Driving or cycling round the ‘Circuito Chico’ is one of the activities any car- or bicyle-capable tourist must complete when visiting San Carlos de Bariloche, the gateway to Argentina’s glorious Lake District.
If you haven’t rented a car, it isn’t a problem. You can rent a bike locally or you can buy tickets for coach trips round the Circuito Chico (‘Little Circuit’) and even the Bariloche municipal buses run stopping routes round the 20-plus mile circuit. It’s very easy and can be completed in a couple of hours, though you’ll probably want to devote several hours to the trip ― say, an entire afternoon ― because of the incredible vistas you’ll want to stop and see along the route, and to visit Hotel Llao Llao.
Drive about 8 miles west along the very busy, two-to-three-lane lakefront road out of Bariloche ― that’s towards the left of town when you’re facing Lago Nahuel Huapi, beside which the city is built ― and you’ll see a crossroads with a modern paved road to the south that is signposted with the words ‘Circuito Chico’.
Take this road, which is paved along its whole length and is well-maintained. You’ll be glad you did, because it quickly gets away from the higgledy-piggledy sprawl of guesthouses, cabanas, campgrounds and other small buildings that spread at least 10 miles west of Bariloche on either side of the main road along the side of Lago Nahuel Huapi.
About the only good thing that can be said about the tourism-related sprawl along the side of the lake is that it makes you instantly appreciate the Argentina government’s wisdom in declaring Lago Nahuel Huapi the country’s first national park and thus a place where no development can mar the stunning beauty of the lake and its surrounding mountains.
The Circuito Chico road heads southwest for a few minutes, straight towards the huge bulk of 6,811-foot-high Cerro Lopez, which towers in front of you as the road passes through forested country. The road then crosses a modern bridge spanning the narrow channel linking the branches of Lago Moreno (you might want to stop here at one of the little beaches on your right or left, for some beautiful views) and then it heads up into the hills. A note to cyclists: It’s a fairly stiff climb.
Just before the road starts climbing, however, a gravel branch road heads off to the left; that is, east. It’s well worth taking this road as a little side trip or even making a special trip another day to travel along its length as the beginning of a trip that can take you all the way to Cerro Catedral and nearby Lago Gutierrez, a spectacular day trip in its own right.