Argentina’s Lake District – the northwestern wedge of Argentine Patagonia – is a 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. The 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.
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 Bolsón and the splendid Parque Nacional Los Alerces, home to more fabulous lakes and ancient alerce trees. Further south still lurks a trio of curiosities: Butch Cassidy’s cabin, the Welsh settlement of Trevelin and the historic railway at La Trochita.
In the 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 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, 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.
Along with Las Leñas, Bariloche and the Lake District is Argentina’s premier ski destination, packed in the winter with ski and snowboard fans from Argentina, Brazil and further afield. While it does get busy in peak season (July & Aug), the quality of the powder, infrastructure and après-ski is very good, with Bariloche acting as a hub for the surrounding area. The main ski resort is Cerro Catedral, served by Villa Catedral at its base, with plenty of accommodation, equipment rental, restaurants, comfortable lifts and easy access to the après-ski in Bariloche – not to mention outstanding views. There are more than 120km of runs in all, of varying grades of difficulty, some with descents of up to 4km in length. Other resorts in the area include the smaller, more upmarket Cerro Bayo 10km east of Villa La Angostura, Cerro Chapelco 20km southeast of San Martín de los Andes, and La Hoya some 13km northeast of Esquel, a low-key family centre with moderately challenging pistes, nine lifts and good powder.
At the end of July/beginning of August, Bariloche celebrates the Fiesta Nacional de la Nieve, with ski races, parades and a torchlit evening descent on skis to open the season officially, although the season actually lasts from around mid-June to mid-October. If you want the probability of good snow conditions but prefer quieter slopes, go in September.
The Lake District is a popular Argentine tourist destination and served by generally excellent bus links during the high season (roughly Christmas to Easter and the June–Sept ski season); buses are less frequent out of season but most routes are still served, weather permitting. Consider renting a car if you want to visit some of the more off-the-beaten-path locations, such as Moquehue or the Chañar wineries.
The Blest and El Bolsón breweries serve a variety of highly drinkable real ales from palest rubia to dark stout.
Whether you choose to hike it in summer or ski it in winter, this peak in Nahuel Huapi park affords fabulous views of craggy mountains and rich blue lakes.
The scenic Seven Lakes Route swings past at least a dozen meres whose waters range from deep ultramarine to delicate turquoise.
A much-loved steam train that featured in Paul Theroux’s The Old Patagonian Express – follow his example and take a trip down the tracks.
Climb the slopes of a woodcut-perfect volcano that reigns over its namesake national park – or just admire the views from a peaceful lakeside vantage point.
Gawp up at some of the biggest dinosaur remains ever found or check out a clutch of unique titanosaur eggs – all within reach of Neuquén city.
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 rewards trekkers of all degrees of stamina and hardiness with a highly developed infrastructure of trails and refuges, while a plethora of lakes, waterfalls, boat trips and chairlifts will entertain anyone not so keen on hiking.
Protecting a glorious chunk of the Andean cordillera and its neighbouring steppe, 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 Mapuche for Isle (huapi) of the Tiger (nahuel) and refers to the jaguars that once inhabited regions even this far south. Heavy rainfall permits the growth of temperate rainforest and 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. The dominant massif of the park is an extinct volcano, Cerro Tronador, whose three peaks 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.
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. Bear in mind the area is a long way west of Buenos Aires despite being in the same time zone, so the sun is overhead in summer closer to 3pm, rather than midday. 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.
Some 20km south of Bariloche is Cerro Catedral, named after the Gothic steeples of rock that make up its craggy summit (2405m). In summer, the village of Villa Catedral, at the foot of the bowl, is the starting point for a couple of fantastic treks up and around Cerro Catedral, though you could just take a cable car and then a chairlift to reach Refugio Lynch near the summit (1870m). A short but steep climb takes you to the ridge, where the views are superb, and you just might catch a glimpse of condors.
Spread along the northern lake-shore 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 log-cabin architecture can feel a bit forced, rather like a mountain-village theme park, and the constant flow of traffic rather ruins the peace. However, it is smaller than Bariloche, has some top-notch accommodation (though not many budget options), and provides the only land access to Parque Nacional Los Arrayanes.
