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Glacial Lakes, Ancient Forests, and Snow-Capped Volcanoes: The Ultimate Patagonia Road Trip

By Nora Walsh

Dec 5, 2019

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Brazo Norte Viewpoint at Arrayanes National Park overlooks Nahuel Huapi Lake and Fray Menendez Island.

Photo by Diego Grandi/Shutterstock

Brazo Norte Viewpoint at Arrayanes National Park overlooks Nahuel Huapi Lake and Fray Menendez Island.

This road trip tops lists for a reason: The fairy-tale scenery comes with adrenaline-spiking nature adventures, authentic South American culture, and world-class hospitality.

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Stretching across Argentina and Chile in the northern reaches of Patagonia, the wondrous Lake District is one of the most epic self-drive journeys in all of South America. A network of scenic roads and highways winds through the region’s wild national parks, fabled lakes, icy peaks, and trout-filled rivers. Charming Andean villages recall the homelands of the area’s Bavarian settlers, and top-end lodges offer peaceful respite and lakefront vistas to unwind after a day of action-packed adventures.

An ideal trip would combine both countries and can start in either Argentina or Chile depending on the itinerary, but it must conclude in the country of origin to return the rental car. The following circuit clocks over 600 miles, which can be covered actively in one week, or if time allows, in three weeks at a leisurely pace. The Lake District is teeming with destinations worth exploring, but we’ll focus on the most iconic sojourns. For assistance in creating a more personalized itinerary, contact premier Buenos Aires–based travel outfitter Mai 10.

Llao Llao Resort Golf & Spa has earned a reputation as a favorite among U.S. presidents visiting Argentina.

Day one: Horseback riding and sundowners

People come from near and far to Bariloche, the adventure capital of Argentina, to hike, ski, sail, raft, ride horses, and fly-fish in the surrounding national park’s many mountains, rivers, and lakes. The city itself has a distinctly European character with lovely alpine-inspired architecture, craft chocolate shops, and a vibrant microbrewery scene thanks to a mix of German, Swiss, and Italian immigrants who settled in the area. Check into Llao Llao Resort Golf & Spa, the region’s landmark mountain lodge, which has earned a reputation as a favorite among U.S. presidents visiting Argentina. Its modern Ala Moreno wing has scenic lake and volcano views. For outdoor enthusiasts, the options are endless. Golf at Llao Llao, sail Lake Nahuel Huapi, hike Mount Tronador volcano, and ski the slopes of Cerro Catedral. Saddle up at Estancia Peuma Hue for a horseback ride or go condor-watching at Las Buitreras. Grab a beer at Cerveza Patagonia for a sunset view over Nahuel Huapi, and sample handmade chocolate treats at VanWynsberghe and Mamuschka.

Las Balsas Relais & Châteaux in Villa La Angostura allows great access to numerous outdoor activities.

Day two: Sailing and a local meal

Argentina’s upscale resort town of Villa La Angostura oozes alpine-style charm with wooden architecture and an emerald forest backdrop. Set on the northwestern shores of Lake Nahuel Huapi, Villa La Angostura is a quaint enclave ripe for outdoor adventure. Make your home base Las Balsas Relais & Châteaux or the century-old luxury lodge Correntoso Lake & River Hotel. Pop over to Los Arrayanes National Park to explore a 50-acre grove of 300-year-old arrayán trees, the only one of its size in the world. On the lake, sail to Machete Fjord, a hidden spot with colorful volcanic sands, river cascades, and a cathedral of coihue trees. In winter, join local Argentines as they ski the nearby Cerro Bayo. For a fresh, flavorful meal, head to Tinto Bistro restaurant, owned by Martin Zorreguieta (the brother of Queen Maxima of Holland), where you can dine on succulent Patagonian rib eye and locally-caught trout.

Gauchos herd cows in the shadow of the Lanín volcano.

