Argentine backpackers once used forlorn Zapala, the erstwhile end of the line for the Ferrocarril Roca’s northern spur, as a takeoff point to the lakes district’s least-visited parts. Since the railroad shut down, the town and the bleak surrounding steppe is mainly a convenient stopover en route to San Martín de los Andes, though it has good access to bird-rich Parque Nacional Laguna Blanca.
Zapala (pop. 31,265) is 189 kilometers west of Neuquén via RP 22, which continues northwest toward Las Lajas and the Chilean border at Pino Hachado, and 244 kilometers northeast of San Martín de los Andes via RN 40 and RN 234. The main drag is Avenida San Martín, which leads south from the traffic-circle intersection of RN 22 and RN 40.
Zapala’s modernized mineralogical museum fills a recycled warehouse with minerals from around the world and paleontological exhibits from Neuquén. Its prize exhibit is the remains of the herbivorous dinosaur Zapalasaurus bonapartei, but there are also displays on marine reptiles, paleobotany, systematic mineralogy, Argentine economic minerals, and invertebrate and vertebrate paleontology, along with a specialized library.
Alongside the bus terminal, the Museo Olsacher (Etcheluz and Ejército Argentino, tel. 02942/42-2713, free) is open 8 a.m.–2 p.m. and 6–9 p.m. Tues.–Fri., 5–9 p.m. weekends and holidays.
Accommodations and Food
While accommodations and dining are limited, the quality is good. The cheapest are Residencial Coliqueo (Etcheluz 165, tel. 02942/42-1308, US$20 s, US$35 d) and the immaculate Pehuén Hotel (Etcheluz and Elena de la Vega, tel. 02942/42-3135, US$23 s, US$40 d).
Hotel Hue Melén (Almirante Brown 929, tel. 02942/42-2391, hotelhuemelen [at] hotmail [dot] com, US$48 s, US$73 d) also has a restaurant.
For breakfast, coffee, and snacks, there’s El Chancho Rengo (Avenida San Martín and Etcheluz, tel. 02942/42-2795). Directly on RN 22 near the rotary, El Fogón (Houssay and Bolivia, tel. 02942/15-66-4781) is a good parrilla.
Helados Don Héctor (Etcheluz 527) is only so-so compared with ice creameries elsewhere, but it’s not a desperation choice.
Getting to Zapala
A new terminal at the junction of RN 22 and RN 40 is due to replace downtown’s Terminal de Ómnibus (Etcheluz and Uriburu, tel. 02924/42-3191), which has provincial and long-distance services; some Chile-bound carriers will pick up passengers here.
Sample destinations, times, and fares include Neuquén (2.5 hours, US$8), San Martín de los Andes (3.5 hours, US$10), Bariloche (5 hours, US$15), and Buenos Aires (18 hours, US$67). Most often, for Buenos Aires, it’s easiest to transfer in Neuquén.
Several companies now pass Parque Nacional Laguna Blanca (1 hour, US$2.50) en route to Aluminé.
© Wayne Bernhardson from Moon Argentina, 3rd edition