With the snow-capped craggy mountains, glistening glacial lakes, dark verdant forests and stellar panoramic vistas, the lake district of Argentina is like a wild Switzerland. While cycling Circuito Chico from San Carlos de Bariloche captures some of the beauty, the twisting drive along the innocently named RP234.
More typically known as The Seven Lakes Route or the poetic Ruta de Las Siete Lagos (do places sound more exotic and entrancing with their foreign name) is a superb one or two (or longer) day drive (more stopping time allows short walks time to explore the side roads).
From Bariloche the road weaves a torturous path through steep sided valleys smothered in forest past the glittering beauty of Nahuel Haupi Lake towards the village of Villa la Angostura. Legend dictates that the lake has its own spooky monster of the deep named Nahuelito. Various tracks up the local mountains offer superb alpine views while stunning large drop waterfalls tumble into the valleys below. The aptly named Cascadas Rio Bonito (Pretty River Falls) tumbles from a dark, rocky horseshoe-shaped outcrop – its turquoise-blue waters gleam in the heavily wooded surrounds.
The tiny nearby national park hosts a forest of ancient arrayanes trees, unique to this small part of the world straddling the Chilean-Argentinian border. Growing only a metre every thirty years, a boardwalk steers through an impressive 300 and 500 years old grove of the sprawling cinnamon-coloured trees, the dappled light creating a magical setting. This fantasy environment is thought to be the inspiration for the Disney movie Bambi.
The trees feature flaky, dry bark which peels away giving a blotchy aged appearance while their branches skew off at strange twisted angles. The arrayanes unusual roots spread across the ground and start to climb other trees with a number of neighbouring trees likely to be a clone of the same original tree. Arrayanes trees are unusually cold to touch with their ability to absorb the heat from the sun’s rays.
North of Villa la Angostura the road squeezes between lakes two and three – the tranquil Lago Espejo (Mirror Lake, photo) and Lago Correntoso (Swift Lake) – with peaceful walks around the lake’s shores. All the lakes reflect the mountain scenery into their still waters so it is difficult to tell why Lago Espejo received the iconic name of Mirror Lake.
Turning right, there is a wonderful detour to Villa Traful and Lago Traful which doesn’t even count as one of the seven. The wooden houses of the small fishing town are sprawled along the lake’s shores. Quiet walking trails wander through the surrounding forests unveiling waterfalls and views of the lakes while the town provides a wonderful escape and chance to unwind for a few days. Continuing through the town the road leads back to Bariloche and the Circuito Grande route (dotted path on the map).
Returning to the Ruta de las Siete Lagos, the mediocre road surface (some not asphalted) weaves its way north, tantalising paths occasionally leading from the main road. One road leads to an interesting alpine passage into Chile while the main route leads past the fjord-like azure blue Lago Escondido (Hidden Lake, top photo) surrounded by thick forest, the twin lakes of Villarino and Falkner and the impressive Vuliñanco Falls.
Turning off and driving through a police post, the road leads to a small lake. The aptly named Lago Hermoso (Handsome Lake) is the most stunning of all the lakes, though not officially one of the seven lakes. Surrounded by forest and with a sheltered sun soaked beach quiet beach, the lake feels like an undiscovered gem with a tiny rustic campsite and small shop selling basic supplies.
From here the road runs down hill, the forest reduces and the land suddenly becomes much drier. Lago Machónico passes on the left and the wonderful vista from Pil Pil Lookout highlights the seventh and final lake of the journey – Lago Lácar and the touristy (and pricey) town of San Martin all nestled into Andes mountains. In winter, the town serves as a base for snow skiing among the nearby peaks.
The 200 kilometre Ruta de Las Siete Lagos offers a constant barrage of alpine scenery warranting time to stop, walk, view and enjoy the stunning panoramic beauty of the glistening lakes and snow-capped Andean peaks. Personally, the southern half of the route feels more remote and has greater interest but all offer a chance to commune with nature and enjoy this relatively unknown Argentinian Lake District.