Day three: Eight lakes and storybook scenery

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Get your camera ready. The 66-mile Route of the Seven Lakes crosses two national parks in Argentina, Nahuel Huapi and Lanín, as well as eight glistening lakes: Nahuel Huapi, Correntoso, Espejo, Escondido, Villarino, Falkner, Machónico, and Lácar, with the option of looping in six more. Soak up the storybook scenery of forests, lakes, and mountains as you travel one of the most beautiful roads on the planet. Give yourself plenty of time to make stops along the way, including Cascada Vullignanco, a 65-foot waterfall just before Lake Faulkner, and Pil Pil lookout to enjoy panoramic views of Lake Lácar. Consider a stopover to fish for trout at Boca del Correntoso (one of the shortest rivers in the world), sunbathe on the inlet of Lake Espejo Chico, or scuba dive Lake Traful to explore a submerged forest of more than 50 cypress trees that are 100 feet tall.

Tipiliuke Lodge is a 50,000-acre working cattle ranch known for world-class fly-fishing.

Day four: Outdoor adventure and barbecue

Think of San Martín de los Andes as Bariloche’s more attractive younger sibling. It provides all the same opportunities for adventure, but with few crowds and a lot more charm. Nestled between two lenga-laden crests on the shores of Lake Lácar, the atmospheric town has an air of a Swiss ski village thanks to its chalet-style architecture, chocolatiers, bakeries, breweries, and local shops. Don’t miss the family-owned Colección GEORG modern art gallery to browse evocative oil paintings, nature photography, and silverwork before checking into Tipiliuke Lodge, a 50,000-acre working cattle ranch known for world-class fly-fishing. Here you can experience a traditional Argentine asado (barbecue). In the surrounding environs, hike mountain trails carved by the indigenous Mapuche community, horseback ride with gauchos (Argentine cowboys), learn polo with a pro at El Desafio, and in winter, ski the slopes of Mount Chapelco.

&Beyond Vira Vira, a 55-acre estate on the banks of the Liucura River, offers numerous outdoor activities, including heli-skiing.

Day five: Heli-fishing and white-water rafting 

Pucón, in Chile, draws comparisons to Jackson Hole or Banff, and for good reason. The adventure hub sits on the shores of Lake Villarrica in the shadow of the majestic Villarrica volcano and provides a plethora of outdoor activities: hiking, biking, rafting, kayaking, and skiing. Bed down at &Beyond Vira Vira, a 55-acre estate on the banks of the Liucura River. This Relais & Châteaux lodge has an organic garden and on-site dairy factory that produces six types of cheeses, served at its farm-to-fork restaurant. Hop in the R66 helicopter stationed on property for high-flying activities, including heli-skiing, heli-fishing, and fly-overs of Villarrica volcano’s impressive lava crater. For those who prefer to remain at sea level, over 20 expert-led excursions take guests on intrepid treks through towering monkey puzzle forests in Villarrica and Huerquehue national parks and white-water rafting down the Trancura River.

Huilo Huilo Biological Reserve has beautiful hiking trails and a prime view of the thundering Huilo Huilo waterfall.

Day six: Hot springs and hiking trails

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Driving from Pucón to Panguipulli, stop off at Termas Geométricas, a public hot spring, resembling a Japanese onsen, set in a woodland canyon. A maze of scarlet walkways suspended over a rushing stream connects a network of 17 slate thermal pools. After a good, long steam, cruise Chile’s Seven Lakes Road at the basin of the Valdivia River. Keep an eye out for horse races held on the side of the road by local huasos (cowboys). Wind through a series of larger-than-life volcanoes and tranquil lakes, including Panguipulli, Calafquen, Riñihue, Pirihueico, Neltume, Pellaifa, and Pullinque, each one as enchanting as the last. Huilo Huilo Biological Reserve has beautiful hiking trails, while lakes Pellaifa and Calafquen are perfect stops for an afternoon swim. Ruka Newen Zomo is a must-visit to taste local Mapuche food like piñones (a sacred fruit), changle (mushroom) empanadas, and phichkiu stew.

The Church of Nércon is located on Chiloé Island, about a 25-minute ferry ride from Pargua.

