Imagine vast lakes of crystal clear waters surrounded by pine forests and enshrined in the snow-domed mountains of the Andes. Sounds like XIXth century romantic poetry? It’s just the Lake District, a landscape jewel in Patagonia covering both sides of the Chile-Argentina border. A favourite holiday destination for many nationals coming for outdoor activities, and backpackers avid for some breathtaking hiking and wild camping. It’s also attracting more and more people moving out of the big cities, especially from the province of Buenos Aires; we’ve met a surprising number of them.
We were not prepared for Patagonia. In fact, it wasn’t part of our route at all. We didn’t have warm enough clothes nor a tent. We weren’t psychologically ready to face the immensity of the Pampa plains and the magnitude of South America’s dorsal spine, the Andes. But once in Mendoza, we decided to push further South and spend 10 days in the Lake District of Argentina; the entrance hall to that wild wide world. We therefore took a bus to San Martín de los Andes and then smoothly hitchhiked our way until El Bolsón.
The Lake District of Argentina
This area is really not off-the-beaten-track. Because it’s much more accessible than the rest of Patagonia, it attracts many tourists all year round. Most tourists are Argentinians and Brazilians coming for winter sports or for the famous party scene of Bariloche.
During our 10 days in the lake district (in low season), we never felt the pressure of the crowd. What we did feel with great pleasure was the friendliness of the people, particularly in this area. We were received and helped out with smiles and eagerness, in a way that we would seldom encounter in the rest of our South American travels.
That gorgeous nature
I don’t know about you but I just can’t get enough of a landscape of lakes and mountains. We would find that again in the region of Huaraz, in Peru. But the Lake District of Argentina is tainted of a pale blue that has something appeasing to the soul.
The nature around gave their daily bread to the Indigenous peoples who lived here. It then provided its resources to the first inhabitants of the towns, who traded wood to make a living. Nowadays, it’s the same majestic Nature that attracts many tourists to the lake district and makes it one of the significant tourist spots in Argentina.
It is said that the foundation of towns in the area resulted from an agreement between the Argentine army and the local Indigenous groups. Nowadays, such an agreement still exists, and parts of the surrounding nature belong to Mapuche tribes.
More lakes and mountains? Visit the Huascaran National Park near Huaraz, Peru
When is the best time to visit the Lake District of Argentina
- Winter runs from May to October and can be pretty cold with lots of snowfalls. If you’re a skier or a snowboarder, any town here can receive you from mid-June to October.
- The southern summer lasts from December until March, with an average temperature of 25ºC (77ºF). It offers a stunning landscape which is ideal for hikers, mountain bikers, horse riders, birdwatchers, etc.
- The high season in tourism is December to February.
San Martín de los Andes
San Martín de los Andes is a wooden jewel cosily nestled on the shore of lake Lácar. Seen from above –and there are several occasions to see it from above– it still resembles the harbour the settlers built in 1898. It’s exceedingly cute and surprisingly Germanic, even though the first civilians to settle there where migrants from Syria and Lebanon. One more necessary proof that the world is an intricate mixture of origins.
The town provides everything you may need, a supermarket, trendy bars, cute cafes, even a beach by the lake. It’s small and sweet and the bus station is in the centre – you certainly won’t get lost.
What to do and see around San Martin de los Andes, Lake District, Argentina
Several protected areas right outside of town offer beautiful trails on the mountains. They’re accessible directly from the centre; you can literally leave town for a stroll and end up half an hour later in front of a jaw-dropping view.
- Enjoy the view from Mirador Arrayán
This viewpoint is closer and has no entrance fee. Go south of town and take a dirt road going up. The hike itself is nothing special but the view will appease you in a way that’s indescribable. Ideal to meditate and watch the sunset; bring a snack, a bottle of wine, a drawing kit or whatever you have to enjoy the moment.
Chill at Catritre beach
Along the Road 40, this is another great place to walk or hitch-hike to. That’s your go-to spot for a chilly swim. There are several camping sites nearby. You can also push further along the shore to the village and beach of Quila Quina.
Day trip to Laguna Rosales
If you have time for a day trip, we strongly recommend this sweet lake where horses run free. To get there, take the bus to a hamlet called Rincón Radales. You will need a card to ride the bus, the same “Sube” card they use in Buenos Aires; or alternatively ask a local if you can use theirs.
From the western part of the lake, another path goes South back to San Martín de los Andes. The whole loop should take no more than 4 hours so you have time to chill at the lake.
For all your hikes in South America, and particularly for this one to Laguna Rosales, we recommend using the maps.me app. It’s free, user-friendly and very precise.
