From El Bolsón we went north, back towards Bariloche and the familiar territory of Nahuel Huapi National Park. This time we had decided to explore Pampa Linda, where we planned to hike and camp in the park. We received a bit of a nasty shock when we arrived at the park and were faced with a £7 each entrance fee. We had known that this part of the park was ticketed, we just hadn’t banked on it being quite such a high price. Slightly stunned, we handed the cash over and only realised halfway into the park that we probably didn’t have enough cash for a campsite anymore. There wasn’t an ATM for 30kms and the campsites were highly unlikely to take card so we had essentially paid £14 for a couple of hours driving in and out. It was frustrating but the damage was done and we pressed on, determined to make the most of it.
Most of the tracks in the park operate on a one-way system, with set hours for driving in each direction. This system worked pretty well but it does concentrate the traffic, we ended up in a queue of cars and spent a good portion of the drive enveloped in dust. By pulling over and letting the traffic by we were able to enjoy the prettiest spots in peace.
As we had less time than planned, we couldn’t hike and so satisfied ourselves with driving all the way to Ventisquero Negro, which is a black glacier and therefore pretty interesting theoretically if fairly ugly in reality.
The glacier is black because of the dirt and sediment accumulated during its formation. When the glacier calves, this sediment is washed off and so the floating ice is white. We noted the large number of minibuses parked up at the glacier and made a dash to get back on the road and into the one-way system ahead of them for the drive out. That was the sum total of our experience at Pampa Linda; a rather expensive waste of time. Annoyingly, it was also entirely our own fault.
We still needed to find somewhere to camp. We battled Bariloche’s one-way system at rush hour, got some cash and then pushed onwards towards Villa La Angostura. Caro kept eyeing the sinking sun with some trepidation, we wanted to avoid pitching the tent in darkness. Fortunately, we pulled into an absolutely wonderful campsite on the shores of Lake Nahuel Huapi with half an hour to spare.
Our less than perfect day was improved by the beautiful view and a vat of spag bol for dinner. We reasoned that we had to open some wine for the bolognaise. We opened the wine, none of it made it into our dinner.
The following morning was bone chillingly cold and Caro remained resolutely in the tent until hunger drove her out. We escaped the chill of the shade and ate our breakfast on the beach.
Our day was dedicated to Ruta Los Siete Lagos, the seven lakes drive, a scenic route from Villa La Angostura to San Martin de los Andes. We decided to get all the way North in one day and then spend two days hiking and driving back to Villa La Angostura, from where we would be crossing back into Chile. It’s only 110kms to San Martin de los Andes so it was easily manageable in a couple of hours, we it stretched to four with many stops and a short hike. It is a breathtakingly beautiful drive. At one point Caro turned around and said “I never thought I would say this, but I think that Patagonia may be more beautiful than New Zealand”. That, from us, is very high praise indeed.
We did one short hike which we wouldn’t necessarily recommend, from Lago Bailey Willis to Laguna Bullines, you never really escape the road noise and the trail isn’t particularly pretty. There is also a demon plant that did a superb job of painfully epilating James’s legs as he walked.
The lake at the end was very pretty and calm.
A few more photos from the drive.
Our final stop for the day was San Martin de Los Andes, a pretty town on the shore of Lake Lácar. James was in urgent need of steak so we decided to camp near enough to town to allow us to come back in for dinner. The high season ends at the end of February and by the time we came to call, on March 14th, all of the campsites appeared to have closed up shop. By knocking repeatedly on the window of one apparently abandoned site, we managed to secure a space for the night. The woman mentioned something vaguely about registering and paying later and waved us off. It was another cracking spot.
A lad of about 15 was despatched later to collect money from us and attempt to tell us something about the showers. He spoke zero English and was obviously enormously uncomfortable trying to talk to us at all. After much blank staring and many awkward silences, we brought out the google translate and it transpired that he needed to lock the showers, which we hadn’t yet used. We had another five minutes of stilted conversation and eventually he just shrugged and walked away leaving us with very little idea as to when the showers would be locked, we hoped that one of us wouldn’t have the misfortunate of being in there when it happened. We benched this dilemma and got ourselves ready to go back to town for dinner. Part of the reason that we haven’t had much steak yet is because people eat so late in Argentina, the restaurants don’t even open until 8/8:30 at which point we would usually be thinking about getting into bed. We found a parilla restaurant with just a couple of other diners in it and, with the aid of google translate to understand the different cuts, ordered ourselves a mountain of cow. We’d arrived just at the right time, 45 minutes later every single table was full and there was a queue at the door. The steak was fantastic.
Full to the brim we drove back to our campsite for the night. The showers were still unlocked.
We woke the next morning to clouds scudding across the sky and locked showers; someone had snuffled down in the night to lock them whilst we slept. Why? We have absolutely no idea, we’d passed some guys sleeping in their car on the way back the previous night so maybe there are stealthy night showerers who sneak in to campsites to use their facilities.
We had a long hike planned for the day so we ate and got packed up quickly and made our way to Villa Traful. We are 100% fair weather hikers. We do not go for walks for the simple pleasure of putting one foot in front of the other; we enjoy a challenge, appreciate good views, Caro considers it to be athletic tanning and, above all, we both love the excuse to eat more because we have “already burned it off”. So, when we made it to Villa Traful and saw the ominous looking clouds overhead, we debated as to whether our planned six-hour hike was going to happen. We reasoned that the clouds could easily blow over and there was a viewpoint about an hour in, so we could always turn around then. We registered at Tourist Information, drove to the trailhead, rather ambitiously slapped on some suncream and marched off up the hill.
