Returning to Argentina: Lakes District

Argentina sign in volcanic ash

Argentina sign at border, almost buried in volcanic ash

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!

Lago Lacar and San Martin de los Andes

Lago Lacar, looking towards San Martin de los Andes

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.

Rio Aluminé

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.


Practical Information:

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).

Camping

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…

Yasha

dare2go's human navigator (we're not lost because there's nowhere particular we have to be) alongside our Nexus 7 tablet, writer and editor of our blog, first cook and loving wife. Teaching English as a second language when possible.

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35 Responses

  1. David says:

    Yes Jurgen….it is always a great joy when you manage to make contact with like minded souls who are prepared to share their travel experiences….should you ever need any info on outback travel in OZ, please let us know. We spent five years organising yearly tagalongs with several vehicles into amazing outback country there.

    • Juergen says:

      One day we plan to ship our living quarters, the container, back to Australia on a different chassis (or get an old Isuzu fire engine in Australia, but that’ll be probably more expensive compared to buying one in GB). So yes – it might happen…
      Which company did you rent your vehicle from for South America? Just curious…

  2. David says:

    Juergen, thanks so much for all that input, it is so very much appreciated. We do feel that this first visit will be more of a looksee for us and that we will plan more time with our own vehicle when we plan a future trip to include other countries in South America. Nearer the time we will be in touch to see if there is any chance we can meet up with you.
    Thanks again for the input it will go a long way to ensuring we get to see and appreciate as much as we can.

    • Juergen says:

      David, I have since decided to expand my reply a bit and turn it into our next blog post – so stay tuned. Half the work is already done, don’t you agree?

  3. Amanda & David says:

    Thanks so much for all your posts. We have followed you on Facebook ever since we started out on our travels from Australia 12 months ago. We have hired a 4 wheel drive camper in BA and plan to travel in Argentina and Chile over a 4 month period from November until end of February 2016. If you have ant addition “must do’s/sees” we would be most grateful to hear from you and maybe we could find the opportunity to meet. Our thanks and best wishes.

    • Juergen says:

      Oh, that’s a tough question! At least if I want to keep it brief… ;)
      From BA go to Iguazu Falls, although unfortunately as Australians we need a costly visa for Brazil, the Argentinean side offers the close-ups, Brazilian side gives a better impression of the sheer size of the falls. Careful with police Entre Rios, they have a bad reputation, basically remain tough. With a local rental on local plates it should be a bit easier…
      The North-West of Argentina is probably a must-see region where you could spend the entire 3 months, a lot to see, stunning landscapes, fairly easy and safe to find free camping… Salta, Cafayate, Ruta 40 are all covered in our reports . From late December onwards it might rain more in this region.
      San Pedro de Atacama , and its surrounds, in Chile is nice, but I would probably skip it – too far to drive.
      We missed driving across Paso de Agua Negra and still regret it, as the colours of the mountains are quite amazing! This road will disappear in a few years as Chile just contracted out the construction of road tunnel under it – it’s planned to become the main thoroughfare for all commercial traffic from Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina into Chile. So it’s now or never!
      The Lakes district I would avoid in January, or plan to drive through quickly, as January is main vacation time for Argentinians. Campgrounds are usually full and noisy into the whee hours of the night – everywhere in Argentina, the closer to cities the worse.
      “Carretera Austral” (our archive 2006-09) in Southern Chile is for most people one of the highlights of the trip, so try to include it. If you drive it you could also visit the southern Lakes District of Chile, which is quite nice (but will be busy, Chile’s main summer holidays are in February).
      Maybe start with Iguazu, go across the Chaco (mozzies everywhere, but also many birds and other wildlife) to Salta, Ruta 40 (and some places left and right, like Valle de la Luna ) down towards Uspallata, than cross Paso Libertatores into Chile (basically the trip we did recently). Somehow this pass is more spectacular coming from Argentina as you have the mountains right in front of you all way up. The Chilean site goes down quickly and then follows a narrow valley. From Santiago I would follow the coast up north a bit to La Serena (beautiful centre!), visit the Valle de Elqui, and then cross back via Paso Agua Negra into Argentina. You’ll be double tracking a short section of Ruta 40, but you can stay, one time or the other, a bit closer towards the mountains (part gravel roads).
      I would then follow Ruta 40 south, as far as I could comfortably go. But don’t stick to it all the way, we found the roads closer to the mountains more interesting and less busy!
      We don’t find the Atlantic coast of Argentina very inspiring, except for the whales on Valdez, but you’ll in the wrong season for them. If you like travel back towards BA via the coast, in February when holiday season is winding down! PS: Montevideo in Uruguay is, for a city, quite nice – just across the river from BA.
      Ghee – this got a bit long.

      EDIT: don’t forget to bring cash US Dollars . Otherwise you can get them in Montevideo at ATMs. The rate is right now close to 15 Pesos/Dollar!

