Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi in Northern Patagonia

Snow-crested mountains are visible in the distance while the heavily forest shore reflects in deep blue lakewater.

The focus of the park is beautiful Lago Nahuel Huapi. Photo © Brian Stacey, licensed Creative Commons Attribution

In 1903, Patagonian explorer Francisco Pascasio Moreno donated three square leagues of “the most beautiful scenery my eyes had ever seen,” at Lago Nahuel Huapi’s west end near the Chilean border, to “be conserved as a natural public park.” Citing the United States’ example in creating large public reserves, Moreno’s burst of idealism returned part of a personal land grant to the Argentine state. First known as Parque Nacional del Sur, the property became today’s Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi.

Map of Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi, Argentina

Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi

Since then, countless Argentine and foreign visitors have benefited from Moreno’s civic generosity in a reserve that now encompasses a far larger area of glacial lakes and limpid rivers, forested moraines and mountains, and snow-topped Andean peaks that mark the border. So many have done so, in fact, that it’s debatable whether authorities have complied with Moreno’s wish that “the current features of their perimeter not be altered, and that there be no additional constructions other than those that facilitate the comforts of the cultured visitor.”

Prior to the “Conquest of the Desert,” Araucanian peoples freely crossed the Andes via the Paso de los Vuriloches south of 3,554-meter Cerro Tronador. The pass lent its name to Bariloche, which, over a century since its 1903 founding, has morphed from lakeside hamlet to a sprawling city whose wastes imperil the air, water, and surrounding woodlands.

For all that, Nahuel Huapi remains a beauty spot that connects two countries via a series of scenic roads and waterways. In 1979, Argentine and Chilean military dictatorships fortified the borders and mined the approaches because of a territorial dispute elsewhere, but a papal intervention cleared the air and perhaps reflected Moreno’s aspirations:

This land of beauty in the Andes is home to a colossal peak shared by two nations: Monte Tronador unites both of them…. Together, they could rest and share ideas there; they could find solutions to problems unsolved by diplomacy. Visitors from around the world would mingle and share with one another at this international crossroads.

Sights in Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi

Lago Nahuel Huapi

Nahuel Huapi’s focal point is its namesake lake, whose fingerlike channels converge near the Llao Llao peninsula to form the main part of its 560-square-kilometer surface. With a maximum depth of 454 meters, it drains eastward into the Río Limay, a Río Negro tributary.

In the middle of Nahuel Huapi’s northern arm, Isla Victoria once housed the APN’s park ranger school (since relocated to Tucumán), which trained rangers from throughout the Americas. From Puerto Pañuelo, Turisur’s Modesta Victoria (Mitre 219, tel. 02944/42- 6109) sails to the island (US$35 plus US$7 national park entry fee) at 12:15 a.m. while the Cau Cau (Mitre 139, tel. 02944/43-1372, US$36 plus US$7 national park entry fee) goes at 2 p.m.; both continue to Parque Nacional Los Arrayanes (which is more accessible from Villa la Angostura on the north shore). Bioceánica Turismo (Avenida San Martín 484, tel. 02944/43-6240, US$32) sails at 9 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.

Circuito Chico

Bariloche’s single most popular excursion leads west on Avenida Bustillo to Península Llao Llao and returns via the hamlet of Colonia Suiza, at the foot of Cerro López. En route, it passes or touches several points of interest; public buses will pick up and drop off passengers almost anywhere, and it’s also popular with cyclists.

For exceptional panoramas of Nahuel Huapi and surroundings, take the Aerosilla Campanario (Avenida Bustillo Km 17.5, tel. 02944/42-7274, US$7 pp) to the 1,050-meter summit of Cerro Campanario. The chairlift operates 9 a.m.–5:30 p.m. daily, as does the restaurant-confitería at the summit.

The bus-boat “Cruce de Lagos” to Chile starts at Puerto Pañuelo, but excursions to Isla Victoria and Parque Nacional Los Arrayanes (across the lake) also leave from here. The outstanding cultural landmark is the Hotel Llao Llao (Avenida Bustillo Km 25, tel. 02944/44-8530), a Bustillo creation open to nonguests for guided tours (free of charge, except for parking).

