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One of the South American continent's most scenic road trips is the Seven Lakes Route (Ruta de Siete Lagos) along the eastern foothills of the Andes Mountains in Patagonia. About 110 miles in length, what is officially Route 231 and Route 234 winds its way through some of the most beautiful natural landscape in Argentina. Twisted and hilly, the road presents gorgeous views around every curve: surprise vistas of large glacial lakes, rushing creeks and forested hills against towering mountains. As a special treat, the occasional majestic waterfall pleases the eye of the especially observant traveler, a reward to the unhurried sightseer but missed entirely by the high-speed traveler. The journey from end to end takes visitors through two national parks and at least seven lakes. A side-trip of a mile or so leads the adventurous to several more lakes. It is little wonder the route has become a destination in itself: getting there becomes as interesting as the destination. In recent years, the Route has become a world-famous cycling, hiking and horseback riding area.
The lakes listed as a part of the Seven Lakes Route sometimes vary. Generally, the are listed as Lake Machonico, Lake Falkner, Lake Villarino, Lake Escondido (Hidden), Lake Correntoso (Swift), Lake Espejo (Mirror) and Lake Nahuel Huapi (meaning Tiger Island in the language of the local natives). The list doesn't take into account the lake where the route begins: Lake Lacar. At a huge 13,591 acres and 43 miles of shoreline, Lacar is likely the most accurately studied. With a maximum depth of 900 feet, average depth of 548 feet, elevation of 2067 feet and an estimated volume of 7,458,561 acre-feet, Lake Lacar is really worth a visit, whether it is counted as one of the 'Seven Lakes' or not. Along its shores, in the City of San Martin de los Andes, the route begins.
Bus tours are available to travel the famed route, but taking the trip by private car allows the luxury of stopping often to capture yet another spectacular view for the vacation album. A number of other scenic views such as Lake Hermoso can be accessed if the traveler can stop and hike a short distance along portions of the old, unimproved portion of the road. The new, improved road is nearly all paved, except for a stretch of about 25 miles. Experienced travelers insist that, although the new road is smoother and faster to travel, it bypasses some incredible scenery. In winter or rainy weather the remaining gravel portions can be very rough and rather slow-going. Although one might assume the road would be deserted through this natural stretch, there are many small detours, walking paths and campsites along the route - destinations that receive many visitors. Some side roads lead to beaches, fishing resorts, tourism hotels, small eating establishments and native villages. Because the area is a well-known skiing and snowboarding area, there are always fellow travelers along the route.
If travelers start south from San Martin de los Andes, within five miles a sign directs them to the road to Playa Catritre, a campground with sandy beach, showers and coffee shop on Lake Lacar. Another mile along Seven Lakes Route is a side road that leads to Villa Quila Quina, a summer resort village. A few miles further, travelers can see Lake Machonico. Often photographed, the picturesque lake with its backdrop of mountains is known for excellent trout fishing and is used as a practice lake by the Patagonia Rowing School. Shortly past Lake Machonico, the road to Lake Hermoso goes to the right. About two-and-a-half miles from the main road, Lake Hermoso is worth the hike. Surrounded by the forest-covered slopes of the nearby mountains, the lake is a deep blue and offers several excellent campsites. The first part of the journey is all within the Lanin National Park, a point that is brought home when one passes the sign marking the border between Lanin and Nahuel Huapi National Parks. If one is very observant between this point and Lake Falkner - and driving slowly - they will see Vulinanco Cascade, a spectacular 115-foot double waterfall.
Lake Falkner soon comes into view. Here, knowing travelers begin to watch the mountain on the south shore. Condors, seldom seen and increasingly rare, nest among the towering black rocks at the top of Mount Buque and are easily recognized by their impressive wingspan and finger-like feathers at their wingtips. Lake Falkner was named after Thomas Falkner, an eighteenth-century Jesuit missionary who worked among the local natives, produced maps of the area and discovered fossils that added to the scientific knowledge of the Patagonian region. Along the shore there is a camping area with sandy beach, rest rooms and a grocery that is open during the South American summer season of November to April. Connected to Lake Falkner is Lake Villarino. An inn is located near the road for adventurous visitors who wish to stop and stay awhile.
