Parque Nacional Los Alerces owes its existence and name to Fitzroya cupressoides, the coniferous monarch of the humid Valdivian forests, also known as false larch or Patagonian cypress. Easily western Chubut’s most popular attraction, the park draws campers and fishing aficionados to its forests and finger lakes. Despite a magnificent setting, with snowy Andean summits to the west, hikers find it frustrating because the scant trail network often forces them to walk the shoulders of dusty roads with heavy auto traffic.
Colloquially known as La Villa, Villa Futalaufquen is the park headquarters and also offers a cluster of services at Lago Futalaufquen’s south end, where Puerto Limonao serves as a point of arrival and departure. At the park headquarters in La Villa, the APN’s Museo y Centro de Informes (tel. 02945/471015, ext. 23, firstname.lastname@example.org, 8am-9pm daily mid-Dec.-Mar., 9am-8pm daily the rest of the year) is both a museum, with history and natural history exhibits, and a helpful ranger information center.
About 45 kilometers west of Esquel via RN 259 and RP 71, Los Alerces is a 263,000-hectare unit on the eastern Andean slope. Its highest point is 2,253-meter Cerro Torrecillas, but Pacific storms that penetrate the lower cordillera here make it wetter than most of Argentine Patagonia. Past glaciations have left navigable finger lakes that provide access to some of the park’s finest sights. Summers are mild, with temperatures reaching 24°C with cool nights, but winters average barely 2°C and see ample snowfall.
On the Río Desaguadero, the Sendero de las Pinturas Rupestres (west of RP 71 at the south end of Lago Futalaufquen) is an easy 500-meter nature trail that passes a natural overhang with fading pre-Columbian rock art, some of it clearly geometrical. It then climbs through forest to an overlook with expansive panoramas to the north.
Register with rangers for the steep hike to the 1,916-meter summit of Cerro El Dedal, reached by a trailhead from La Villa; figure about 6-7 hours round-trip. From the road to Puerto Limonao (3.5 km north of La Villa), Cinco Saltos is a shorter and easier hike to a series of waterfalls.
From Puerto Limonao, four kilometers north of La Villa, the 25-kilometer Sendero Lago Krüger follows Lago Futalaufquen’s south shore to the smaller Lago Krüger, which has a campground and a lodge. Register with rangers before beginning the hike (a portable stove is obligatory). The hike has only one campsite, at Playa Blanca, between the trailhead and the lodge for an overnight stay (for inbound hikers only). Daily boat service to Lago Krüger costs about US$28 per person round-trip.
Los Alerces’ traditional hiking excursion is the “lake circuit” from Puerto Limonao, at Lago Futalaufquen’s south end, to the Río Arrayanes outlet of Lago Verde; at Puerto Mermoud, a catwalk crosses to Lago Menéndez’s Puerto Chucao, where another boat continues to Puerto Sagrario.
From Puerto Sagrario, passing blue-green Lago Cisne, a looping nature trail goes to the El Alerzal grove and the landmark El Abuelo, the oldest and most impressive single alerce. While there are guides on the hike to and from El Abuelo, it’s possible to separate from the group. It’s not possible, though, to hike elsewhere in an area that’s mostly an off-limits zona intangible.
It’s possible to start the excursion at either Puerto Limonao (US$53 pp) or Puerto Chucao (US$43 pp). Low water often eliminates the Limonao–Chucao segment. Scheduled departures vary, and in summer an extra afternoon service from Limonao is added to the usual morning excursion. Any Esquel travel agency can make reservations, but it’s possible (though not recommended) to purchase tickets here on a space-available basis.
Los Alerces has numerous campgrounds mostly near Lago Futalaufquen. In addition to organized campgrounds, formerly free agreste (“wild”) campgrounds now charge for limited services but are much cleaner than in the past.
Accessible by road, organized campgrounds all have picnic tables, fire pits, toilets, hot showers, and access to groceries and restaurants; some have electrical outlets. Among them are Camping Los Maitenes (tel. 02945/471006, US$11 pp), 800 meters from the Intendencia at Futalaufquen’s south end; Camping Bahía Rosales (tel. 02945/471044, US$11 pp), 15 kilometers from La Villa on the eastern lakeshore; and Camping Lago Rivadavia (tel. 02945/452009, US$11 pp), 46 kilometers north of La Villa at its namesake lake’s south end.
Reached only by a 25-kilometer footpath or launch from Puerto Limonao, Hostería & Camping Lago Krüger (tel. 011/15-44247964, US$12 pp camping, US$225 d with full board) has the only backcountry campsite; the hotel underwent major renovation.
Transportes Esquel and Transporte Jacobsen buses between Esquel and Lago Puelo pick up and drop off passengers along RP 71 within the park. Off-season Transportes Esquel buses go only thrice a week to Lago Puelo, and on Monday only to La Villa.
Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Patagonia.