The clear midsummer skies and unspoiled beauty of Argentina’s entire Lake District area in northwest Patagonia are the result of a far-sighted policy on the part of the federal government to create a contiguous line of national parks all the way through the region.
At the southern end of Argentina’s Lake District, Parque Nacional Los Alerces west of the town of Esquel is an enormous area that not only includes Valdivian rainforest and huge, ancient alerce trees (from which the park takes its name), but also four large lakes.
Further north, near the town of El Bolson, Lago Puelo is at the center of its own national park, and 90 miles to the north of that Lago Nahuel Huapi lies at the heart of a huge national park of the same name that has the distinction of being Argentina’s first, created as it was in 1934.
Still north lie two other large national parks, Parque National Lanin ― which protects a huge area around the volcano itself ― and Parque Nacional Laguna Blanca, an area of high steppe well east of the town of Villa Pehuenia that is one of only two reserves in the Americas created to protect wild swans (in this case, the black-necked sawn).
Villa Pehuenia itself lies in the Pehuenia wilderness, which boasts vast, mysterious forests of pehuén, or monkey-puzzle trees (also known as araucaria). These trees have been revered by local indigenous people for centuries because of their sustaining pine nuts, which are still eaten by the local Mapuche people.
There are more national parks in the vast area that makes up Argentina’s Lake District. Some are small and created to protect special features, such as the Parque Nacional Los Arrayanes, a tiny area on the tip of the Quetrihué Peninsula, which just out into Lago Nahuel Huapi from near Villa Angostura. This park was created to protect a unique grove of arrayanes trees (the arrayanes tree is a barkless tree that is a member of the myrtle family) that will be covered in more detail in the next article in this series.
Lago Nahuel Huapi, about 90 miles north of El Bolson, is really the heart of the Lake District. By far the biggest lake in the entire region, it also abuts a number of smaller lakes ― including the two Lago Morenos, Este and Oeste, which are connected by a narrow channel crossed by a modern road bridge.
Lago Nahuel Huapi also has many side branches. One of these branches, Brancho Blest, leads west to the little village of Puerto Blest, from which a short road leads to Puerto Alegre on long, thin Lago Frias.
A boat-bus-boat day-trip from tiny Puerto Pañuelo (the port of embarkation and disembarkation for most of the many boating excursions on Lago Nahuel Huapi) takes visitors on this trip, which ultimately ends up with a short hike to the foot of towering Cerro Tronador (‘Mount Thunderer’). Cerro Tronador is an 11,411-foot, permanently snow-capped giant that dominates the area and is the second-highest mountain in the entire region after Volcan Lanin itself.
The tourism centre for the entire region is San Carlos de Bariloche, on the southwestern shore of Lago Nahuel Huapi. A thriving city of perhaps 50,000, San Carlos de Bariloche boasts the only sizeable airport in the region and the airport (about 10 miles out of town to the southeast) is the gateway by which many tourists come to Argentina’s Lake District.