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Patagonia: In the lost land of the giants

The northern half of the myth-laden land Patagonia is full of deep blue lakes and temperate rainforests, dinosaur fossils and nomadic gauchos.

Patagonia: In the lost land of the giants
Image: AWL Images

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Getting lost can be a good thing. For some reason, I’d noted the name of the hotel in northern Patagonia — La Escondida — but hadn’t double-checked to make sure it was the only one. When I arrive and ask for my key, the reality dawns: I’m five hours south of my destination, hungry and worn out.

I change plans and stay put for the night. La Escondida means ‘the hidden one’. Perhaps it’s fate.

I wander outside to walk to a restaurant about half-a-mile away. A car pulls over.

“Want a lift, maestro?”

“Sure,” I say.

Patagonia slows Argentines down; makes them friendlier, more generous. Ten minutes later, my new amigo, Lautaro, and I are eating salmon empanadas (stuffed bread) and trout sorrentinos (huge, round ravioli) with wild mushrooms, and guzzling some good local Sauvignon Blanc. The restaurant is supposed to be closed but the waiters have opened the kitchen early for us.

During dinner, I tell Lautaro, who’s from the city of Rosario, I’ve taken the wrong road. He assures me one road is as good as the next, and anyway, in Patagonia everything is the same.

I’d started my trip into Neuquén Province at the state capital, also called Neuquén. Landing there after a bumpy, 90-minute flight from Buenos Aires, I’d picked up a hire car and hit Route 22 and Route 237 heading south west towards the lake district, hugging the north Patagonian Andes.

Just 20 minutes out of the airport, I’m free of the suburbs and driving across a brown, dusty plain. For rational people, the Patagonian Steppe is a repellent badland. Its native flora is harsh and thorny. The soil is dry and rocky. The wind is flattening and the sun sears the skin. But this very harshness makes for visual treats. As I drive, I watch dust devils dancing over the tablelands, and the shadow of cumulus clouds drift along the castellated canyons. At Picún Leufú, ‘city of the wind’, I feel my car veer as it’s punched by the gusts. The wind in Patagonia has mythic status; aviator and author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said it made his small planes fly backwards. The reason for this force is simple: it blows in from hundreds of miles away, sometimes from Antarctica, and its path meets no obstacle whatsoever.

The hue of the land changes slowly. Olive-green gives way to rust-orange as ravines open up in the crust, and then huge lakes and dammed rivers add surreal splashes of blue and green in a place where rain hardly ever falls.

Neuquén Province is one of the world’s great centres for palaeontology. As I turn a bend, I see a huge, mean-looking dinosaur towering over the road. A plastic one, with a sign and an arrow telling me to go to the fossil park at Villa El Chocón, a small dam-workers’ settlement, where I while away a couple of hours. The dark-red sedimentary rocks here have preserved bones and footprints of the beasts that roamed here in the Cretaceous period, about 100 million years ago. At the Museo Paleontológico Ernesto Bachmann, I see the fossilised remains of the 50ft-long, 10-ton Gigantosaurus carolinii, the big brother of Tyrannosaurus Rex.

In 1987, at nearby Plaza Hunicul, a fossil-hunter found the vertebrae of Argentinosaurus huinculensis, a herbivore believed to have weighed over 100 tons — the equivalent of a 20-strong herd of elephants. Its thighs were as big as a bus and its backbone could have served as a Big Dipper. The landscape around the humdrum little town is lunar, and you have to close your eyes to imagine this huge, lumbering creature peacefully grazing on plants and leaves — at least until the Gigantosaurus came along to spoil dinner.

Apart from the occasional buzzard, no beasts interrupt the rest of my journey, and while the dun-coloured steppe is mesmerising, it’s a relief to see the snow-coloured peaks on the horizon: the Andes — complete with forests, lakes, and life.

Into the lakes

After a good night’s sleep in the wrong — but welcoming — ‘hidden’ hotel, I aim north. I refuel in Villa La Angostura, an ersatz alpine town that the second-home crowd from Buenos Aires think is adorable but which would fail to impress most European travellers. From here, I drive along one of Argentina’s most celebrated backroads. The Ruta de los Siete Lagos (Seven Lakes Road) runs between Villa La Angostura and San Martín de los Andes, as it winds through the Andean Precordillera for nearly 70 miles. The road used to follow Route 234, until in 2004 this was absorbed by Route 40 (Argentina’s great western highway) — diverted through the lake district in a bid to boost tourist traffic. And while it touches seven lake shores, it actually passes close to a dozen lakes; all distinct, all beautiful. These cool, blue pools are the remnants of huge glaciers that melted only a few thousands years ago (in Patagonia’s south, they’re still withdrawing).