Hike to Mirador Bandurrias
You’ll hike along a forest path offering several views on the lake piercing through the pine trees. When facing the lake, turn right until the end of the street, then left on the path going up.
At the top, Indigenous people require a small entrance fee and sell snacks and drinks. Get there early because you can really spend hours hiking there, in a lush inhabited valley and along the lake.
The viewpoint itself is spectacular, but you can also walk as far as La Islita or Playa Blanca; both have a camping site.
San Martín de los Andes turns into a serious ski resort in the winter time (late May to mid-September) with several skiing spots near town, especially on Cerro Chapelco.
In summer, you can get everything you would usually find and pay more for in Bariloche; sailing, kayaking, white water rafting, horse riding, zip-lining, mountain climbing… Just hit one of the agencies in town if you’re interested in these activities.
The Seven Lakes Road
San Martín is the starting point of the scenic “Ruta de los siete lagos“, the Road 40 leading to Bariloche. It’s a majestic route along seven lakes tucked in the midst of the snow-topped Andes mountains. You can ride it by car, motorbike or bike, or take an all-day bus tour that stops along the way. The view is so beautiful that some people decide to walk the almost 200 km that go through Villa la Angostura and end in Bariloche.
As for us, we decided to hitchhike. Our hosts told us that hitchhiking was easy in the region. It was a bright and sunny weather; we had all the time in the world; we were happy. So why not?
We didn’t stand long early morning right outside of town before a van picked us up. A couple from the province of Buenos Aires –the first of a long series!– drove us until the eco-hostel they were building close to Meliquina Lake.
The sun was strong and the traffic was sparse. When we wait, there’s always a time when we start thinking hitchhiking was the worst idea ever. The thought came to me after only 30 minutes, but left rapidly as Franco pulled over to pick us up.
He was in a rush, he said, he couldn’t stop along the way. Fair enough; at the moment, the only thing we wanted was to go. Franco is also from the province of Buenos Aires. Like many others, he decided to relocate in the Lake District to be close to the best landscapes of Argentina.
Fortunately, Franco is a photographer. Sure enough, he’s already taken hundreds of photos of every lake. But he just couldn’t not stop for more. So there we went, hopping and stopping from one viewpoint to the other…
Read more about Chile’s Lake District: The Islands of Chiloé
Villa la Angostura
Villa la Angostura is the smallest town on this stretch between San Martin de los Andes and El Bolson. It’s certainly not as famous as Bariloche and therefore not as crowded. But it provides the same Swiss Alpine feeling and a similar range of activities to a wealthier class of visitors.
It is certainly a nice stopover on the way, to enjoy a cold or hot drink and a stroll at the lake. But it’s also full of things to do if you decide to stay a few days. There are two lakes nearby and the beauties of the Nahuel Huapi National Park are right at the door.
What to do and see around Villa la Angostura, Lake District, Argentina
It’s normal to find yourself irresistibly attracted to this nature. It’s okay, don’t fight it off. Everywhere in this region, there are companies offering activities to bring you closer to nature.
In Villa la Angostura, you’ll have the occasion to do hiking, horseback riding, biking, sailing and kayaking. The nearby Cerro Bayo mountain offers in winter season (June to October) skiing, snowboarding and sledding opportunities for all levels; and in the summer months a beautiful hiking spot with a mesmerising panorama.
Visit another outdoor paradise: Baños, in Ecuador
Hike to Cascada Río Bonito
This is a short and painless hike along the Bonito river, just outside the hamlet of Puerto Manzano. It will bring you through the forest to a waterfall and a volcanic beach on the lake. Don’t forget to bring snacks and water.
Alternatively, there’s a tougher hike north from town to Cascada Inacayal. It’s more demanding but also immensely rewarding! On a clear day, you can see as far as the Chilean border and start dreaming of flying like a bird.
Explore Parque Nacional Los Arrayanes
The “arrayán” is the Chilean myrtle, a red tree endemic to the lake district of both Chile and Argentina. This national park, one of the smallest in the country, was created to preserve them.
The Los Arrayanes National Park is that peninsula on Lake Nahuel Huapi. It’s a 12-km trail that you can do either by foot or by (mountain) bike. If that’s too long for you, you can still reach a fantastic viewpoint at the start of the trail, and some beaches to relax and pretend you’re in the Caribbean. Wear several layers of bikini though, because the water here never gets really warm.
Soak in the spa
Spas (both indoor and outdoor), pools, mud baths, jacuzzis and saunas are high in Villa la Angostura. So go on and indulge, if that’s your thing and you’ve had your share of hiking already. They also offer different types of massages, for example with chocolate from the region!