The town sprawls along the lakeside, with the centre known as El Cruce. Avenida Arrayanes transects the town; everything you are likely to need during your stay is concentrated in a 200m stretch between Boulevard Nahuel Huapi and Cerro Bayo. The park is reached by crossing the isthmus at La Villa, a 3km-long peninsula west of the centre – the old harbour.
Other than visiting the park or going on fishing trips, you can get good views from the summit of Cerro Bayo, 10km east from the centre of Villa Angostura; you can hike up in summer 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 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, although it is being gradually tarred. Note that the entire route is now considered part of the classic RN-40; previously, it was the RN-231 in the southern half and RN-234 in the northern half, and older maps still mark it as such.
Soon after leaving Angostura, the paved RN-40 crosses Río Correntoso, famous for its fishing and, at barely 250m long, one of the planet’s shortest rivers; the road then skirts the northernmost tip of Lago Nahuel Huapi, by far the largest lake on the route. As you turn north, you quickly sight Lago Espejo (“Looking-glass Lake”), renowned as the warmest and smoothest (hence the name) lake hereabouts. Alongside the Seccional Espejo guardaparque post is a free campsite, by a beach that’s good for swimming. Just before the guardaparque’s house is another campground, with spacious pitches and a beach, while opposite is an easy forest trail (30min) through the woods to an isolated spot on the western shore of magical Lago Correntoso. Beyond here you trace Lago Correntoso’s northern shores and pass a lakeside campground, run by one of the area’s original indigenous families and offering tortas fritas, meals and provisions.
After the road swings sharply north you’ll reach the RP-65 turn-off via the Portezuelo pass to Villa Traful. You then pass through a magnificent valley with sheer cliffs towering over 600m. It’s worth stopping at the signposted track to a series of five waterfalls known collectively as Cascadas Ñivinco. Reaching them involves an easy 2km walk through ñire and cañacolihue forest, but you’ll get your feet (and possibly knees) wet when you ford the river.
Further north is pint-sized Lago Escondido, the most enchanting of all the lakes, hiding its emerald-green charms demurely in the forest. Before crossing the limpid waters of Río Pichi Traful, you pass through Seccional Villarino, where the guardaparque will give you information on recommended walks, such as the trek up Cerro Falkner.
Continuing north you come to the eastern point of Lago Villarino, a popular place for fishing, with Cerro Crespo (2130m) as a picturesque backdrop and a free lakeside campground. On the other side of the main road, Lago Falkner is a perennial favourite of fishermen, sitting at the foot of Cerro Falkner (2350m) and a campground here provides accommodation. Just to the north of Lago Falkner you pass Cascada Vulliñanco, a 20m waterfall to the west of the road.
Continuing on the RN-40, you cross from Parque Nahuel Huapi into the neighbouring Parque Lanín. You then skirt the eastern shore of Lago Machónico and, in the final meanders of the route, pass through handsome ñire and coihue woods. Make sure you stop at the Mirador de Pil Pil to take in the superb panorama of mighty Lago Lácar, whose waters lap San Martín de los Andes, the route’s northern terminus.
The 123km trip southwards along the RN-40 from Bariloche to El Bolsón offers yet more stunning mountain and lake views. Just inside Río Negro Province and set in the bowl of a wide, fertile valley, hemmed in by parallel ranges of mountains, El Bolsón is a thriving tourist centre with numerous trekking opportunities close at hand. It was Latin America’s first town to declare itself nuclear-free and an “ecological municipality”. Owing to the claim that the jagged peak of the nearby Cerro Piltriquitrón is one of the earth’s “energy centres”, El Bolsón became a popular hippy hangout in the 1960s, and while it’s a bit more commercial these days, the laidback atmosphere persists. In summer it’s particularly popular with young Argentine backpackers, since it’s far easier on the wallet than nearby Bariloche.
Nahuel Huapi 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.
Sitting amid prairie grasslands, 3km east of the junction of the RP-71 and the RP-15, the hamlet of Cholila, with its spectacular backdrop of savage peaks, seems to belong in the American West. So there’s no better setting for one of Patagonia’s most idiosyncratic sights – the cabin of Wild West outlaw Butch Cassidy. From Cholila, you can continue southwest through a glorious lush valley hemmed in by snowcapped mountains towards the northern gate of Parque Nacional Los Alerces.
