Epic Adventures

Lanín Volcano – my favourite trek in the Argentine Lake district

I first visited San Martín de los Andes in the Argentinean Lake District 15 years ago when I backpacked around Patagonia and had much longer hair than I do today. When I finally returned recently for a trekking adventure, I was overjoyed to find that not a lot seemed to have changed in the intervening years.

San Martín (or ‘SanMar’ as the locals call it) has the relaxed air of a small alpine village, with charming wooden architecture stretching away from the shores of Lake Lacar. Unlike in the nearby city of Bariloche, strict building codes have prevented the growth of urban sprawl here, so you’re instantly swept away by the immensity and pureness of the mountain vistas that are all around.

Everything here seems geared towards to life outdoors. You see people doing their grocery shopping on mountain bike, passed by 4×4 vehicles loaded with kayaks and ready to head out into the wilds for a few hours of outdoor fun and games. This is the adventure sports capital of Argentina – I couldn’t think of a better place to lace up my hiking boots.

Destination volcano

My aim was to experience Lanín National Park by doing a four-day wilderness trek ending at its eponymous volcano. This park is less well-known than nearby Nahuel Huapi National Park, but Lanín’s fabulously conical peak, topped with a beautiful dollop of snow, had been calling me ever since I first glanced at it in my long-haired days.

Skyline view in Lanin National Park in Argentin with wooded hills and the snow-capped cone of Lanin volcano on the horizon
The trek’s focus: Lanín volcano

I met up with my guide Julian in our trekking partner’s office in San Martín. His huge smile and fuzzy beard oozed a rugged sort of credibility that he backed up by telling me about the avalanche awareness courses he runs for the region’s ski instructors. The anecdotes he shared throughout the trek about his adventures up and down the length of the Andes only reassured me further that I was in the best hands possible.

Joining a small group of fellow trekkers, we had the chance to go over our itinerary in detail, as Julian pointed out our route on a big map sprawled out over the table, as well as discussing what gear we’d need to take and what to expect.

Our guide Julian points the way

We were told to expect varied terrain and topography, from mountains and scree to dense forest and river crossings where we’d get our feet wet. The route we were taking meant that we probably wouldn’t see many other hikers on the trails, which added to the feeling of being somewhere truly remote, even though we’d never be anywhere more than a few hours hike from an access road.

Our trek was due to start the following morning, and the weather forecast was perfect. To get us in the mood, Julian showed us some photos on his laptop. The colours looked like they’d been tweaked in Photoshop to make them more vivid, from the rich green vegetation and the rusty hues of the volcanic rocks to the endless blue of the Patagonian sky. Once we got walking however, we were reminded that nature’s palette is always more spectacular than any digital filter.

The next morning, a a short boat ride just north of San Martín took us to the trailhead at the mouth of the Auquinco valley. Its wide and gentle slopes gave us the opportunity to ease ourselves in the trek, making mental adjustments as the tourist boats on the lake receded into the distance and the trail ahead grew correspondingly thinner. We were really getting off the beaten track. ‘This is Patagonia!’ I remember smiling to myself.

The forests and rivers of Lanin National Park in Argentina
Streams and forests on the trail to Lanín volcano

As the day warmed up there were plenty of opportunities to dip our water bottles and cool our feet in the crystal streams than were braided throughout the valley. Julian told us that if we came back in winter we could do this route again on skis.

We spent our first night wild camping on a flat grassy area next to one of the streams. Auquinco roughly translates as the sound of the river, so it was particularly lovely to settle in for the night with the gentle burbling of the water in the background.

Hiking on volcanic soil in the Aquinco Valley, Lanin National Park Argentina
Ancient volcanic landscapes at the head of the Aquinco Valley

After packing-up in the morning, we continued north along the ever-rising floor. As we slowly gained altitude the trees began to thin out and the landscape became narrower and rockier. Even so, none of us were prepared for the sudden change as we reached the pass at the top of the valley. We were suddenly thrust into a dry lunar landscape, with strange unearthly rocks speaking to the desolation of ancient volcanic activity.

