Argentina’s Lake District – the northwestern wedge of Argentine Patagonia – is a coffee-book-cover land of picture-perfect glacial lakes surrounded by luxuriant forests, jagged peaks and extinct volcanoes. Not so long ago it was a wilderness controlled by indigenous peoples but the undisputed modern capital, Bariloche, now sees annual invasions of Argentine and foreign holiday-makers. Thanks to excellent transport links, they descend on the town in droves year-round for the fresh air and outdoor adventures. According to the tourist literature, their supposed lure is the alpine flavour of this “Argentine Switzerland” – a moniker borne out to some extent thanks to the Mitteleuropa-like setting, wooden chalet architecture and the region’s breweries, dairies and chocolate shops. Yet the real attraction is the sheer unspoilt beauty of the goliath Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi, the grandfather of all Argentina’s national parks, packed with enough trekking and other outdoor activities to last any enthusiast weeks rather than days.
North of Bariloche is the upmarket resort of Villa La Angostura, and the stunning Seven Lakes Route, while to the south is the more alternative resort of El Bolson and the splendid Parque Nacional Los Alerces, home to more fabulous lakes and ancient alerce trees. Further south still lurk a trio of curiosities: Butch Cassidy’s cabin at Cholila, the Welsh settlement of Trevelin and the historic railway at La Trochita.
In the less visited northern swathes of the Lake District the main hub is family-oriented San Martín de los Andes, Bariloche’s nearest regional rival, with an admirable lakefront location. Both it and neighbouring Junín de los Andes – renowned nationwide for its angling and hunting opportunities – are perfect bases for exploring the rugged Parque Nacional Lanín, whose focus is Volcán Lanín, a conical peak popular with mountaineers. Neuquén, the namesake capital of Argentina’s only palindromically named province, is a pleasant enough city to relax in or sort out some practicalities but its indisputable draw has to be the nearby treasure trove of giant dinosaur fossils, earning it the nickname of Dinosaur Paradise. In recent years vines have been planted with considerable success in the desert-like areas to the north and east of the city; wineries with dramatic names like Valle Perdido “lost valley” and Bodega del Fin del Mundo “winery at the end of the world” have started making fabulous semillons and syrahs that you can go and taste on the premises.Read More
Seven Lakes Route
Seven Lakes Route
The classic Ruta de los Siete Lagos (“Seven Lakes Route”) connects Villa La Angostura with San Martín de los Andes in spectacular fashion, passing through forested valleys and giving access to many more than the eponymous seven lakes, which are lagos Nahuel Huapi, Espejo, Correntoso, Escondido, Villarino, Falkner and Machónico. You’ll also pass several fishing spots – buy permits before setting off (from tourist offices, YPF stations or campsites). The route is mostly paved, but be warned that the unsealed section – between Lago Espejo and Lago Villarino – can get extremely dusty, especially in summer. El Ko-Ko and Albus run daily bus services along the route between Villa La Angostura and San Martín. Many agencies in San Martín offer trips along the route, including 7 Lagos Turismo, at Gral Roca 826 (02972/427877), and Chapelco Turismo, San Martín 876 (02972/427550). Birdwatching tours are available with AvesPatagonia (02972/422022, www.avespatagonia.com.ar), and fishing with Fly-fishing 3x (02972/422216).
The araucaria, or monkey puzzle tree
The araucaria, or monkey puzzle tree
The distinctive and beautiful araucaria (Araucaria araucana), more commonly known as the monkey puzzle tree, is one of the world’s most enduring species of trees. It grows naturally only in the cordillera of Neuquén Province and at similar latitudes in Chile, where it favours impoverished volcanic soils at altitudes between 600m and 1800m. This prehistoric survivor has been around for more than one hundred million years.
Araucarias grow incredibly slowly, though they can live for over 1000 years. Young trees grow in a pyramid shape, but after about a hundred years they start to lose their lower branches and assume their trademark umbrella appearance – mature specimens can reach 45m in height. Their straight trunks are covered by panels of thick bark that provide resistance against fire. The female trees produce huge, head-size cones filled with up to two hundred fawn-coloured pinenuts called piñones, some 5cm long, and rich in proteins and carbohydrates.
Known to the Mapuche as the pehuén, the tree was worshipped as the daughter of the moon. Legend has it that there was a time when the Mapuche, though they adored the pehuén, never ate its piñones, believing them to be poisonous. This changed, however, during a terrible famine, when their god, Ngüenechén, saved them from starvation by sending a messenger to teach them both the best way of preparing these nutritious seeds (roasting them in embers or boiling), and of storing them (burying them in the earth or snow). Piñones became the staple diet of tribes in the area (principally the Pehuenche, named after their dependence on the tree), and have been revered by the Mapuche ever since.