The area’s main tourist attraction lies 12km north of the village itself along the RP-71 towards Leleque. This is the site of the cabin of Butch Cassidy, who fled incognito to this isolated area at the start of the twentieth century with his partner, the Sundance Kid, who also lived here for a short while with his beautiful gangster moll, Etta Place. The buildings were already in a lamentable state of repair when Bruce Chatwin (In Patagonia) visited in the 1970s and were about to collapse when the local authorities finally set about restoration in 2007 – overdoing the job, to some tastes. Still, there is no visitors’ centre, entrance fee, or much to do as such, other than take in the atmosphere, the remoteness, and conjure up the ghosts of the famous outlaws.
Butch Cassidy, Etta Place and the Sundance Kid were fugitives together in the Argentine frontier town of Cholila between the years 1901 and 1906, as attested to by both the Pinkerton Agency and provincial records of the time. Butch and Sundance had begun to grow weary of years of relentless pursuit, and had heard rumours that Argentina had become the new land of opportunity, offering the type of wide-open ranching country they loved, and where they could live free from the ceaseless hounding of Pinkerton agents.
It appears that, at first, the bandidos tried to go straight, even living under their real names – Butch as “George Parker” (an old alias derived from his name at birth, Robert Leroy Parker), and Etta and Sundance as Mr and Mrs Harry Longabaugh – and in this they succeeded, for a while at least. They were always slightly distant from the community and were evidently viewed as somewhat eccentric, yet decent, individuals. Certainly no one ever suspected they had a criminal past.
Various theories are mooted as to why the threesome sold their ranch in such a rush in 1907, but it seems as though the arrival of a Wild Bunch associate, the murderous Harvey “Kid Curry” Logan, following his escape from a Tennessee jail, had something to do with it. The robbery of a bank in Río Gallegos in early 1905 certainly had the hallmarks of a carefully planned Cassidy job, and a spate of robberies along the cordillera in the ensuing years have, with varying degrees of evidence, been attributed to the bandidos norteamericanos.
What happened to Cholila’s outlaws next is a matter of conjecture. Etta returned to the US, putatively because she needed an operation for acute appendicitis, but equally possibly because she was pregnant, as a result of a dalliance with a young Anglo-Irish rancher. The violent deaths of Butch and Sundance were reported in Uruguay, and in several sites across Argentina and Bolivia. The least likely scenario is the one depicted by Paul Newman and Robert Redford in the famous 1969 Oscar-winning film. Bruce Chatwin in his classic In Patagonia proposes that the Sundance Kid was shot by frontier police in Río Pico, south of Esquel. Countless books have been written on the trio, including In Search of Butch Cassidy, by Larry Pointer, and most recently Digging Up Butch and Sundance, by Anne Meadows.
Heading south beyond Cholila you’ll notice a distinct change in the scenery, as the lush pine forests are replaced by drier terrain that is home to the stunted meseta-style vegetation more typical of Patagonia proper. Some 90km south of the Cholila/Leleque turn-off, Esquel, the main town in the area, is a starting point for visits to Parque Nacional Los Alerces, as well as a scattering of Welsh villages of which Trevelin is the most appealing. This is also the stage through which the steam train La Trochita, one of the region’s most enduring attractions, plies its trade.
For a place so close to exuberant Andean forests, Esquel is surprising for the aridity of its setting. Enclosed in a bowl of dusty ochre mountains, it is a stark contrast to Bariloche and El Bolsón. The town itself is pretty drab and uninteresting – most people make the trip to access the nearby Parque Nacional Los Alerces, with the trip on La Trochita as the next biggest attraction; it’s also a popular place to stay for skiing in winter.
A trip on the Old Patagonian Express rates as one of South America’s classic journeys. The steam train puffs, judders and lurches across the arid, rolling steppe of northern Chubut, like a drunk on the well-worn route home, running on a track with a gauge of a mere 75cm. Don’t let Paul Theroux’s disparaging book The Old Patagonian Express put you off: travelling aboard it has an authentic Casey Jones aura and is definitely not something that appeals only to train-spotters. Along the way you’ll see guanacos, rheas, maras and, if you are lucky, condors, as you traverse the estate of Estancia Leleque, owned by Italian clothes magnate Benetton, Argentina’s biggest landowner.
