Patagonia: Nahuel Huapi

the beach at Lago Traful

They call this Patagonian high country the Lake District, land of seven lakes and seven rivers. Depending on your point of view, Patagonia can be a welcoming paradise of towering peaks and alpine lakes or a tedious composition of the endless, unknowable and unliveable wilderness — more than 300,000 square miles of Chile and Argentina in the southern cone of South America. There’s hundreds of lakes up here, and I don’t mean ponds. This beautiful blue paradise we found just a few kilometers from our cabin:

he's happy on the rocks

Lago Traful is a beach of pretty rainbow colored waters.  Traful is a Mapuche word meaning a confluence of creeks and rivers.

wish you were here!

Just down the road and around a few curves is a tiny harbor at Bahía López, in Llao Llao:

Porto Pañuelo

The world famous Hotel Llao Llao is perched on a hill just up the road. We hiked around the cove and along a trail that goes up and around the point.

The Brazo Tristeza trail was spectacular: pretty day, short hike (less than an hour), lovely views! We had post-hike coffee at the big hotel. Reminds me of the Ahwahnee but not as grand.

the view from the top

Calling all snow lovers! This could be the place for you. High peaks all around, gorgeous lakes of the most dazzling indigo blue, abundant fishing, hiking, skiing, trekking, mountaineering. Winter sports are the biggest draw here, causing a population surge in winter. Bariloche is built along the southern shore of Lago Nahuel Huapi, lined with hotels, lodges, cabins, casinos, spas…. however this is not Lake Tahoe. The shoreline isn’t built up all around the lake. In fact, there are precious few roads once you get s few kms out of town. Tahoe in the 1930s?

Bariloche in winter

Nature lovers, no need to chain yourself to a tree. Miles of trails to hike in summer or x-country ski in winter. Tourist season here never ends, or so they say. In autumn people come for the fall colors, and in spring you can just imagine the wildflowers. National parks in Patagonia have stands of old growth trees like the beautiful coihues we hugged on our hike to Lago Llum.

el coihue

The Llao Llao Hotel isn’t just a resort; it’s the centerpiece of the region, the key to the elaborate fantasy that informed the area’s development. During the 1930’s, Argentina’s military government created two contiguous national parks that extend for 160 miles along the rugged Chilean border; the Llao Llao was their capstone. Parks and hotels alike were the brainchildren of Ezequiel and Alejandro Bustillo, brothers who’d fallen under the spell of “el Sur,” the vast and trackless Patagonian wilderness that Argentina’s army had wrested from the natives just a half-century earlier. Ezequiel was the visionary bureaucrat, head of the National Park Service and central to the creation of its first park, Nahuel Huapi. Alejandro was the architect who transformed these craggy surroundings into stone-and-wood stage sets. In their hands, the Patagonian Andes of the nomadic Mapuche and Tehuelche nations became a romantic Alpine fantasia. Picture a band of gauchos singing “Edelweiss” by the campfire and you’ve got the general idea. [this paragraph taken from “Patagonia: Argentina’s Lake District,” by Frank Rose, 2008, Travel and Leisure]

Trails in the parks are more or less maintained, though we had to climb over numerous big fallen trees bisecting the trail. The trails aren’t freeways like in Yosemite! A sweet hand-painted sign along the path reminds us to take good care of the forest:

Cuide el Bosque

Day 3 in Bariloche we walked across the road and down to the beach. Let me fill in some background info here: Puyehue, an active volcano only 40 miles from Bariloche, (just across the border in Chile) blew its top on Ben’s birthday in 2011 (June 4). Look closely at the water and you’ll see what looks like a tan-colored scum on the surface.

Look closely at the next photo and you’ll see the beach covered with small dark (wet) and tan (dry) pebbles which have washed up on shore. Volcanic pebbles.

volcanic fallout

When you pick up a volcanic pebble, it feels unbelievably light, like a feather, or a marble from a different universe where they forgot to pay the gravity bill. Someone with a background in science could explain it better, using terms like mass, density, etc. These volcanic pebbles float on the water, and then wash up on the beach. On our ride yesterday the clouds of trail dust we were breathing was mostly volcanic ash. Definitely not something you want to breathe lots of.

Anyhow, back to our walk around the neighborhood. A friendly yellow-spotted dog adopted us and followed us for about two hours:

a friendly yellow dog

Here’s our adopted pal accompanying Ben to have a peek in a pretty restaurant just around the corner from our cabin. It was not yet open, so….

La Masia

we went back later for dinner, but we didn’t have reservations and they couldn’t feed us! We’ll try again before we leave Llao Llao. There are loads of even more beautiful buildings in the area, but the back patio of La Masia feels like a sunny terrace somewhere along the Italian riviera.

At one point we were walking along the road and a big mean black dog named Pincho came running over and attacked our little pet-for-a-day. Pincho’s owners kept calling him but he was intent on chasing the invader off his turf. The little yellow dog came out of it alive with a puncture would on his left back inside leg, (just above the fetlock if he were a horse) and another owie on his inside right hind leg, not to mention the pain and humiliation. Pobrecito! I guess by then he’d figured out we wouldn’t make such good human pets after all. By the time we’d walked as far as Porto Pañuelo he was playing with a boy on a family outing, and we didn’t see him again. Off to greener pastures!

