Argentina’s Lake District is a gorgeous destination full of mountains, forests, rivers and, as the name suggests, plenty of lakes. Although the Spanish explored this area in the 16th century, the Mapuche dominated it until the 19th century. And even today there are Mapuche people living around the region, especially close to the natural parks.
San Carlos de Bariloche (usually known as Bariloche) is located within the famous Nahuel Huapi National Park and it is the largest city in the region. Until the 19th century the city had more connection with Chile than with the distant Buenos Aires but it started to changed due to the explorations of Francisco Moreno and the campaigns of the Conquest of the Desert established by the Argentine government. The modern settlement of Bariloche started to be developed by German-speaking immigrants but also Austrians, Slovenians and Italians. The city was redesigned in the 1930s after development of extensive public works to create a major tourism center and a mountain retreat with the appearance of a traditional European central alpine town (like Switzerland). In 1995, Bariloche became famous in the international press for being "home" for several Nazi war criminals, including claims that Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun lived in the surroundings of Bariloche for many years after World War II (we bought a book about this at a local library in Bariloche but you can find it in Amazon clicking here: "El exilio de Hitler").
Bariloche itself is a relatively small city but bigger than most of the cities we’ve been in the Patagonia Argentina. It has a nice centre, well-kept buildings and several restaurants, coffees, souvenir and chocolate shops. But, as always in Argentina, the main attractions are outside the city (exception for Buenos Aires, of course)… Since our idea was to explore the region we booked a cozy Airbnb house with lake views and use it as our base to visit the surrounding areas (you can get a first-time discount clicking here).
The most visited place around is the Nahuel Huapi National Park, the oldest national park in Argentina (established in 1934) and the largest of the national parks in the region (total area of 7.050 m2). The park is dominated by the high mountain chain of the Andes, several lakes, rapid rivers, waterfalls and extensive forests. We only saw a small part of this park, including the 60km driving Circuito Chico plus some walking trails around the Llao-Llao area. Circuito Chico is a very popular driving since it is very scenic but we did the trail to Cerrito Llao Llao first so the driving was not so spectacular for us. This trail was recommend by the park ranger and we are now glad we did it! It requires climbing almost all the time but the views from the top compensate all the effort. It took us 1h30 to go up, come down and also enjoy the view and take pictures for a while. We also did smaller trails, like the Arrayanes forest (1h in total), Tacul beach (25m) and the Hidden Lake or “Lago Escondido” (15m).
Another popular driving is the Seven Lakes Route (“Ruta de los Siete Lagos”), more than 350km on the famous Route 40 surrounded by several lakes, rivers and mountains. Unfortunately we got a cloudy day and for us it was not so beautiful as people say it is… Nonetheless we tried to enjoy most of our time while doing this route. First we stopped for a coffee at the tiny but charming town of Villa La Angostura, on the shores of the famous Nahuel Huapi Lake. We also stopped at San Martín de Los Andes, a small but very touristic town 100km north from Villa La Angostura. There we enjoyed one of the best meals we’ve had recently (probably since Puerto Natales, in Chile) at Almacén de Flores. Most of the viewpoints are on left side of the road (departing from Bariloche) so we only stopped to admire the views and take pictures after visiting San Martín de Los Andes and going south again. Following indications from our Lonely Planet guide we drove 26km in an unpaved road (RP65) to Villa Traful through the margins of the lake with the same name. The road was not too bad so we decided to do 30km more until the other side to catch Route 237 until Bariloche (instead of driving the same 26km to come back to the Route 40). Villa Traful has nothing to see and especially on a cloudy (and now rainy!) day. The best views we got at the lake viewpoint a few km after the village. And we also felt that driving the remaining 30km through the RP65 plus the Route 237 was very scenic and with a completely different landscape from Route 40. While Route 40 (from Bariloche to San Martín de Los Andes) is surrounded by lakes, mountains and green forests, Route 237 is surrounded by an arid landscape and rocky mountains. An interesting contrast that deserves to be seen!
We also had the opportunity to visit El Bolsón, a small town 120km south from Bariloche and where several hippies migrated in the 1970s from Buenos Aires. Its economy depends essentially from tourism and from the famous Outdoor Artisan Market ("Feria Regional de El Bolsón"), where we made a quick stop for lunch and walk around. Well worth a visit too!
Next stop: Pucón (Chile)