Fringed by temperate rainforest, dominated by the southern beech, they were — until the late 19th century — off the map for all but the most intrepid travellers. It was explorer Francisco Pascacio Moreno — known in Argentina as El Perito (The Expert) who first explored and mapped the lake lands in the 1870s. As a thank you, the government rewarded him with a huge tract of land. In 1903, Moreno donated it to the state so the Nahuel Huapi National Park — the oldest and largest park in the Argentine lake district — could be established.

The first lake I spot is named after its surroundings, Nahuel Huapi, and said to be home to a Nessie-like serpent called Nahuelito. I see no sign of him, but do spot Bariloche, the region’s main city, many miles away on the opposite coast. Nahuel Huapi’s surface area is 210sq miles; it has waves on it like an inland sea and, under a cloudy sky, looks forbidding.

I park up at Lago Espejo (Mirror Lake) and head into the woods. The weather is cooler and far more humid than on the steppe and I can hear the cheeky call of the chucao tapaculo, a thrush-sized bird that lives in the undergrowth in the beech forests. A couple of tents are pitched on the grey-sand beach beside the lake and I can see a backpacker barbecuing his breakfast and sipping yerba mate tea from a gourd.

The lake district is the area of the Patagonian Andes closest to Buenos Aires and Neuquén has long been a favourite with students, school groups and budget travellers. This makes it more authentically Argentine than the far south, where the expensive flights and hotels tend to draw mainly wealthy gringos. Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara passed through the lake region on his famous motorcycle trip of 1952, the first of many gap year dreamers to choose the Andes for a rite of passage.

I’m here just before Christmas, when the local holiday season kicks in. It’s peaceful in the forest, but walking is quite a trial — temperate rainforest left to itself is full of fallen trunks and knotted branches and I have to clamber to make headway. I spot woodpeckers working high up and turkey vultures wheeling above the clearings. Soon, I have very little idea where the lake is; it’s easy to become disoriented in these path-less forests. Eventually, I pop out on a shore where Andean geese are feeding, a breeze rippling the lake.

At Lago Villarino I stop on a lay-by and take in the deep blue of another flora-fringed lake; there’s the red anemone-like notros, the yellow michay, the common chilco, with its purple heart surrounded by red arteries, indigenous coligüe bamboo, the myrtle-related arrayán tree and a few monkey puzzles. Some of the beech trees are dotted with orange, golf ball-like llao llao fungus. On the opposite side of the road are large nalca ferns, dripping with water from a stream.

Villarino is the most impressive lake, set in what looks like a gigantic amphitheatre of mountains, one of them topped by an anvil-like flat rock. There’s even snow on the lower peaks. At Lake Falkner — named after a Jesuit missionary from Manchester who explored Patagonia in the 18th century — I can see the anvil from the other side. Here, too, is a long, sandy beach and trees suited to hammocks and picnics. A little further along, I find a waterfall split in two by a jutting rock, and sit beneath it for half an hour, the lowering sun on my face.

Alone on the range

The Spaniards pretty much ignored the southern Andes, lacking as they did any silver or gold mines. Before the Argentines settled in the region at the end of the 19th century, the native Mapuche were the rulers of these lands. Place names still evoke their memory — nahuel means ‘tiger’; neuquén means ‘drafty’; hua hum, the name of the pass linking Argentina and Chile, means ‘place where it rains a lot’ — and to the north of the Seven Lakes Road are reserves, and even ski resorts, run by Mapuche communities.

After a long road trip, there’s nothing like a home on the range. After passing through San Martín de los Andes — another faux-alpine township the locals love — I take a right onto an unpaved back road. I’ve been told to look for the Cerro de los Pinos estancia (estate), but it’s taking forever to find it.

The sun’s setting — the ‘golden hour’ for photography; I stop to snap a striking, arrowhead-shaped mountain. I’m back on the steppe, but a warmer, less windy place than where the dinosaur bones were found, with Andean foothills visible to the west. I spot a gaucho riding — or, by the looks of the taut reins and prancing hooves, breaking in — his horse. I ask him to point the way. He tells me to follow and we gallop off to a tree-lined avenue at the end of which is the estancia’s entrance.

The Cerro de los Pinos was founded by French settler Santiago de Larminat in 1909. It’s still a working ranch, rearing both cattle and sheep and now run by Santiago’s grandchildren. There’s a chapel, the ruins of a blacksmith’s and a chichería — a press for making the local apple-based grog, chicha. I spot an ancient wooden bridge that Santiago had built over one of the rivers, now rotten and falling apart.

