Established in 1937, the huge PARQUE NACIONAL LOS ALERCES protects some of the most biologically important habitats and scenic landscapes in the region. Its superb lakes are famous for both their rich colours and their fishing, while most have a backdrop of sumptuous forests that quilt the surrounding mountain slopes. In the northeast of the park these lakes form a network centred on lagos Rivadavia, Menéndez and Futalaufquen, whose waters drain south to the dammed reservoir of Embalse Amutui Quimei, and from here into the Río Futaleufú (also called Río Grande). The western two-thirds of the park up against the Andes are off-limits, being designated a “strict scientific reserve”.
Though less spectacular than many of the region’s mountains, some of the peaks along the two-thousand-metre ranges that divide the park are dramatic nonetheless, with rock colorations and cracked and craggy summits rising to 2300m in the Cordón Situación in the southeast. Cerro Torrecillas (2253m), in the north of the park, has the only glacier, but patches of snow can last into mid-summer on the upper peaks, where you’ll also spot some remarkable high-altitude cloud formations.
The vegetation changes considerably as you move east from the Chilean frontier into the area affected by the rain shadow cast by the cordillera. Near the border, rainfall exceeds 3000mm a year, enough to support the growth of dense Valdivian temperate rainforest (selva valdiviana) and, most interestingly, the species for which the park is named: the alerce. The ground is dominated by bamboo-like caña colihue, while two species of flower are everywhere: the orange or white-and-violet mutisias, with delicate spatula-like petals, and the amancay, a golden-yellow lily growing on stems 50cm to 1m high. In contrast, the eastern margin of the park is much drier, receiving 300mm to 800mm of rainfall annually. Cypress woodland and ñire scrub mark the transitional zone here between the wet forests and the arid steppe near Esquel.
The northeastern section of the park is the most interesting for the visitor, especially around the area of the beautiful but small Lago Verde. Sandwiched between the three giants of Lago Rivadavia to the northeast, Menéndez to the west and Futalaufquen to the south, it is a useful base for camping and trekking. The transcendental Río Arrayanes drains Lago Verde and a pasarela or suspension bridge, 34km from the intendencia, gives access to a delightful hour-long loop walk that takes you along the riverbank to Puerto Chucao. For most visitors the highlight is the trip from Puerto Chucao across Menéndez to see El Abuelo, the ancient alerce. The savage Lago Rivadavia area is the least visited of those accessed by the park’s principal road, the RP-71.Read More
Trekking in the park
Trekking in the park
There are 130km of public trails in the park, which are generally well maintained and marked at intervals with red spots. As always, you are required to register with the nearest guardaparque before setting off (remember to check back in afterwards), and some treks – such as El Dedal – are not recommended in winter or for those under 10 years old. In times of drought, some trails are closed, while others (including El Dedal) can only be undertaken with a guide. Bring plenty of water, sun protection, and adequate clothing as the weather changes rapidly and unseasonal snowfalls occur in the higher regions. Insect repellent is worthwhile, especially after several consecutive hot days in December and January, as that’s when the fierce horseflies (tábanos) come out.
The most difficult part of the pastoral 500m Pinturas Rupestres circuit is the spring-loaded gate at the beginning. You pass eroded indigenous geometric designs painted about three thousand years ago on a hulk of grey rock that’s surrounded by caña colihue and maitén trees; the lookout from the top of the rock affords a fine view. Longer walks include the Cinco Saltos, El Cocinero and Cerro Alto El Petiso in the north of the park, which is best accessed from Lago Verde and provides sterling vistas of the northern lakes. Another worthwhile trip is to the hostería and campsite at the southern end of Lago Krugger. This can be reached in a fairly stiff day’s trekking, returning the same way or by launch the next day (cost depends on number of passengers). However, it’s better to make it into a three- or four-day excursion. You can break the outward-bound trek by putting up a tent by the beautiful beach at Playa Blanca (about 8hr from the intendencia), but you must have previously obtained permission at the visitors’ centre. Fires are strictly prohibited and there are no facilities.
The El Dedal Circuit is one of the most popular and convenient hikes in the park. It involves some fairly stiff climbs but you’ll be rewarded with excellent panoramic views – ask the guardaparque about guides. Calculate on taking some six to seven hours (4hr up and 2–3hr down). Take the “Sendero Cascada” (which runs up behind the visitors’ centre) for approximately 35 minutes through thick maitén and caña colihue, then take the signposted right-hand branch where the path forks. Further up, you enter impressive mature woodland. Approximately two hours into the walk, you climb above the tree line into an area of open, flattened scrub on the hilltop. From here you have a panoramic view of the scarified, rust-coloured Las Monjitas range opposite. If it’s tábano (horsefly) season, though, you’ll want to keep moving rather than enjoy the view. Climb up to the ridge and follow this northwest towards the craggy El Dedal massif above you. Up here you’ll see delicate celeste and grey-blue perezia flowers, and possibly even condors. Do not follow the crest too far up though: look out for a short right-hand traverse after some 300m. The path then levels off for 100m. Below you is gorgeous Lago Futalaufquen, whose turquoise body is fringed, in places, by a frill of Caribbean-blue shallows. Bear left across a slight scoop of a valley, and you’ll come to the lip of an impressive, oxide-coloured glaciated cwm (valley). From here, follow the thirty-degree slope down into the bowl. The path up the other side of the cwm is difficult to make out: follow the paint blotches, choosing the pale, broad band of scree and make the tiring scramble up the top of the ridge, which overlooks the Hostería Futalaufquen and Puerto Limonao. From the ridge, a poor path leads up left to the summit of Cerro Alto El Dedal (1916m), about forty minutes away; don’t attempt it in poor weather. Descending from the ridge, it’s about ninety minutes to the road by the port’s prefectura and then another half-hour back to the intendencia.
The alerce (Fitzroya cupressoides)
The alerce (Fitzroya cupressoides)
Similar in appearance to the Californian redwood, the alerce, or Patagonian cypress, can reach heights of 57m and is one of the four oldest species of tree in the world. To the Mapuche it is lahuán, meaning “long-lived” or “grandfather”, and the oldest specimens are an estimated four thousand years old. They grow in a relatively narrow band of the central Patagonian cordillera, on acidic soils by lakes and only in places where the annual rainfall exceeds 3000mm, so are more common on the wetter Chilean side of the Andes than in Argentina. Growth is extremely slow (0.8–1.2mm a year), and it takes a decade for a tree’s girth to gain 1cm in diameter – though the trunk may eventually reach 3m across.
From the late nineteenth century onwards, the alerce was almost totally logged out by pioneers: the reddish timber is not eaten by insects and does not rot, so was highly valued for building, especially for roof shingles. Other uses included musical instruments, barrels, furniture, telegraph poles and boats. In Argentina, the only trees to survive the forester’s axe were the most inaccessible ones, or those like El Abuelo, a titanic millennial specimen whose wood was bad in parts. In Argentina, a few stands exist north of Los Alerces, in Parque Nacional Lago Puelo and the Lago Frías area of Nahuel Huapi, and the trees that remain are generally well protected.