Known as the Tahoe of South America, and the portal to glorious Patagonia, San Carlos de Bariloche is worth spending a few kick ass days in before continuing on to El Bolson or Villa Angostura. Get a place, drop your stuff, and eat some good nourishment before grabbing a city bus to any of these adventures, except for El Tronador. And get ready to bust out some Espanol Argentina style!
Bariloche is all about peaks, lakes, and lush woods
1. Rent a bike and ride the Circuito Chico, a road loop that covers miles of stunning landscape through dense woods and jaw dropping views with plenty of refreshments along the way. Bike shops on both sides of the road at km 18 will provide wheels, directions, and pointers on where to roll.
2. Rent a kayak or SUP and paddle on that extraordinary lake Nahuel Huapi, full of coves, inlets, and connected to other smaller lakes equally as impressive. Boat shops abound, especially directly on the lake at Playa Bonita, km 8, and playa Serena, Km. 12.
3. Hike around the Llao Llao municipal park through groves of giants, with loads of serene places to stop, look, and ponder the spectacle of this sublime forest playground, a short stroll from Km 25.5.
4. Climb the legendary, and imposing, El Tronador, the Thunderer, covered in snow much of the year and a monumental landmark in these parts. This is an adventure for accomplished alpiners and extremists only, and accessed from the end of Highway 82, 50 miles from the center of Bariloche.
In the Southern hemisphere winter of August and September, ski, board, or sled the massive and majestic Cerro Catedral, largest alpine fun area in South America. The views from the top are incomparable and beyond the reach of language. 19 km off the main lake road via bus 55.
6. Hike up to Refugio Frey, a mountain hostel on the slopes of Catedral, and spend the night to wake up in an eye popping mountain wonderland. This can also be day hiked,in order to make it back to town in time for happy hour. The trailhead is on Hwy. 77 at Km 26.8, riding bus 10.
7. If energy level is a bit sketchy, ride the chairlift up Catedral and wander around on top of the Andes for a while. This huge peak is reminiscent of Jackson Hole in Wyoming, with a slew of wicked looking pinnacles and spires that attract rock climbers from all over.
8. Play golf at the ultra scenic, extra challenging, and fun as hell course at the Hotel Llao Llao. Just make sure you bring enough balls…..you’re going to need them. The more open front nine is a fine sidehill warmup for the back side, which features several holes cut into the deep woods, and a superb finishing hole across an inlet of the lake. $45 to walk, and good rental clubs another $40. The pro shop is on the main road beneath the hotel and next door to Puerto Panuelo at Km 25.5.
9. Take a boat ride from Porto Panuelo across the mesmerizing giant lake Nahuel Huapi to visit the fetching village of Villa Angostura, a trout fishing paradise. the islands of Arrayanes trees, Quetrihue , and get hypnotized by miles of smooth blue water and snowcapped peaks.
The orange barked Arrayanes tree loves the water
10. Last but much closer to first, conduct your own craft beer pub crawl, by wandering from one end of Juramento street to the other, stopping and sampling at each of the half dozen pubs. When you reach the end after knocking out your last pint at Stradibar, continue another 50 feet across Salta street to Huacho, acclaimed for virtuoso steaks and lamb. Congratulations, you are now ready for El Bolson!
The last stop on the Juramento pub crawl, Stratibar in Bariloche
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 wildcountry 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.
El Bolson is a serene but legendary river town framed by mountain ranges 2 hours south of San Carlos de Bariloche in northern Patagonia. It’s famous for artesenal beer, hippie art and handicrafts, but its’ tremendous network of mountain refuges draws travelers from all over the world.
13 of these refuge/hostels are scattered in the Andes immediately beneath the dividing border with Chile, although one, the Cajon de Azul, named after the nearby rock chasm, has been closed recently due to an alleged tax dispute. That’s unfortunate, as it’s a real beauty that seems more like a well maintained private farm.
Catarata Escondida, the hidden waterfall, is a spectacular hike
So with an even dozen refugios in service, finding shelter and comfort in the high country is rarely an issue, and most have an area to pitch a tent. If you’d rather sleep inside, a sleeping bag is still key, although extra blankets are usually available, and earplugs just might be handy. Some folks do make strange noises while sleeping, especially when dog tired from hiking all day. or you can just try to drown them out with your own unconscious chorus, which can be risky.
Upstairs in the Retamal Refugio, one of the El Bolson mountain hostels
It’s recommended that anybody bound for the refugios check in first with the office of mountain information in downtown El Bolson. They have excellent maps and advice concerning the bus that provides transport to Wharton, a small settlement where the walking begins. The ultra helpful staff can also make recommendations concerning the refugios themselves, including how many people each can accommodate, and what services they offer. Many, including the two I stayed at, sell excellent pizza, wine, and beer, so sustenance need not be a critical issue. Some have a kitchen for wanderers to prepare their own grub, hostel style, and others will prepare and sell, like a cozy B&B. But having a decent supply of your own snacks is never a bad idea.
