Last Days in Argentina (Villa Pehuenia and Lago Alumine)

Villa Pehuenia

The sun is low in a cloudless sky, not far above the horizon of snow-streaked mountains. We are sitting on a deck of a cabaña, sipping G & Ts, watching the glittering beads of light reflected from the waters of Lago Alumine and the curious silhouettes of the pehuen trees (araucaria) on the peninsula and islet across the bay from us. This is Villa Pehuenia, a tranquil cluster of cabañas and holiday homes, scattered along dusty streets that wind beneath the trees and shrubs of the lake shore, far, far away from the gringo trail; it is our kind of place. We haven't done any big treks here and don't plan to - sometimes it is just nice to hang out and enjoy doing nothing in particular.

It hardly seems just over a week ago that we were walking through the snow of Antarctica, yet here we are in shorts and t-shirts soaking up the warm Andean sun; the only sounds are the songs of birds and the steady drone of cicadas, and the scents and colours of early summer are all around us. A few days ago we left Ushuaia by bus for a 38 hour journey to Rio Gallegos and on to Bahia Blanca. "Bahia where" you may ask - this is not a tourist town, but home to some colleagues and friends from the days when I was still gainfully employed and it was great to catch up with them after several years. Thanks for your hospitality - Freda and Pablo, Osvaldo and Irma, Roberto and Nilda.

In fact it was while on field trips out of Bahia Blanca that the plans for our great South American adventure first took root, and here we were again, our journey almost finished. It was one of my Argentinian friends, Freda, who told us about Villa Pehuenia, in her view one of the best places in the country and still to be discovered by the vast majority. Thanks Freda - you were right!

Leaving Bahia Blanca, we had taken our last long bus trip across the dry steppes of northern Patagonia to reach the foothills of the Andes. After 12 hours we rounded the shoreline of a large lake, with its backdrop of peaks still covered by snow. Across the lake, on the southern shore, the rooftops of Bariloche reflected in the sunshine - we had come full-circle since our journey started 9 months ago.

The view from our cabaña at Villa Pehuenia

Pehuen (araucaria) on the shore of Lago Alumine

Getting there - Ruta de los 7 Lagos

Bariloche is a nice town, but is not only a popular destination for Argentine holidaymakers, it is a major node on the gringo trail. We were bound for quieter places and soon headed north in our little rental car along the Ruta de los Siete Lagos, a part bitumen, part dirt road crossing the foothills of the Andes through the beautiful forests and lakes of Nahuel Huapi and Lanin National Parks.

The northern arm of Lago Nahuel Huapi

The tranquil beauty of Nahuel Huapi

The first section followed one of the northern arms of Lago Nahuel Huapi along a road between lake and forest, lined with the bright yellow flowers of broom and the blue and pink spikes of lupins. Shame that the broom is an exotic invader!

View from the Quetrihue Peninsula

Reaching the idyllic setting of Villa Angostura, we stopped for lunch and to stretch our legs with a short walk into the Quetrihue Peninsula, a ridge of dense coihue beech forest seperated from the northern lakeshore by a narrow neck. The wildflowers were spectacular, the views across the lake to distant snow-capped peaks moreso.

Lupins, lakes and snow-capped peaks

The neck of the Quetrihue Peninsula

A spring-flowering orchid

Coihue beech forest

From here the road headed north, reaching the aptly named mirror-like waters of Lago Espejo, before heading east into Chile. We kept a northern trajectory, turning off onto a winding gravel road through the dense beech forest, passing Lagos Correntoso and Villarino, where once again we found ourselves on sealed road. This led us past Lago Falkner, the impressive Cascadas de Vullignanco and Lago Machonico before dipping down to reach the town of San Martin de los Andes on the eastern end of Lago Lacar.

La Ruta de los Siete Lagos had lived up to its reputation as one of the most scenic drives in the Andes.

Mirror-like surface of the aptly named Lago Espejo

Lago Corrientes

The still waters of Lago Villarino

Lago Falkner and Cerro Buque

Cascadas de Vullignanco

The beauty of the Andean lakes

Lupins of various hue

The impressive 3776m of Volcan Lanin

Volcan Villarica puffs away in the distance

After San Martin we rapidly left the forest of the Andes foothills, driving across the more arid steppe country, eventually entering the valley of the Alumine River. A long section of gravel road followed the course of the river up its narrow and rocky valley, through the town of Alumine and on to the next lake (Lago Alumine of course!).

Pehuenia sunset

Lanin landscape north of Alumine

Rio Alumine flowing swiftly through its dry valley

The sun was setting as we drove into Villa Pehuenia - a perfect time to appreciate the location of the cabaña we had rented - looking out across the lake to the fiery red ball disappearing behind the mountains. We knew we were going to enjoy our stay here. After the long trip getting here we slept in the next morning, did a short walk to explore our surrounds, ate long and lazy lunch, sat out on the deck and reached for the G&T.

