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Patagonia: Argentina’s Lake District

Max Kim Bee Land of Lakes

Photo: Max Kim Bee

Every country should have a mountain retreat. Argentina's is its Lake District, encompassing thousands of square miles of pine-covered northwestern Patagonia. There are more exotic destinations, like Tierra del Fuego or the glaciers of the country's extreme south, but none that are so utterly refreshing to behold and easily accessible. Arriving at San Carlos de Bariloche, the region's only significant city, after a packed two-hour flight from Buenos Aires, I felt a sense of relief. I'd left 11.5 million people sweltering in the capital's summer heat, and here, just beyond baggage claim, pristine lakes, rugged forests, and snowy peaks awaited.

Bariloche to Llao Llao

21 miles

Because I was staying at the Llao Llao Hotel & Resort, one of Argentina's premier accommodations, I was ushered into a special arrivals lounge whose rough-hewn style suggested a 1940's Hollywood movie set. Soon I was speeding through Bariloche, heading toward a vista so surreal it could have been painted by Magritte—towering mountains of sheer granite crowned by glistening snow. Did one peak really look like an eagle's head?The road wound past luxe vacation homes hidden in the woods along Lake Nahuel Huapi, the biggest of the region's lakes, its cobalt blue waters whipped to a froth by the Andean winds. Then the Llao Llao swung into view—a vast, rustic, neo-Helvetian pile on a hilltop, with Nahuel Huapi on one side and a smaller lake on the other. A little log chapel sat with woods as a backdrop. Roses climbed the rail fence along the driveway.

See all hotels and restaurants in Argentina

The Llao Llao isn't just a resort; it's the centerpiece of the region, the key to the elaborate fantasy that informed the area's development. During the 1930's, Argentina's military government created two contiguous national parks that extend for 160 miles along the rugged Chilean border; the Llao Llao was their capstone. Parks and hotels alike were the brainchildren of Ezequiel and Alejandro Bustillo, brothers who'd fallen under the spell of "el Sur," the vast and trackless Patagonian wilderness that Argentina's army had wrested from the natives just a half-century earlier. Ezequiel was the visionary bureaucrat, head of the National Park Service and central to the creation of its first park, Nahuel Huapi. Alejandro was the architect who transformed these craggy surroundings into stone-and-wood stage sets. In their hands, the Patagonian Andes of the nomadic Mapuche and Tehuelche nations became a romantic Alpine fantasia. Picture a band of gauchos singing "Edelweiss" by the campfire and you've got the general idea.

Certainly the Llao Llao is nothing if not operatic. Its steeply pitched roofs, massive stone chimneys, and reddish log walls—made from the coihue tree, indigenous to the local Andean forests—are well suited to the overwrought landscape. Inside, the deep-red log paneling is set off by cascading deer-antler chandeliers, chairs upholstered in exotic skins, and enough stuffed birds and fish to form a regional museum of fauna. A grand staircase leads to El Asador, the double-height grill room, where beef and trout and succulent Patagonian lamb are served hot from the coals at tables overlooking the lake. But the real excitement is outdoors. Just beyond the helipad is a dock from which motor launches leave for tours of Lake Nahuel Huapi. To the south a single highway roughly follows the continental divide into Nahuel Huapi National Park, offering access to the mountains that, from here, look so impenetrable.

I traveled this road the next day, turning off the two-lane blacktop at Lake Mascardi onto a narrow gravel road that winds for 30 miles to the base of Mount Tronador, at 11,660 feet the monarch of the park. Mascardi is a narrow lake wedged tightly into the mountains; at its far end, halfway down the gravel road, a series of trails branch into the wild. You can follow these for days, trekking from valley to crest and back again, sleeping in crude shelters or pitching your own tent. I had something a bit more modest in mind: a short uphill hike to the Cascada de los Césares, a waterfall on a stream that flows into Lake Mascardi from a much smaller lake nestled in a fold about a thousand feet higher.

I found the trail near the turnoff for the Hotel Tronador, a rustic lodge that's been run by the same family since 1929. It had rained every evening for days—soaking downpours borne on dark clouds from the Pacific—but so dense was the black, loamy earth that mud was barely an issue. The trail cut through dense stands of bamboo-like trees on its way up the mountainside. Magnificent coihue trees provided shade from the sun, their tiny green leaves sparkling in horizontal sheaves. I could feel a light breeze on the trail, but overhead the wind whistled through the branches so loudly that I didn't hear the waterfalls until I was almost upon them. Then, suddenly, I was at the edge of a cliff, face-to-face with 230 feet of cascading snowmelt.

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