Epic Adventures

What makes the Argentine Lake District such a special destination?

I first visited the Argentine Lake District as a backpacker in 2004. Sitting in a small bar, drinking a Quilmes beer, I missed my flight home to the UK where I was due to begin a Masters degree. Instead, I chose the region’s verdant forests and snowy mountain peaks – and Patagonia’s wide-open spaces for the next step in my education.

Quilmes may no longer be the only beer on sale in Argentina, but this part of northwest Patagonia has remained as beguiling to me as it was nearly 20 years ago. The growth in tourism here suggests I’m not the only one to feel this way. Let me take you on a tour through the region so I can show you why.

What’s in a name?

Lake District isn’t strictly known by that name inside the country. Locals call it ‘Patagonia norte’ or perhaps ‘Los Siete Lagos’ (the Seven Lakes) for the lakes that line the local stretch of the Ruta 40, the epic national highway that stretches the length of the Argentine Andes. These are names that conjure magic in the national psyche. Given the topography of the area it could well be known as ‘Land of the Volcanoes’, as it’s here that the most accessible volcanoes of the entire Andes range – most of them dormant, others thrillingly active. For other Argentines, the region is simply named ‘Bariloche’ for its principal town, which is the starting point for most tours of the lakes.  

The Route of the Seven Lakes

When you fly into Bariloche you can’t help but feel that you’re arriving somewhere that freedom and adventure go hand-in-hand. The views suddenly transition from the seemingly endless dry grassy steppe to the mountains in the most spectacular fashion. You’re suddenly overshadowed by the gothic granite pinnacles of the Catedral piercing the deep blue Patagonian sky, and looking down on a town strung along the shores of a mighty lake. Bariloche’s setting feels like a thing of dreams.

Bariloche, heart of the Argentine Lake District

Wealthy Argentines have been flocking to Bariloche to enjoy the region’s alpine scenery for some 70 years. The so-called ‘Little Switzerland’ isn’t so tiny any more (it’s now home to around 100,000 people), but no matter how much it has grown, wherever you go in Bariloche you’ll  get amazing views of Lake Nahuel Huap, the Andean foothills and the peaks behind them. This is what makes Bariloche so special. As you’d expect for a major tourist destination, there are hotels of every style and budget, although I’d recommend staying away from the crowds of downtown and finding a place along the lake on los kilometros, west of the city towards the mountains. Handily, this is also the terminus for the Cruce Andino, the combined ferry and bus route over the Andes to the Chilean Lake District and the tourist hub of Puerto Varas.

Lakeside hotel views in Bariloche
Lakeside views of Nahuel Huapi from Bariloche

If you visit in December you’ll see crowds of teenagers clapping and chanting as they parade through the town centre as part of their high school graduation trips – generations of Argentines have flocked here for this national rite of passage. They fill Bariloche’s discos at night, then the next day wander like zombies until they can refuel on some of the best chocolate that Latin America has to offer, a local industry that was the gift of post-War Italian immigrants. Many years after my life-altering decision to stay in Patagonia I worked in Bariloche as a tour guide, and delighted in taking my groups into every chocolate shop we could find and getting them to practise their Spanish by asking for a free sample of choc-o-la-te.

For all its sweetness, the great calling of Bariloche has to be the mountains. Few other places in the region allow such quick and easy access to truly mountainous terrain. A short drive you have the Catedral mountain from which several hut-to-hut trails can be taken. Argentina’s first mountain club was founded here in Bariloche and there is an excellent network of mountain huts much as you’d find the European Alps, where a keeper will tend to you, prepare rustic mountain grub, and advise you on the local trails. While it’s possible to hike alone, a guide is still recommended, as while you’re close to the city the trails can be tougher than expected, and will offer invaluable help if bad weather comes in.