Climbing Volcan Batea Mahuida (7km - 250m ascent - 250m descent)

Another hot and cloudless day dawned. It was tempting to do nothing, but we needed the exercise and headed off in our little car to drive up through pehuen groves and pumice slopes covered with grasses, herbs and prostrate shrubs to the crater of Volcan Batea Mahuida. Long extinct and filled by a lake of azure blue, this was very different to the perfect cones of the better known Andean volcanoes. From a distance it appeared as an umimpressive flattish bump on the horizon, yet provided not only a fascinating new landscape for us, but gave us superb views of the lakes, ridgelines and volcanic cones of the Andes.

Land of the Pehuen trees

The shades of Lagos Alumine and Moquehue

The ancient crater of Volcan Batea Mahuida (1970m)

Leaving the car at the south-eastern end of the lake and low point of the crater, we climbed quickly up to the southern rim; a jumble of weathered basalt boulders crowning the loose pumice slopes colonised by an assortment of low growing herbs, their pink, mauve, yellow and white flowers adding a splash of colour to the pale tan of the pumice.

Cushion plants of the crater rim

A curious river of snow

We followed the boulder strewn rim around above the deep blue of the lake, treading carefully to avoid the colonies of flat green cushion plants, while looking across to the higher and steeper black basalt internal walls of the northern rim, topped with drifts of last winter's snow.

The azure crater lake of Volcan Batea Mahuida

The panorama from here was magnificent. To the southeast lay the silvery waters of Lago Alumine, with Villa Pehuenia jutting out into it on dark green peninsulas, a little further west, the top of Volcan Lanin rose above the closer mountains, to the southwest lay Lago Moquehue and beyond it, the snow covered peak of our old friend, Volcan Villarica - it was good to have one last glimpse of this mountain.

Ovelooking Villa Pehuneia and Lago Alumine

The double cone of Volcan Llaima (3125m)

One last glimpse of Volcan Villarica (2847m)

View from the top south to Lago Moquehue

To the west, deep into Chile, the double cone of Volcan Llaima crowned the horizon, while to the north of it rose the more traditional profiles of Volcan Lonquimay and Callaqui. The rim soon began to climb steeply and, as we followed it, the views expanded.

The 3776m cone of Volcan Lanin

Volcan Lonquimay (2726m)

Once on the western side, we left the rocks to climb up the slope of soft pumice, held in place by a scattering of low herbs and grasses. Soon we crested the volcano, to walk across a small plateau of pumice that dropped off sharply on the righthand side to the crater lake, until we eventually reached the far end, where a sheer rock face dropped away on three sides, preventing any idea of circumnavigating the crater. We stopped for a while to enjoy the views, the sun, the cooling breeze and the idea of just being here. Although we were only at 1970m, it was the first time that we had stood on the continental divide of the Andes - to our west all the rivers ran towards the Pacific Ocean and, to our east, they ran to the Atlantic.

Looking over the crater of Volcan Batra Mahuida to an endless horizon of lakes and mountains

So who's in Chile and who's in Argentina?

Then it was time to retrace our steps, making only one slight detour. The border between Argentina and Chile passes over the plateau of Volcan Batea Mahuida and we headed a little bit off course to take one last stroll in Chile on the pumice-covered northern slopes, before descending to the boulders of the southern rim and Argentina.

The fair Nello takes a last walk in Chile

Relaxing in the crater lake

Andean hawk

Here we detoured yet again, dropping quickly into the crater instead of walking around it, for a bite of lunch on the lakeshore and to follow it around and back to the car, to the general annoyance of hundreds of small lizards busy sunning themselves on the rocks next to the water. On the way down we stopped to explore the araucaria forest - the curiously majestic pehuen tree and its rich bounty of nuts is an integral part of the life and culture of the local Mapuche people who still live here on their traditional lands (while developing the odd skifield and tourist infrastructure).

In the forest of the pehuen (araucaria)

By the time we returned to our cabaña, it was 2pm and all the locals had started their siestas - some habits are very easy to adopt, especially when you have a bed with a floor-to-ceiling window looking out over a silvery lake and snow-streaked mountains.

Kayaking on Lago Alumine

Yet another cloudless start to the day - a day which promised to be hot and still - too hot for walking. So, being next to a large area of crystal clear water, we did the logical thing and rented a kayak for a half-day of exploration of the shores and islets of Lago Alumine.

An islet in Lago Alumine

Female fruit of the pehuen

The narrow channel from Lago Moquehue to Lago Alumine

Actually, we started in Lago Moquehue, having been dropped off at a small beach at the eastern end of that long lake that wound back into the mountains, but having paddled about a bit to get used to our sit-on kayak, we turned into the channel of La Angostura and let the current take us through this narrow and short connection between the two big lakes. The clarity of the water was amazing.

A fine day for paddle on Lago Alumine

Alumine shoreline - in duplicate

Quickly we emerged into the western end of Lago Alumine and started to paddle across its surface of deep blue glass - with barely a breath of wind, the reflections of the trees and mountain tops in the lake were superb and it almost seemed a crime to disturb the water with our paddles. The odd duck scrabbled across the surface as we passed, one or two gulls flew around overhead, an occasional dragonfly darted across the water and the world seemed a fine place as we settled into a steady rhythm of paddling down the long western arm of the lake.