A cosy, tree-shaded corner of the 48,000-acre estate is occupied by a smart lodge, Tipiliuke, famed among anglers for its proximity to two rivers bursting with trout, the Chimehuín and Quilquihue. My host, Kevin Tiemersma, an Argentine of Dutch extraction, shows me how to read the river. He talks about giving the fly ‘action’ — and looking for movements, currents, light, air pressure and each fish’s daily habits. With every cast he seems to reel in a big brown or a rainbow.

From high up, I note the rivers here are not single, flowing lines, but a maze of watercourses. The play of the light on the fast-flowing Chimehuín, framed by the still, tree-less grasslands, is stunning. Some travellers protest the Patagonian Steppe is monotonous, but it’s not — it’s merely a question of looking and watching the moods change.

In the early evening, we barbecue. I help out, carving the huge flank steaks and ribs. Patagonian lamb is sublime, but the beef, from the estancia, is as good as anything I’ve eaten in boastful Buenos Aires. We splash it with chimichurri, the herby-vinegary sauce of the pampas, and heaps of salt, working up a thirst for all the Malbec we’re going to drink.

Field flicker woodpeckers and pretty monjita birds flit around the scrub when I set off for a solo walk on my last day. I walk high above the river — blueish, with brown patches, glistening as it snakes through green-and-gold grassland. Framing it all, low, dun-coloured hills and a dark grey sky; storms often threaten but rarely come during my visit.

The land becomes more classically Patagonian: tufts of tough coirón grass and prickly, dome-shaped neneo bushes. Everything appears created to withstand harsh winds and chill winters. If this region’s glaciers, forests and lakes are its vivid brushstrokes, then the dizzyingly vast steppe is the canvas. But I’m heading for a landmark: the top of the dramatic peak I saw on my drive in. It’s the estancia’s namesake, Tipiliuke, a Mapuche word meaning ‘upside-down heart’. The climb’s tough, the wind really beginning to whip as I scramble up a steep face of scree and loose rocks. But at the summit, I’m higher than anything else around me — with the great flat plain on one side, curving off all the way to the Atlantic, and the Andes range on the other, with its weather and its white peaks. I’m alone for a while, and then a group of horseback riders arrive, having left their mounts at the foot of the upside-down heart. It’s too windy to talk, so we all sit around, beneath a large cross, gazing out into empty space.

ESSENTIALS

Getting there
British Airways flies daily between Heathrow and Buenos Aires. Iberia flies twice daily between Heathrow and Buenos Aires, via Madrid. KLM flies thrice weekly between several UK airports and Buenos Aires, via Amsterdam. Air Europa flies daily from Gatwick, via Madrid. ba.com   iberia.com   klm.com   aireuropa.com
Average flight time: 14h.

Within Argentina, LAN Argentina flies at least daily between Buenos Aires’ domestic airport, Jorge Newbery (21 miles from the international airport, so allow four hours for a transfer) and Neuquén city and Chapelco (for San Martín de los Andes) airports. lan.com

 

Getting around
You’ll need a car for this trip — a 4WD is recommended if you aim to stray from the main roads.

 

When to go
The weather is mildest from late October to early April. January and February are peak travelling times for Argentines, so the shoulder months of December and March are best of all. Winter (July-September) can be dank and miserable.

 

Need to know
Visas: Ninety-day stays are issued on arrival in Argentina. A passport with more than six months’ validity is required.
Currency: Peso (ARS). £1 = ARS8.73.
Health: No vaccinations required for northern Patagonia.
International dial code: +54.
Time: GMT -3.

 

Places mentioned
La Escondida. hosterialaescondida.com.ar
Tipiliuke. tipiliuke.com

 

More info
Patagonia: A Cultural History, by Chris Moss. RRP: £16.09. (Oxford University Press)
Patagonia Footprint Handbook. RRP: £14.99. (Footprint Travel Guides)
Moon Handbooks Patagonia. RRP: £14.99. (Moon Handbooks)
Full Circle, by Luis Sepúlveda. RRP: £10.95. (Lonely Planet Publications)
turismo.gov.ar
neuquentur.gob.ar

 

How to do it
Wexas Travel has a seven nights in Patagonia from £2,699 per person, including all international and domestic flights, two nights at Tipiliuke, two nights at La Escondida, three nights at Hub Porteño in Buenos Aires, car hire in Patagonia, lodge activities and selected meals. wexas.com

DIY: If you’re on a tight budget, you can ride on buses and hire a car in Villa La Angostura (seven days’ hire costs around £350-£400) to drive the six miles of the Seven Lakes Road (the lakes, south to north, are Nahuel Huapi, Espejo, Correntoso, Escondido, Villarino, Falkner, Machónico and Lácar). There are excellent camping facilities along the highway. See solocampings.com.ar for listings.

 

Published in the Jan/Feb 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)