Views from one of the forest trails around Peuma Hue Lodge near Bariloche

If you prefer a gentler experience, the shorter day-hikes west of Bariloche such as Mt Bellavista or Llao Llao Hill are for my money just as stunning and enjoyable. If you head this way, make sure you pop into one of the many local microbreweries, another local highlight. My favourite is Gilbert, in tiny Colonia Suiza, but there are numerous others such as Manush, Berlina, and the recently inaugurated Patagonia Brewing Co. If hiking is not your thing at all, you can still enjoy the views from Campanario Hill, where a chair lift takes you to the top 400 metres above the lake but with vistas worth a thousand bucks. There’s a small cafe at the top that’s a favourite stop for honeymooners. Try the chocoñac (hot chocolate with cognac) – it’s the same drink that my parents enjoyed when they were newlyweds here more than 40 years ago.

One of my favourite places to stay here is about 20km south of Bariloche at Peuma Hue Lodge, tucked into a landscape that reminds me of the Canadian Rockies. The name means ‘Place of Dreams’ in the indigenous Mapuche language, and is a pretty wooden lodge on the shores of Lake Gutierrez. Its charismatic owner Eve offers horse riding along the beach, kayaking or can arrange rafting on the Manso river. I spent a few unstructured days here earlier this year exploring the more than 20km of forested trails located on the property itself and filling up on the great home-cooked meals. You can really lose yourself here, connect with nature and the horses roaming the property, without ever getting lost.

Exploring Lake Nahuel Huapi

Heading north from Bariloche on that trip I skirted the shores of Lake Nahuel Huapi. The whole area here is the national park of the same name. It’s actually Argentina’s first national park and the third in the Americas – only Yellowstone and Banff are older. Its founder, Francisco ‘Perito’ Moreno, is buried on an island in its waters. Not only did he donate the initial land, he also helped settle Chile and Argentina borders in the late 19th century that gave most of Patagonia to Argentina. If you’ve wondered how Argentina’s most iconic glacier, Perito Moreno, got its name, it’s thanks to this guy.

An hour along the Nahuel Huapi shore is the small but exquisitely picturesque town of Villa la Angostura. Its beautiful stone and wood chalets give a taste of how Bariloche was before the tourist boom, and is now where the elite of Argentine society choose to spend their summer vacations. The access to the lake is fantastic, and there’s a special little island called Quetrihue that’s thickly covered in beautiful gnarly Arrayan trees with their rust-red bark. My favourite hotel here has to be Las Balsas, a B-certified Relaix Chateaux property that’s epitome of boutique elegance and service. The ten rooms and lake views almost give the impression you’re on a boat, until you start exploring the forest reserve on site. I loved trying the wines from the bodega, then wallowing in the pool after a hike.

San Martín de los Andes

The last leg of my journey was on the fabled Siete Lagos (Seven Lakes) route which leads from Villa la Angostura, northwards to San Martín de los Andes, and into the neighbouring Lanín National Park.  You can drive this road in under two hours but I prefer to take an entire day. There’s so much to stop and see en-route that makes this stretch of the Ruta 40 probably one of the most beautiful drives you can do anywhere in the world. Lake after lake appears (and yes, there are more than seven), with a parade of beautiful viewpoints to take photos. There are also plenty of easily accessible hiking trails, including the classic hike up Cerro Faulkner which takes some five hours to go up and down, with stunning views from the top. When I drove the route, some friends were doing some biking in the area and invited me to explore some of the gravel bike trails in the area, where you can enjoy the transition from forested hill country to drier steppe. It’s a big contrast to the high-mountain terrain of Bariloche, but no less beautiful for it.

Mountain biking the Cordoba Pass near San Martín de los Andes

The end of my journey this time around was at the fantastic lodge hotel of Rio Hermoso, a modest drive from San Martín de los Andes. This homely fishing lodge-styled boutique guesthouse was perhaps the biggest surprise of my entire trip. Originally designed as a family summer retreat, it only has seven rooms and felt like walking into a style magazine. Nowhere have I ever slept in such huge beds; I could have fitted my whole family into one! There was no TV, no guides organising guests on excursions and no set meal times – all of which I really loved.

Rio Hermoso Lodge, near San Martín de los Andes

After a trip that involved plenty of hiking, biking and kayaking in some of the most gorgeous scenery I know anywhere in the world, this was the perfect way to close out my trip. The Argentine Lake District had captured my heart again – I can’t wait to return.

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.