Go West! A leisurely drive back to the Andes

Trip Start Jun 04, 2005
Trip End Apr 05, 2006

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Wednesday, November 23, 2005

On the afternoon of Saturday 19 November, having spent a marvellous two days wildlife spotting on Peninsula Valdez, we dropped our travel companion Andrea off at the bus station in Puerto Madryn. We decided to take a leisurely drive west, back to the Argentinian lake districts in the foothills of the Andes, as there was still plenty for us to explore.

We took a lower road this time (a different route to the one we had come on) which runs from Puerto Madryn through the Welsh settler town of Trelew, and then through Los Altares, Esquel and El Bolson to Bariloche. For most of the way, the road follows the Chubut river. On that Saturday evening we drove as far as Florentino Amerghino, the site of a large hydro-electric dam set in a dramatic gorge of red sandstone cliffs. Below the dam, a small settlement is tucked away in the gorge: we found an attractive campsite called Valle Verde, right on the river┤s edge. It was quite a dramatic location, with sheer red cliffs rising all round.

We continued our drive the next day through some amazing scenery - as far as the eye could see, arid, uninhabited plains stretched to the horizon, puncuated by small hills (what Afrikaners would call ┤koppies┤) and beautiful rock formations of red, orange and pink sandstone. The vegetation consisted of nothing more than dry scrub, food for a few sheep and guanacos, and here and there was a small hut, but the forces of nature still reigned supreme in this typical Patagonian landscape.

As we climbed higher and approached the Andean cordillera, the landscape grew greener and pools of water indicated recent rain... in several of these pools small flocks of flamingoes waded. By 5pm or so we reached Esquel, where we bought some lovely lamb chops from a friendly butcher, and then headed up into the mountains to the Parque Nacional Los Alerces.

The gravel road up through the national park runs beside beautiful Lago Futalaufquen, which is surrounded by mountain slopes clad in dark green cypresses and southern beeches. The park takes its name from the rare Alerce trees found in its remote western corner - they┤re accessible by boat only, and we┤d already seen Alerces in Chile, so we weren┤t going to bother finding them. The idea was simply to soak up a bit of the lakeside scenery, do a bit of trout fishing (for which the lake is renowned) and a walk.

However, the light drizzle we┤d encountered on the road up turned to all-out, bucketing-down rain as we arrived at the shore of the lake. Mmmmm, a damp night in a tent didn┤t appeal, so we did a recce of the handful of accommodation options around the lake in search of a cheap room. Alas, there was no such thing to be found. Most of the 8 or so places offered caba˝as at 180 pesos or so (about 60 USD) - economical if there are 6 of you to fill up the caba˝a, but no deal for a couple.

Luckily for us, there was a break in the cloud, and the rain stopped at about 8pm. We pitched camp beside the lake in a beautiful free campsite (the national parks generally offer free camping spots in beautiful locations, no facilities though). Ahhhh! It remained dry enough to light a campfire.

We awoke the next morning, Monday, to some sun and beautiful views over the lake. Rich cast a few lines in the clear water, but got his lure stuck... it was freed for him by two locals fishing from their small inflatable, so he didn┤t need to wade this time!

At mid-morning, we packed up camp and continued our drive along the eastern shore of the lake. The rest of the day was one of sunshine and showers; we took a short circular path to a lookout over the three lakes of PN Los Alerces, and managed to capture a beautiful male black woodpecker on film. We had seen these guys a few times before, in PN Alerce Andino (Chile) and in PN Lanin - they┤re really quite large and the male has a stunning scarlet head - but had never managed to film one. Very special.

We cruised on to Villa La Angustura on the shores of massive Lago Nahuel Huapi, stopping off at a few places along the way. The plan was to camp somewhere on the shores of Nahuel Huapi or nearby Lago Correntoso; to base ourselves there for a couple of days┤ worth exploring the extensive Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi, before crossing the border back to Chile on Wednesday the 23rd.

However, by the time we reached Villa La Angostura in the late afternoon, it was raining cats and dogs, and we sought refuge in a comfortable youth hostel (and had another puncture repaired). That evening, we tried our first ┤parilla┤, a typical Argentinian BBQ mixed grill of chicken, sausage, beef steak and lamb... oh yes, true to stereotype, the Argentinians love their meat!! We must have chosen the wrong restaurant (Gran Nevada, recommended in Footprint guide), because it was aweful! All the meat was salty and tasted deep-fried, the lamb was tough as old boots. Mmm, disappointing. But the wine was good and cheap!

After camping three nights on the trot, we savoured the luxury of our private room with en-suite bathroom and underfloor heating in the Hostel La Angostura. Tuesday looked no better weather-wise: it was pouring when we woke up and continued to do so for the rest of the day. After a morning lazing about, internetting and trying to do a bit of shopping (boots for me... my Hi-techs have a hole in them), we headed out for a drive along the famed Siete Lagos (Seven Lakes) Drive, a gravel road that takes one through pristine forest and a string of clear blue lakes.

Alas, we couldn┤t see much, let alone go for a stroll, in the relentless rain and mist! There was even a dusting of fresh snow on the mountainsides... no wonder the temperature had plumeted that morning! We gave up on the idea of spending the night by Lago Traful when we got there... it certainly wasn┤t camping weather and the youth hostel there looked like a bomb had hit it. So, in the early evening, after Rich had bravely done some fishing (and waded for his lure) on the shore of Lago Traful, we headed back to the comfort of Hostel La Angostura. We even got our previous night┤s room back!
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