If Patagonia ever became independent, its logical capital might be San Carlos de Bariloche, the highest-profile destination in an area explorer Francisco P. Moreno once called “this beautiful piece of Argentine Switzerland.” It’s not just that Bariloche, with its incomparable Nahuel Huapi setting, is the lakes district’s largest city, transportation hub, and gateway to Argentina’s first national park; in the 1930s the carved granite blocks and rough-hewn polished timbers of its landmark Centro Cívico  set a promising precedent for harmonizing urban expansion with wilder surroundings.
Dating from 1902, Bariloche was slow to grow, but it boomed after completion of the Ferrocarril Roca’s southern branch in 1934. Its rustically sophisticated style has spread throughout the region.
But unrelenting growth, promoted by unscrupulous politicians and developers, has detracted from its Euro-Andean charm. For much of the day, for instance, the Bariloche Center, a multistory monstrosity authorized by the brief and irregular repeal of height-limit legislation, literally overshadows the Centro Cívico.
As the population has grown from about 60,000 to 90,000 in the past 25 years, its congested microcentro has become a clutter of chocolate shops, hotels, and time-shares, and notorious for high-school graduation bashes that leave hotel rooms in ruins. Student tourism is declining, in relative terms at least, but Bariloche still lags behind aspirations that were once higher than Cerro Catedral ’s ski areas. Like other Patagonian destinations, it booms in the summer months of December, January, and February.
Bariloche holds a unique place in Argentine cinema as the location for Emilio Vieyra’s Sangre de Vírgenes (Blood of the Virgins), a Hammer-style vampire flick that was ahead of its time when shot in 1967 (it’s available on DVD). Perhaps Vieyra envisaged the unsavory things to come, but Bariloche’s bloodsuckers are only part of the story—the city and its surroundings still have much to offer, at reasonable cost. Many of the best accommodations, restaurants, and other services lie along or near Avenida Bustillo between Bariloche proper and Llao Llao, about 25 kilometers west.
On Lago Nahuel Huapi ’s southeastern shore, 764 meters above sea level, Bariloche (pop. 89,475) is 1,596 kilometers from Buenos Aires  and 429 kilometers southwest of Neuquén  via RN 237, but 982 kilometers west of Viedma , Río Negro Province ’s coastal capital. It is 123 kilometers north of El Bolsón  via RN 258.
Bariloche is northern Argentine Patagonia’s transportation hub and has regional and international connections.
LAN (Mitre 534, Local 1, tel. 02944/43-1043), Aerolíneas Argentinas (Mitre 185, tel. 02944/42-2425), LADE (Villegas 480, tel. 02944/42-3562) carriers have regular, though not daily, flights in and out of Bariloche's airpost.
On the eastern outskirts of town, across the Río Ñireco, Bariloche’s Terminal de Ómnibus (Avenida 12 de Octubre s/n, tel. 02944/43-2860) is immediately east of the train station. There are international services (to Osorno and Puerto Montt, Chile), long-distance buses throughout the republic, and provincial and regional routes.
Chaltén Travel (Moreno 126, Local 3, tel. 02944/42-3809, www.chaltentravel.com ) offers bus services along southbound RN 40 to El Chaltén  and El Calafate  (31 hours, US$116) via the town of Perito Moreno, with overnights (at additional cost) in Perito Moreno. In peak summer season, southbound departures are at 7 a.m. on odd-numbered days.
Four companies cross the Andes to the Chilean cities of Osorno  (5.5 hours) and Puerto Montt  (6.5 hours, US$21): Andesmar (tel. 02944/43-0211), Bus Norte (tel. 02944/43-0303), Tas Choapa (tel. 02944/42-2288), and Cruz del Sur (tel. 02944/42-2818). Most leave by 10 a.m.
Sample domestic destinations include Villa La Angostura  (1.5 hours, US$4.50), El Bolsón  (2 hours, US$7), San Martín de los Andes  (3.5 hours, US$12), Esquel  (4 hours, US$12–16), Neuquén  (5.5 hours, US$16–23), Viedma  (14 hours, US$40), Trelew  (13 hours, US$38–53), Puerto Madryn  (14 hours, US$40–55), Comodoro Rivadavia  (12 hours, US$38–50), Buenos Aires  (19–20 hours, US$61–96), and Río Gallegos  (24 hours, US$70).
Immediately west of the bus terminal, Sefepa (Avenida 12 de Octubre s/n, tel. 02944/43-1777, www.trenpatagonico  sa.com.ar) connects Bariloche with Viedma via train at 6 p.m. Monday and Friday. The 15-hour trip costs US$15 in hard-backed económica, US$32 in reclining Pullman, or US$60 in camarote sleepers; children ages 5–12 pay half.
Cruce Andino (www.cruceandino.com ) operates the bus-boat shuttle over the Andes to Puerto Montt, Chile (US$230 pp without lunch), via Puerto Pañuelo, Puerto Blest, Puerto Frías, Peulla (Chile), Petrohué, and Puerto Varas. With an overnight at Peulla, the trip costs US$350–378 pp, depending on the hotel. For bookings, contact Catedral Turismo (Palacios 263, tel. 02944/42-5444). Foreigners pay an additional US$4.50 in national park entry fees; it’s possible to do this trip in segments or as a round-trip, for example from Puerto Pañuelo to Puerto Blest and back.