Our next day’s adventure had us driving to a lake in Mapuche territory, about an hour west of Bariloche. We left the main road just past Lago Gutierrez, turning onto a dirt road that wound its way thru tall brush and stands of willows in the river bottom for about 3 km. Our brave red fiat bounced and scraped along the ruts and potholes and rocks, till at last we drove into a clearing with campsites amongst trees by the lake. From there we crossed a wooden footbridge over the creek and took the trail to Lago Llum.

Photo taken before the hike : not yet tired, dirty and hungry!

Ben taking a water break

We climbed up and down along the beach and then up and over the ridge to Lago Llum. The woods were thick, lush, green, with huge coihues that clued us in to the fact  that we were following an old logging road. Here’s the remnants of an old ghost bridge:

Along the trail we glimpsed the lake through the trees:

We kept spotting Lago Llum through the trees but we were high above it for what seemed like forever. After a 2-hour hike we finally skidded, slipped and slid the last 5 minutes down to a tranquil alpine beach: turquoise waters, no roads, no cars, no buildings, no tourists! (we don’t count, right?)  There were a few other hardy folks and kids there enjoying the day and even swimming in that cold water!

pretty clouds too

Some french bread appeared out of Ben’s knapsack along with a tin of salmon which we scarfed down while a yellowjacket maneuvered in anticipation. We stretched out on the pebbly beach and just lay there, eyes closed, for about 20 minutes. The sun was warm and there was only a whisper of a breeze. Paradise found! But we had to leave soon, it was already after 5 and we wanted to hike out while we could still see the trail.

Yesterday we rode to Cerro Campanario. Here we are in a meadow below the peak. Our guide Nacho took this pix:

a couple of hammerheads!

The horses here are stout hammerheads, called criollos. They appear to be descended from the European war-horse type, a blend of the large strong draft horse with the lightness, speed and intelligence of the Arab. The cowboys here, gauchos, wear wool caps or berets and loose trousers. Their “saddles” are definitely economical. Take a couple layers of wool pads or blankets, throw on the saddle tree (wooden bars, no horn), toss another pad on, top it off with a sheepskin or goatskin; loop the cinch around the whole enchilada and climb on board. The stirrups hang loose from the bars. They can be round or D-shaped, with or without tapaderos. It’s a pretty close contact rig, but I can’t quite bring myself to calling it a saddle. However it was comfortable enough for a 2 hour ride.

halfway up the trail

I was taking pictures all the way up…

and somebody was taking a pix of me!

View from the top of the world:

Lago Nahuel Huapi from Cerro Campanario

After the ride we were were covered head-to-toe in volcanic dust. Perhaps our next ride we will head out to a glacier where we can freeze our buns off!  I have to add this photo of a very clever wagon wheel gate. It is tall enough for a tall man to walk thru, and pivots on its axis to open/close; just like a tango dancer! What a cool idea!

Before I sign off, I must rave about the local cuisine. Several species of trout were imported way back when: brown (European native) and rainbow (western US native) are a lake district specialty. You can also purchase locally smoked trout, salmon, venison, and jabalí (wild boar). The steakhouses here, called parrillas, are incredible. We had delicious melt-in-your-mouth steak a few days ago at a place that makes Jocko’s (in Nipomo) seem like Burger King. Yesterday after our ride we stopped at a smoke shop and picked up some smoked salmon, smoked trout, and smoked cheese. My personal chef Benjamín made us a salad with red lettuce, arrugula (they call it rúcula here), smoked trout, slivers of red pepper, tomato, avocado, red onion and cubes of smoked cheese, served with artisan bread and local wine. Yum’s the word.

Bariloche is also the chocolate capital of South America, and there are chocolaterías to visit while looking for Willy Wonka. I counted at least a dozen just driving along the lakeshore into town. We stopped at an artisan chocolatería called Xoco Me, and helped ourselves to free samples. To die for!! Bariloche could fulfill even the most exigent gourmand’s death-by-chocolate fantasy.

artisan chocolates

The weather here in Bariloche is sunny and warm when there’s no wind (10% of the time?), a bit chilly when it’s breezy, or downright cold and windy! It dips into the 40s at night, and this is SUMMER! So much for the bathing suit and shorts I brought! The landscape and houses here remind me of Colorado in summer, only it’s colder and breezier. The wind is positively howling today, and it’s been sprinkling off and on, altho the whitecaps on the lake seem to be diminishing. A perfect excuse to stay inside and work on my blog. At least the volcano’s not erupting! Being in a place where the weather channel is produced and directed by mother nature kind of keeps you humble. Stay tuned for the next episode!

[For more info and amazing video of the volcanic eruption, check out this website:  Have a look at video 9.]

Ciao from Patagonia!

2 thoughts on “Patagonia: Nahuel Huapi

  1. Sweet blog! Ifound it while browsing on Yahoo News. Do you have any suggestions on how to get listed in Yahoo News?
    I’ve been trying for a while but I never seem to get there!
    Thank you


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