagonia’s oldest brewery. There’s a lot of money in Bariloche, and if you want to spend some of yours, Butterfly is the best restaurant in town, with exquisite food and lake views.
To burn all that off, go kite surfing on Lago Nahuel Huapi or trek Refugio Frey, a popular hike with rewarding views that can be done in one day. The trailhead is easily accessible with public transportation. Bariloche is an overcrowded, not very efficiently designed city filled to the brim with tourism, but it’s easy enough to escape town by car or bus and get out on the lake or trail.
Days 3-4: Global Eclipse Festival in Junín de los Andes
Head to Global Eclipse to celebrate the eclipse with travelers from all over the world – this is the main event in Patagonia in December, and will be a once-in-a-lifetime party that should definitely not be missed. Junín de los Andes is much smaller and rustic than Bariloche -- the festival is definitely the highlight here. Think of it like a “back to nature” Burning Man, before Burning Man blew up, and instead of the dust and heat of the desert, you’ll have the green, spectacular surroundings of the Andes in summertime. Plus that total eclipse.
Day 5: Road trip to San Martín de los Andes
Take this as a chill day to rest up after the festival, starting with a road trip on the famed Ruta 40 -- the scenic drive will take you past parts of the stunning Ruta de los Siete Lagos (Route of the Seven Lakes). It’s a road trip that you could easily build your entire itinerary around (and many do). Don’t be in a rush, as you will want to stop every few minutes to take in the view and snap pics. San Martín is a small town to meander around, filled with boutique shops, restaurants to tear into Patagonian lamb, and many a craft brewery.
Day 6: Go back to nature in style in Villa La Angostura
Small and upscale, Villa La Angostura feels like a miniature Bariloche. Trek in pretty myrtle forests on an island or go kayaking out on Lago Nahuel Huapi. For those into fly fishing, the Correntoso River here is one of the best places in the world to do so. The “shortest river in the world” is drop-dead gorgeous, and full of trout. Get wood-fired pizzas with a good wine selection at Pistach'. And speaking of wine, the adjacent store Tinto has some of the best selection in the area, perfect for stocking up on reds to bring home.
Days 7-8: Unleash your inner hippie in El Bolsón
This town two hours south of Bariloche (so about 3.5 from La Angostura, but again, a spectacular drive) is known for its liberal stance on pretty much everything (except mega-mining), plus permaculture, microbrews, one of South America’s largest artists’ markets, and insanely beautiful trekking to Glaciar del Hielo Azul and Cajon del Azul, both of which have freakishly clear, turquoise water. End your Hielo Azul trek right on the Rio Azul with a burger and a craft beer from Campo Hielo Azul’s cute waterfront restaurant.
Don’t miss gelato from Jauja, which features local flavors like elderberry, blackberry, calafate berry, or dulce de leche. On market days (Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday) that’s the best spot to grab cheap, satisfying empanadas, vegetarian sandwiches, or milanesa -- breaded meat pounded flat and lightly fried or baked to a crisp. Café Alegria is a cute cafe about six blocks from the main plaza that serves up the best cappuccinos and baked goods, and they offer healthy salads and soups at lunchtime.
Go full hippie with your accommodations in a vegan Earthship hostel in town, or find a yurt up in nearby Mallin Ahogado for the full Bolsón experience. There are many available to rent -- including mine! Come unwind and experience the best of what this area has to offer.
Day 9: Go off the beaten path to Piedra Parada
Two and a half hours south of Bolsón is one of the world’s best spots for rock climbing, Piedra Parada. Even if you aren’t a climber, book a tour with Hostería Mirador Huancache and have them take you well off-road to places that will look more like Mars than Patagonia. This wind-swept, isolated place in the steppe seems absolutely prehistoric and is filled with volcanoes, fossils, caves, crystals, strange wildlife... and no people. Be prepared -- this is not yet a tourist hot spot, so infrastructure is definitely lacking. That’s part of the charm.
Day 10: Bariloche
Back to Bariloche, where many a traveler will realize that 10 days in Patagonia is not nearly enough. They will question why they shouldn’t just quit their job, buy a good tent, and hang out for a few more months in paradise.
MEET THE WRITER
Cathy Brown moved from Michigan suburbia to an organic farm in northern Patagonia in 2009. She splits her time between traveling the globe writing for Lonely Planet and CNN, working with Indigenous rights in the Brazilian Amazon, and hanging out at home in her garden and hosting permaculture and medicinal plant retreats.
When was the last time you were in Bariloche?
Three days ago, as I was traveling from my home two hours south of Bariloche to the Brazilian Amazon. Bariloche is my main home airport I fly in and out of.
What drew you there?
Zero exaggeration -- it’s honestly like living in a fairy tale. I wake up every morning to a spectacular sunrise over the Andes; my land has a fresh-water stream, native forest, and a colorful explosion of mountain wildflowers; my days are spent writing, gardening, and working with medicinal plants; and the community is very 1950s -- grandmas can hitchhike to the store, kids can hitchhike to school, and barn-raising parties are still a thing among neighbors.
What was the most surprising thing about the place that you didn't expect?
That it would have the power to turn me carnivorous. I had been a strict vegetarian for 12 years before moving here. Then goat and lamb somehow creeped into my life, and now I love nothing more than a red wine-fueled asado followed by a long siesta in a hammock.
What's a favorite anecdote from your time there?
Hiking to the cabin house of a famous Argentine painter and sculptor, who now lives like a hermit deep in the Andes. He invited me for lunch, and every detail was pure art. Homemade cheese he retrieved from a hidden trap door in the floor that led to a secret cellar, getting tipsy on the most beautiful rose-colored elderberry flower champagne, there was a thunderstorm, and he was playing Astor Piazzolla tango on cassette tape -- we talked art and philosophy all afternoon. That day he showed me what living every moment in a state of joy, wonder, and gratitude really looked like.
Number one can’t-miss recommendation for a visitor?
Eat the chocolate. All of the chocolate. And don’t leave before trying Rapa Nui’s FraNui. They are local raspberries dipped in white chocolate then dark chocolate, then frozen. In the summer it is the most decadent treat imaginable.
How easy is it to get around the city/country for English speakers?
Even if English is not spoken someplace, Argentines are notoriously warm and friendly and will go out of their way with charades, drawings, or tracking down their cousin’s friend’s friend who speaks a bit of English.
What’s your top piece of advice for someone going for the first time?
Expect certain things to make zero sense, and do not expect anything or anyone to be punctual. The gas station just might not have gasoline, and they have no idea when they might get some. The shop that says it opens at 10am might still not be open at noon. Roll with it and laugh, as resistance is futile.
What's the next big trip you have planned in 2020?
My middle daughter just graduated from high school and will take off on some pretty epic solo international travels -- the Amazon, Guatemala, India, then Greece are her plans for 2020. I will meet up with her in August in India for a month or so of curious wandering with no set plans. She’s my favorite travel buddy as she shares my love of randomness.
What's your ultimate bucket list destination you've always wanted to visit?
Siberia, to learn firsthand more about their strong history of shamanism and to collect some of their incredible heirloom seed varieties.