Referred to lovingly in Spanish as La Trochita, from the Spanish for “narrow gauge”, or El Trencito, the route has had an erratic history. It was conceived as a branch line to link Esquel with the main line joining Bariloche to Carmen de Patagones on the Atlantic coast. Construction began in Ingeniero Jacobacci in Río Negro Province in 1922, but it took 23 years to complete the 402km to Esquel. Originally, it was used as a mixed passenger and freight service, carrying consignments of wool, livestock, lumber and fruit from the cordillera region. The locomotives had to contend with snowdrifts in winter, and five derailments occurred between 1945 and 1993, caused by high winds or stray cows on the track. Proving unprofitable, the line was eventually closed in 1993. The Province of Chubut took over the running of the 165km section between Esquel and El Maitén soon afterwards, and La Trochita has matured into a major tourist attraction.
The main Welsh settlement along the Andes (most of the Welsh towns in Patagonia are closer to the ocean), Trevelin is a small, easy-going place that retains a pioneering feel, with several low brick buildings characteristic of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth. Lying 24km south of Esquel, it has beautiful views across the grassy valley to the peaks in the south of Parque Nacional Los Alerces. The town was founded by Welsh settlers from the Chubut Valley following a series of expeditions to this region that began in 1885 with a group led by Colonel Fontana of the Argentine army and John Evans; tre being Welsh for town, velin mill, in reference to the flour mill that was built by the settlers. The town’s Welsh heritage is evoked in the celebration of a minor Eisteddfod (two days in the second week of October), and casas de té, the best one being Nain Maggie, at Perito Moreno 179: the teahouse is named after owner Lucia Underwood’s grandmother, who was born in Trelew, came to Trevelin in 1891 and died in the town ninety years later at the age of 103.
Established in 1937, the huge Parque Nacional Los Alerces in Chubut Province 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”.
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. 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. The transcendental Río Arrayanes drains Lago Verde and a suspension bridge 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.
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.
The most popular excursion in the park is the lake trip (“Safari Lacustre”) to the far end of Lago Menéndez’s northern channel to see El Abuelo (“The Grandfather”, also named El Alerzal), a gigantic alerce 2.2m in diameter, and 57m tall. This magnificent tree is an estimated 2600 years old, making it a sapling when Pythagoras and Confucius taught, but at the end of the nineteenth century it almost became roof shingles: only the fact that settlers deemed its wood rotten inside saved it from the saw. To see it you need to take a boat trip; the earlier sailing crosses Lago Futalaufquen and goes down Río Arrayanes to Puerto Mermoud followed by a thirty-minute walk across the isthmus to meet up with the later sailing at Puerto Chucao. The excursion is guided, but in Spanish only; if you want an English translation, you’ll need to organize a tour from Esquel rather than just turn up at the pier.
On the ninety-minute trip across the pristine blue waters of Lago Menéndez you get fine views of the Cerro Torrecillas glacier, which is receding fast and may last only another seventy years. To get to El Abuelo, a 3km trail takes you through dense Valdivian temperate rainforest (selva valdiviana), a habitat distinguished from the surrounding Patagonian forests by the presence of different layers to the canopy, in addition to the growth of lianas, epiphytes, surface roots and species more commonly found in Chile. Here a mass of vegetation is engaged in the eternal struggle of the jungle: height equals light. In addition to the alerces, look out for fuchsia bushes and arrayanes. Despite its name Lago Cisne is no longer home to any Black-necked swans; they were wiped out by mink.
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. 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 Futalaufquen in the Parque Nacional Los Alerces – but even there you’ll need luck on your side. They are also sometimes spotted further south, in Los Glaciares national park or Chile’s Torres del Paine.
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.
The southern belle of Argentine towns and the northern terminus of the famous Ruta de los Siete Lagos, San Martín de los Andes is Neuquén Province’s most-visited destination by far and gets very busy indeed in the high midsummer and midwinter seasons. Nestled between mountains on the eastern shores of jewel-like Lago Lácar, the relaxing resort of chalets and generally low-key architecture is an excellent base for exploring much of Parque Nacional Lanín. There’s a sandy, if often windy, beach on the lake’s shores, and in spring, the introduced broom (retama) daubs the scenery on the approach roads a sunny yellow. Expansion has been rapid, but – with the exception of the hideous derelict Hotel Sol de los Andes that overlooks town – by no means uncontrolled. Whereas the larger rival resort of Bariloche caters to the young party crowd, San Martín attracts a more sedate type of small-town tourism, aimed at families and professionals rather than students and backpackers. El Trabún (meaning the “Union of the Peoples”) is the main annual festival, held in early December on the Plaza San Martín. Local and Chilean musicians hold concerts (predominantly folklore), and mighty bonfires are lit at the corners of the square to prepare delicious asados of lamb and goat.