Day trip to Villa Traful
If Villa la Angostura is like a small Bariloche, Villa Traful is a small La Angostura. Same Alpine chalet architecture, same location on a lake. So if the latter is still too much for you but you’re not ready to immerse yourself in some remote wild camping adventure yet, have a look at Villa Traful. There are several camping sites.
I doubt there is public transportation going there but you can hitchhike. The Road 40 has definitely more traffic than the one that goes through the forest. But if you’re lucky on that one, you’ll go directly to your goal through an amazing scenery.
Read more: Our wild camping story in the Lake District
(San Carlos de) Bariloche
Franco dropped us in the town centre and gave us a tip to use free WiFi. Not that we are such internet addicts on our travels, but we had to get in touch somehow with Emilio, who would host us during our stay here.
Bariloche is the biggest town in the area but cannot be called a city. The centre, directly on the shore of glacial Lake Nahuel Huapi, provides pubs and nightclubs which attract all Argentina. This can be easily avoided though, if you want to concentrate on the natural marvels around.
There are several mountains and lakes very accessible from town that offer some beautiful hikes for all levels. What we liked best about Bariloche is that there isn’t any entrance fee anywhere. You can revel in the purest mountain views for free!
With a speciality in craft beers, traditional barbecues and chocolate, it’s a dream destination for foodies and nature lovers alike.
You can easily hitchhike from one place to the other around Bariloche; many people do it and someone will always stop. But try to avoid the centre, as it’s harder to get out of it.
People refer to places according to how many km they are from the main square. It’s therefore common to say “I’m going to km 7, or 13”.
What to do and see around Bariloche, Lake District, Argentina
Ride a bike along the Circuito chico
It’s quite amazing to have such an outdoor area so close to town. It’s a place where the city meets the woods, the lakes and the mountains. Just follow Avenida Bustillo to the west until km 20 and the start of the peninsula. You’re entering a realm where you’ll find several forest trails, viewpoints and lake beaches.
We toured it by foot / hitchhiking, hiking some trails and stopping along wherever we wanted. It could be useful to get a map beforehand from the tourist office, or follow it on the maps.me app.
It would be a very bad idea not to climb Cerro Campanario for a breathtaking panoramic view. It’s a very steep 20-min walk through a Chilean-myrtle forest. The best recommended time to visit is 6 pm, when the crowds have deserted with the last funicular.
A circuito chico implies that there is also a circuito grande. That one requires a car and takes you through Villa Llanquin, Lake Traful and Villa la Angostura. More info on this page.
Hike to Refugio Frey
This is one of the most famous hikes around because it’s fairly easy, free, and offers several types of scenery; a forest, a waterfall, a plain of low vegetation and of course a mountain slope. Pack snacks, water and a wind jacket for this day hike. You can either take the bus or hitch a ride to the entrance near Villa Catedral.
Refugio Frey is a mountain refuge so you can spend a night there but you certainly won’t be alone. Alternatively, hike towards the lake to Playa Muñoz. At some point far beyond the forest, the path will split; it’s well signposted.
Beach time at Playa Bonita
This very pretty lake beach (hence the name) is only 8 km west from Bariloche centre. As usual, you can hitchhike there, but remember that it can be hard to get out of the centre. In doubt, grab a bus from anywhere on Avenida Exequiel Bustillo, the road flanking the shore.
In Bariloche, you need a ‘Sube‘ card to take the bus. Of course, it’s possible to just ask a local if you can use theirs. But if you plan on taking it often, you might as well get one from a shop. The same card is in use in San Martin de los Andes, Buenos Aires, Jujuy and several other towns.
And, of course, outdoor activities
Many people travel to Bariloche for its wide range of outdoor activities. Many. They come from all over Argentina, South America and the rest of the world for a burst of adrenaline in the amazing landscapes of the Nahuel Huapi National Park, the oldest national park in Argentina. What I mean to say is: don’t expect any kind of privacy, especially in the high season between December and February.
You can ski at Cerro Catedral, 20 km from town; do rafting with a company on Río Manso; kite surf, wind surf, paddle board and sail on Lake Nahuel Huapi. But also mountain biking, horse riding, rock climbing… Just inquire at the companies in town. As usual, it’s good to ask several of them to compare prices and services.
Our stay in Bariloche
Couchsurfing is full of surprises. After sleeping on families’ sofas, in a theatre, in a gated community, or having a flat just for us, here we are in a house made of mud-bricks (adobe) and wooden beams. The windows are re-purposed bus windows and there are beer bottles within the walls to let more light in. It’s full of shelves and hooks and corners, and there is a ladder to go to the second floor.
