Known as the “queen” of the Andean Lakes, Bariloche sits on the south shore of the magnificent Nahuel Huapi Lake reflecting its captivating image across the vast landscape of the Lake District. Despite being nestled into the foothills of the Andes and almost 13,000 miles away from Europe, the delightful alpine architecture have a look of Swiss or Austrian log homes. The surrounding area varies from the imposing nature of the harsh mountain peaks and its rainforest to the characteristic steppe-like vegetation.
Beginning downtown in the Civic Centre, we are met by the imposing grey stone clock tower that twice a day shows a parade of symbolic figures: aborigines, priests, soldiers and settlers. It is part of a charming stone and wood complex that houses amongst others the Cathedral, Patagonia Museum and Library. Heading through the horseshoe arches brings into view the commercial area on Mitre Street, which is like a scene out of an American Western movie with its wooden ranches, balconies and stone buildings. A step away is the historic monument of Capilla de la Inmaculada (Chapel of the Immaculate), which built in 1905 is one of the most antique buildings in town.
Following the shoreline for almost 25km, as the crow flies, brings us to the start of one of many trekking excursions in the area. This one took us up to the bright pink structure of Refugio Lopez, dotted 1620m high up amongst the barren slopes at the edge of vegetation. As well as being the target for a stunning day hike, this refuge is also the prize at the end of a popular six day mountain hut traverse passing through the beautiful valleys and rocky ridges of the Andes.
The incredible panorama you see from Lopez is all part of a mesmeric 60km traditional Bariloche trekking tour offered by Say Hueque. Discover the famous Circuito Chico as it passes by Cerro Campanario, offering commanding views of all the lakes, which according to the National Geographic is one of the world’s top views. The route then continues to the tranquil Llao Llao peninsula, home to a number of protected species as well as an impressive and iconic hotel. In the Llao Llao forest we enjoyed a two hour walk to the lovely Lago Escondido (Hidden Lake) where we made a picnic lunch and took in the beautiful scenery, before our next stop, Bahia Lopez. At Bahia Lopez we found what we were looking for…that picture perfect postcard with sweeping views of Lake Nahuel Huapi. On the way back to Bariloche we stopped at the Colonia Suiza (named after Swiss settlers from 1895) for some fresh local chocolate and micro-brewed beers. This was a wonderful way to see the splendour of nature in Southern Argentina from the mountains to the lakes and forests.
The following day, we decided to do some more Bariloche trekking and journeyed to the base of the Cerro Lopez trail. Armed with a map of the trek and day packs filled with water, chocolaty snacks and sun-block, we took our first steps across the bridge over the Lopez stream and knew it was going to be great day. With the choice of a steep direct hike or a long gradual ascent, we chose to challenge ourselves on the way up to the comfortable lodge. From here it is a roughly 2-3 hours of trekking making to sure to follow the faint red dots painted on the tree trunks and stones otherwise your 3.8km journey will be somewhat extended.
Once our mountain feet had grown accustomed to the fact that they would be putting in a full day’s work we made steady progress through the thick bushy forests. As a gentle reminder (and reward) of our 770m ascent, every so often the trees parted providing us with a window in which to admire the beauty of the famous seven lakes below.
After an hour of breaking branches, stone stepping and cascades of mini-waterfalls, we reached the goldmine of a black building, appearing above the treetops. Alas, the doors were firmly closed as it was out of season, so its sole purpose was to serve as a resting point.
From the back of this first lodge it is possible to rejoin civilisation and walk the snaking road to Lopez (or hitchhike although I don’t fancy your chances). We persevered, paying attention o the yellow bin bag markers round the side of the refugio, hiking the endless steep slopes heading into more lush forested terrain.
After passing the road twice more, eventually the forest turned to mountainous terrain and the sweet sounds of nature deserted us and in the distance we spotted the pink speck of comfort.
Perched on the edge of the mountainside, Refugio Lopez is one of the largest and most comfortable in the area and was the first of its kind to be opened by the Club Andean Bariloche in April 1933. It was rebuilt 26 years later and can now host up to 100 people with its facilities including a dining room with stunning panoramic views overlooking the hills and valleys of the Nahuel Huapi National Park.
Whilst Refugio Lopez (1620m) is a wonderful full-day excursion, it is also the perfect overnight stop for those brave enough to attempt the 3-hour ascent to the summit. To reach the top of Cerro Lopez standing proud at 2076m, you need to be an experienced mountain climber, so we settled for a cake and coffee before digging our heels in for a dusk descent.
For further information about Bariloche trekking, travel planning and trips that admire the wonders of the lakes, mountains and forests of Southern Argentina and Patagonia, visit Say Hueque Tours in Argentina – Buenos Aires based travel company.
This story was written by Andy Buswell – Freelance Travel Writer.