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Patagonia: Argentina’s Lake District

Max Kim Bee Land of Lakes

Photo: Max Kim Bee

Llao Llao to San Martín de los Andes

106 miles

There are two ways to get to San Martín de los Andes, the first decent-size town north of Bariloche. The scenic option, known as the Route of the Seven Lakes, is a celebrated—and largely unpaved—road through the forest. The faster route, which is actually a good 50 miles longer, swings well to the east before looping back to San Martín. This route takes you out of the Andes and into the Patagonian steppes, a semi-arid but constantly changing region of dramatic river valleys, startling rock formations, and high, lonesome buttes. The landscape begins to flatten out as you draw closer to San Martín, yielding views of Mount Lanín's snow-covered volcanic cone—at 12,400 feet the highest peak in Lanín National Park—rising in the distance. Condors ride the air currents overhead. Only in Patagonia would this not be the scenic route.

San Martín is a compact little town nestled between two ridges at the eastern end of Lake Lácar. It's a proper place, the land flat, the streets a perfect grid. Though it lacks views, it has a scruffy and unpretentious charm. Dogs lope aimlessly down the street. Rusted-out Chevys and Renaults rumble past, their mufflers long shot. Rosebushes grow chest-high, blooming with abandon. Front yards are planted with native "monkey-puzzle" trees, their branches forming a perfect cone, their needles green and spiky like thorns. New stone-and-glass storefronts sit next to crumbling wood structures with corrugated tin roofs. At the center of town, near the inevitable Plaza San Martín (named for the general who liberated Argentina from Spain in 1810), sit a couple of banks and a funky hamburguesería. Every second shop sells camping and climbing gear.

The lakefront is several blocks away, the lake itself long and narrow and mostly hidden from view. The only way to orient yourself is to hike to a lookout point above the water. From a side street called Juez del Valle, a random network of trails leads along the lake and up the ridge to a little Mapuche settlement. About halfway up I encountered a half-dozen head of cattle, impressively horned but utterly placid. At a dusty spot where the trails converged was a cabin. Three old women sat on the porch; one of them stood up and asked for a peso. I paid and kept walking, past an unpainted wooden house with a satellite dish on the roof, to the lookout a couple of hundred yards away. It was well worth the charge: to the east, San Martín and the dry, scrubby buttes of the Patagonian steppes; to the west, the blue waters of Lake Lácar stretching out to the peaks along the Chilean border, vertiginous and snowcapped. A condor soared below.

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San Martín to Los Arrayanes National Park

67 miles

The Route of the Seven Lakes traces the opposite bank for a while, then turns abruptly to follow an upland valley, misty and green and home to grazing sheep. The pastures give it a domesticated air, though there's barely a structure to be seen. As I turned in to the national park, however, the coihues and cypress closed in. I came to Lake Machónico, a tiny sliver of water off to the right; with Lake Hermoso, bigger but almost hidden in the forest; and then, in quick succession, Lake Falkner on the left and Lake Villarino on the right, flashing silver in the sunlight against the dense, deep green. A few miles on, the pavement gives out; suddenly I was going a lot slower, not cruising the landscape but in it. A turnoff leads to Lake Traful and the vast Rancho La Primavera, owned by Ted Turner. The road skirts Lake Correntoso, icy and brooding beneath a mountain wall, then delves back into the forest before ending at Lake Espejo and the highway to Chile.

Turning left toward Bariloche, I soon came to Villa La Angostura, one of several settlements developed in the 30's to facilitate tourism by Ezequiel Bustillo's National Parks Service. In the town, I stopped at the Correntoso Lake & River Hotel, one of several hotels on a bluff above Lake Nahuel Huapi and the short, surging river that pours into it from Lake Correntoso. A pioneering Italian entrepreneur established a sawmill here a century ago, then built a cabin to house fly fishermen who came by seaplane to test themselves against the trout. Fishermen still come, though today the hotel offers an herbal hammam and a restaurant that serves such dishes as ceviche of trout with citrus foam. Over a bottle of intensely dark and fruity Escorihuela Gascón Malbec, I watched the weather close in over Lake Nahuel Huapi, lofty clouds gathering above the towering peaks, the palette of uncanny deep greens and blues fading to steely gray in the waning light. Far below, a lone fisherman stood hip-deep in the water, casting for trout. He was still there when darkness fell.

La Angostura gets its name (which means "narrow") from the slender neck of land connecting the village to the Quetrihué Peninsula, seven square miles that constitute Los Arrayanes National Park. The park, established to protect a 50-acre grove of rare arrayán trees, is accessible only on foot, by bicycle, or by boat. In the morning I hiked for three hours through a coihue forest, past delicate fuchsia bushes, blue lupine meadows, and wandering cattle, before reaching a grove of arrayán—the only one of its kind in the world. It was like entering a cinnamon field. The reddish-brown trees, some well over 200 years old, have twisted trunks and grow intertwined. After the extravagant grandeur of Lanín and Nahuel Huapi, the grove seemed exquisitely fragile and light.

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