Lake District Planning & Tips

Where to stay in the Argentine Lake District: Bariloche or San Martín?

One question we often get asked at Swoop Patagonia by travellers heading to the Argentine Lake District is where to stay? There are two main options available: in the regional capital of Bariloche on the shores of Lake Nahuel Huapi, or its smaller counterpart to the north, San Martin de los Andes (usually shortened to San Martín). 

I recently toured the region to get a better insight into how these two destinations match up, and how to combine them to make the perfect Lake District adventure. 

Why stay in Bariloche

Bariloche is the gateway to the Argentine Lake District. The chances are that if you’re visiting the region you’ll be flying into the airport here. It’s a city of around 110,000 people that’s strung out along the shores of Lake Nahuel Huapi. The scenery here is the quintessential Lake District: massive mountainscapes with rolling green foothills, thick forests and crinkly fjord-like finger lakes. It’s definitely a dramatic place to base yourself. 

View from Cerro Llao Llao in the Argentine Lake District
View from Cerro Llao Llao near Bariloche

Being a city, Bariloche offers every modern amenity and a wide range of accommodation options. Whether you’re looking for a budget hotel, boutique hotel or luxury lodge, Bariloche has you covered. There are some great restaurants and a surprising number of excellent local microbreweries. Bariloche is also renowned across Argentina for its chocolaterias, so you won’t be short of sweet souvenirs to take home. 

Activities around Bariloche

Bariloche is perfectly situated if you’re interested in hiking. It’s easy to escape the city and start exploring the amazing scenery of the surrounding Nahuel Huapi National Park. Not only are there plenty of superb day hikes that you can easily do from the city, there are hiking trails aimed at all different levels of physical ability. 

Cerro Goye Hike from Bariloche
On the Cerro Goye hike from Bariloche

I was in Bariloche for two days and managed to squeeze in four separate hikes and still left with a list of those I didn’t have a chance to do. There are longer and more challenging day hikes such as Refugio Frey or Cerro Bella Vista, but some of the best views in town only require moderate hikes. A great example here is Cerro Llao Llao or Cerro Campanario. The latter is popular for leading you to a ski lift that you can take for even better mountain and lake vistas. 

View from Cerro Campanario near Bariloche
View from Cerro Campanario near Bariloche

Bariloche is also the starting point for longer treks in the Lake District such as the Hut to Hut route along the mountain ridges of Cerro Navidad and Cerro López, staying in refugios along the way. You can even look across the mountains into Chile as part of the epic Paso de Las Nubes trek. But long or short, there are plenty of options around Bariloche to stretch your legs and see some amazing views.

What to consider when staying in Bariloche

Bariloche has all the attractions and comforts of a city, which is great for many visitors but may not be so attractive to those looking to completely get away from it all. Unless you have a strong desire to be based in the centre of town, I’d strongly recommend staying on the outskirts along the Llao Llao peninsula. This is in the direction of most of the activities you’ll be doing, and puts you out of reach of the traffic jams that can clog the centre during peak season. You’ll cut down on transfer times, get you away from the crowds and more into the nature that you came here for in the first place. Thankfully, some of our favourite hotels in Bariloche can be found here out on the edge of the lake. 

Circuito Chico route from Bariloche
Following the Circuito Chico route from Bariloche

It’s also worth noting that while Bariloche is fantastic as a hiking destination, it’s slightly less well served as a multi-sport activity. If you’re willing to get out of town, there are some lovely options in the vicinity; in particular, the nearby Estancia Peuma Hue is great for adults and families alike, offering opportunities for hikes, horse rides, and all manner of water sports. Or of course, you can venture further afield to San Martín, the Lake District’s multi-activity paradise.

Bariloche Brewery at the bottom of Goye
Enjoying a microbrewery at the bottom of Cerro Goye near Bariloche

Why stay in San Martín

The resort community of San Martín de los Andes on the shores of Lake Lacar has plenty of small town charm to offer the visitor. Its streets are lined with classic alpine architecture of stone and wood. The town lies about 115 miles (190km) from Bariloche, but also has its own airport with direct connections to Buenos Aires.

La Bandurrias hike near San Martín
La Bandurrias hike near San Martín

San Martín’s compact size makes a stay here a more intimate and personal experience than Bariloche. The town is friendly and walkable with plenty of good restaurants offering everything from traditional Argentina barbecue to sushi. Chocolate lovers will also find lots to enjoy here, plus some great ice cream parlours too. 

San Martín naturally has a slightly smaller range of accommodation than Bariloche, but the choice extends if you’re up for basing yourself a short drive from town in the middle of nature, with luxury lodges such as Rio Hermoso

Activities around San Martín

Visiting San Martín puts you right at the heart of some of the most varied and attractive landscapes in the Lake District. The town sits at the end of the fabulous Route of the Seven Lakes road (Ruta de los Siete Lagos), which begs to be explored by bike or car. The town is also the gateway to Lanín National Park

Kayaking on Lake Machonico
Kayaks (and swimming) on Lake Machonico

Its location means that San Martín has developed as the adventure sports capital of northern Argentina. Locals will insist that there is nowhere better in the entire country. From here you can go kayaking on beautiful Lake Machonico, mountain biking the Laguna Rosales route straight out of town, along with rafting, stand-up paddleboarding and a host of other adventure sport activities. 

Hiking the Cordoba Pass near San Martin
Hiking the Cordoba Pass near San Martín

Short hikes such as Cerro Mallo are great day excursions, along with the ascent of Cerro Falkner, whose trailhead is just an hour from the town centre. This trek through the forest really comes into its own when you clear the treeline to discover breathtaking 360 degree views sweeping across Lanín Volcano and Cerro Tronador.

Cerro Mallo Hike near San Martín
Cerro Mallo hike near San Martín

Lanín National Park itself offers almost endless opportunities for exploration. A host of trails zigzag through the park for day hikers (I hiked to the south face of Lanín Volcano), but between December and April it’s also possible to make a two day ascent of the (extinct) volcano itself: crampons and an ice axe are included in the package. 

What to consider when staying in San Martín

While there are plenty of opportunities for hiking and adventure sports, most of the activities require a drive from San Martín to get there. For example, Lake Machonico is about 30 minutes from town, Cerro Malloe is a little over an hour away and some of the Lanín hikes are two hours away. 

Lanin Volcano Base hike near San Martín
Hiking to the base of Lanín Volcano Base

This can make for some long day trips, but to get these most out of your time it’s possible to build itineraries that include comfortable camping in the wilderness so you can wake up and walk straight out into your adventure. One comfort camp I particularly enjoyed was at a beautiful spot just below Cerro Mallo. Its location made it ideal for both hiking and paddleboarding or boat trips on the lake. Another comfort camp at Lanín puts you in pole position for extended hikes. A couple of nights here would allow you to squeeze the most out of the trails while still having time for other activities like rafting, or even a spot of fishing. 

Bariloche or San Martín: why not both?

If you have plenty of time, you need not choose between Bariloche and San Martín. The two are close enough to each other to allow time in both, with each having their own attractions to complement the other. If you really can’t decide, get in touch and we can help put together the perfect itinerary tailored to your needs and budget, to get you exploring this spectacular corner of Argentina. 

And remember: whichever one you choose, leave some space for the chocolate!


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Sydney Miller

Swoop Patagonia Specialist

Sydney was still in Patagonia when she began plotting her return. Since her first visit to Torres del Paine in 2013, she’s trekked all over the globe but always finds her way back to this otherworldly place that started it all. Few things make her happier than swimming in a Patagonian glacial lake after a long hike – and encouraging others to do the same!