I follow a winding trail along the slopes, which demands a bit of clambering over slippery rocks. I pick another handful of those juicy blackberries along the path, which constitute my breakfast. At a stream, I strip and lower myself into one of the shallow pools sheltered by rocks. Water of 100º degrees (40 degrees Celsius) flows down my shoulders, which is bliss in the crisp temperatures of dawn.
Around me are twittering birds, chirping cicadas, and crawling insects that are leaving their hiding places to search for food or to warm up in the sunlight that filters through the foliage. Leaves rustle and their coloring betrays the arrival of fall. This little paradise is mine until about ten o’clock, when other hikers start crossing my path. Even then it remains a quiet place; few have discovered this hidden hot spring near Lago Queñi.
In Your Bucket Because…
- The Lake District is accessible, yet has a number of backwoods trails and spots waiting for you to be explored.
- No matter what season, the landscapes are stunning.
- It’s a region for lovers of wilderness camping, fishing, hiking and cycling, and other outdoor adventures.
Exploring the Lake District
The Lake District lies in the Andes, bordering the northern edge of Patagonia, and is shared by Argentina and Chile. It consists of lakes formed by glaciers, swift-running rivers, slumbering volcanoes and snow-clad mountains (as well as deep snow in winter).
To explore the wilderness with some guidance, check out the tour operators in Bariloche, the main town in the Lake District. They offer all kinds of outdoor adventures in the field of horseback riding, rafting, kayaking and fishing.
Having said that, you can easily explore the area by yourself:
- Rent a mountain bike and get a map of Circuito Chico at the tourist information. This 38-mile circuit loops around Bariloche over paved roads.
- Buy a Lonely Planet’s Trekking in the Patagonian Andes and try one or more of their suggested treks.
- Bring your fishing tackle or rent it in Bariloche, and set up camp along a lake or river teeming with fish. Make sure to buy a fishing license (Bariloche, season mid November – mid April).
Mapuche Villages and Primitive Camping
West of San Martín de los Andes (Ruta 48) I come across villages inhabited by indigenous people. A snack vendor explains that nowadays Mapuches no longer depend on raising sheep and goats, but that tourism has become a substantial source of income as well. They rent out rowing boats and canoes, and sell handicrafts.
Farther west, narrow sidetracks peter out deep in the forest (four-wheel-drive required) to primitive camping spots where you can swim, fish and find the above-mentioned hot spring. The road meanders all the way to the Chilean border crossing of Lago Pirihueico. If you want to head into Chile, you’ll have to take a ferry (recommended).
Lake District’s Least Explored Region
The popular 67-mile Ruta 7 Lagos (Route of 7 Lakes, Ruta 234) northwest of Bariloche unquestionably merits a visit, whether by car, motorcycle or arguably the best way: by bicycle.
But, Argentina’s most beautiful as well as least-visited area of the Lake District lies much farther north. Around the lakes north of Junín de los Andes I encounter only gauchos – Argentinean cowboys. They raise their hands in greeting, stop for a chat about the weather or to satisfy their curiosity about what this stranger is doing here.
Unpaved roads west of Ruta 23 meander around Lago Tromen, Lago Quillén, Lago Norquinco, and Lago Aluminé, all offering opportunities for backcountry camping and hiking along icy lakes. The main attraction of Lago Norquinco is trout fishing (buy your fishing license in Junín de los Andes).
One last tip: Sign up for geocaching. This bury-or-find-a-treasure game is fun for kids and adults alike, is free of charge, and a great way to discover some of the region’s little-explored places.
- Bariloche has excellent connections with other Argentinean cities by air as well as by (sleeper) bus. The friendly, easygoing town is a convenient place to stock up on groceries, camping equipment, and to rent a car/motorbike/ bicycle before heading for the wilderness.
- While you’re in Bariloche, take the opportunity to visit the Chocolate Museum or tour the factory.
- In case you depend on public transport: there are regular buses between Bariloche, Junín de los Andes and San Martín de los Andes.
- Remember this is the southern hemisphere. The warmest months are January-February. July-August, by contrast, is the time of the year to return for a proper skiing adventure.