Nahuel Huapi Traverse(Part 1)


Established in 1922, Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi is Argentina's oldest national park; it is a region of rugged 2000m plus mountain ranges, deep valleys, lakes and forests, while the western end is dominated by the ancient volcanic massif of Monte Tronador (3554m), with its different peaks and glaciers. It is a great place to be introduced to the diverse landscapes of the Andes. The more normal traverse of the park is a four-day trip staying in various refugios in the eastern end near Bariloche. We chose the less travelled route across the heartland of Nahuel Huapi from east to west - a trek that would bring us out to the slopes of Tronador. Few people actually do this traverse, as the park authorities do not allow trekkers to cross without a mountain guide. The idea of crossing a wild and isolated part of the Andean mountains was too tempting to resist. What better way to start our South American adventure.

Day 1 - Colonia Suiza to Refugio Italia (through the forest)

The showers of the previous night vanished and a fine sunny day dawned for the start of our first trek. Nahuel picked us up from the hosteria for the 20km drive from Bariloche to Colonia Suiza, where our walk commenced, stopping only to get some bread for lunch and take in one of the panoramic views across the convoluted reaches of Lake Nahuel Huapi. We stopped on the side of a small dirt road, where a set of pink ribbons marked the beginning of the track, sorted out our packs and followed Rosanna into the thick forest of conifers of the lower Goye Valley.

At first the track climbed steeply, following a narrow dirt road deeper into the forest. Suddenly a hare ran down the road towards us, before veering into the bushes, closely followed by a pair of dogs. Seeing us they soon lost interest in the rabbit and decided to join our adventure; these friendly fellows would be our compañeros de route for the rest of the climb up to the refugio and that one would follow us all the way to Pampa Linda.

Panorama over Lago Moreno and the Llao Llao Peninsula

Heading off through the conifers


Reina Mora

Violet amarillo

Nello and Rosanna benath an impressive
coihue (beech)

The climb settled down and soon the conifers gave way to a e beech forest, dominated by tall darker leaved coihue with the brighter green of lenga scattered throughout. We descended to a small clearing, just before the spot where the waters of the Arroyo Goye entered a small rocky gorge. It was a good place to enjoy a break as the sun shone through the dappled leaves of the beech trees. The next section of the track undulated slowly along the edge of the Goye and we walked along silently, enjoying the soothing sound of the crystal clear ice-green waters tumbling down their boulder-filled course.

The gnarly roots of a ciohue

The cold clear waters of Arroyo Goye

A clearing in the beech forest

Time for a break

The sheer walls of Cerros Marino, Manolo and Magnatt appearing
through the forest

Slowly the darker-green of the coihue gave way to the light-green of the lenga, their leaves luminous in the light of the midday sun. The walls of the valley now started to narrow in on us, and we found ourselves walking beneath the dark shape of Pico Magnatt. The play of light in the canopy of the beech forest was superb, as we wandered through an understorey of bamboo, with the occasional patch of the giant-leaved nalca.

The first colours of autumn

View up the stony bed of Arroyo Goye

The luminous green of the beech canopy

Rosanna climbing up through the bamboo

The dark shape of 1869m Pico Magnatt above
the lenga forest

Ahead, the even darker forms of Cerro Manolo and Cerro Marino loomed closer. A fork in the stream saw us leave the babbling Goye and follow the quieter waters of Arroyo Negro, which soon led us across a swampy area to the flat dry opening of Rancho Manolo. Here we stopped for a pleasant lunch in the dappled shade. A boost of energy was needed, as for the first time we saw the daunting prospect of the steep final ascent to Refugio Italia.

Looking up from Rancho Manolo


Perezia azul



A small cascade in the Arroyo Negro
The path from Rancho Manolo climbed quickly alongside a set of cascades tumbling down through the forest. A little while later we crossed the stream, realizing that the tall lengas of the forest below were now just shrubby plants of a few metres in height - altitude was beginning to have its effect. The other side of the river brought us to a long set of zig-zags that wended their way up the slope of ever-shrinking lengas. It was a hard slog with a full pack, but the views across the valley made it worthwhile. The dark silhouettes of Cerro Gordo and Cerro Negro dominated the foreground, and contrasted with the light tan colours of Cerro Navidad at the head of the valley beneath them. To the right the silvery thread of a 300m waterfall streamed down the rockface from the invisible Laguna Negra above us.

