The main goal of any trip to Bariloche is to see the natural wonders contained within the PARQUE NACIONAL NAHUEL HUAPI, the doyen of the Argentine national park system. Protecting a glorious chunk of the Andean cordillera and its neighbouring steppe, its origins lie in a grant of seven thousand hectares of land made by Dr Francisco P. Moreno (known as “Perito” Moreno, “perito” meaning “expert”) to the national government in 1903 on the condition that it was safeguarded for the enjoyment of future generations. It has since grown a hundredfold in size.
Most of the park falls within the watershed of the immense Lago Nahuel Huapi, an impressive expanse of water that can seem benign one moment and a froth of seething whitecaps the next. Of glacial origin, it’s 557 square kilometres in area, but highly irregular in shape with peninsulas, islands and attenuated, fjord-like tentacles that sweep down from the thickly forested border region. The lake’s name comes from the Mapudungun (Mapuche tongue) for Isle (huapi) of the Tiger (nahuel) and refers to the jaguars that once inhabited regions even this far south. Rainfall is heaviest by the border with Chile, especially in places such as Puerto Blest and Lago Frías – the nucleus of the land donated by Moreno – where over 3000mm fall annually. This permits the growth of Valdivian temperate rainforest and individual species such as the alerce, here at the northernmost extent of its range in Argentina. Other species typical of the sub-Antarctic Patagonian forests also flourish: giant coihues, lengas and ñire among others.
A second important habitat is the high alpine environment above the tree line (upwards of 1600m), including some summits that retain snow all year. The dominant massif of the park is an extinct volcano, Cerro Tronador, whose three peaks (Argentino at 3410m; Internacional at 3554m; and Chileno at 3478m) straddle the Argentine–Chilean border in the south. Glaciers slide off its heights in all directions, though all are in a state of alarmingly rapid recession. The “thundering” in its Spanish name is not meteorological or volcanic, but refers to the echoing roar heard when vast chunks of ice break off its hanging glaciers and plunge down to the slopes below. Rainfall decreases sharply as you move eastwards from the border. Cypress woodland typifies the transitional semi-montane zone, and at the eastern side of the park you find areas of arid, rolling steppe. Snow can fall as late as December and as early as March at higher altitudes: it’s not advisable to hike certain trails outside the high season. Average temperatures are 18°C in summer and 2°C in winter. The strongest winds blow in spring, which is otherwise a good time to visit, as is the calmer autumn, when the deciduous trees wear their spectacular late-season colours.
The park has abundant birdlife, with species such as the Magellanic Woodpecker, the Green-backed Firecrown, the ground-dwelling Chucao Tapaculo and the Austral Parakeet. You’ll hear mention of rare fauna such as the huemul and the pudú, though you have only a slightly greater chance of seeing them than you do of spying Nahuelito, Argentina’s answer to the Loch Ness monster. Animals that make their home in the steppe regions of the park (guanaco, rheas and foxes) are more easily seen. Of the non-native species, the most conspicuous are the red deer (ciervo colorado) and the wild boar (jabalí), introduced by hunt-loving settlers. In an effort to cull their numbers, the authorities issue shooting permits, which continue to serve as a source of revenue for the park – expect to see roast boar and venison carpaccio on many a local menu.Read More
Villa La Angostura
Villa La Angostura
Spread along the northern lakeshore of Nahuel Huapi, VILLA LA ANGOSTURA has grown enormously in the past decade, capitalizing on the Lake District’s surging popularity. The settlement originally swelled owing to its proximity to the trout-fishing at Río Correntoso, one of the world’s shortest rivers, but today caters mostly to upper-end tourists, with whole new areas of wooded hills giving way to luxury hotels, cabins and spas. The almost ubiquitous and somewhat forced log-cabin architecture gives the town a clichéd feel, rather like a mountain village theme park, and may not be to everyone’s taste. There is some top-notch accommodation, however, and even some budget options, though these are in a minority; this is a place to show off designer outdoor wear rather than trudge around with a rucksack.
For those not into fly-fishing or luxury lodges, the main reason for visiting Villa La Angostura is that it provides the only land access to Parque Nacional Los Arrayanes plus a couple of useful boat trips that save you time if not money. The park is reached by crossing the isthmus at La Villa, a 3km-long peninsula west of the centre – the old harbour. In winter, there’s skiing on the slopes of Cerro Bayo, 10km east from the centre, while in summer you can get good views from the summit; you can hike up but you’ll need a guide – ask at the tourist office. Another good local hike (or short drive) is to Mirador Belvedere and Cascada Inacayal, a delightful waterfall, both along the southeast shore of Lago Correntoso.
