From the first time I heard about the Route of the Seven Lakes, the road that cuts through the southern Andes’ spectacular ski country and curves around seven lakes, I had been itching to drive it. After about 20 years of bureaucratic delays, this 120-mile-long section of National Route 40 was finally fully paved last June, and is now open to vehicles other than 4 x 4s—including motorcycles. The idea of a February motorbike trip through Patagonia’s dramatic scenery, scheduled to take advantage of the Southern Hemisphere summer, enticed a group of nine friends—ranging from those who had never been on a motorcycle to an enthusiast who regularly flies with his helmet as a carry-on—from Buenos Aires, Honduras, Ireland, and the U.S. We began referring to ourselves as a motorcycle gang, though only two of us had any real experience. It was my first time on a bike, but I’d spent four years navigating Saigon traffic on a scooter and was confident I’d be able to cope. That turned out to be (mostly) true.
Day 1: Taking Flight
From Buenos Aires, we flew south to San Carlos de Bariloche, which in winter becomes a ski and snowboarding mecca, on the edge of Lake Nahuel Huapi. Here we met up with Carlos Legaria and Patricia Schneider, an accommodating couple whose tour-outfitting business, Enduro Austral, provided us with bikes, helmets, jackets, and gloves—and also performed the very necessary service of following us with a truck and trailer in case of disaster. After an hour practicing gear shifts and braking, we hit the road: slow and wobbling, but moving steadily, our six bikes cruised out of town and toward the Route of the Seven Lakes.
Under a bright blue sky, we rode down to the stony banks of Nahuel Huapi. It was sunny, but not warm; Argentine travelers lay on the shore wearing bikinis and woolly hats. From here, we began the 50-mile drive around the lake, a stretch of highway flanked by cypresses, pines, and native coigue trees. Each time we stopped for views, photos, and a respite for our nerves, Patricia pulled out a thermos of hot water and a cup of yerba maté, the fuel of the Río de la Plata region. “Oh, look, a condor,” someone said, as we stared hard at the bird in the distance. It would become a condor definitively as the story was retold, although it was too far away to see more than an outline. We promptly named our group “The Flight of the Condors.
We recharged with espressos on the shore of Manzano Bay, at a resort that reminded us of Kellerman’s in Dirty Dancing—with teens jumping off a dock into the water—then continued toward Villa (pronounced vee-sha, in the Argentine way) La Angostura, where we gratefully dismounted the bikes in the parking lot of El Mercado. This new, multipurpose complex combines clean and airy rental apartments with restaurants, bars, and even a small ice-skating rink. The town's main street was filled with kitschy log-cabin-style shops selling handmade chocolates. Over dinner at Nicoletto, the other beginner bikers and I were ecstatic at having made it through the first day without injury, laughingly throwing around clichéd terms like “need for speed” and “open ’er up.” The experienced drivers refrained from rolling their eyes, instead turning their attention to the heaping plates of the homemade pasta that is one of the best legacies of Italian migration to Argentina.
Day 2: To the Shores
As we set off in the morning, heading north, I felt a little more confident on the bike. Turning onto the route, I gasped inside my helmet. In front of me was a lake with incredibly clear water stirred into small whitecaps by the wind, backed by seemingly endless mountains. It was all I could do to keep my eyes on the road. After an hour or so, we detoured onto a dirt path covered in ashy dust left over from the eruption of the Puyehue- Cordón Caulle Volcano in Chile five years ago. White-knuckling the handlebars, especially on the downhill sections where it seemed like the bike might skid and crash at any moment, it was hard to appreciate the views. But our arrival at Lake Traful made it worth it (plus the satisfaction of Carlos’s telling me that that was the final part of my motorbike training). The edges of this 30-square-mile lake are a stunning turquoise that in Argentina actually has a color named after it, azul Traful. We paused for lunch, all 11 of us crowded around a wooden table, above the lake and passed the time talking to a small boy who was fishing, unsuccessfully but with great enthusiasm. The route back to the highway was populated with people camping along the rocky shores of the lake, and the smell of lunchtime asados (barbecues) mixed with the pine scent in the air.
More assertive now that we’d managed some off-road driving, we sped up, pausing only for the most spectacular of views. Hitchhikers looking for lifts to the border lined the sides of the route, holding signs that read frontera or simply chile. We passed industrious cyclists, puffing their way up the hills with their sleeping mats strapped to their backs. They gamely waved at us, and we waved back, full of the smugness that superior technology brings.
With the knowledge that we were less than six miles from San Martín de los Andes, the northernmost point of our trip and the end of the route, we made an early evening stop at Paihuen, a wine bar with a deck overlooking Lake Lácar, where boats maneuvered through the water, so far below us they looked like bathtub toys. We permitted ourselves a glass of Torrontes before, muscles aching, we rode the bikes into San Martín. After checking in at Cabañas Nonthue, a collection of simple wooden cabins tailor-made for the ski set, we took a quick, much-needed nap. Dinner was at El Regional, a ski-lodge-inspired restaurant with chandeliers fashioned from antlers that serves excellent Patagonian specialities such as venison in a red-wine ragoût.
Day 3: A Welcome Diversion
Shaking off the effects of the previous night’s meal, we reluctantly hit the road for our return trip the next morning, making a spontaneous decision to detour down an unpaved road to the banks of Lake Meliquina. Families were kayaking on the lake, which glittered dark blue in the sunshine. For lunch we chose a restaurant named Refugio Lago Meliquina, a wood-beamed place where smiling young women in sundresses served us a small plate of smoked cheese, olives, and strips of deer jerky, then a sizzling dish of perfectly cooked fresh trout and vegetables, along with frosty mugs of house-brewed beer. When a wrinkled gaucho pulled up on a horse and strolled in, shaking all of our hands and looking, from his bowlegs to his boots to his neckerchief, as if he’d walked straight out of a Florencio Molina Campos painting of the Pampas, it was almost too much.
As we rode back to Bariloche later that evening, an enormous moon rose over the landscape, which had gradually become a dusty brown and looked from the inside of our helmets like the surface of Mars. We pulled into town in the dark, detaching ourselves from our bikes with feelings of relief that we’d made it, and regret that there wasn’t more to come. Forgoing showers, we went directly to El Boliche de Alberto, a long-established parrilla (steak house) where we ordered 17-ounce portions of bife de chorizo steak and several bottles of Malbec. Toasting our lack of accidents with a blithe disregard for the fact that this was due more to luck than to skill, we agreed to plan our next trip soon. The Condors, such as they were, would fly again.
Patagonian Pit Stops
San Carlos de Bariloche
El Boliche de Alberto:The bigenough-for-two portions of grilled Argentinean beef here are textbook-perfect. Entrées $10–$18.
Villa La Angostura
El Mercado: A shopping and dining complex with light-filled apartments.
Nicoletto:Eggplant ravioli and troutstuffed sorrentinos are the dishes to order here, where reservations are a must. 165 Blvd. Pascotto; 54-294- 449-5619; entrées $9–$12.
San Martín de los Andes
Cabañas Nonthue: These basic but comfortable wooden cabins sleep up to eight and are a great value.Doubles from $58.
El Regional: A restaurant with seamless service, a good wine list, and Patagonian dishes. Entrées $15–$17.
Paihuen Wine Bar: The lake views are reason enough to make the journey from town.
Refugio Lago Meliquina: The small plates at this 40-year-old spot pair well with beer brewed on site. 54-297-242-2997; entrées $7–$25.
Enduro Austral, a family-run operation, leads excursions in Argentina and Chile. Four-day tours from $3,000 per person.