Bariloche: What’s Behind the Touristy Exterior?

Grace Worwa
June 1, 2022

“To travel, yes, we have to travel, we should travel, but above all, we should not behave like tourists.” –  Marc Augé. The Impossible Trip. 1998.

In this quote, Augé refers to how the tourist industry and those who benefit from it tend to paint reality in a more attractive way. They transform a tourist destination and its inhabitants into a “show” and the tourists into “spectators." As a result, any hardship or unfair treatment suffered by the inhabitants is hidden by the “illusory kaleidoscope of tourism.”

I heard his quote during the first day of “Making of Patagonia: An Interdisciplinary Approach”—an IES Abroad class that focuses on the indigenous communities in Argentine Patagonia. The class included a trip to the city of Bariloche where we traveled to different mapuche communities in the area and chatted with people there about their activist work. The trip was designed to shove aside the tourist veil that traditionally shrouds the city of Bariloche and see what lies behind it.

Our 4-day trip to Bariloche took place on the first weekend of May. It was completely organized by IES Abroad—the hotel, the food, the transportation, everything—and boy was it busy! We went straight from chats, to meals, to hikes all day, every day. We got to see the city from a variety of angles, and as a result, it became clear that Bariloche has two very different faces. 

On the one hand, there’s the tourist’s experience – the side of Bariloche that most visitors are attracted to and the only side that most of them see. For instance, Bariloche is widely known for its delicious chocolate. When we stopped downtown for some freetime, we were confronted by at least two blocks completely dominated by enormous chocolate and ice cream shops. It was like a real live CandyLand! (Mamuschka ice cream comes highly recommended, and if you like chocolate-covered almonds, Rappa Nui is the place to go). 

Bariloche is also known for its stunning lakes and mountains. The hotel where we stayed was situated right on the coast of a beautiful, pure blue lake. Villa Huinid Pioneros Bustillo Hotel also sported a spa, gym, and a glorious buffet breakfast. The triple room that I stayed in even had two floors! This hotel, along with the many others lining the same lake, were designed to combine the trademark natural views of Bariloche with the luxuries that middle-class travelers tend to prefer. 

Our trip also included a boat ride to Isla Victoria, located on lake Nahuel Huapi. The island had been granted to a rich Argentine man by the government in 1907, and he had introduced a wide variety of flora native to the U.S., Australia and Europe. As a result, you can walk through a majestic forest of redwoods on the island only to glance over to see a random eucalyptus tree on your left. It’s pretty amazing, but at the same time all these invasive species threaten the existence of native plants on the island. In a way, this symbolizes how the forced Europeanization of Bariloche threatens the livelihoods of the indigneous people who lived there first. 

Don’t get me wrong, I fully enjoyed the touristy side of Bariloche. The enormous clear blue lakes surrounded by towering, snow-peaked mountains are truly a sight to behold, and what they say about the chocolate is right – it’s to die for! However, it’s also important to realize that all that bright and shiny stuff isn’t the entire picture. Not 40 blocks from the city’s center lies the neighborhood of El Alto, and its inhabitants in large part are members of indigenous communities whose ancestral lands in Bariloche were taken from them in the mid- to late 1800s. Despite the booming tourist industry nearby, the inhabitants of El Alto still endure poverty, and most tourists who arrive in Bariloche don’t even realize they’re there. 

As IES Abroad students, we were lucky enough to meet with activists and mapuche community members in Bariloche to better understand their work. One of our first chats was with Vanesa Gallardo Llancaqueo, Valeria Silva, and Maria, who told us about her work on the revitalization of the mapuche language—Mapuzungun. In the decades after the Argentine government conquered Patagonia, indigenous people were so heavily discriminated against that parents stopped speaking their native languages to their children out of fear. They felt their children would be safer if they spoke only perfect Spanish. As a result, the number of native Mapuzungun speakers dwindled dangerously, and now an effort is underway to bring back the language and recover a major part of the Mapuche culture and identity. Vanesa contributes to that effort by learning the language herself and by teaching what she knows to others. 

Later that same day, we also met with members of Piuke, a nonprofit organization based in El Alto that focuses on indigenous territorial conflicts. They recounted numerous efforts by extractivist companies and the Argentine state over the last two decades to exploit natural resources in locations all over the country, including Chubut in 2021, Mendoza in 2019, and Río Negro in 2011, to name a few. In all these cases, Piuke lended their manpower and support. They also carry out projects within El Alto itself in order to bring the neighborhood together and strengthen mapuche identity. During the economic crisis in the early 2000s, they set up a dining hall to feed the community, and in 2015 they started a radio channel in order to better communicate with them. During the pandemic, many families didn’t have computers or even enough cell phones to go around, so that radio channel was used to allow kids to attend class. 

On our third day, we met Marta Ranquehue from the Mapuche community Millalonco-Ranquehue. Her community had won a court appeal over the ownership of their ancestral lands just a few days before. Instead of being giddy with happiness, Maria described the triumph as painful. For her, it awakened memories of the suffering that her ancestors had endured and how they couldn’t be here to experience this day. Further, the court ruling doesn't change things. She and her community must continue working against discrimination, and they do so in large part through intercultural projects. For example, they started a community vegetable garden that 30 families now participate in, both Mapuche and non-Mapuche alike. 

As you can see, there's a lot going on behind the shiny, touristy exterior of Bariloche. The city is famously nicknamed “Argentine Switzerland'', alluding to an affinity with European culture and the booming success of the tourist industry. However, even though the city truly is beautiful and has amazing chocolate, there's more to it than that, and that's what many indigneous activists are trying to make known. Bariloche isn’t perfect—entire Mapuche communities there have historically suffered discrimination and invisiblization, and it’s time their story became part of Bariloche’s mainstream image. 

The IES Abroad trip to Bariloche transformed my perspective on travel. On this trip, we made a visible effort to ¨not behave like tourists”, as Augé would say, and now I’m left wondering what is behind the touristy exterior of London, New York City, or even my hometown. Whatever we find may not be pleasant or attractive, but that's all the more reason to see and acknowledge it. Without doing that, how can we even begin to address those problems? 

Studying abroad is the perfect opportunity to learn to see a place for what it truly is rather than what it is painted to be because instead of visiting for two weeks as a tourist, you become an inhabitant of your new home. I encourage you to keep this in mind during your travels.

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Grace Worwa

<p>I’m studying for a semester in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where I hope to improve my Spanish language skills and learn more about the country’s women’s rights movement. I’m from the U.S. state of Minnesota, where I also attend college and study Spanish, Political Science, and English. I’m on a pre-law track and hope to pursue a career in immigration law.</p>

Home University:
Gustavus Adolphus College
Dayton, MN
Political Science
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