Argentina: Lakes with a Latin flavour

Forget rain and ramblers: besides fine lakeland scenery, Argentinian Patagonia offers vineyards and spas
Click to follow
The Independent Travel

The Lake District: rolling fells, boating lakes and streams of ramblers in pastel rainwear. Craning your neck for the B&B's "lake view". Making the best of the weather.

Not snow-capped peaks jutting into cobalt sky. Not isolated emptiness. Not sparkling lakes so pure you can drink the water. Very rarely locally grown pinot noir. For those, you need to head for the Argentine Lake District, a two-hour flight southwest of Buenos Aires: a wondrous land of lagoons, forests and peaks sprawling 400km along the Andes. It's like Scotland, but with the lights on; or the Alps, but empty of people. It's the part of Patagonia no one mentions: perhaps too picturesque to fit the rugged image.

I could have flown the 1,600km from the capital across the cattle dotted pampas and the windswept steppe, but I wanted to taste proper Patagonian adversity. So I channelled my endurance into coping with the overnight bus. It was a crumpled 15 hours, but relatively carbon friendly, and aided by movies and tots of free whisky. I alighted at dawn in Neuqué* city, just as the landscape started to look interesting. Immediately, there were signs that this Lake District was bigger and bolder than ours. There were paw prints on the lake shore made by dinosaurs: three-toed indentations the size of armchairs. And the local museum held the bones of Giganotosaurus carolinii, a 10-ton beast who stomped the earth here 100 million years ago. Moreover, the local produce wasn't chutney, but chardonnay.

As Roberto showed me around the Schroeder family bodega, 40 minutes drive north of Neuqué* city, I had to admit it was an odd choice for a sleek new state-of-the-art winery. On a plateau of treeless gravel where only spiky, sulphur-yellow grasses seemed to thrive, he'd planted 140 hectares of vines: an area the size of Hyde Park filled with sauvignon blanc and pinot noir. Roberto admitted that the yields were low: "Twice in our first year all the vines fell off the wires," he laughed.

Extreme wine-making, indeed. Argentina's success as a wine-exporter is now well established, but most wine is grown in Mendoza, on higher ground, 1,700km north. But here Roberto finds what he loses in altitude, he gains in latitude: cooler nights, yes, but longer days of sunshine. The proof was in the sipping: eating superb local trout on the sunny terrace of Schroeder's restaurant I tried his sparkling Rosa de los Vientos. It was so crisp and delicious, I was considering hauling a case on to the bus. No need: Roberto is selling to Britain's Gaucho steak restaurants. This seemed like true alchemy: turning gravel into pink fizz. Refreshed but giddy, I headed for the hills.

Heading southwest into the Andes, mountains slowly appeared, and then conical volcano Laní* was perched among them, like a painted Mount Fuji on a flat blue backdrop. The Lake District has no fewer than four national parks, and Laní* is the wildest. My 4x4 bumped along a narrow track, headed west towards Chile, and within an hour I was in dense forest. Monkey-puzzle trees soared above, their branches making geometric lacework against the sky. Here the driver insisted we stop, and I followed his winding path through beech and bamboo to emerge high above Lake Curruhué Grande: steep, wooded mountains encircled a shimmering sliver of aquamarine blue. The air was soft and sweet. It was perfectly silent, with not a breath of wind. It took time to realise that in the immense space around us, there was no sign of the hand of man anywhere. It was absolutely pristine. Yet an hour later I was sipping tea on the deck at Lahuen-Co, a Zen-style wooden lodge and spa in the remotest part of Laní* national park. The name means "miraculous waters", and indeed, gazing out over the valley, plumes of white steam rose up between the silvery pampas grasses. These were the original thermal springs, known to the indigenous Mapuche people for hundreds of years as "lahuen-co" and now feeding into an elegant, glass-walled spa.

I took my first dunk before dinner, inching gingerly into four steaming pools, each hotter than the last, and marvelling at the purple peaks and forest just outside. Resting afterwards, smoked trout canapés and sauvignon blanc were brought to me. I slept, as the Argentines say, like a tree trunk.

Over the next two days I hiked the flanks of a volcano and crossed a wide river of black lava: pyroclastic matter hurled from the last eruption and frozen mid-flow; buckled mud turned to stone. I discovered a vast, still, pea-green lake, and lazed on the shore for hours, not a human being in sight.