Day seven: A national park and a detour 

Before heading straight for high-octane adventures in nearby national parks, stroll through Puerto Varas to appreciate its gingerbread-style architecture (a result of its German heritage) and amble its lakeside promenade with views of volcanoes Osorno and Calbuco. Hang your hat at Hotel Awa, a designer retreat surrounded by a 50-acre estate overlooking Lake Llanquihue. Trek among 3,000-year-old cypress trees at Alerce Andino National Park, raft the Petrohué River in a canyon carved by recent volcanic eruptions, and jump in a seaplane for a bird’s-eye view of the impressive topography. For an epic culinary experience, take a boat to the llama-inhabited island of Chaullin. Here you can experience an authentic curanto en hoyo, an indigenous cooking technique where local seafood, pork, and potatoes are separated by Chilean rhubarb leaves and buried with hot stones to cook underground for hours before being served.  

If time allows, take a two- to three-day detour to the windswept archipelago of Chiloé by hopping on a 25-minute ferry from Pargua (roughly 50 miles from Puerto Varas; departs every 20 minutes). The Big Island, cloaked in forests and folklore, was once colonized by Spanish Jesuits. Enjoy its mix of seafaring indigenous culture and Hispanic traditions, evident in its unique assortment of UNESCO-listed wooden chapels. Stay at the recently expanded Tierra Chiloe, whose design is a nod to the island’s stilted fishermen’s homes. Take to the sea in the hotel’s private boat to explore the islands of Chelin and Quehui or pick a horse from the stables and ride to Pullao Bay to dig up clams for dinner. Stop by the MAM modern art museum in the countryside of Castro, and drive to Cucao to see Muelle de las Almas (Dock of Souls), an art installation in Parque Nacional Chiloé inspired by native mythology. Visit the artisan market in Dalcahue to sample delicious seafood empanadas, and make a reservation at the six-table Cazádor for outstanding local cuisine.

The design of the Tierra Chiloe resort draws from the fishermen’s homes on the island.

What to bring

Clothing and gear. Northern Patagonia experiences four distinct seasons in direct opposition to the Northern Hemisphere. Since weather can be unpredictable on any given day, dress in layers of moisture-wicking performance wear.

  • For lounging at lakes, bring a bathing suit, dry bag (or Ziploc bags), microfiber towel, sunglasses, reusable water bottle, bug spray, and sunblock.
  • For trekking, pack a wind- and water-resistant soft-shell jacket, fleece, trekking pants, broken-in waterproof hiking boots, daypack, sun hat, and stretchy fabric buff for added warmth under your hat.
  • For high-altitude climbs, consider trekking poles, a winter hat, waterproof gloves, a headlamp, and meal replacement bars. The Lake District is full of outdoor adventure shops to purchase additional gear.

Maps. Download offline maps to your smartphone because GPS connection can be spotty. Pack paper maps just in case.

Electronics. Check if the rental car has a USB charger and Bluetooth. If not, pack a car power adapter, portable cellphone chargers, and an audio auxiliary cable to listen to music from your smartphone. You’ll need a universal travel adapter/converter in both countries.

Bags. Single-use plastic bags are banned in most of the Lake District, so bring foldable reusable bags.

Binoculars. This area is a visual feast for bird lovers.

Books. Literature buffs should stock up on such classics as Bruce Chatwin’s iconic travelogue In Patagonia, W.H. Hudson’s Idle Days in Patagonia, and Chris Moss’s Patagonia: A Cultural History.

Additional tips

  • The summer travel season runs from November to March, with highs near 70 degrees and lows around 40 degrees, while the winter ski season starts in June and can extend as late as mid-October with highs near 45 degrees and lows around 30 degrees.

  • The Lake District is lovely to visit year-round, but beware of peak months January and February when Argentines and Chileans have their respective annual holidays; the region gets very busy and traffic can move tediously slow. November, December, and March are ideal months to enjoy warmer weather with fewer crowds.

>>Next: Why Now Is the Ideal Time to Visit Chile’s New National Parks

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