Emilio hasn’t built his house – he just rents it. But he bakes his own bread and receives us with the warmest smile ever. We’re not surprised to learn that he’s originally from the province of Buenos Aires and settled here for the beauty of the surrounding nature.
Read more about our stay at Emilio’s eco-house
The first non-indigenous inhabitants of El Bolsón were German immigrants who arrived from Chile during the colonisation of LLanquihue. But the village was especially marked by hippies migrating from Buenos Aires in the 1970’s, practising horticulture and making handicrafts.
For us, the “alternative” village of El Bolsón was a bit of a disappointment. The vibes still attract nowadays many travellers looking for a return to the earth, but they’ve also become a business; the place is invaded by many ‘eco-lodgings’, ‘eco-products’ and eco-anything and it doesn’t feel genuine. What’s worse, all viewpoints around town have an entrance fee, quite a novelty in South America. But you can still find some nice trekking possibilities.
Read more: Chile’s Lake Llanquihue & Volcan Osorno
What to do and see around El Bolsón, Lake District, Argentina
Guess what? Our hosts in El Bolsón were a couple from the province of Buenos Aires! It’s amazing, they’re everywhere around here!
Because they had been living there for a while already, they could tell us about the best local attractions.
Picnic on Lake Puelo
Our hosts brought us one day to Lake Puelo, 27 km South of town. It’s a regular weekend gateway for residents so make sure you arrive early if you go on the weekend. There’s a camping place selling snacks, drinks and hot water.
Mountain lakes are so peaceful! We enjoyed a hike around the shore, through a reforested area, until a secluded beach. Forest fires are common in the area unfortunately, and you can see burnt patches all around the lake.
You will pass on the way there Laberinto Patagonia, a giant labyrinth which seems rather cool on the pictures.
Crawl the microbreweries
You know it by now, the lake district is the biggest craft beer producer in Argentina, from San Martín de los Andes down to El Bolsón. In fact, the largest hop production in Argentina comes from this little town of 21,000 inhabitants. El Bolsón even organises a Hop Harvest Festival every February.
You could well spend a day tasting all the beers produced in the local microbreweries. But it’s not healthy to drink alcohol before 9 am, they say. During their first year living in El Bolsón, our hosts have done extensive research and their favourite beer is from Awka.
Get some souvenirs at the Artisans’ Fair
A hippy village wouldn’t be complete without an Artisans’ Fair. It’s on one side of Plaza Pagano every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. You’ll find handicrafts, homemade jams, cheap meals, local beers, etc. This “Feria artesanal” is a great occasion to test the friendliness of the people in this part of the world. It’s also your safest bet for yummy vegan empanadas.
We’ll always remember the Artisans’ Fair in El Bolsón as the place where Anna finally bought her mate after weeks talking about it.
Don’t know what mate is? Read about it here!
Hike along the Río Azul
The “Mirador del Azul“ is a very short hike from town, and perfectly signposted. Once up there, you can follow the path on top of the cliff, with the town on one side and the river on the other. We got down to the river, went off-road, got lost and were very happy.
We don’t recommend paying the entrance fee to the place called “Cabeza del Indio” (the Indian’s Head). It’s ridiculous to pay even a minimal amount just to imagine a face on a cliff! Skip it and imagine your own “Indians” wherever you want.
Hike to Cerro Piltriquitrón
Cerro Piltriquitrón –if you cannot say its name, call it ‘Piltri’ like locals do– is the one you see right next to town, when looking east. Well, it seems very close but it’s a 15-km hike to its top.
This is an intense full day trek that we didn’t feel like facing. One thing has to be said about El Bolsón; it rains most of the time and whatever the season. But if you feel hardy, pack your snacks, water (and a rain jacket) and go for it!
On the way, have a paying look at the Carved Forest (Bosque tallado), a collection of carvings on dead trees. Artists came from all over South America to participate and create this enchanted place. You can also get there by car. A short walk further, you’re already at a refuge which offers drinks, snacks and amazing views.
For a shorter, “friendlier” hike (see what I did there?), aim for the neighbouring Cerro Amico (see now?).
The Lake District being as it is Argentina’s outdoor paradise, there’s plenty to keep you busy in El Bolsón too. Many come here to go kayaking or white water rafting on Río Azul, or paragliding from the Piltri mountain.
The traditional question: Are you more a mountain or a beach person?
Could you spend one full week on a beach or in the mountain?
Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!
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