Almost immediately west of Puerto Pañuelo, a level footpath from the parking area leads southwest to an arrayán forest in Parque Municipal Llao Llao; the trail rejoins the paved road at Lago Escondido. The road itself passes a trailhead for Cerro Llao Llao, a short but stiff climb that offers fine panoramas of Nahuel Huapi and the Andean crest. On the descent, the trail joins a gravel road that rejoins the paved road from Puerto Pañuelo, which leads south before looping northeast toward Bariloche; a gravel alternative heads east to Colonia Suiza, known for its Sunday crafts fair (in summer also on Wednesday). There is also a regular Sunday curanto (a mixture of beef, lamb, pork, chicken, sausage, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and other vegetables, baked on heated earth-covered stones) and a spectacular assortment of sweets and desserts. On any day, try the regional menu at Fundo Colonia Suizo (tel. 02944/15-63-7539), which is open noon–7:30 p.m. daily. The individual tabla of smoked venison, pork, trout, salami, and cheese (US$9) is an unusual practice—most restaurants have a two-person minimum—and one that’s very welcome.

From Colonia Suiza, a zigzag dirt road suitable for mountain bikes climbs toward the Club Andino’s Refugio López, 1,620 meters above sea level; near the junction of the paved and gravel roads, a steep footpath climbs 2.5 hours to the refugio, open mid-December–mid-April.

For most of the way, the route is obvious, but where it seems to disappear into a grove of lengas it actually climbs steeply to the left, brushing the dirt road, before continuing toward the refugio. In fact, it’s much simpler if a little longer to walk the upper sections along the private 4WD road (in any event, the last kilometer or so is on the road itself).

From Refugio López, a good place to take a break and a beer, the route climbs to Cerro Turista, a strenuous scramble over rugged volcanic terrain. With an early start, it’s possible to reach the 2,076-meter summit of Cerro López.

Many Bariloche agencies offer the Circuito Chico as a half-day tour (about US$10 pp), but it’s also possible (and cheaper) on public transportation: For most of the day, from the corner of San Martín and Pagano in Bariloche, Ómnibus 3 de Mayo’s (tel. 02944/42-5648) No. 20 bus goes every 20 minutes to Llao Llao and Puerto Pañuelo, which is also the final destination of some of its seven Nos. 10 and 11 buses via Colonia Suiza on the Circuito Chico route through Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi, but through the night it’s only every hour or so.

From Bariloche, Ómnibus 3 de Mayo’s Línea Manso goes twice on Friday to Río Villegas and El Manso (US$4), on Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi’s southwestern edge.

Cerro Otto

From Bariloche’s Barrio Belgrano, Avenida de los Pioneros intersects a gravel road that climbs gently and then steeply west to Cerro Otto’s 1,405-meter summit. While it’s a feasible eight-kilometer hike or mountain-bike ride, it’s easier via the gondolas of Teleférico Cerro Otto (Avenida de los Pioneros Km 5, tel. 02944/44-1035, 10.a.m.–6 p.m. daily, US$15 pp, US$6 children ages 6–12); city buses Nos. 50 and 51 go directly to the base station.

On the summit road, at 1,240 meters, the Club Andino’s Refugio Berghof has 40 bunks and serves meals and drinks. Its Museo de Montaña Otto Meiling, with cheap guided tours, honors an early mountaineer who built his residence here.

Cerro Catedral

About 20 kilometers southwest of Bariloche, Cerro Catedral’s 2,388-meter summit overlooks Villa Catedral, the area’s major winter-sports complex. From Villa Catedral, the Cablecarril y Silla Lynch (10 a.m.–5 p.m. daily, US$13 pp) carries visitors to Confitería Punta Nevada and Refugio Lynch, which also has a confitería. Hikers can continue along the ridgetop to the Club Andino’s 40-bed Refugio Emilio Frey (tel. 02944/35-5222, US$9 pp), 1,700-meters above sea level and open all year; the spire-like summits nearby are a magnet for rock climbers.

Monte Tronador

Its inner fire died long ago, but the ice-clad volcanic summit of Tronador still merits its name (the “Thunderer”) when frozen blocks plunge off its face into the valley below. The peak that surveyor Bailey Willis called “majestic in savage ruggedness” has impressed everyone from Jesuit explorer Miguel de Olivares to Perito Moreno, Theodore Roosevelt, and the hordes that view it every summer. Its ascent, though, is for skilled snow-and-ice climbers only.

Source of the Río Manso, Tronador’s icy eastern face gives birth to the Ventisquero Negro (Black Glacier), a jumble of ice, sand, and rocky detritus, and countless waterfalls. Passing Pampa Linda, at the end of the Lago Mascardi road, whistle-blowing rangers prevent hikers from approaching too closely to the Garganta del Diablo, the area’s largest accessible waterfall.

From Pampa Linda, hikers can visit the Club Andino’s basic Refugio Viejo Tronador, a kiln-shaped structure that sleeps a maximum of 10 climbers in bivouac conditions, via a trail on the road’s south side. On the north side, another trail leads to the 60-bed Refugio Meiling, 2,000 meters above sea level. Well-equipped backpackers can continue north to Laguna Frías via the 1,335-meter Paso de las Nubes and return to Bariloche on the bus-boat shuttle via Puerto Blest and Puerto Pañuelo; it’s also possible to do this route from Bariloche or Puerto Pañuelo.