For me, this second day was the most rewarding of the trek. We saw just two other hikers the whole day and put our backpacks aside for bonus deviation to hike up the summit of the long dead Achen Ñiyeu volcano.

Crossing the pass at the head of the Aquinco Valley

It was a short steep climb but the rewards from the summit were magical. In one direction we could see Lanín towering over everything, while turning to face the opposite way we could look across the border into Chile, barely a stone’s throw away. It truly felt like the heart of the Andes.

David surveys the views over the heart of the national park

The wind picked-up as we climbed such an exposed summit and I remember it sleeting slightly on our faces, so after drinking in the views we headed back down by running and sliding our way down the dusty scree. Our boots took a hit but our souls were lifted by this energy-boosting detour.

The second night was spent at Laguna Verde campsite, which as its name suggests is on the shore of an impossibly pretty lake fringed with forest. The set up here was a little comfier than the night before, with dome tents set up for us ahead of our arrival complete with camp beds to fall into at bed time. But not before we’d been treated to a splendid feast, with an asado-style barbeque of cuts of lean beef, juicy pork strips and chorizo sausage. The vegetarians were equally well-catered for with grilled veggies and some fantastic cheeses (Argentina’s dairy produce is one of the country’s best-kept secrets). After dinner we drank Malbec and shared stories around the campfire until the day’s exertions finally caught up with us. After a good day’s hiking, this felt like camping at its rustic best.

Our lakeside campsite at Laguna Verde

Day three offered flatter terrain to walk through, as we bid farewell to the higher mountain terrain and got back into dense forested trails. The dominant tree here is the Auracaria, or monkey puzzle tree (Pehuén to the indigenous Mapuche people). These spiky pine trees with their weirdly curving branches coexisted with the dinosaur and can make you feel like your walking through Jurassic Park. Today, they’re home to much smaller beasts – a tiny and shy marsupial possum called the Monito del Monte, though you’d need the patience of a wildlife filmmaker to spot one.

A hiker with backpack hugging an enormous araucaria tree in Lanin National Park Argentina
Getting to know the araucaria trees

This was another day of crisscrossing more streams and creek. You’re never far from water here (this is Argentina’s Lake District, after all), and I loved getting my feet wet on the trail. I was certainly happy to have worn my sturdy trail running shoes instead of my thick leather hiking boots.

Our last night was another ‘almost glamping’ supported camp, this time on the beach at Lago Paimun. Our support vehicle had cunningly delivered us a cooler of icy beers to enjoy as a sundowner: the perfect end to the day. The following sunrise, watching the lake slowly come to life was almost as magical.

The hike closed off on the final day with a quick hop by boat to the northern side of the lake to a point where we could step foot on the slopes of Lanín itself, our beacon for the past three days. The trail led gentle uphill, winding in and out of thickets of beech and araucaria. Eventually the trail opened onto a wide clearing where we had the opportunity to hike steeper, rockier terrain to a viewpoint below the hanging glacier on Lanín’s southern face.

The view up to the hanging glaciers and snow-capped peak of Lanine Volcano in Argentin
Our reward: the view from the slopes of Lanín volcano

From here we stopped in windy silence and took in not only the volcano, so perfectly shaped as if drawn by a child, but the vast view south from where we had started together days ago. Time had been a premium on this trip so I hadn’t been able to squeeze in the extra day to summit the volcano, but I resolved that at least this time I wouldn’t leave it another 15 years to return.

If you want to hit the trekking trail in Argentina’s Lake District, Swoop Patagonia are the experts to talk to. Get in touch today and let us help you plan your hiking adventure.

David Hilton

David Hilton

Product & Partnerships Manager

Swoop’s Patagonia Product & Partnerships Manager, David, has a hoard of travel knowledge, gleaned from working as a trip leader throughout Latin America and Antarctica. He grew up visiting family in Argentina and lived in Buenos Aires for years, so Patagonia has always been a region very close to his heart.