The huemul (Hippocamelus bisculus)
The huemul (Hippocamelus bisculus)
If you spend any time in the Argentine Lake District it won’t be long before you hear talk of the almost legendary huemul. This little deer, which stands 1m at the shoulder, was declared a “National Monument” in 1996 in response to an alarming decline in population. A secretive denizen of high Patagonian forests, it once played an important role in the livelihood of indigenous groups who relied on it for food and often depicted it in cave paintings. The arrival of the Europeans and their firearms had disastrous consequences for the remarkably tame species, and there are even tales about them being killed with knives after having been approached to a few metres. With the increasing destruction of their forest habitat, their numbers declined rapidly and today only an estimated six hundred remain in Argentina. Your best chance of glimpsing one is in winter, when harsh weather may drive them down to lower altitudes and more open areas in search of food. One of the likeliest locations to spy a huemul is near Playa El Francés on the northeastern shore of Lago Futaleufquen in the Parque Nacional Los Alerces – but even there you’ll need luck on your side.
The huemul shows a series of adaptations to its tough environment, possessing a thick, dense coat to protect against the cold and short strong legs that help it gain a foothold on rocky slopes. They are also remarkably good swimmers, and can cross lakes and rivers with ease.
Trekking in Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi
Trekking in Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi
To say Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi is an ideal destination for trekking would be a sizeable understatement. Myriad spectacular trails lace the park, though its principal trekking region is the sector southwest of Bariloche, where the two foremost points of interest are Cerro Catedral and the Pampa Linda area, southeast of Cerro Tronador. An impressive network of well-run refuges ($40–50 per person) makes trekking that much more appealing: you’ll need to bring a sleeping bag, but can buy meals and basic supplies en route. In high season, refuges and trails in the more popular areas can get very busy, so carry a tent with you. There are authorized camping sites, but you need to get a camping permit from the intendencia or any guardaparque in order to use them; the park has suffered a series of devastating fires in recent years, so restrictions have tightened up as regards free camping and you must now carry your own stove for cooking. Before departure it is obligatory to fill out a registro de trekking at the guardaparque station on entering the park and to check out again before leaving.
The trekking season is basically between December and March, but you should always heed weather conditions (wwww.accuweather.com has forecasts) and come prepared for unseasonal snowfalls. Check in advance with the guardaparques to find out which refuges are open. As a rule, trails or sendas to refuges are well marked; the high-mountain trails (sendas de alta montaña) are not always clearly marked, though, while the less-frequented paths (picadas) are not maintained on a regular basis, and close up with vegetation from time to time. Before you set out, you should also visit the Club Andino Bariloche, at calle 20 de Febrero 30 in Bariloche. Their information office and shop is in the wooden hut alongside the main building (Jan & Feb daily 9am–1pm & 4–8.30pm, rest of year weekdays only; t02944/527966, wwww.clubandino.org or wwww.activepatagonia.com.ar). They sell a series of trekking maps: the standard one is the Carta de Refugios, Sendas y Picadas (1:100,000), which has been expanded into three larger-scale (1:50,000) maps. These are useful and include stage times, but the route descriptions are in Spanish only, and not all topographical details are accurate. A newer Infotrekking map, compiled from satellite images, is better but may not have all the trails marked. CAB also sells a slim volume, Infotrekking de la Patagonia by Diego Cannestraci, which has good route descriptions for those who can read Spanish.
In the Cerro Catedral area, popular one- or two-day hikes include ones to Refugio Frey, which can be reached by a gentle ascent up the valley or by taking the ski lift to Refugio Lynch and then a rocky traverse (medium difficulty). Follow the ridge heading southwest picking up the red paint blotches on the rocks – after an hour or more the trail forks left on a steep descent to Refugio Frey, while the right fork leads to Refugio San Martín. From here the standard descent is to the northeast, along the course of the Casa de Piedra stream.
In the Pampa Linda sector there are a number of day-treks and longer possibilities. Very popular is the hike to Refugio Otto Meiling, above even the summer snowline and with spectacular views of Cerro Tronador, where you can stay or camp. Much less frequented is the trek to Refugio Tronador, also with mountain vistas. You’ll need a permit from both the Pampa Linda guardaparque and the nearby gendarmaría, since the trek takes you into Chile before doubling back into Argentina. There are no services at Refugio Tronador, and many prefer to overnight near the Chilean carabineros and make a day-hike to Refugio Tronador, returning to Pampa Linda the third day.