...or tree-covered refuges

Time for a break on a sandy beach

The islets can be rocky havens for waterbirds ...

After a while, we rounded a rocky tree-topped islet to land for a break at a small jutting beach on the lake's southern shore - this was to be the course of the day. From the beach we headed across the arm of the lake, its surface now disturbed by small ripples, to reach the point of the Villa Pehuenia peninsula, skirting by beneath the overhanging trees and rocky ledges that plummeted deep into the dark blue depths of the clear lake water. Then it was across the wide bay to a group of islets that once had been part of a similar peninsula.

The islets of Alumine - viewed from an islet of Alumine

View across the bamboo thicket and lake to Volcan Batea Mahuida

The islets ranged from guano spattered bare rock outcrops, occupied by small flocks of kelp- and black-headed gulls, to several hundred metres long and covered in cypress, beech and, sometimes, pehuen trees. We passed by the gull rocks, skirted a cypress-topped islet whose rock-walled edges prevented any landing and crossed a blue-green channel to the the largest islet of the group. Here, in a small cove lay a perfect beach of grey-white sand, backed by a low flat mound covered in quila bamboo and a shady cypress, with two large rocky knobs protecting either end; a perfect place for lunch. Framed by the knobs, we looked out past the other islet to the snow-spotted mountains beyond. Even better, when the shade retreated, we could paddle around the corner to another tiny strip of sand shaded by a large beech tree to escape the hot sun.

Nice cove for a picnic

A fine Cordilleran cypress

A shady raulli beech in a tranquil bay

The fiery blooms of the notro ...

... the edible fruit of the llao llao fungus ...

... y siempre mas del notro

The incredible clarity of Lago Alumine

After our long and lazy lunch, we left the beech beach to continue on paddling past smaller and larger islets, admiring the changes in water colour as the rocky edges plunged steeply into the depths of the lake, or spotting the silvery outlines of branches or even whole trees on the lake floor up to 30m below - the clarity of the water was exquisite. Sadly, the coldness matched the clarity and only our legs ended up getting wet. Finally, one more stop on a beach of a tiny islet, capped with a large pehuen tree and we landed on a small sandy peninsula in the main bay of Villa Pehuenia. It had been a great exploration of the lake, but the mid afternoon sun was relentless and the languid air seemed to whisper just one word - siesta!!!

Return to Bariloche

After four relaxing days in the hot sun of Villa Pehuenia, we headed back to Bariloche, via San Martin de los Andes. San Martin is a laid-back small tourist town, full of charm and far enough off the gringo trail for prices to be considerably cheaper. We spent another pleasant two nights there before retracing our steps to Bariloche, our point of departure from this wonderful part of the world. I like Bariloche, but there is always one thing wrong with a tourist town like it - tourists!! The sad thing is that we were two of them, indistinguishable from the masses of other visiting Europeans, North Americans and Antipodeans - gringos one and all. When we were high on a mountain pass or crossing untracked snowdrifts we felt a bit unique, here not. Moreover, Bariloche was full of "estudiantes" celebrating the end of the school year as only students can, and so was full of "colour" and noise.

The good ship "Modesta Victoria"

Kelp gulls wheeling above the waters of Lago Nahuel Huapi

A grove of arrayan trees on Quetrihue Peninsula

The superb mottled orange bark of the arrayan
And thus we joined the tourists and estudiantes doing touristy things - a trip around the Circuito Chico to admire the lake and surrounds; a cruise aboard the "Modesta Victoria" on the deep blue waters of Lago Nahuel Huapi to visit a grove of beautiful orange-barked arrayanes trees on the Quetrihue Peninsula, a visit to Isla Victoria, a long tree-covered island in the middle of the lake.

A very tall coihue

Isla Victoria was not only beautiful, with its forest of Cordilleran cypress and peaceful bay, but was also a site of cave drawings made by the people who lived here seven or eight centuries ago. The estudiantes on the boast headed off in a noisy herd toward the southern end of the bay. We headed north!

On Isla Victoria

La gringita y el arrayan

Site of the cave paintings

Centuries old cave paintings

Looking out toward the distant mountains

The ridgeline leading up to Cerro Catedral - our path of the previous day

A take home memory of the Patagonian Andes

In fact this was good place to spend our last day, for we were able to climb up to the high point of the island through beautiful beech and cypress forest, far from the madding crowd. Across the lake we could see our path of yesterday - on our last walk in South America along the jagged ridgeline of Cerro Catedral. Nostalgia was starting before we had even left!

For one last time, we were able to be alone and contemplate the superb panorama of the Andes mountains, jagged and snow-capped, high above the opalescent water of Lago Nahuel Huapi. It was the perfect take home image.

Nahuel Huapi silhouettes