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The fundamental configuration of ESQUÍ (SKI) is perhaps most clearly revealed during the bizarre interview in the middle of the film with an inhabitant of a poor neighbourhood in the Patagonian ski centre Bariloche that the interviewer conducts in a yeti costume – which has nothing to do with South America. How can the residents of a provincial city in remote southern Argentina come to terms with the mass luxury tourism industry around the ski resort, which, during the winter months, holds the city in its grip like an alien monster? The film shows how social projects introduce children from the poorer areas to skiing, and how local artisans manufacture skis with regional products. But beyond these conflicts around ski tourism, the film - right from the start, introduced by the music of the trutruka, a horn instrument of the Mapuche Indigenous people - lifts the lid on deeper conflicts around the colonial expropriation of Indigenous lands and the current conflicts concerning territory and recognition that have resulted from it. And so the small city of Bariloche is haunted not just by the yeti, but also by demons from the mythical world of the Mapuche, such as the Lafquen trilque. This creature lives in the Nahuel Huapi Lake, near Bariloche, and although it looks harmless at first with its cow horns, it uses this innocent look to attract its clueless victims. When they get close to the water, the creature reveals its evil nature and attacks, dragging victims to the bottom of the lake and gobbling them up. The film itself enacts a similar gesture, beginning with the also seeming harmless act of skiing down idyllic, sunny mountain runs, only to then pull the viewer into the depths of history, tracing the violent colonization of the south and its consequences, which are still being felt today and which Argentina has barely begun to reckon with.

The Development of Tourism in Bariloche

At the end of the nineteenth century, the region around the Nahuel Huapi Lake was compared to the landscape of Switzerland, which then became a Patagonian myth. Thanks to a 1903 gift by the Argentine explorer Francisco P. Moreno, in 1922 the area around the lake was turned into Argentina’s first national park, initially called Parque Nacional del Sud. In 1934, under the direction of the conservative aristocratic politician Exequiel Bustillo, a national park administration (Dirección de Parques Nacionales, DPN) was founded—the first in Latin America. The main aim of this agency, however, was not to protect nature, but to develop the region into a tourist destination. And specifically a luxury tourist area, as the construction of the Llao-Llao Hotel and the introduction of skiing, at that time an elite sport, made clear. The area was also desirable as a summer residence, and the ex-director and multimillionaire Bustillo enjoyed regular retreats in his villa on the lake. The prestige project of the DPN was the largely new construction of the city San Carlos de Bariloche, which was designed as a tourist centre in rustic Alpine style.

In 1936 the national park agency contracted Austrian-German skier Hans Nöbl to establish the ski resort in Bariloche. Otto Meiling, a German-born ski instructor, mountain guide, and resident of Bariloche who had laid claim to the post for himself, retreated in exasperation. Meiling had co-founded the Club Andino in Bariloche (a counterpart to the German Alpine Association), and in 1930-31 published a tourist guidebook to the area with Hans Hildebrandt. Meiling wanted to build out the new resort at Cerro Otto, which was named after him, but Nöbl chose Cerro Catedral instead. The further marketing of the ski resort of Bariloche by the national park agency continued to model itself upon German equivalents that were linked to a national socialist aesthetic.

The area achieved dubious fame as a safe harbour for Nazi war criminals such as Josef Mengele, who stayed a short time, and especially Erich Priebke.

The Austrian-German skier Gustav „Guzzi” Lantschner, who had acted in Leni Riefenstahl’s mountain film THE WHITE ECSTASY, came to Bariloche and in 1954 directed the film CANCIÓN DE LA NIEVE for the DPN, based on the Riefenstahl film. This German presence in Bariloche dates back to its founding by German settlers who came to the lake from neighbouring Chile. The area achieved dubious fame as a safe harbour for Nazi war criminals such as Josef Mengele, who stayed a short time, and especially Erich Priebke. The German community, including Otto Meiling, not only supported the national socialists from early on, but continued to openly show Nazi sympathies into the 1990s. Two films by the Bariloche director Carlos Echeverría examine this history: PACTO DE SILENCIO (2006), on Erich Priebke, and the short film EL GRINGO LOCO, INVIERNO EN LA PATAGONIA (1984) about Otto Meiling. Speculation that Adolf Hitler had only pretended to commit suicide and had actually fled with Eva Braun to Bariloche belongs of course to the realm of myth, but it shows the significance that Bariloche held for Nazi war criminals.

The Mapuche Conflict

Bariloche and the surrounding Nahuel Huapi National Park are situated in a region that until the end of the nineteenth century was inhabited by the Indigenous Mapuche. The Mapuche were able to resist the Spanish colonizers until 1881, when concerted actions by the Argentine and Chilean militaries finally vanquished them. General Julio Argentino Roca also led the so-called Conquest of the Desert in the region, a bloody military campaign with genocidal tendencies.

But the area, which up to the beginning of the 1930s had neither streets nor railway connections, was still not developed – until Exequiel Bustillo’s national park agency got involved. He understood the national park as a „true instrument of colonization” - not in the sense of agrarian occupation as much as a touristic one. Bustillo revered Roca and erected a monument to him on the main square of Bariloche, which – still today – symbolically represents the domination of the area.

One of the merits of ESQUÍ is that it breaks open the beautiful, aristocratic veneer of Argentina in general and of Bariloche in particular.

The Indigenous Mapuche, many of whom had once fled from Chile over the border to Argentina, were increasingly driven out of the park. Some of them, however, were able to hold their ground both in the national park and in the poor urban zones around the tourist core of Bariloche-locations which are shown in ESQUÍ, but are barely visible to tourists. In the twenty-first century, an increasingly powerful Indigenous movement has been able to gain some organizational ground in Bariloche. The violence of conflicts over land that arose during colonization and the founding of the park still exists today. On November 17, 2017, during the eviction of a squatted area at Lago Mascardi, the special command „Albatross” of the Argentine Marines shot and killed the 22-year-old Mapuche Rafael Nahuel. In August of the same year, the human rights activist Santiago Maldonado died under suspicious circumstances after the police intervened in a Mapuche protest against the usurpation of land by the fashion chain Benetton, which Maldonado was taking part in. The case of the young activist, whose body was found only months later in Rio Chubut, gained widespread attention in Argentina and internationally, as he was understood by the human rights movement to be the first person „disappeared” for political reasons since the end of the military dictatorship. The increasing violence is mostly blamed on the conversative president and representative of the oligarchy Maurico Macri (2015-2019), who had replaced the leftist government of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

Despite the repression, the organizing of the Mapuche living in the Nahuel Huapi National Park has been partially successful. In 2000 the Comunidad Wiritray on Mascardi Lake was the first Indigenous community within the national park to be officially recognized. Four more Indigenous communities followed. It is undoubtedly the fact that these conflicts concern government land in a national park that accounts for the question of the recognition of the Mapuche people’s rights being given political attention; the state, as the main political actor, is forced to react.

And that is one of the merits of ESQUÍ – that it breaks open the beautiful, aristocratic veneer of Argentina in general and of Bariloche in particular, and offers, instead, the chance to understand the dark, uncanny side of the region’s history. For the demons and ghosts of the past are still very much alive, as the haunting activities of Lafquen trilque show.


Olaf Kaltmeier is professor for Ibero-American History at the Bielefeld University and Director of the Maria Sibylla Merian Center for Advanced Latin American Studies (CALAS).

Translation: Donna Stonecipher


Further reading:

Olaf Kaltmeier: National Parks from North to South. An Entangled History of Conservation and Colonization in Argentina, Trier, New Orleans, WVT/University of New Orleans Press, 2021.

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