At present, the paved road temporarily ends here, although the Seven Lakes Route does not. Just after this point, small Lake Escondido can be sighted between the trees. A pull-over allows travelers to get out of their cars and take a picture of the striking emerald green waters. Then, after crossing the Pichi Traful River, a small road leads the mile to Lake Pichi Traful which has a camping area and sand beach. A bit farther along the main route, another road leads the way to Lake Traful. Neither of these lakes can be seen from Seven Lakes Road, however. The next lake seen is Lake Correntoso, known for trout and salmon fishing. The Correntoso River drains from Lake Correntoso into Lake Nahuel Huapi. At 985 feet long, is one of the shortest rivers in the world. The river is a prime spawning area for rainbow trout, brown trout and stream trout and is a highly-prized, although carefully controlled trout stream. Those willing to hike a short distance can hike the old roadbed up to small Lake Bailey Willis. Next comes Lake Espejo, with multiple lake arms all providing lovely vistas for the sight-seeing passerby and for the guests who check in to the full-service resort hotel or the camping area with sand beach.
Just before reaching Villa la Angostura, travelers spot Lake Nahuel Huapi. The massive lake is the sixth largest in Argentina with about 159,630 acres of surface area and a depth of nearly 1500 feet. The lake lies at an elevation of 2472 feet. Several towns and villages hug its 222-mile shoreline. Although Seven Lakes Route officially ends at Villa la Angostura, Route 231 follows the eastern edge of Lake Nahuel Huapi and continues on to the south as Route 23. Many travelers turn off that route and continue around the southern end of the lake to the city of San Carlos de Bariloche. Bariloche has in recent years become the go-to spot for Spring Break among high school and college-age young adults. Several snow parks and ski areas in the nearby mountains offer great skiing. At 2800 feet above sea level, Bariloche offers a wide variety of attractions, including an active night-life, plentiful hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, trout fishing, exploring, boat tours and even the Bariloche Chocolate Museum. Bariloche is the chocolate capital of Argentina, and the local architecture often mirrors the landscapes of Switzerland. Bariloche is a lively town - so lively that older visitors often choose to stay at hotels on the outskirts of the fast-growing town so they can enjoy solitude along with their lovely lake views.
In June, 2011, Lake Nahuel Huapi experienced an unusual phenomenon: ash fallout from a volcano! Just across the border in Chile, Puyehue Volcano erupted after decades of dormancy. Although the eruption was 25 miles away from Lake Nahuel Huapi, tons of ash rained down on the region. Puyehue deposited several inches of ash over everything in the area, requiring snowplows to remove the drifts of pumice from roads, and some residents and businesses to shovel the weighty substance off their roofs. Although not toxic, the ash floats on top of the water, causing waves of what looks like wet cement to wash ashore. Bariloche and other towns along the lake draw their water supply from Lake Nahuel Huapi. The ash has clogged the intake pumps repeatedly, and divers must submerge regularly to clean the filter screens.
Although the falling ash created a disaster for farmers near the volcano, most expect the ash on Lake Nahuel Huapi to eventually sink to the bottom - or wash ashore and be scooped up and carted away. As time passes, the lake is clearing, but a video of the floating ash is included among the references for historical value. A nuisance at present, the ash will eventually break down and add minerals to the soil, enriching its fertility. The effect of the ash on Lake Nahuel Huapi's trout and its famous 'lake monster' Nahuelito is not yet known. Meanwhile, the skiing is fine, the chocolate shops are open for business, and the campsites, resorts and inns along Seven Lakes Route are happy to receive customers.
Lodgings of all types are available, including guest rooms in some of the mansions built by Nazi immigrants after the Second World War. For the conspiracy buff, real estate rumored to have been built for Adolph Hitler is for sale on Lake Nahuel Huapi. How he was supposed to have escaped Europe with his life is a continuing mystery, but the property was built by an architect who built many of the residences here for Nazi elite. More modest properties with less notorious historical backgrounds are also available, from new condos and penthouse suites to basic cottages. If visiting Patagonia, your visit isn't complete without a trip along Seven Lakes Route. Bring the camera, binoculars, fly rod and ski equipment. It's one road trip you'll never forget!
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