Sapphire lakes that are absolutely still, mirroring the silent peaks around them. Cascades, like liquid smoke, plunging into icy rivers. A branching network of sandy trails, leading ever deeper into towering forests of thousand-year-old alerce trees…
This is Argentina’s Lake District, a vast, primeval wilderness huddled at the foot of the Andes in northwestern Patagonia, and home to Argentina’s greatest national park, the mammoth Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi. It’s an outdoorsman’s paradise, a scenic stunner where throngs of Argentines—and their globe-trekking counterparts—go for rock-climbing, hiking, skiing, swimming, and general getting away from it all, and it’s set amidst a mountain panorama so pristine your lungs swell immediately upon exposure.
To this unspoiled, glacial wonder, Bariloche is the undisputed gateway.
Stretched along the shore of Lago Nahuel Huapi, the town of San Carlos de Bariloche is many things to many people. For Argentina’s European immigrant community, it’s a sliver of home high in the Andes. For foodies, it’s a chocolate-chugging Mecca. But principally, for the hordes of nature lovers and adventure travelers who visit it, it’s a jumping-off point, a portal to some of the most unforgettable forays into the wilds of a still-unsullied Patagonia, and a kickoff to open-air excursions that leave one breathless before some of the sublimest scenery in the Americas.
Suggestions for what to do when you go? Glad you asked…
1. Experience Alpine Culture – in the Andes
When you first set foot in Bariloche’s Civic Center, with its Bern-inspired Swiss architecture and sweeping panorama of the adjoining lake, it’s easy to think your eyes are playing tricks on you. Is this some kind of Disneyfied uncanny valley, where someone’s transplanted an Alpine village brick by brick? But no, the city’s downtown is for real, an honest-to-goodness outpost of Mitteleuropa here in the Americas. Founded in the late 19th century by German immigrants crossing over from Chile, it was developed in the 1930s by the Argentine government, who played up the quaintness of the neo-Euro hamlet to attract rich vacationers from the capital.
Today, as you walk around “Little Switzerland,” as it used to be called, you can visit neo-Gothic cathedrals like that of San Carlos de Bariloche, as well as the excellent Museo de la Patagonia, which is chock full of regional artifacts. Venturing outside the city? The Colonia Suiza, situated some 15 miles to the west, is an authentic Swiss pioneer village, complete with chalets, where the locals cook up a mean curanto (a Patagonian specialty of layered meat and vegetables baked in a hole in the earth) twice a week. Guten Appetit!
2. Go Skiing in July
Bariloche is the sister city to Aspen, Colorado and St. Moritz, Switzerland, a fact that makes itself intensely felt from June to September, when a crush of vacationing Argentines and international ski fanatics descends on its world-class resorts to carve to their heart’s content.
The magnet drawing them is Cerro Catedral, which, with its heavy snowfalls, pedestrian lifts, snowboarding park, and diverse array of slopes for tenderfoot skiers and advanced plankers alike, is considered the best run in all of South America. The vistas from the peaks are glorious, and at the base of the hills are all manner of restaurants, rental shops, and lodging options to suit all manner of budgets. If you go in July, check out the National Snow Party, with its nighttime fireworks and torchlight parade. Also, be advised: the crowds can be intense during mid-August, when workers all over Argentina take their two-week winter vacations.
3. Pig out on Chocolate
One of the ski bunnies in your group have a sweet tooth for chocolate eggs? A big sweet tooth? Then head to the Civic Center on Easter morning, where the world’s largest Easter egg—28 feet high and weighing in at some four tons, according to the Guinness Book of World Records—is first unveiled to the crowd and then hacked to pieces by pickaxe-wielding cuisiniers in white chefs’ shirts.
The Great Egg is merely one manifestation of a chocolate culture in Bariloche that’s loco en extremo. And not surprisingly, since the cacao-and-sugar confections of this Andean town rival the best that Switzerland or Belgium has to offer. When European chocolatiers moved here in the aftermath of World War II, they established a tradition of sweet-making that’s still thriving today, in the shop windows and warm aromas that pervade the city center. White chocolate, chocolate creams, chocolate with rum, chocolate-covered cherries: everything a chocoholic needs to get her (or his) fix is here. Especially recommended: Mamuschka, with its Russian-doll motifs, and Rapa Nui, home of the “chocolate happy hour.”
4. Blaze Some Trails
Argentina’s Yellowstone: such might be an appropriate moniker for Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi, the mother of all national parks in Argentina, and without question the biggest in Patagonia. Sprawling over some 3,000 square miles, the park has enough natural attractions to keep trail-blazers busy for weeks. Highlights include Cerro Tronador (“Thunder Hill”), an extinct volcano capped with ice; the branching, crystalline waterways, which resemble Norwegian fjords; and, for when you need to refuel, Revolving Restaurant, a Hungarian-and-Swiss eatery atop Mount Otto where every table is a plate-glass-windowside seat.
The actual treks in Nahuel Huapi come in all shapes and sizes. Hardcore hikers will want to do the five-day Traverse, which requires a certified guide, owing to the difficulty of the terrain, while softer souls can undertake the three-day excursus to Cerro Tronador or the five-hour jaunt to Camp Frey. Wherever you go, be sure to take advantage of the refugios – lodges that serve as hiker hostels. All have campgrounds where you can pitch your canvas and use the kitchen facilities, free of charge.
5. Hit the Road
True to its gateway status, Bariloche is also a point of departure for excursions further afield in the Lake District – and beyond. It’s on these excursions that some of the area’s most arresting scenery is to be found, in addition to horseback riding, fishing, whitewater rafting, and other sports that will get your blood pumping.
Perhaps the most popular outing is the Circuito Chico, which loops around to the northwest through the gorgeous Llao Llao Peninsula. It’s a place of hushed coves, an enchanting myrtle forest, hidden ponds, and picture-perfect overlooks, with the snow-capped peaks of Cerros Lopez and Capilla standing silent in the distance. Alternatively, those drawn by the lake’s icy waters themselves can choose between two boat trips. One goes to Isla Victoria, a conifer-forested slab in the middle of Lago Nahuel Huapi where, it is said, Disney’s animators got the inspiration for Bambi; the other goes further afield, threading its way into one of the lake’s branches at Puerto Blest, whence travelers have the option of continuing on to Puerto Montt in Chile. If you elect to do the second trip, don’t miss the side jaunt to the emerald waters of Lago Frias, but in either case, bring plenty of food for the pelicans: they’re friendly.
6. Pamper Yourself, in Style
Built in 1939 by Alejandro Bustillo, the same architect responsible for Bariloche’s wood-and-stone Centro Cívico, the Llao Llao Hotel & Resort is the perfect way to rest your sore limbs after all that hiking and swimming. The hotel’s striking Swiss design, complete with lakeside views and separate cabins, makes it the last word in luxury (it’s a member of “Leading Hotels of the World,” a hospitality-industry elite), but it’s really the amenities that make it a must-visit. From fondue restaurants to a day spa to aromatherapy to an 18-hole golf course, everything you need to leach out that muscle tension is here. Nota bene: The hotel’s facilities are open for a fee even to non-guests, so don’t be shy about pampering yourself with that facial.