I departed Buenos Aires by bus on Wednesday at 8 PM and arrived in Neuquen, western Patagonia, late the following morning. From there, we traveled to Junín de los Andes vaguely knowing the area’s reputation of great natural beauty – albeit thanks to cursory google work. Realistically we had no idea where exactly we were heading, but that is the nature of carrying a large backpack around Argentina. We arrived in Junín de los Andes on Thursday afternoon and headed for the tourism information desk. In turn, we were told that Junín was the wrong place for such things as camping and hiking; ironic considering the surrounding myriad of picturesque, green mountains. Apparently we were early by a week; the bureaucracy has no limits. Dutifully, we went back to the bus station and bought tickets to the neighboring town of San Martin de los Andes. The equivalent of a puddle jumper, our van brought us 45 minutes to our new mountain enclave: a town where everything that needs to be expressed is carved in thick wood and where verbal information is conveyed at roughly the same rate.
Because of a cold rain, we decided to forgo the cross-town amble to the official tourism office, and opted for the much smaller desk next to the bus station. We were greeted by a man who apparently sits at that desk solely as avocation. He called in a guy from the back of the office who told us that we should follow a road around the town’s bordering Lake Lacar for 5 kilometers until we found a campsite called Playa Catritre. He also added that San Carlos de Bariloche was a mere 245 kilometers by foot, which should have been something of a red flag. Happy to have a sense of direction, we filled our packs with butane stove food and set off for the campground. By the time we entered Lanín National Park, night had fallen and a brisk wind whipped up from the lake below. We hiked along a curving footpath, hugging every overlook of the lake that lay some hundreds of feet below. The beams of our headlamps saturated with rain and swirling dirt, the views didn’t distract. Looking over our shoulders, the lights of San Martin receded farther back in to the night. After 4 kilometers of plodding, we turned at a road sign that read Playa Catritre 1, anticipating refuge around every obscured corner. There were a few complications, however: some Private Property signs, a closed gate, and a trail which led nowhere, the last one becoming somewhat of a motif. Rather than ford the closed gate and chance a greeting with an armed and sleep deprived Andean redneck, we decided to huff it back in to San Martin. We found a hostel, drank from a warming flask of Breeders Choice, and retired for the night.
The next morning, sipping a coffee and looking at a map displayed on a wall of the hostel’s breakfast area, it was immediately apparent that we had been led in the complete opposite direction from the little yellow tents that dotted the north side of Lake Lacar’s illustrated likeness. Later that morning we walked in to a tourism bureau, a different one – with a huge wooden sign – and elicited some very promising news.
Driving for an hour and a half on stone-covered roads, our driver pushing out against his windshield with each passing car to ensure that it stayed in one piece, we entered a wilderness as immense as I have ever seen. We were dropped at Puerto Canoa, whose designation as “port” is a little disingenuous. There were two people and boat – one person taking cover from the rain in the park ranger booth and one person preparing the port’s lone boat for a tourist-void tourist cruise of the lake. Low lying clouds obscured the majority of all surrounding mountains, declining us the chance to see the eminence of Volcano Lanín just 4 kilometers away and some 11,000 feet above sea level. A little forlorn in the cold greyness, we hiked along a trail through some misty woods, then down along the lake to a campground.
Coming down the gravel driveway of Camping Raquitue, we were greeted by a lumbering fellow in black rubber boots. He gave us a friendly tour of his land, which was dotted with fire pits and livestock and which ran all the way down to a rocky beach on the lake. We set up the tent and started a fire while listening to some anecdotes from our friend and host Gilberto. As it turns out, Gilberto is a Mapuche Indian who has lived with his wife and son for 4 years on this, the last campground before Lanín National Park. He is also equal part Time Out: Lake Huechulafquen. He told us to knock on one of his neighbor’s doors – a neighbor that happened to be separated by a distance of kilometers – and ask them to prepare us some dinner. We put in the order at about 5, and they told us to come back at 9 for our bife de chorizo and empanadas. We went back later that night to find ourselves alone in the dining area fit for 50 and ate the best meal that I had ever had in a stranger’s house converted to restaurant. The dining area was all windows, giving expansive views of the lake’s waterfront that lay below. Donning our headlights, we trekked back to camp, lit a fire and went to sleep.
That morning I was awoken at 6 AM to the sound of some frighteningly proximate grazing and snorting. As one of our horned neighbors was chomping breakfast literally feet from the tent, it was not lost on me that RJ was covered in a red sleeping bag, bringing to mind some gory bullfighting memories.
After a few hours of uneasy sleep and some dulce de leche sandwiches for breakfast, we set off to hike the trail to the base of Volcano Lanín. Advertised as an 8 hour round trip, we set off at about 11 on the volcanic ash that ran alongside a scenic river up to the volcano. It was a gorgeous day on the lake, and the summits of the surrounding mountains were visible, aside from the eminence of the volcano. With these good tidings, the hike was extremely agreeable; there were rocky streams to cross, and higher up on the trail we hit some steep inclines and finally snow near the base. The view from the volcano’s base was extraordinary; the lake reflecting the clearest blue of an unadulterated sky and beyond that about a dozen Andean peaks were visible on the horizon. Looking up the Volcano, however, there was absolutely no bearing to be gained, as it was entirely cloud covered starting about 100 meters up from us. After failing to sled down the volcano by backpack, we descended the way we came. That night we ate at a nearby lodge that was honestly more expensive than any restaurant that I have eaten at in the last 4 months in Buenos Aires, and it is noteworthy only for that reason. After the milanesa swindling, we headed back to camp content to have experienced a full day of incredible weather and to have set foot on the 11,000 foot giant that presided over the entire region.
The next day’s weather was even more pristine than the previous day’s, and we took Gilberto’s fly-rod and his neighbor’s bait caster down to the lake to try to come face to face with a brown trout. The wind had other plans though, as it sent our bait flying in undesired directions, and we resigned ourselves to bask in the sunshine for the remainder of the morning until being met by a van service early that afternoon. It took us back to Junín de los Andes along with half a dozen fully adorned and be-knifed gauchos. From there, we hopped on a gaucho-less bus scheduled to arrive in Buenos Aires some 20 hours later – notwithstandinging the 2 hours spent waiting for gas on the side of the highway. Traveling in this country is often very much about the journey, and when that journey takes you to a place as uncompromisingly beautiful as Lake Huechulafquen, the entire experience is illuminated by the moments of radiance spent in that exquisite retreat.