Something curious about North of Patagonia is that is usually skipped by people visiting the country, while Argentineans when travelling skip the south and many choose to spend their holidays in the area from San Martin de los Andes to El Bolson instead. While in El Chalten, El Calafate and even in Ushuaia everything is translated and at least minimum english is spoken, in this part of the country you will meet mostly Argentineans or Chileans travelling and only spanish being spoken.
This could be considered the second big segment of the National Route 40, which although it doesn’t have the Fitz Roy, Cerro Torre or the Perito Moreno Glacier, it has impressive volcanos like the Lanin and Tronador (“Thunder”) and Cerro Catedral with many beautiful lakes, waterfalls, glaciers and forests in between. There are so many beautiful things around that many spectacular viewpoints, peaks, canons and waterfalls don’t even have a known name. You just need to walk around the parks and get lost to find the most peaceful and extraordinary places.
Here is a list of the most breathtaking natural places you should visit if you are around there, which are a good examples of the landscapes you can find.
This 3491m extint volcano was named Tronador (“Thunder”) in reference to the sound the falling pieces of ice from the 7 glaciers living on its peaks. It is located in the limit between Chile and Argentina and has three peaks, one Argentinean, one Chilean and one located in the international limit..
It’s quite easy to get to the base of the volcano as it is located inside the Nahuel Huapi National Park, near Bariloche going south on the National Route 40 to Villa Mascardi, making it reachable by car. The tricky part is that during the day, the road to the base has designated times to go and to come back. This is because the roads are quite small and not in the best conditions, and because some people can’t help but going fast anyways, so to prevent accidents during the busiest times of the day, the roads are one-way only.
* From 10.30 am to 2pm is only to go up to the Cerro Tronador
* From 4pm to 6pm is only to come down the Cerro Tronador
* From 7.30pm to 10.30am is both ways.
The trip takes around 2hs to do the 45km, that’s why there are periods of time no one can access, to let the last cars that entered the road at 2pm reach Tronador by 4pm, when the cars start to come back.
Once you are there you should visit the Ventisquero Negro, a black glacier formed by the mix of pieces of ice from the glacier on top of it and ancient volcano ashes, making the ice look black and quite unique. There are many hikes and trails available for all types of people, from short flat trails to beautiful waterfalls, to long treks to the mountain refuges like Otto Meiling.
Is famous for having one of the largest Ski centers in Latin America, but it’s also absolutely stunning during summer when the snow has melted away and you can appreciate the strangely shaped peaks that are easy to spot from anywhere in Bariloche. They are too unique to miss.
This mountain is also located inside the Nahuel Huapi National Park, but 77km away from Cerro Tronador and quite in the middle of Bariloche. There are many ways of visiting it, also depending on your physical condition. The easiest would be to take the chairlift used in winter by skiers from its base and go near Punta Princesa where you can appreciate its beauty without much effort. To get there you need to take the “Amancay” chairlift at the base to then take the “Diente de Leon” chairlift which are the only two open during summer from 9am to 5.45pm, but the ticket office is open only until 4.45pm. Also notice that both can close earlier if the winds are too strong for the chairlifts to function. This whole tour costs around 375 ARS (22EUR). To see updated prices and timetables you can check here
But if you like hiking, then I absolutely recommend going up to one of the many mountain refuges. Depending you physical condition and enthusiasm, as there are many different options and difficulties, you can find them all very detailed here
We decided to go up to the Refugio Frey http://www.trekbariloche.com/refugio-frey-trek.php which is the shortest and most popular of all hikes with 24km return and a 750m ascent, and spend a night up there to enjoy the landscape a little bit more and not miss the golden hour next to the Toncek Lagoon. Spending the night is not necessary as to go up and down only takes around 8hs if you walk at an average speed and take a few breaks.
Nonetheless, if you have time and don’t mind sharing bunk beds with over 40 strangers or don’t mind caring all your camping equipment with you, try to spend a night up there. It is a truly unique experience to relax on top of this mountain, as its strange and very wide variety of landscapes makes you believe you got lost in Wonderland and understand how Alice was feeling when she went through the rabbit hole, as you walk by huge trees that make you feel tiny, climb rocks with your hands, see beautiful flowers and walk through narrow passages under thick bushes that make you feel huge.
Another very special thing about this refuge is that most of its guests are rock climbers who stay up there for days or even weeks at the time, to climb the rough peaks of Torre Principal, Catedral’s highest point. They start to show up at the refuge right before sunset as they climb down from the peak. It is interesting to see that these people, as well serious trekkers, are very professional about their sport and spend most of their time at the refuge sharing tips and ways of surpassing obstacles they found while high on the peaks.
Another volcano, even higher than the Tronador with 3776m and also extint without a known date for its last eruption, although there are estimations for it to have happened around 10.000 years ago. This beautiful peak is very easy to spot as it is way higher that the mountains around it, reason for which it is covered in snow all year round and has an almost perfect conic shape which sets it apart from the landscape.
It is also located in the border of Argentina and Chile belonging to two National Parks, the Lanin in Argentina, near Junin de los Andes, and the Villarrica in Chile, near Pucon. It is very easy to spot from the international cross Mamuil Malal, which also leads to the hiking trails to its base and top.
The hike to its base is quite easy and goes through a huge plateau that looks out of this planet and closer to the surface of the moon. To climb up to the top, you will need special equipment, to register with the Park Rangers which will tell you when you should start to go down and sometimes you will be required to hire a guide depending the weather conditions.