Yellow balloons of the topa topa

The distant light peak of Cerro Navidad (2089m) and the dark massif
of Cerro Negro (1960m)

Refugio Italia on the shore of Laguna Negra
(can you find it?)

Another push and we climbed up and over a rocky ridge to look down on the dark waters of Laguna Negra, set in its rocky amphitheatre; on its left beneath the sheer rock face of Cerro Negro, the curious triangular shape and welcome sight of Refugio Italia greeted us - time to check in, bask in the late afternoon sunshine on the lake shore and reflect on a brilliant introduction to trekking in the Andes.

Several other trekkers arrived from different directions and that night we all enjoyed a hearty meal of pasta prepared by the refugio's guardian; a good way to restore the energy burnt during our 800m ascent.

Rosanna enjoying a yerba mate with the
guardian of the refugio

Our small compañero

Day 2 - Refugio Italia to Mallin de las Vueltas (a ridge too far)

After a comfortable night in the refugio, we loaded up our packs for what Rosanna warned us would be the hardest day. Our two canine companions had waited for us all night and greeted us as long lost friends when we emerged from the refuge. Clearly we would not be trekking alone - nothing would discourage them from following us. We picked our way around the rocky northern shore line of Laguna Negra - at one point a short steep descent proved too great an obstacle for the shorter of the two dogs - the other still followed us, ignoring the ever distant barks of his short-legged companion. I guess that not everyone looks after their little mate (in-joke for Australians!).

Early morning reflections on the dark waters
of Laguna Negra

Herb fields grow alongside the stony creek beds

Rosanna and Nello take in the views


At the far end of the lake we emerged into the sunshine and began the first and easiest of three steep climbs for the day, up to the saddle between Cerros Negro and Bailey Willis. As the slope steepened, the terrain changed from a rocky herbfield to a herby rockfield, before breaking out on to the boulder-strewn ridge.

Looking back down our path from Laguna Negra

A magnificent panorama unfolded before us; across a long, deep green valley were the grey and tan rocky face of the ridge running from Cerro Cuernos de Diable to Cerro Tres Valles, opening up into the basin of Laguna de CAB, while to the west the glacier-capped peaks of 3484m Monte Tronador appeared for the first time on our trek. Behind lay, far below lay Laguna Negra beneath the dark shape of Cerro Negro and the jagged profile of distant ranges beyond.

The way forward -
looking across the valley to the ridge line of Cerros Cuernos de Diablo and Tres Valles, with Laguna de CAB in its wooded basin and distant Tronador

Nello picking her way down the loose scree slope

After a break to take in the views we began our descent down the even-steeper western side of the saddle, the sharp loose pink and tan slabs of rock clinking beneath our feet as we picked our way down the loose scree slope.

The vegetation changes now occurred in reverse - leaving the scree, the slope levelled out for a while and low herbs began to appear, becoming denser, before the first grove of stunted lengas. Soon the path plunged steeply down a dusty track through the lengas, which reached the size of trees as we lost altitude, their limbs and trunks draped with pale lichens.

The three compañeros about to take on the steep drop

The steep dusty track down the lenga slope

Finally, 650m of knee-jarring descent below the saddle, we reached a rocky alpine stream; time for a short break to let our knees recover before crossing to follow its babbling course down a much gentler slope through the colihue (a tall native bamboo) understorey of the forest.

We soon emerged at the junction of this stream and the larger Arroyo La Chata. Crossing its rocky bed, we found ourselves in a dense thicket of colihue. Bamboo grows quickly and little-used paths through them risk disappearing - after a bit of good-old fashioned bush-bashing through the thickets, Rosanna picked up the path and we were off again.

Arroyo La Chata

Tunnelling through a dense stand of
colihue bamboo

Crossing the hot upper slopes of alpine meadow
Ahead lay our second climb of the day - a steep 400m climb, passing first through bamboo and lenga forest which morphed into stunted lenga thickets, before entering an area of open grassland and herbs. The sun shone hotly on us as we traversed the higher part of the slope, looking back over the steep descent that we had just made with some degree of satisfaction.