      • Juergen says:

        Download http://www.ioverlander.com/ (iPhone or Android app) for camping locations, and check our current list of camping spots (or better: save it to harddisk or tablet).

        • Juergen says:

          As too meeting us: we haven’t planned that far ahead yet! Keep in touch (via Facebook or ‘Current Location’ in left sidebar of website) – always keen to meet fellow travellers! ;)

  4. What beautiful landscapes you have shown us, made all the memorable by connecting with a local who showed you such hospitality. That is the experience that makes travel truly special.

    • Yasha says:

      We were so impressed by the friendliness and hospitality shown by locals in Argentina – after the scenery, this excited us the most ;-)

  5. I really want to go to Argentina- I know I’d love it- but did not know they had a lake district. One more thing for the itinerary.

    • Yasha says:

      Oh, you really must. And we’ve shared our second part on Argentina this week with more beautiful landscapes.

  6. I’ve stayed in the Lake District in Chile but never made it over to Argentina. I was wondering what it was like there and now I know. :)

  7. I want to go to Argentina and specifically Patagonia (as well as wine producing regions) so found this to be very interesting. I’m not a camper at all – were there nice places to stay in these towns? The hospitality you were shown in San Martín de los Andes was amazing!

    • Yasha says:

      There are lots of places to stay for all types of budgets in all the major places we visited. However, if you get onto the less travelled roads then it’s a bit further between hotels… That’s why we like to take our home with us – it’s not really like camping since we have a built in bathroom, kitchen, bed – all the comforts of home.
      We were very grateful for the hospitality in San Martin.

  8. I think meeting fellow travelers and swapping stories, tips and laughs is one of our favorite things about travel There’s a real sense of community among travelers and, of course, the common love for the journey and the discoveries. Thanks for introducing us to this beautiful area.

    • Yasha says:

      Hi Anita – it’s true, there is a real community amongst travellers and we all love to share our stories and words of advice and recommendations with other travellers. Sometimes on our travels we have started to feel a bit lonely because it had been so long since we had had the opportunity to do this. Thankfully that is not the case at the moment.

  9. I can see how you would want to return to the Lakes District given it’s natural beauty.

    • Yasha says:

      There is so much to see on this huge continent that returning seems to be unlikely, but the way we travel, you never know…

  10. Such stunning scenery and beautiful people. This is what makes a perfect combination Thanks for adding about traveling in February as we will avoid the crowds when we can and both Chile and Argentina are very high up the list.

    • Yasha says:

      Yes, Paula, it is the perfect combination! To make it clear, January is the major holiday month for Argentina and February for the Chileans, so good to avoid both months in this part of those countries. However, on our first trip to South America we were in the far south of the continent in both countries at that time of the year and, except in major tourist hubs like El Calafate, it was not so bad. Although, that was in 2009, so maybe as places get to be more accessible that has changed…

  11. noel says:

    The landscape is stunning, it reminds me of California in most of the beautiful landscape and it makes sense since they are both Mediterranean zone areas and have the same types of typography

    • Yasha says:

      I hadn’t thought of that, but you are right. We were always stunned by the beauty of the Californian landscape when we travelled North America in 2006.

  12. Susan Moore says:

    What a marvelous adventure you are undertaking! The scenery is beautiful and you have met such kind people along the way. Slow travel has its challenges but overall you get to experience so much more along the way, in both culture and nature.

  13. Donna Janke says:

    Absolutely beautiful scenery. I’m impressed with the hospitality of the owner of that outdoor store. That has to make for a special experience.

    • Yasha says:

      It certainly did, Donna. We were so grateful for such a show of hospitality. It is sometimes quite hard to find places to overnight in cities and towns – often we don’t fit into campgrounds either. And we really enjoyed the trout!

  14. We did the Seven Lakes Drive a few years ago. It is one of the prettiest routes we have ever travelled. Like you we found the people at San Martin de Los Andes, where we stayed for a couple of nights wonderfully friendly.

  15. Wow! The lakes and mountains remind me so much of scenery in Wyoming and Montana. Truly a glimpse of God’s country in reverse latitude! And what lovely people you met on this leg of the journey – so hospitable and kindred spirits. It’s always so validating to make these kinds of connections. And it’s nice, I’ll bet, to have these positive experiences layer over your previous impressions of Argentina. Enjoyed this. :)

    • Yasha says:

      You are so right, Betsy. It is just delightful to have returned to Argentina and to have had all of these truly positive experiences. And even though we are now in Chile again, we have plans to return to Argentina yet again, a bit further north. And there are still more positive experiences from this past trip to come on our blog. It was just too much for one post. Glad you enjoyed sharing our journey.

  16. As we have a new Brazilian daughter-in-law it’s just a matter of time before I get into Argentina. Thanks for giving me some ideas on areas outside of the major cities that would be wonderful to visit.

    • Yasha says:

      Isn’t it great how the world has become smaller and relationships are forming between people from all countries. South America is interesting all over, but we were particularly happy to enjoy this part of Argentina so much. And there is still more to come…

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