This massive protected area, mainly composed of mountains, rivers, and lakes, is similar to Parque Nahuel Huapi 300 kilometers north at Bariloche, but is much more isolated, and subsequently, undeveloped. This is usually a good thing, as undeveloped means pristine, as in it’s original, wilder state. Compared to popular national parks in the US such as Yosemite or Yellowstone, Los Alerces will seem downright empty. Here it also means that more effort is required to visit the area, as public transport is seriously lacking. So, the ideal, and virtually only way to get around this park is to rent a vehicle in Esquel, 52 km away.
Esquel is an orderly, clean, and growing town of 35,000, surrounded by mountains where fresh snow fell in mid December, almost the beginning of summer. Although it’s starting to attract big name sports stores like Salomon and North Face, it has a small town vibe where everybody knows everybody and folks are friendly. It’s the gateway to Los Alerces Park, but a shuttle bus hails visitors up the hills and to the entrance gate just twice a day. The park headquarters are here, in a picturesque hamlet named Villa Futualufquen, where basic provisions and supplies for camping and fishing are available. And it’s fishing that draws most visitors.
At the south entrance to Parque Los Alerces National Park, Chubut, Argentina
The trout are legendary, and numerous, and there’s lots more to spend precious time on, like hiking, and just gliding on the mesmerizing water. The landscape is extraordinary, with majestic snowcapped peaks and verdant forests climbing straight up from the striking blue lakes. Of which there are three principals; Rivadavia, Menendez, and Futalaufquen, which combined cover 30,000 of the parks’ 640,000 total acres. This is more than double the size of Rocky Mountain NP in Colorado, but the western two thirds of Los Alerces is closed to all visitors, for scientific and conservation purposes. That leaves a heap of territory for visitors to explore, and the features are many, including millions of gigantic Coihue and Alerces trees. These Andes peaks were sculpted by glaciers, with a couple still here, of which Torrecillos can be visited by boat.
The Torrecillos Glacier above Lake Menendez in Los Alerces
What makes this park special, besides all the azure water, is the same thing that makes it challenging, the lack of roads and development. So the wilderness is close, and not overrun with conveniences and civilization. Pumas roam this place, there is no livestock grazing, and the sound of any motor, car, boat, or plane, stands out like a sore thumb. The refreshing effect of this absence of noise can’t be overstated, and for any city dweller, time in this environment is therapeutic.
Another exceptional attribute are the trees, limitless and distinct, with the most dramatic being the Coihue, a massive water lover that can reach 50 meters in height and 2 meters in diameter. These beauties dominate the landscape here and are prized for its high quality wood, used for buildings and furniture. Another lovely local is the Arrayanes, with very distinctive smooth orange bark and always found close to the water. Finally, the very long living Alerces, after which this park is named, is a giant member of the Cypress family, reaching a height of 70 meters, a width of 4, and an age of 3000 years. After centuries of heavy logging, it is now protected throughout it’s range in Argentina and Chile.
Trevelin is a tidy little town with some serious trees
There are a number of private guest lodges along the shore of Lago Futalaufquen, some quite luxurious, including the grand Hosteria Futalaufquen, located at the end of the road, 4 km north of the villa of the same name. One of the peculiarities of the park is how brief the high summer season is, basically just over a month between Christmas and the end of January. The rest of the year, people are very sparse, prices are low, and many places are shuttered until the next season. As long as the weather is decent, probably through April, this would be an excellent time to visit.
The visitor center in Trevelin, famous for Welsh style afternoon tea meals
An alluring small town just 20 km away is Trevelin, a historic Welsh settlement that has retained heaps of charm. It has a lovely plaza in the center of town, along with a fine information center close to the bus stop from Esquel. The town is famed for it’s 2 main teahouses, where they really get into afternoon tea, along with lots of sweet pastries and such, a terrific place to carbo load. It’s worth a few hours wandering around and is also close to Los Alerces. Having access to a boat here is a major advantage in terms of mobility and recreation, not just for fishing, which is truly world class, but to get close to the exceptional places.
These include the Torrecillas glacier, looking like it’s ready to drop into Lago Menendez, and sapphire blue Rio Arrayanes. This river connects the aptly named Lago Verde with Lago Menendez, and offers a stroll not to be missed. The main, and really only road that traverses the park is Route 71, which runs along the east side of Lago Futalaufquen from the south park entrance all the way north to the north entrance at Cholila, 40 miles north. All of the development in the park is situated off this smooth gravel road, and it accesses all of the territory currently open to visitors. Hitchhiking is possible, but out of high season traffic volume is meager, so having wheels is much more efficient in terms of time.
The dream like Rio Arrayanes
To come all the way to Los Alerces justifies at least a few days stay, whether that is camping in one of the private areas on the shore of Lago Futulaufquen, or more lux digs at one of the lodges scattered along Route 71. Since development is sparse, distances between commercial businesses are extended, so being somewhat self reliant is a big advantage. Having fishing gear and knowing how to use it is also a big plus, and along with a kayak, several grand days can be spent paddling, catching, and gaping at the staggering landscape. The maintained hiking trails are few, with the Daggett Lake trail closed part way due to damage from one of the two large fires that have burned on the mountains above the villa recently. Bush whacking off the trail is possible in places, should only be attempted by experienced hikers, but the opportunities to find pure, unspoiled wilderness are countless. Crystalline streams are everywhere, and following one up to it’s source is almost always time well spent.
To make the most of a short visit to this little known, under-utilized, and downright spectacular national park, travel to San Carlos de Bariloche, and rent a vehicle. Drive the super scenic highway south through alluring El Bolson to Esquel, and stock up on supplies. These could include fishing gear, food and drink, clothing and rain gear, but absolutely a full tank of gas, as there is none in the park. After this, point the car up the hill, drive slowly, and take in the sights. A couple of preliminary stops should include the park entrance offices in Villa Futalaufquen, and the very impressive Hosteria Futulaufquen 4 km up the dead end road. Whether staying here or not, this grand lodge and cabins is worth looking and walking around. It is absolutely lux, and pricey, but I stayed here low season on a pay 2 get 3 nights promo, and it was worth every cent on a splurge. They also have several cabins which would be ideal for families or large groups.
Afterwards, drive north up Route 71 alongside the huge lake towards Rio Arrayanes and Puerto Chucao, where tourist boats leave for circuits that include a close look at the Torrecillas glacier on the perpetually snowcapped mountain across Lake Menendez. The short walk along the river here is dazzling, and takes only an hour, but several could be passed here with no problem. Then, a quick drive up the route to another short trail to an overlook above Lago Verde, whose color is in sharp contrast to the bright blue water everywhere else. There are not many facilities along this stretch, so bathroom breaks should be planned with care. Road traffic is likewise at a minimum, and there are plenty of places to pull over and just wander in this glorious landscape. The route continues north to the park’s north entrance at Cholila, famous for being the hangout for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid when they were on the run from the authorities back in the day.
There are a couple of private lodges between Rio Arrayanes and Cholila, but not much else, and solitude and wild country like this is rare and, literally, priceless. Self reliant campers with energy and endurance will find this area astounding, with very little human intrusion, a thankful contrast to the much more popular parks to the north and south. At least three days should be allotted to this assignment, but a week here might not be time enough. For over civilized urban dwellers, it could be just the cure needed to restore appreciation for the natural wonder of our world.