Set in a dry, hilly area of the steppe at the foot of the Andes to the northeast of San Martín, Junín de los Andes is aptly named – Junín means “grassland” in the Aymara language. It’s a relaxed town popular with fishermen, largely owing to the rivers in the region that teem with trout. Though not as aesthetically attractive as its bigger neighbour, San Martín de los Andes, Junín lacks the trappings of a tourist town and the high prices that generally accompany them. It is also better placed for making trips to the central sector of Parque Nacional Lanín, especially if you plan to climb Volcán Lanín itself, or to explore the Lago Huechulafquen area. A good time to visit is mid-February, when the Fiesta del Puestero, with gaucho events, folklore music in the evenings, artesanía and asados, takes place.
The few sites of interest in Junín are all within a couple of blocks of Plaza San Martín, the pleasant main square that is the hub of the town’s activity. The Paseo Artesanal on the east side of the square is a cluster of boutiques selling a selection of crafts, among which Mapuche weavings figure heavily. More Mapuche artefacts and some dinosaur bones can be seen at the tiny Museo Mapuche at Ginés Ponte and Avenida Rosas.
Calling themselves the people (che) of the earth (Mapu), the Mapuche were, before the arrival of the Spanish in the sixteenth century, a loose confederation of tribal groups who lived exclusively on the Chilean side of the cordillera. The aspiring conquistadors knew them as Araucanos, and so feared their reputation as indomitable and resourceful warriors that they abandoned attempts to subjugate them and opted instead for a policy of containment. Encroachments into Araucania sparked a series of Mapuche migrations eastwards into territory that is now Argentina, and they soon became the dominant force in the whole region, their cultural and linguistic influence spreading far beyond their territories.
By the eighteenth century, four major Mapuche tribes had established territories in Argentina: the Picunche, or “the people of the north”, who lived near the arid cordillera in the far north of Neuquén; the Pehuenche, or “the people of the monkey puzzle trees”, dominant in the central cordillera; the Huilliche, or “the people of the south” of the southern cordillera region based around Lago Nahuel Huapi; and the Puelche, or “the people of the east”, who inhabited the river valleys of the steppe. These groups spoke different dialects of Mapudungun, a tongue that belongs to the Arawak group of languages. Lifestyles were based around nomadic hunter-gathering, rearing livestock and the cultivation of small plots around settlements of rucas (family homes that were thatched, usually with reeds). Communities were headed by a lonco, or cacique, but the “medicine-men”, or machis, also played an influential role.
The imposing, alpine-style tower of the Santuario de la Beata Laura Vicuña, also called by its old name of the Iglesia Nuestra Señora de las Nieves, is splendid in its simplicity. Dedicated to the beatified Laura Vicuña, it rates as the most refreshingly original church in southern Argentina. Its airy, sky-blue interior is suffused with light, and its clean-cut lines are tastefully complemented by the bold use of panels of high-quality Mapuche weavings, with strong geometric designs and natural colours. Laura Vicuña, born in Santiago de Chile in 1891, studied in Junín and died here, aged just 13, in 1904. As a rather macabre touch, one of her vertebrae resides in an urn at the entrance to the sanctuary.
Formed in 1937, Parque Nacional Lanín protects 420 square kilometres of Andean and sub-Andean habitat that ranges from barren, semiarid steppe in the east to patches of temperate Valdivian rainforest pressed up against the Chilean border. To the south, it adjoins its sister park, Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi, while it also shares a boundary with Parque Nacional Villarrica in Chile.