Reaching the Tronador area requires a roundabout drive via southbound RN 258 to Lago Mascardi’s south end, where westbound RP 81 follows the Río Manso’s south bank; at Km 9, a northbound lateral crosses the river and becomes a single-lane dirt road to Pampa Linda and Tronador’s base. Because it’s narrow, morning traffic is one-way inbound (until 2 p.m.) and afternoon traffic outbound (after 4 p.m.). At other hours, it’s open to cautious two-way traffic. From mid-November, Active Patagonia (tel. 02944/52-7966) provides transportation from the Club Andino’s Bariloche headquarters to Pampa Linda at 9 a.m. daily, returning at 5 p.m. (2 hours, US$20 round-trip).

Flora and Fauna

The park’s flora and fauna resemble those of Lanín to the north and Los Alerces to the south, but differ in some respects. There are three principal ecosystems: the easterly Patagonian steppe, the Andean-Patagonian forest, and the high Andes above 1,600 meters, which consists of low shrubs and sparse grasses adapted to cold, wind, and snow.

Guanacos graze the semiarid steppe grasslands, stalked by foxes and even pumas, while raptors like the cinereous harrier and American kestrel patrol the skies. Toward the west, open woodlands of coniferous cypress, ñire (southern false beech), and maitén stand among rocky soils.

Farther west, at slightly higher altitudes, dense false beech forests of coihue, lenga, and ñire cover the slopes, while the shoreline and stream banks burst with a flowering understory of notro and climbing vines like mutisia with clusters of the cinnamon-barked arrayán.

Near Puerto Blest, rainfall up to 4,000 millimeters per annum supports a humid Valdivian forest of Guaiteca cypress, Podocarpus, and tree ferns. Nahuel Huapi, though, lacks Lanín’s monkey puzzle forests, and the more southerly alerce tree is less abundant than in Chubut Province.

Sightings of the huemul (Andean deer) and the pudú miniature deer are rare here. Other mammals include the carnivorous huillín (otter) and the tuco-tuco, an endemic ground squirrel–like rodent.

Normally oceangoing, the king cormorant has a colony along Lago Nahuel Huapi, where the kelp gull often trails the boats that sail the lake. Nahuel Huapi, its tributary streams, and other lakes teem with trout and other fish.

Accommodations and Food

Campgrounds are numerous, especially in areas accessible by road. Club Andino refugios charge around US$12–14 pp for overnight stays, US$4–6 for breakfast, US$10–15 for lunch or dinner, and US$2 for kitchen use. Make reservations for bunks, which are limited, but day-hikers can buy simple meals and cold drinks.

Hotels and other accommodations are scattered around various park sectors. At Lago Mascardi’s northwest end, on the Pampa Linda road, Hotel Tronador (tel. 02944/44- 1062, US$99–119 pp with full board) is a lakes-district classic in the Bustillo tradition. It’s open November 1–mid-April.

Near road’s end, Hostería Pampa Linda (tel. 02944/49-0517, US$115 s, US$146 d, with half board; US$166 s, US$246 d, with full board) is a rustically contemporary inn that also organizes hikes and horseback rides (at additional cost).


Now stretching from the northerly Lago Queñi, west of San Martín de los Andes, to the southerly Río Manso, midway between Bariloche and El Bolsón, the park now covers 750,000 hectares in southwestern Neuquén and western Río Negro. Together with Parque Nacional Lanín to the north, it forms an uninterrupted stretch of well over 1 million hectares, but part of that is a reserva nacional that permits commercial development. At the park’s western edge, Tronador is the highest of a phalanx of snow-covered border peaks.


For detailed park information and hiking permits, contact the APN (San Martín 24, tel. 02944/42-3111) or Bariloche’s Club Andino (20 de Febrero 30, tel. 02944/42-2266, 9:30 a.m.–1 p.m. and 4:30– 8:30 p.m. Mon.–Sat.). The refugios are good sources of information within the park.

The Club Andino’s improved trail map, Refugios, Sendas y Picadas, at a scale of 1:100,000 with more detailed versions covering smaller areas at a scale of 1:50,000, is a worthwhile acquisition, but Aonek’er GIS Solutions publishes more sophisticated versions of some areas. The fifth edition of Tim Burford’s Chile and Argentina: The Bradt Trekking Guide (Chalfont St Peter, UK: Bradt Travel Guides, 2001) covers several trails in detail, but its maps are suitable for orientation only.

Excerpted from the Third Edition of Moon Argentina.

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