Every so often we would turn around to see the view, it was still quite lovely despite the clouds but we noted that we could see less of it every time we turned to look.
It started to spit and drizzle but we kept on plodding up the hill. When the rain intensified we thought about turning around but decided to carry on to the viewpoint, so as to achieve something. The last 200 metres were the steepest and puffing and blowing we reached the summit to enjoy the lack of view.
We agreed that it was not worth hiking any further, we would simply get cold and wet and have no amazing view to make it all worthwhile. The path was so steep that it was actually easier to run back down than walk and this part we enjoyed immensely; we did almost give one woman a heart attack, she must have thought that some of the half wild cows that graze the hills were pounding down the hill towards her. We bundled straight in to the car and drove to the Tourist Information where the man was not remotely surprised to see us 4 hours earlier than expected.
We had planned to camp in Villa Traful but it was only 1:30 and it seemed silly to settle down for a day in the rain so we headed south again to Villa La Angostura, where we planned to hike the next day. The drizzle followed us and when we pulled over on a lake shore for lunch, Caro chose to huddle in the car under her tent blanket rather than shiver outside.
We drove back out to our beautiful lakeside camp from two days’ previous. We tried to pitch up in exactly the same spot, right on the waterfront, but it was exposed and the wind had kicked up a notch to the extent that James had to lie on the tent to stop it from flying away as we pitched it.
We picked a more sheltered site and set up camp. For the first time on our road trip, we took the opportunity to build a campfire. We both took a lot of childish joy from the campfire, it reminded us vividly of camping when we were kids.
The following morning it was bright and clear and we set out to walk Bosque de Arrayanes , a walk that Lonely Planet highly recommends and which we had also seen pop up in a couple of blogs. We picked up lunch in town and parked up on the lake.
If you take the ferry in one direction it’s a 12km hike, otherwise it’s 24km return, a stiff day’s walking even on relatively flat terrain. However, the ferry costs £12 each and that, on top of the already spicy £6 each for the park entrance, made us think twice. Had it been a circular hike we may have chosen to walk, but 6 hours there and back on the same path wasn’t really appealing so we coughed up for the ferry. The ferry journey is really lovely and for about 35 minutes one of the crew kept up a constant stream of information over the PA system about the park, the lake, the Lynch family who once owned the whole peninsuala and many other things. It would make the cost of the ferry 100% worthwhile… if you are fluent Spanish. Caro spent much of the time frowning in concentration in order to turn to James at intervals with such golden droplets of information as: “I think she said that the lake is 10 metres deep here and then there was something about the Atlantic.”
We arrived at the jetty and tackled the 800m boardwalk through the arrayanes forest first. The Lynch family had been particularly keen on arrayan trees and had cut down every other species in order to allow their favourites room to grow. The result is a dense forest of unusually cinnamon coloured trees.
The so-called interpretive trail only had about 5 information boards and none of these had an enormous amount of information on them, we were a bit disappointed. After the boardwalks we had some lunch and then set off on the remaining 11km hike back to the car. The forest is lovely and the hike is generally quite easy, certainly more-so in the return direction, where the hills are in your favour. We hadn’t read of anyone cycling through the park but evidently it is a popular way to see it if the number of people who whizzed past us on the downhill stretches are anything to go by.
It was cold out of the sun but the forest isn’t particularly dense so we often found ourselves walking in sunshine.
We completed the walk in just over two hours and felt that we had had a good leg-stretch, but didn’t necessarily think it was worth the cost given that there are twenty odd other hikes in the area that are free.
We went back to camp for a couple of hours and then went back in to town for more steak, making a stop at the Irish Bar for beer.
We ended up in Al Alba, where we had a superb meal, even the bread basket was excellent.
By the end we were too full even for ice cream, although we eyed it up for several minutes.
The next morning we packed the tent up properly, we wouldn’t be using it again for a while, and made our way back to the Chilean border. The weather deteriorated as we drove and we found ourselves, once again, driving in to clouds as we entered Chile. There were no dramas at the border this time and we made our way quickly to Puerto Varas where we stopped for lunch, before heading back to Puerto Montt. We’d purposely booked in to a hostel outside of town, as we didn’t feel any love for the town itself but when we pulled up the very lovely woman explained apologetically that there had been a problem with the bathrooms and she had to move all of her guests to her sister’s hostel. We assured her that this was not a problem and she gave us the address of where we would be staying. Obviously, it was the same hostel that we had stayed in two weeks earlier. To be perfectly fair, this time there was a room between us and the shared bathroom, so that’s something.
We bid farewell to Emilio, who was looking more dishevelled and dusty than ever, and prepared for our flight to Santiago the next morning.
Side Note: Our campsites on the 7 Lakes drive were both absolutely beautiful but they had one other thing in common: they were dusty. A fine dark grey dust that got on to and into everything. Our feet were black throughout and despite vigorous washing remained resolutely stained for days afterwards. James’s still haven’t returned to normal.