The outlet of Laguna de CAB

View back over our 600m descent from the saddle to the river


A little way on lay another bright green patch of lenga - we descended slightly to reach the smooth red rocks of a cascade streaming down from Laguna de CAB (named for the Club Andino de Bariloche), less than 100m above. It was then that suddenly I hit the wall, barely able to put one foot in front of the other. I soon realised that, not having eaten for almost 6 hours since breakfast, I had simply run out of blood sugar. A couple of sweet lollies and I started to feel more normal, pushing on up to the crest and the shore of the laguna, where Rosanna and the fair Nello were waiting with a very welcome lunch.


Feeling much better for the break and the food, we set out again, literally skirting the southern shore of the lake, one foot in the lenga forest and the other in the water. Reaching the far end, we crossed a small flat wetland, where a narrow stream snaked its way along its red clay bed to the lake.

A meandering creek beneath the pink granite
walls of Cerro Tres Valles

Skirting the lenga-lined edge of Laguna de CAB

View back across the laguna from its western end

From here the third climb of the day started; a 330m scramble up through the scrubby lower slopes and large granite boulders of the higher slopes of Cerro CAB. Slowly, our tired legs took us higher, with frequent stops to admire the views back over the basin of Laguna de CAB (probably more than needed in order to sneak in a few more rest stops - Rosanna knew how far we still had to go and was keeping us to time).

Almost at the top of the climb from Laguna
de CAB

Rosanna leading us up the face of 1901m Cerro CAB

The barren rocky ridge that we just crossed

Looking south across the valley of Arroyo Claro to the 1911m point of Cerro Cumpleaños and 2342m Cerro Bonete

Reaching the crest, with its great vistas to the south and west, we realised the climb was not yet over. Rosanna led us further up the ridge, not far from the top, before starting a long traverse, picking our way across the jumbled rocks of the southern face of Cerro CAB, before crossing an area of flattish granite slabs, dotted with small rock gardens of stunted alpine plants and yet another view of Tronador.

Far below us lay the flat open wetlands of Mallin de los Vueltas and at the far end a small grove of lengas - our campsite for the night. The traverse down the last rock face and stroll across the welcome flat of the wetland passed quickly.

Crossing our first snowdrift

The eastern face of Tronador getting closer

Crossing the wetlands of Mallin de las Vueltas
We reached our campsite at 7pm with the sun low in the sky and Rosanna found a pleasant sheltered spot next to a quietly running stream to pitch tents. Dark was soon upon us and the hot rice dish was just what we needed as the temperature dropped rapidly.

Finally, a chance to sit and rest

Our loyal canine had followed us all the day - there was no turning back for her now, so we shared our food. As she had joined the group, she needed a name and, at Nello's suggestion, we welcomed "Compa" as the fourth compañero.

After 9 hours of trekking, with 900m of steep climbs and 1000 m of steep descents, it was a relief to climb into the warmth of our sleeping bags. It had been a hard day at the office.

Day 3 - Mallin de las Vueltas to Laguna Ilon (across the tops)

It was a cold start to the day; 0ºC and a light frost on the ground. However, by the time we had breakfast and packed our gear, the sun was rising over the jagged ranges to the east and we set off with its warm rays on our backs. The first ascent of the day was quickly upon us - leaving the shelter of the campsite, we headed up the smooth rock slope of a gentle cascade to start our ascent of one of the spurs of Cerro de las Cristales.


Off again - alongside a gentle cascade

White chaura/manzanilla berries (yum!)


The path and Rosanna led us up the rocky spur, where small alpine shrubs and herbs filled the spaces with speckles of yellow, white, orange and blue flowers. The white and pink chaura-manzanilla berries, bush tucker of the Mapuche people, were common here and we nibbled them as we climbed, enjoying their subtle apple-like flavour.

Once more a steep climb to start the day

Soon we started a traverse across an area of large pink and tan granite slabs, the fissures and cleavages a testimony to the harsh Andean climate; the gap between the slabs colonised by the hardy alpine herbs and shrubs.

One more sharp ascent and we reached the top of the spur, with impressive views back along our route and south towards Cerro Cumpleaños.

Rosanna leading us across the granite slabs

The pinkish-tan granite of 1968m Cerro Cristales

Looking up a drift to the peak of Cerro Cristales

Our direction was westward and higher; Rosanna led us further up the slope of Cristales, its walls of pinky-tan granite glinting in the sunlight, and then picking our way around the boulders and snowdrifts on a long traverse across its steep southern face. We emerged at a razor-back ridge connecting to the richly orange peak of Cerro Bonete.