The park’s raison d’être and geographical centrepiece – the cone of Volcán Lanín – rises to 3776m and dominates the entire landscape. Meaning “choked himself to death” in Mapudungun, it is now believed to be extinct. The park’s other trump card is the araucaria, or monkey puzzle tree, which grows as far south as Lago Curruhue Grande, but is especially prevalent in the northern sector of the park, an area known as the Pehuenia region. As well as the araucaria, other tree species endemic to the park are the roble pellí and the raulí, both types of deciduous Nothofagus southern beech. Parque Lanín also protects notable forests of coihue and, in the drier areas, cypress. Flowers such as the arvejilla purple sweet pea and the introduced lupin abound in spring, as does the flame-red notro bush. Fuchsia bushes grow in some of the wetter regions.
As for fauna, the park is home to a population of huemules, a shy and rare deer. Pudú, the tiny native deer, and pumas are present, but rarely seen: you’re more likely to glimpse a coypu, a grey fox or two species introduced for hunting a century ago, the wild boar and the red deer, which roam the semiarid steppes and hills of the east of the park. Birdwatchers will want to keep an eye out for the active White-throated treerunner, a bizarre bird with an upturned bill adapted for removing beech nuts, while the acrobatic Thorn-tailed rayadito is another regional speciality.
The RP-61 branches west off the RN-40 (ex-RN-234) just north of Junín de los Andes, entering Parque Nacional Lanín and skirting the shores of Lago Huechulafquen. Just 4km from the junction is the Centro de Ecología Aplicada de Neuquén, which undertakes studies of regional fauna and has a trout farm that raises fish for restocking the area’s rivers.
The park’s largest lake, Huechulafquen is an enormous finger of deep blue water extending into the steppe, its northern shores black with volcanic sand. The mouth of the Río Chimehuín, at the lake’s eastern end, is a notable fly-fishing spot.
At the western end of the lake is the settlement and jetty of Puerto Canoa, where you can look up at the fantastic, crevassed south face of Volcán Lanín. Puerto Canoa is the base for treks and boat trips in the area, including a fun boat trip that plies a circuit that includes lakes Huechulafquen, Paimún and Epulafquen, where you’ll see the solidified lava river of Volcán Achen Ñiyeu.
Northwards from Junín, RP-23 runs mostly parallel to the turbulent waters of the Río Aluminé, carving through arid rocky gorges, before continuing on to Lago Aluminé and Villa Pehuenia. The Pehuén region is home to the Circuito Pehuenia and its trio of stunning lakes, and offers a plethora of outdoor experiences – you can choose between mountain biking, rafting and horseriding, or just hike along rewarding trails through beautiful woodland. To the east, parallel with the river valley, lies the Sierra de Catan Lil, a harsh and desiccated range that’s older and higher than the nearby stretch of the Andes.
The area around Villa Pehuenia and Moquehue, northwest of slow-paced Aluminé, is one of the least developed yet most beautiful parts of the Argentine Lake District. This “forgotten corner” of Mapuche communities, wonderful mountain lakes, basalt cliffs and araucaria forests has largely escaped the commercial pressures found further south in the park system, although locals and recent settlers are fast waking up to its potential and tourists are arriving in ever-increasing numbers. However, infrastructure links are still fairly rudimentary, and having your own transport is a boon – otherwise, you’ll need to take a taxi, as there is almost nothing in the way of public transport.
Aluminé itself is a small riverside town with a gentle pace of life. For a week in March or April it celebrates the Fiesta del Pehuén to coincide with the Mapuche harvest of piñones, with displays of horsemanship, music and artesanía. Its main claim to fame, though, is as a summer rafting centre. A branch road heads west from the village to Lago Rucachoroi and (28km away) the guardaparque post.
Central and northern Neuquén Province is an area of desert-like meseta and steppe, home to Argentina’s most important reserves of natural gas and petroleum. Neuquén, the eponymous provincial capital, is a likeable city and a good base for visiting the area’s dinosaur-related attractions: the village of El Chocón has a world-class paleontology exhibit and some truly remarkable dinosaur footprints in situ by the turquoise-hued Embalse Ezequiel Ramos Mexía reservoir, while in Plaza Huincul you can see bones from the largest dinosaur ever discovered, the Argentinosaurus huinculensis. Further north at Lago Barreales you can watch paleontologists in action, while at Rincón de los Sauces, in the extreme north of the province, the world’s first fossilized dinosaur eggs were unearthed. Wine buffs will be more interested in the region’s award-winning wineries a short way north of Neuquén – you can even stay at one and sleep above the cellars.