I couldn't miss the Seven Lakes Drive, one of Argentina's finest drives, which twists and turns for 110km through forests and alongside lakes, each prettier than the last, like a breathtaking Imax tracking shot. The drive ends at Villa la Angostura, an upmarket resort for wealthy Argentines. Here, the charming Hotel Correntoso maintained the style of a 1930s hunting lodge, except that bathrooms were sublime and every bed had stunning lake views. Correntoso's guides were experts: Max took me by boat to the diminutive national park Bosque los Arrayanes long after the commercial tours had left. We alighted in a forest of cinnamon coloured tree trunks twisted like barley sugar, in an other-worldly peachy light. Arrayanes are barkless myrtles, their branches powder soft and weirdly cold to the touch.

That night I swam in Correntoso's infinity pool: seamless with the navy blue lake beyond, though, thankfully, much warmer. Could lakeside lodges get better than this?

Ninety minutes' drive south, Bariloche is the central hub for most visitors to the Lakes: set on Lake Nahuel Huapi at the foot of snow-dusted mountains, it's packed with hikers in summer, and skiers in winter. Bariloche is definitely more Alps than Ullswater: chalet-style chocolate shops and log cabins serving fondue are vestiges of Swiss German settlers in the 1930s. It was hard to find a hotel that didn't have ornately carved gables. Happily, El Casco tempered slick sophistication with friendly staff, and, remarkably, it was filled with paintings by Argentina's greatest artists.

I wanted complete immersion in nature, though, and headed off the road an hour south of Bariloche to find Estancia Peuma Hue sitting alone on Lake Gutiérrez by its own slab of mountainside wilderness.

No sooner had I arrived than owner Evelyn Hoter whisked me across the Prussian-blue lake by boat to start a gentle hike up to the waterfall. We walked through a cathedral of coihue trees, through scarlet lenga forest, and emerged to find condors wheeling lazily around black jutting rocks above us. Even the water cascading noisily down the rocks tasted sweet. There seemed to be something magical about Peuma Hue from the start. "Well, we straddle the continental divide." Evelyn pointed to where the estancia had become a lone speck on the lake shore.

Behind it was a swooping dip between mountains where rivers flow east towards the Atlantic and west towards the Pacific. "All this good energy flows out all over the world from here." The grand log cabin soon felt like home. I spent four days walking, riding horses into virgin forest, taking a kayak out on the calm lake, and being massaged into even deeper tranquillity. There were exquisite canapés and Patagonian Malbec by the fire and, night walks along the beach to watch the stars emerge.

Strangely, there wasn't a glimmer of light on the opposite shore. Just forest and mountain, and more mountain. I felt a long way from Coniston Water.

Travel essentials: Argentina's Lake District

Getting there

* No airline flies non-stop between the UK and Argentina; British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) flies to Buenos Aires from Heathrow, but stops at Sao Paulo in Brazil en route; it will start direct daily flights on 27 March next year.

* Connecting options include Iberia (0870 609 0500; iberiaairlines.co.uk) from six UK airports via Madrid, and Tam (020-8741 2005; tam.com.br) from Heathrow via Sao Paulo or Rio.

* Steppes Travel (01285 880980; steppestravel.co.uk) arranges tailor-made itineraries in Argentina.

Getting around

* The main domestic airlines are Aerolineas Argentinas ( aerolineas.com.ar) and Lan ( lan.com), each with daily flights from Buenos Aires to Bariloche.

Staying there

* Lahuen Co, Laní* National Park (00 54 2972 424709; lahuenco.com). Doubles start at US$250 (£167), half board, including use of the hot springs.

* Correntoso Lake and River Hotel, Villa la Angostura (00 54 11 4803 0030; correntoso.com). Double rooms start at US$285 (£190), including breakfast and use of the spa.

* El Casco Art Hotel, Bariloche (00 54 11 4815 6952; hotelelcasco.com). Double lake view rooms start at US$350 (£233) including breakfast and the use of the spa.



* Estancia Peuma Hue, Lake Gutiérrez (00 54 9 2944 501030; peuma-hue.com). Double rooms start at US$380 (£253), all-inclusive, with horse riding.

Visiting there

* Familia Schroeder winery, San Patricio del Chañar (00 54 299 489 9600; familiaschroeder.com). Guided wine tours, 15 pesos (£2.30) refundable against purchases of wine or a meal.

Comments