We finally made it to the much-anticipated Lakes District in northern Patagonia. We had read accounts of other overlanders traveling through the area and knew that it would amaze, but nothing could have prepared us for the beauty. With its stunning azure lakes, crystal clear rivers, and temperate forests filled with the strange Monkey Puzzle Trees, the Lakes District far exceeded our expectations. We enjoyed a leisurely travel pace, spending our days fly fishing, hiking, and relaxing as we passed from one incredible lakeside or riverside campsite to the next.
After a quick stopover in Santiago to visit a friend, who fed us dinner and bought a great selection of delicious Chilean beers for us to sample, we cruised down the central valley of Chile toward the Lakes District. Turning off of the huge four-lane divided highway, we quickly found ourselves in the lumpy mountains covered in beech and the strange Araucaria (Monkey Puzzle) trees of Parques Nacional Tolguaca and Conguillio. We stopped to admire the perfect cone shape and young basalt flows of Volcán Llaima, a very active volcano that last erupted in 2008.
From P.N. Conguillio, we crossed the border back into Argentina and the stunning scenery of Lago Aluminé. We camped right on the lakeshore and spent an afternoon driving up the flank of Volcán Batea Mahuida, hiking around the crater lake and up to the summit, where we had a view of several more volcanoes in the distance.
From Aluminé we worked our way south, taking our time and making many westward forays into the mountains that form the border between Chile and Argentina. The Argentines love to camp and grill, which meant that finding excellent camp sites nestled right up against the water was easy, and it is widely accepted to pull off and camp almost anywhere you please.
In Parque Nacional Lanin we took a great 20km hike up through lush forest and along babbling brooks to the base of Volcán Lanin, where we were greeted by waterfalls, spectacular views, and a swarm of huge horse flies. Hobie does not take the horse flies well, but he quickly figured out that he could escape from them by walking down the middle of the ice-cold streams.
Along one particularly beautiful lake, Lago Huechulafquen, we were lucky enough to free camp next to an Argentinean father and son, Leandro and Lucas, who taught us how to properly prepare Mate, were patient and helpful as we practiced our Spanish, and sang and played Eddie Vedder and Pink Floyd songs on the guitar as we sat beside the campfire.
The rivers were spectacularly beautiful and Tim was in fisherman’s heaven as he cast his line in one great hole after another. He caught many trout, all invasive to Patagonia, but out of respect to the rules, we only kept a few of the biggest to grill up and eat. And they were delicious.
As we made our way down the famed Ruta de los Siete Lagos (which winds through many more than just seven lakes) the rivers and lakes continued to get more and more beautiful. We always managed to find a place to camp right on a lakeshore or riverside, often for free, and frequently wished that we had a canoe or kayak to be able to explore the wild distant shores.
We spent a few days catching up on laundry and email in San Carlos de Bariloche, then continued south to the hippy town of El Bolsón. Throughout the Lakes District we saw hordes of young Argentinian backpackers lining the roads with their thumbs out, waiting for a ride. Hitchhiking seems to be a way of life in Argentina during the summer holiday season and we were soon overwhelmed by their sheer numbers. At first we picked them up when we could and made contrite faces at them when we couldn’t, then began to get annoyed by their masses and their guilt-tripping looks and antics. We thought we had seen the backpacker-hitchhiker epicenter around San Martin de los Andes, but when we got to El Bolsón we were truly swarmed. There are somewhere around 15 campgrounds in the small town, many of them large enough to accommodate hundreds of campers, and they were almost all full. After some searching, we managed to find a quiet back corner in one campground where we could tuck in away from the crowds.
El Bolsón is known for its artisan market, where everything must be made by hand. We spent most of a day making our way through the packed stalls, checking out the beautiful wooden handicrafts, jewelry, clothing, art, and mate gourds, and tasting the great food and local beer. El Bolsón is the hops growing capital of Argentina and the town is known for its beer. We came across dozens of cervecerias, microcervecerias, and home brewers, and thoroughly enjoyed tasting as many beers as we could.
Our next stop was at the incredible climbing area of Piedra Parada, out on the drier eastern pampas, where we spent several days on the huge walls of La Buitrera Canyon. We’ll save that story for the next post, except to mention that’s where we finally met up with our friend Corey. Tim and Corey grew up together in Estes Park and at some point both started dreaming about overlanding in South America. In October last year Corey shipped his Land Cruiser to Valparaiso, Chile, and has been cruising around ever since. We meant to meet up months ago but the timing never worked out, until now.
After Piedra Parada the four of us headed back towards the green forests, turquoise rivers, and deep blue lakes of Parque Nacional Los Alerces.
As with so many other places on our journey, as we left the Lakes District we were already making plans to come back. We could have spent months exploring the countless beautiful rivers and lakes, but the deep south was calling us. It was time to begin our journey down the legendary Carretera Austral.