San Carlos de Bariloche (commonly, Bariloche) is the undisputed capital of the Argentine lakes region, and as such, also for adventure tourism, hiking, skiing, flyfishing, horseback riding at nearby ranches, visiting glaciers, and more.
The city is relatively new, having been founded in 1903, and more dense settlement starting in the 1930s with the arrival of the railroad. It is a city that lives from tourism, and is built on the southern side of the giant Nahuel Huapi Lake, which brings a cooling breeze into the city at most times of year.
Bariloche is a great base of operations for any of the above adventure tourism, as well as some of the world’s really spectacular drives, such as Siete Lagos (seven lakes) which is a relatively short (about 65-mile) tour past some of the prettiest lakes, national parks and towering peaks the area has to offer. You can start the drive in Bariloche, which is an hour and fifteen minutes by car from Villa La Angostura, from which the drive technically starts.
The city also has a few great lookout points, such as Cerro Otto, good access to towering and rumbling Cerro Tronador, and a hospitality industry that is ready for visitors of any budget, with lodging and food options to match. Be sure to try the cordero al palo, or spit-roasted Patagonian lamb for which the area is famous, or an Argentine steak if you prefer.
Day One: Explore the City
Bariloche’s Swiss-styled architecture makes for many a great photo-op, particularly in front of the Civic Center, with its stone construction and steeply-pitched grooves. The clock tower chimes at noon daily, and the plaza in front of the Civic Center is a great place to get a view of the lake, with protected alcoves nearby for when the wind blows, including the one that houses the helpful, multilingual tourist information office.
The city of Bariloche also has a few museums, including the Museo Patagónico Perito Moreno, which has an ethno-historical section, detailing the lives of the original inhabitants, such as the Mapuche, Fuegian and Tehuelche peoples. There’s also a big collection of taxidermied animals on view, as well as exhibits on Bariloche’s history.
Lovers of church architecture should check out Our Lady of Nahuel Huapi church for its beautiful stained glass windows and expansive lawns, or the Cathedral of San Carlos de Bariloche for a good view of the city.
Chocolate sampling, souvenir shopping and museum and church visits will still leave you with a few hours free in the afternoon, which is a great time to check out Cerro Otto, a viewpoint and tourist center just a few miles outside of town. Here, visitors are whisked to the top in small red gondolas, to drink a hot chocolate or coffee, or enjoy a meal in the (slowly) rotating hilltop restaurant. Other activities here include sledding or tubing down the hill (a funicular takes you back up) and a few walks, including a guided snowshoe walk in winter. But the showstopper is undoubtedly the view, as from here you can see the lake, the town, and several towering peaks.
Day Two: Out and About
If you haven’t made time to go up to Cerro Otto on the first day, that’s a possible start to the day, though there’s plenty to do on day two. Make your way to Puerto Pañuelo, from which you can take a boat ride to Isla Victoria, a small island in the middle of Nahuel Huapi lake, and continue on to the Quetrihué peninsula, part of the Los Arrayanes National Park. Here you float along 600-year old stands of cinnamon-barked arrayán (Chilean myrtle) trees in a rare protected stand, which is also home to two small species of deer, foxes, and other small mammals, and the curiously named “little mountain monkey) monito del monte, a small marsupial. Alternatively, go to the park, skipping Isla Victoria, and bike, horseback ride or walk the 12 km to the peninsula, which will take a few hours and is a quieter, more solitary way to appreciate the park.
For a more active day, consider a visit instead to Cerro Tronador, a partially unpaved and slow two-hour drive from Bariloche. En route to Cerro Tronador, you’ll pass Gutierrez Lake, at which you can do a short hike to a waterfall, and even kayak. Mascardi Lake is also on the way, and you’ll drive south around its U-shape before getting to Pampa Linda, the last town before Cerro Tronador.
At the cerro, the main attraction is a visit to the black glacier, a moraine-stained glacier, which calves into a milky lake. This extinct volcano also is home to the Garganta del Diablo, a set of waterfalls, at the end of the road. There are some more challenging trails, including the hike to refugio Otto Meiling, where you can also spend the night.
Day Three: Touring the area on the Siete Lagos (Seven Lakes) Route.
An early morning will afford you the best use of your time, This drive is only 60-odd miles between Villa La Angostura, itself an hour and fifteen minutes from Bariloche, along the vast Nahuel Huapi that is the backdrop of so many activities in this area. The journey can easily take all day (or even two, if you’ve got the time), passing by the seven eponymous lakes that give this drive its name, including one bonus laguna (small lake), emerald green Laguna Escondida (hidden lake). En route, you’ll see native forests of different kinds of beech trees, green most of the year, and bright orange and yellow in the fall (April and May). The seven lakes are alternately glittering, still, frothy and turquoise, and you can also stop at the two national parks (Nahuel Huapi and Lanín),before ending up in San Martín de Los Andes, another town which some say is a smaller version of Bariloche, but with much less group tourist activity.
If you decide to spend the night (making this one day into a two-day tour), try camping at one of the national parks, or stay at one of the hosterías lake side along the way, taking time to eat one of the famous Argentine steaks, or the area’s main gastronomic attraction, cordero al palo (spit-roasted lamb), washing it down with Argentina’s signature Malbec wine, or if you prefer, one of the region’s craft-brewed beers.