Crossing the southern face of Cerro Cristales to reach the saddle

Why Cerro Cristales is so named

Looking down on Laguna Creton

At 1860m we had completed our first climb and were rewarded with a marvellous panorama of Tronador and the main Andean chain. Way below us to the west lay Laguna Creton, perched in its rocky amphitheatre, and our target for lunch. It was a good place to stop and enjoy the views.

Time for a break to admire the views

The volcanic plug of 2190m Cerro Puntiagudo across the Chilean border

Start of the steep descent down the scree slope of the saddle

Unfortunately, what goes up often needs to come down and such was our fate today. The route down was direct, descending the western wall of the ridge down a very steep and tortuous track through the loose scree and soil of the slope. We dropped 300m in half a kilometre to eventually reach a grassy alpine meadow.

A short traverse across this meadow soon saw us descending steeply once again, this time down the spongy green verge of a babbling alpine brook. At the bottom, we passed through a small grove of stunted lengas to reach a broad flat area of alpine bog - how pleasant it was to walk on the flat, even if the ground below squelched as you did.

A stroll across the wetlands below Laguna Creton

Plant communities of the granite slabs


Laguna Creton and 2242m Cerro Bonete

At the end of the wetland, a short sharp climb took us up to the rocky verge of Laguna Creton and lunch. The misty high clouds that greeted us on awaking had all but vanished, but a chill wind funnelled down through the lake amphitheatre and soon we decided to push on for the second major climb of the day, following a rocky spur up to another razor-back ridge.

Once more a magnificent spectacle unfolded before us: far below us to the south, the brilliantly blue waters of Laguna Azul, lined by the sheer rock walls of Cerros Bonete and Punta Negra; to the north, a perfectly formed glacial valley, its base covered in the bright green lenga forest, dropping down to a distant arm of Lago Nahuel Huapi.

The brilliant sapphire blue colour of Laguna Azul in its glacial bowl

The perfect glacial valley beneath Laguna Creton

Continuing to climb slowly along this narrow spur, we passed a small unnamed lake, before dropping down to cross the creek spilling out of Laguna Jujuy, another small glacial lake surrounded by rock walls and snowdrifts.

Wingless alpine grasshopper

The 2039m peak of Punta Negra

Reflections in Laguna Jujuy

Looking back over Laguna Jujuy to Punta Negra

Looking down towards a long arm of
Lago Nahuel Huapi

One final steady climb awaited, taking us up a shaly slope to a spur of Cerro Capitan, and at 1960m the high point of our trek. Yet again and closer still, a superb panorama of Tronador greeted us and we paused for a while to take it all in. This volcano, over 1000m higher than any other mountain in the National Park, completely dominates the landscape.

At last, from here on its all downhill!

The dominance of Montedor Tronador

Cushion plants on the edge of a mountain stream

From here it was all downhill, gently at first on the small loose rocks of the ridge, then steeper as we picked up the birth of a stream - a small soak emerging from the rocks to form a channel with a bright green verge of riparian vegetation, widening as we picked our way down its spongy course to a steep meadow, rich with grey and green cushion plants and alpine herbs.

View over Mallin de Ricardo towards Tronador

Dropping even further off the ridge, we passed through a grove of stunted lenga to reach the wetlands of Mallin de Ricardo. Welcoming the flat terrain, we criss-crossed a small stream as it drained the flat green sponge of the Mallin through a meandering channel of rich red rocks and soil. All the while the views of Tronador changed in aspect and setting, as we strolled along enjoying the warm afternoon sun.

One crosssing of the red rocky stream
through the wetlands

Stream draining the wetlands toward
the northwest

Crossing the spongy flat wetlands of Mallin de Ricardo

Once more in the dappled shade of
the lenga forest

The tiny refugio at Laguna Ilon
(yes the log is propping it up)

Leaving the wetlands, we descended one last time down through the taller lenga forest, spurred on by glimpses of Laguna Ilon, our destination for the night. A short traverse brought us to the edge of the lake, where Rosanna found the perfect spot for camping, an open sandy area beneath the lengas, looking out across the lake to snow-capped Tronador.