The RP-7 follows the mighty Río Neuquén northwestwards from Neuquén across alluvial plains whose fertile lands feed the city with all manner of fruit and vegetables, while a series of reservoirs provides it with much needed water. Artificial oases have been created in the desert-like terrain just west of tiny San Patricio del Chañar (or Chañar), 41km from Neuquén, to support some of the country’s newest and finest vineyards, producing highly palatable whites and reds, using grape varieties such as semillon and malbec. A handful of outstanding wineries have sprung up in the region and some can be visited as part of the local Ruta del Vino, or wine route.
The bustling provincial capital of Neuquén sits at the confluence of the rivers Neuquén and Limay, whose waters unite to become the Río Negro. With a population of a quarter of a million or so, this plains metropolis functions as the commercial, industrial and financial centre of the surrounding fruit- and oil-producing region. It’s a surprisingly attractive and friendly place to pass a day or two, with a couple of museums as good as any other in the region. You’ll find everything you need in the microcentro, which comprises the area north of the RN-22, three blocks on either side of the central boulevard.
Since 1988, the area around Neuquén has become a hotbed of dinosaur fever, with paleontologists uncovering fossils of both the largest herbivorous sauropod and the largest carnivorous dinosaur ever found. As you cross the Neuquén environs en route for the sites of discovery it is easy to imagine dinosaurs roaming the stunted plains and pterodactyls launching themselves into the air from the imposing cliff-faces. Getting to the sites by public transport is awkward – if you don’t have your own car, your best bet is to go on a tour from Neuquén. These vary, but generally visit several sites of paleontological interest, some combining with winery stop-offs.
On the banks of the picturesque Embalse Ezequiel Ramos Mexía hydroelectric reservoir, 79km southwest of Neuquén along the RN-237, the little oasis of Villa El Chocón is home to the Museo Ernesto Bachmann where you can see a virtually complete, hundred-million-year-old skeleton of Giganotosaurus carolinii, discovered 18km away in 1993. This fearsome creature puts even Tyrannosaurus rex in the shade: it measured a colossal 13m long (its skull alone accounting for 1.8m), stood 4.7m tall and weighed an estimated eight tonnes.
Three kilometres further south along the RN-237, a left turn-off leads another 2km down to the shores of Embalse Ezequiel Ramos Mexía. Here, at the northwest corner of the lake, is the Parque Cretácico, where you’ll find some huge, astonishingly well-preserved dinosaur footprints. Not realizing what they were, fishermen once used them as barbecue pits. The footprints resemble those of a giant rhea, but were probably left by an iguanadon – a 10m-long herbivore – or some kind of bipedal carnivore. Other kidney-shaped prints are of four-footed sauropods, and smaller prints were probably left by 3m-long theropods.
Plaza Huincul, just over 110km west of Neuquén along the RN-22, is where the region’s petroleum reserves were discovered in 1918. Memorabilia from those pioneering days is displayed at the Museo Carmen Funes on the main street, though you’ll find it impossible to concentrate on petroleum with the full-size reconstruction of Argentinosaurus huinculensis looming in the hangar next door. Walking between the legs of this beast – 40m long, 18m high and weighing 100 tonnes – is a bit like walking under a jumbo jet. The only fossils of this giant beast that have been found are the pelvis, tibia, sacrum and some vertebrae – the reconstruction of the rest is based on educated guesswork.
Heading northwest from Neuquén 90km along the RP-51 or the RP-7 brings you to the shores of Embalse Cerros Colorados, where you can watch paleontologists at work on the “Dino Project” at Lago Barreales. Considered a “complete ecosystem of the Mesozoic era”, the project, overseen by the University of Comahue, gives you the chance to help with the excavation. The most important finds are displayed at the on-site museum.
Further afield, 250km northwest of Neuquén along the RP-8, the isolated town of Rincón de los Sauces is home to the Museo Argentino Urquiza, whose collection features the only known fossils of a titanosaurus, including an almost complete specimen. There is also a set of fossilized titanosaur eggs from nearby Auca Mahuida: the first set of dinosaur eggs ever to be found, they are approximately 14cm in diameter and have thin, porous shells through which the embryonic dinosaurs are thought to have breathed.