The Retamal is a cozy, warm and ultra friendly place
The ride to the trailhead is on the aforementioned bus which leaves the town plaza according to schedule, which is twice a day during the peak summer season. Taxis are also available for a higher fee of course. A check in trailer at the bus stop is where hikers register before hitting the trail, helping keep track of how many people are heading up the trail at any one time.
Take the old one if you want Rio Azul, El Bolson
The actual walking commences with a rough 4wd road that steadily drops 250 meters in a kilometer to the bed of the lovely Rio Azul. Two bridges are crossed before the trail climbs relentlessly for 5 k, recovering that initial 250 plus some. Once leveling out, the trail is serene and soft walking on soil, pine needles and leaves, and the first refugio is reached at La Playita. Situated on the bank of the river, it’s a busy stop on the hiking circuit, and offers beer, food, and lodging for a couple of dozen on mattresses up stairs. The staff is friendly and accommodating, and in the process of expanding the cabin to increase capacity and comfort.
One of a bunch of critters at La Tronconada Refugio on the Rio Azul
Just up the river 20 minutes is a classic Patagonian sketchy looking wooden bridge, which leads to the second refugio, La Tronconada. This shelter couldn’t be much different from La Playita, as it’s situated well above the river on a huge boulder, which serves as the floor for the main part of the cabin. Run by an enterprising couple who seem to be busy doing chores most of the day, this refuge offers just half a dozen or so spaces to sleep upstairs, but a large, well laid out campground with showers down by the river. La Tronconada is an actual farm, with two horses, five sheep, one goat, five hens, one rooster, three cats, and one dog, along with a garden and greenhouse. The homemade pizzas are tasty, the hosts very friendly, and the setting seems years away from civilization. Heading out from here upward, I watched a huge Ringed Kingfisher, with a trademark oversized head and beautiful coloration, perched on a dead branch overlooking the water. Fifteen minutes watching the king of his domain went by like the blink of an eye.
The bridge across the Rio Azul to get to La Tronconada
Here the trail gradually meanders up and away from the glorious blue river, winding through some pristine green woods and crossing the river again before reaching the currently closed, albeit visually impressive Refugio el Cajon. This choice property is well manicured, with fenced in sheep, lots of green grass and fruit trees. It’s reputation as a refuge is good, and hopefully comes back out of retirement soon. A signed trail leads a few hundred meters to one of the most stunning sights on the region: the dark, narrow, and amazing gorge named the Cajon Azul, the blue drawer, with a sturdy but dizzying log bridge spanning the gap 40 meters above the water. Needless to say, it’s worth the side trip, and as much time as can be spared.
Leaving here and continuing upwards, the trail leaves the river and climbs another hundred meters before reaching the large gate at the entrance to El Retamal. This is now the biggest and most full service refuge on this route, with immaculate grounds surrounding a shady camping area and a cluster of log buildings. The staff here is very efficient and friendly,and the indoor accommodations quite comfy, with a menu offering fine wine and beers, along with pizza and plenty of other dishes. A large kitchen is also available for DIY cooking, and the comfort is reflected in the popularity of the place, as it’s a favorite of many. A small crystal creek runs behind the main house, and a gallery of painted rocks lines a path alongside it, something I’ve never seen elsewhere.
Some of the remarkable rock art at Retamal
From this high clearing, the majestic high peaks on both sides are front and center, and severe other high refuges are within hiking distance: La Horqueta, Los Laguitos, and Encanto Blanco. More adventurous ramblers can also make their way on a somewhat sketchier trail to refugios Natacion and Hielo Azul, both highly regarded and a few kilometers to the north. The remaining refuges in the range, Dedo Gordo, Cerro Lindo, Perito Moreno, and Motoco, are more isolated from the blue river group and more suited for one stop journeys. An ultra ambitious hiker could start at the Dona Rosa trailhead, ascend the Arroyo del Teno to Hielo Azul and Natacion, then cross the divide to the Rio Azul group, before tackling the challenging trail to Dedo Gordo and Encanto Blanco. This presents a multi day adventure through eye popping landscape, but is undoubtedly sportier than most will seek.
The mountains above Retamal en the El Bolson Refugio System
The ancient axioms still rule here: don’t take shortcuts, leave any trash, or start any fires. For those who are prepared and fortified, this web of trails will prove to be a rejuvenating experience. Go, Do, and Be.