Returning to Argentina: Lakes District
On our last trip to South America we spent quite some time in Argentina. Our first visit was in October/November 2008, when we travelled in Northern Argentina and then in January/February 2009 we travelled from Buenos Aires all the way to Ushuaia , and visited other parts of Argentina’s Patagonia . Finally, our last stop in South America was a few days in Buenos Aires in May 2009 . We were glad to have done it but came away feeling somewhat grateful that we didn’t ever have to go to Argentina again. I’m not going into detail here because I’ve done that already. There were some truly beautiful places but adjectives like ‘bleak’ and ‘tedious’ landscapes were used, and phrases like ‘vast treeless plains’ and ‘never-ending straight roads’ were over-used. Sleepless nights and the Argentinian’s different time schedule were also a part of it.
But we did return, 6 years later in January 2015, across the Paso Cardenal Antonio Samore from Entre Lagos in Chile to Villa La Angostura in Argentina. In this blog you will read adjectives such as amazing, stunning, majestic and beautiful, as well as friendly, welcoming and helpful.
Paso Cardenal Antonio Samore
This is one of the main mountain passes crossing the border between Chile and Argentina. It is a touch over 1300m, so not so high for an Andean crossing. We spent the night at a small wooden chapel – Capilla Santa Teresa – only a few kilometres before the Chilean immigration post. But in those few kilometres the next morning we came to a waterfall – Salto de Los Novios – that was right by the road. We can’t resist a waterfall and it had a convenient parking space to pull off into. Beautiful! And a good start to the day.
The border formalities were simple and we were quickly on our way, climbing toward the pass. The drive was very scenic, with forest and occasional glimpses of mountain tops. We came upon an area where the trees were uniformly dead. We discussed the likelihood of a fire having come through, but there were too many smaller branches and twigs still attached to the trees. Then we started to notice the uniform grey of the ground and soon it was piled up at the sides of the road. We realised that it was the result of a volcano erupting fairly recently that had blown ash all over the place. We needed to do a bit more research into the details later to find out that it was Volcan Puyehue, which erupted in 2011 ! It was an eerie landscape which reminded us of our visit to Chaiten, Chile in 2009.
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El Camino de los Siete Lagos
Our reason for entering Argentina at this point was to visit the lakes district and the Road of the Seven Lakes had been recommended to me by one of my students, an Argentinean living in Santiago. We drove the length of it from Villa La Angostura to San Martín de los Andes. The distance is less than 100km, but we took several days to cover it, stopping along the way at lakes and waterfalls, and camping in some lovely places. The scenery was magnificent, the lakes astoundingly beautiful, but before I run out of strong adjectives, I’ll let our pictures tell the story.
On this route we also met some fellow travellers and spent a couple of evenings swapping stories with them. This is something we always enjoy, because no one understands our experiences quite like others taking a similar journey. They are often also helpful with hints about places to go and routes to take.
San Martín de los Andes
Where Villa La Angostura is a very touristic town, with little local influence to be seen, San Martín de los Andes is a town that is lived in, not just visited. We were very lucky to meet the owner of an outdoor store that sold and hired equipment for the various activities that are undertaken in this area – water activities like kayaking and rafting in summer and skiing in winter. We had parked on his property, next to his shop, to see if they had something we were looking for. It wasn’t really a parking lot, so we were taking liberties, but we couldn’t find a big enough park on the street. When we came out he was there checking out our truck. He wasn’t annoyed at us parking there; he was fascinated by our setup and was friendly and welcoming. After a long conversation about the truck and camper and its construction, he invited us to use his yard as a park for as long as we needed. He also said we were welcome to stay overnight, and gave us the password to his business WiFi!
His brother came a bit later and invited us to go out on the lake in his boat with the whole family. It was a bit short notice and a bit cold so we declined, but they brought us back a yummy trout for our dinner. This was a truly incredible experience of hospitality and, when we left, he welcomed us back anytime with the words: “there is always a little bit of your home here”!
We enjoyed this town very much. Juergen was particularly interested in the architecture and the old Jeeps, Renaults and other cars in varying condition to be seen on the streets. We spent time just wandering around looking at the houses people lived in and the cars they drove. It had a great feel to it and we left with a very good impression of the place and the people.
When we left San Martin, heading north, the landscape changed – no more forested mountains with nestled lakes. We entered cattle country, complete with a few gauchos, although we missed the photo opportunity. This landscape has its own beauty. It is covered tall, golden, grasses swaying in the wind; varieties of low shrubs of various shades of green, some with yellow flowers; mountains with jagged peaks, possibly formed from ancient volcano plugs, or millennia of wind and water erosion.
After Junín de los Andes we joined Ruta Provincial 23 directly north, which is paved for about 20 Km and then back to ‘ripio’ (gravel). We got some great views of Volcan Lanin which is a beautiful, snow-capped cone that would rival Osorno for volcanic perfection in shape. The road is up and down, full of curves and sharp bends, and has lots of corrugations and large rocks, but the scenery is captivating. We began to look for a place to stop. Since we had climbed quite a lot we had a great view. Juergen spotted some green way down below us and then a rather large looking river. It was probably close to half an hour later that we reached that valley through a long serpentine descent. We found a track leading off the road to a very nice spot to park right next to the river. The sound of water running over pebbles is very calming, and we slept so well that we decided to stay another night, spending the day relaxing, and listening to the river.
From this point on the road followed the river valley. We crossed it several times, but continued to follow it. The river supported quite a lot of green, and the craggy, rocky mountain sides made an attractive backdrop to the vista. When we reached the town of Aluminé it had a bridge that signposted the river and we finally discovered that the river is also called Rio Aluminé. The town is quite attractive, with some interesting buildings and a large plaza/park. We stopped to buy some bread, tried (unsuccessfully) to use the local internet and then continued on.
A few kilometres from Aluminé we were very excited to notice Araucarias (monkey puzzle trees) growing. We had had so much trouble getting to, and driving in, the Parque Nacional Nahuebuta to see these trees – if only we had known! But they are really beautiful and we so enjoyed seeing them again. Without these majestic trees, the landscape would be almost barren along this part.
We visited the Lakes District late January, early February 2015. January is the peak holiday season for Argentinians, most of Chile is on vacation for the entire month of February (and quite a lot come across to Argentina) = probably not the best time to visit as it can be busy. Fortunately we didn’t feel like it was “overcrowded”; we had to share some popular look-outs with maybe 10-12 other people (not bus loads).
This is where the holiday season had it’s biggest impact: rangers regularly patrolled known sites for free/wild camping. We were sent away from a spot at Lago Correntoso, although we were allowed a window of 12 hours to vacate since we could prove that our camper is self-contained and that we wouldn’t leave anything behind. Campgrounds around the lakes are rather expensive, often asking 80-100 Pesos per person per night. There are a few free camping areas, some of which can become very crowded. Since these areas don’t have any sanitary installations, the toilet situation is rather unpleasant, as is the trash problem. Although overall we found this part of Argentina much less “trashy” than across the border in Chile. Somehow Chileans seem to be spoiled by their urban rubbish collection and think that they can leave their trash laying around in nature too – somebody will clean up after me…