In northern Patagonia, Frank Rose explores the waterfalls, forests, parks, and many, many lakes of alpine Argentina.
Max Kim Bee Land of Lakes
| Credit: 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.

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.

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.

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.

At the end of the trail, in a cabin that looked almost as ancient as the trees around it, was a teahouse. The walls inside were rough-hewn, the tables battered, the large stone fireplace blackened with soot, the windows (improbably enough) hung with faded pink toile de Jouy. Empanadas had been set out on a counter, along with selections of soda and tea. After a while the cook, a tall and sturdy woman, her long black hair streaked with gray, emerged from the kitchen. "Welcome to the forest," she said, a proprietary gleam in her eye. I felt privileged to be there.

Frank Rose is a contributing editor at Wired. His piece on walking in the Loire Valley is featured in Travel + Leisure's Unexpected France (DK Publishing, $25).

When to Go

Argentina's summer (December through February) is mild and sunny.

Getting There

LAN and Aerolineas Argentinas offer nonstop flights to Bariloche from Buenos Aires. Flying time is two hours and 20 minutes.

Where to Stay

Correntoso Lake & River Hotel Great Value Doubles from $221, breakfast included.

El Casco Art Hotel Doubles from $350.

Las Balsas Gourmet Hotel & Spa A chic, rustic lodge on a secluded bay of Lake Nahuel Huapi. Doubles from $435, breakfast included.

Llao Llao Hotel & Resort Doubles from $350.

Where to Eat

El Asador Dinner for two $83.

Correntoso Restaurant Dinner for two $50.

La Reserva Chef Alejandro Marchant offers a sophisticated take on regional cuisine: wild boar prosciutto with sauerkraut, venison robed in honey and balsamic vinegar. Dinner for two $45.