View from our campsite on Laguna Ilon

Late afternoon on the beach at our campsite

We basked on the beach in the late afternoon sunshine uuntil the sun set behind the great mountain.

What a day it had been - it was hard to decide the highlight - was it the glinting granite slabs of Cerro de las Cristales, the amazing blue of Laguna Azul, the perfect form of the green-clad glacial valleys, the richness of the wetlands, the great vistas of Tronador glistening in the sun - was today better than yesterday? - did it really matter? - tonight we would have some very pleasant dreams.

Venus setting over Laguna Ilon

Day 4 - Laguna Ilon to Pampa Linda (return to civilisation)

Dawn alpenglow on Tronador reflected in the still waters of
Laguna Ilon

I was up just before sunrise - it was -1ºC and the frost had formed a curious honeycomb pattern on the sandy beach. Mists drifted off the surface of Laguna Ilon as bubbles rose from its bed and sent out soft circles of ripples, while a small flotilla of ducks paddled by. The sun had just caught the top of the icy peaks of Tronador and, as I watched, illuminated the mountain in a pale alpenglow. There are moments that are too good to describe and this clear cold morning was one of them. The reflections of snowy peak and green forested ridges in the still lake waters changed continuously as the sun rose higher, until it finally burst upon our campsite with a welcome warmth.

Ilon before dawn;frosty beach and misty lake

How the well-equipped guide spends a frosty morning

Panorama of Tronador and the shore of Laguna Ilon in the early morning light

Setting off for the last time


Rosanna had promised us an easy last day and we dallied at this special spot until 11am before finally setting off. No hard climbs today, at first just a pleasant stroll along a gently undulating and meandering track, either in the dappled shade of the lenga forest or across sunny grass clearings.

Soon we reached an area of wetland and started a gentle descent; Tronador had reappeared and its icy gaze would overlook the rest of our descent to Pampa Linda, over 500m below.

Clearing in the forest

Dappled shade of the beech forest

Another high wetland traverse in the warm autumn sunshine

One of the locals basking in the sun

Looking across the valley to the glaciers
of Tronador

Leaving the wetland, we started a steeper descent down through the lenga forest, which brought us out to a cliff-top viewpoint. Again a different aspect of the majestic volcano appeared, as we looked across the valley to the deep creases of the Castaño Overa Glacier and its three ribbons of waterfall plunging from the iceface to the valley floor 400m below.

We picked our way steeply down the cliff-face to continue our descent through the beech forest. Below 1200m, the first of the massive coihue appeared, and soon we were descending beneath the deep cool shade of these forest giants, the path tunnelling through thick stands of 4m high bamboo understorey.

Nello crossing the Rio Castaño Overa

Finally the track flattened out and led us to the swift flowing grey-green waters of the Rio Castaño Overa. Only a few kilometres down from its glacial source, the water was icy, a fact of which we became painfully (literally) aware as we waded across to the other side; time for one last picnic lunch in a shaded grassy clearing on a warm Andean autumn day.

The canopy of a big coihue

Dense understorey of the coihue forest

The beautiful flats of Pampa Linda

All that remained was a short stroll along the rivers edge and through a grove of ñire (the third beech species of this region) before we four compañeros emerged into a clearing and the welcome sight of Pampa Linda Hosteria and Albergue.

The end of brilliant crossing!

The Albergue and Hosteria at Pampa Linda

For three days we had walked without encountering another soul and now our traverse of the Nahuel Huapi National Park was over - it was good to sit on the verandah of the Albergue with Rosanna, tired but satisfied, a refreshing cold beer in our hands, taking in the quiet beauty of this place.

Our only concern was for the future of our loyal canine friend, Compa, who had followed us for over 40 km across the majestic wilderness of the Nahuel Huapi mountains. We left her in the care of the National Park ranger - would she ever find her way back to Colonia Suiza or would she find a pleasant life with the horses and other inhabitants of beautiful Pampa Linda? We could only hope for the one or the other. Never give a dog a name if you cannot keep it - with it comes an emotional attachment that is cruel to break!

This trek had been a superb introduction to the diversity of landscapes that the Andes has to offer and we were fortunate to have had a guide who shared her knowledge of, and enthusiasm for these mountains. Muchas gracias, Rosanna - it was a great trek.

go to part 2 .....