Not far from this volcano is the Lake Huechulafquen with a surface of 104km2 and 30km long is one of the most important lakes of the region, which is a lot to say considering the huge amount of lakes that you can see around here. From there you can have great views of the volcano and do a boat excursion which cost around 500 ARS (30 EUR) per person.
One of Chile’s and South America’s most active volcanoes with its last eruption happening not long ago on March 3rd of 2015. It is quite impressive to see that it is constantly emanating gas from its crater, which is still full of lava and absolutely amazing at night when you can see the red glow on its top.
There are two things you should do if you visit this place. The first one, and more popular one, is to visit the Volcanic caves in the park. These caves were formed by passing lava thousands of years ago, when the external lava was cooling down but inside it was still boiling hot and kept going down, leaving long tunnels of hard rock walls which are extremely interesting to visit and different from any other caves I’ve ever been.
The second one, and still on my bucket list, is to climb up to its crater and watch the lava lagoon that exists up there. This is a guided excursion which starts at 6.30am and takes around 9hs to return. It needs to be booked with time in advance and to try the special equipment you need to wear at least a day before. It also depends on the weather conditions if you will be able or not to go up as it can be too risky for anyone to climb. It requires very good physical condition and it is only allows for people over 18 years old.
Camino de los 7 Lagos
Is the name of a very famous, if not the most well known, segment of the National Route 40. It begins in the Lake Lakar in San Martin de los Andes, and finishes in the Lake Nauel Huapi next to San Carlos de Bariloche, crossing different lakes, peaks and cascades each unique and captivating on its own covering around 110Km. Although it is called “Camino de los 7 Lagos” (Road of the 7 Lakes), it actually includes 8 major lakes and some smaller lagoons which are a little further away from the main road.
It is a beautiful road to travel and it can be done by car, but many people choose to do it by bicycle, walking or hitchhiking. It has a similar vibe to El Chalten, where everybody is traveling and loving nature. A great idea is to camp next to each of the lakes which have very nice camping spots from Serviced to Free and people tend to be extremely friendly and happy as anyone on holidays in a beautiful destination. But remember that if you are planning to camp, the temperatures at night can drop to 0°C, so you need to have warm clothes and sleeping bags to have a nice experience.
Another note, is that during most of this road there is no mobile service and much less internet, which is great for disconnecting, but you should let your love ones know that you might not be able to connect with them.
El Cajon del Azul
As its name describes, is a canyon where a blue river flows through. The way up there resembles my idea of an enchanted forest and the canyon is the place fairies would choose to live if they were not mythical beings.
The trail starts at a farm called Wharton, 16km away from El Bolson. It’s quite an easy hike of 16km return and only 300m ascent, but with a lot of ups and downs which can make it quite tiring, especially if you decide to go up during a warm day. Once you are up there you can decide to relax for a bit at the refuge, camp, or stay for the night in the Refugio del Cajon Azul, which is a very beautiful wooden cottage, built by its owner, with 2 rooms, one small one and a larger one where all the hikers sleep on the floor, but on comfortable mattresses provided by the shelter, so you don’t need to bring your own.
As we wanted to have time to see the canyon and enjoy the peacefulness of the mountain, we decided to stay at the refuge. This was a great idea as it allowed us to explore the area, which took us around 3h during the afternoon and another 4h the next morning.
Most people when they get up there just visit the end of the Cajón del Azul as it is the main attraction or are just too tired or in a rush to keep exploring. But if you have time, follow the red marks of the trail to the right of the bridge of the Cajon del Azul (ask in the refuge for more clear indications). This path will take you all the way to the source of the canyon (“nacimiento”) and you’ll get the chance to see absolutely breathtaking views of the river as the ones in the pictures below.
Osorno Volcano and Saltos del Petrohue
This volcano is another of the most active volcanoes of Chile and a landmark of the region, not only because of its beauty and perfect conic shape, but because even if its only 2652m high, it is next to the Llanquihue Lake make it to stand up from almost anywhere you see it. Also, the roads to Puerto Varas or Frutillar pass right next to it, giving you impressive sights of the volcano.
If you are in the area, then you have to visit the Perez Rosales National Park, home of the Saltos de Petrohue. These waterfalls were formed by settlements of lava from the Osorno Volcano over 14.000 years ago, reason why they have an interesting black color contrasting with the green water of the river Petrohue. There is an entrance fee to enter the park, although the toilets are free to use, and a quite strict exit time at 7pm during summer (useful information here).
We tried staying longer, as we have done in many other places, to catch the golden hour and wait until the clouds clear up, but a park ranger found us and told us that they have been looking for us and were about to send reinforcements to help them find us as more than an hour had passed since closing time. Apparently because our car was still in the parking lot, they noticed some people were missing so they started looking for us. Luckily he was a very nice guy, who had been working for over 25 years at the park and loved it, so he did understand why we wanted to stay until sunset at that location. Still, he didn’t let us stay and walk us out of the park while telling us very interesting facts about the volcano. This happens to be the only part of the whole park that closes at night, so if you plan to watch the sunset, find a better location, probably near La Ensenada, as they actually lock the gates and you would need to spend the night there if a park ranger doesn’t find you first.Destination Tips
- El Bolson
- North Patagonia
- San Martin de los Andes