LUGARES MAGAZINE Nro. 93
By: Julia Caprara
A WEEK IN SAN MARTIN DE LOS ANDES
We arrived at the Cerro Abanico Hostel, which is on National Route 234, 4km south of San Martin, just at the start of the downhill to the Catritre beach campsite , on the left, and opposite the charming Paihuen cabins.
On a pronounced hill, the hostel, inaugurated in August, dominates the scene, a look-out post over the vast dominions of the descendants of Cacique Curruhuinca, in Ouila Ouina. Mt Abanico also dominates the landscape and looms through the broad windows, its scarp running into the quiet of Lake Lacar. The reception looks like the living room of a house, a blend of a mountain refuge with old-fashioned furniture.
This cozy hostel is attended by the owner, Pablo Saravi, himself.
We took the road that runs to Junin de los Andes, northwards. That is, we headed up National Route 234 - the backbone of the area - covering the 88km of asphalt. After crossing the almost desert landscape that the River Chimehuin flows through, draining from the Huechulafquen, the "pampita" clearings began to appear more and more often. With the tall coihues standing up here and there, we knew that the spectacular view of the lake was near. The last 14km are not paved and so are difficult for driving in winter.
On the Huechulafquen is the hostel of the same name, only open in the fishing season, just like its neighbor, the Paimun Hostel. From Lake Paimun, a path leads towards El Saltillo, a major waterfall that can also be observed from behind: between the cascade and the rock there's enough space to pass by without getting wet. The walk takes less than an hour.
After Puerto Canoa comes the Union: this is the point where two branches come out of the northern part of Lake Huechulafquen, connected by narrows. These subdivisions have been given their own names - Paimun and Epulafquen - as if they were two independent lakes.
The nearer we came to the cordillera, the more infatuated we became with the outline of Lanin Volcano next to the irregularity that determines the long shape of the Huechulafquen. I had always thought the Lanin and Mount Fuji - the highest mountain in Japan - were identical. I found out that as well as being similarly perfect in cone-shape and snow-cap, they are the same height: 3776 meters.
During the summer, there are many people who try to reach the top. In fact, with good equipment and physical training, mountaineering fans assure me, climbing Lanin is not particularly difficult. But of course, you have to be a mountaineer… That's why I was happy to look at it from below while we enjoyed a pleasant picnic.
Ten Rivers & Ten Lakes.
We climbed up to the Arrayan look-out point, along the old road coming down from Chapelco. There are only three hectares around the wooden house built by Englishwoman Renee Dickinson in 1936 with the permission of the National Parks and in the style of Bustillo. Today, as well as being a tea-house and a wine restaurant, in includes the Ten Rivers & Ten Lakes Lodge, referring to the 10 rivers and 10 lakes found in the area. Few rooms, king-size beds, dressing room and deck, in a place with an exceptional view.
Tel: (02972) 42-5571/0. In Buenos Aires, New Age. Tel: 4700-1417. E-mail: email@example.com. Program of three nights, from $1,045 per person, full board, transfer in/out and three excursions of your choice in the surrounding area.
I had difficulty first getting out of the soft bed and then leaving the hot shower. The warmth of the hostel made it tempting to be lazy, but I had a date with the people of Las Taguas for a ride by the Hermoso, perhaps the least visited on the circuit of the Seven Lakes, and we didn't want to miss that either.
The lake is quite small, with sandy shores and almost jungle-like vegetation.
Its westward orientation protects it from the winds and it receives so much sun that, if it weren't for the low temperatures, it would be ideal for bathing. We met Patrick Steverlynck with Pampi, his faithful assistant, saddling the horses. The way is incredible, crossing the Steverlynck property, a 4500 hectare estancia forming part of the Lanin National Park. The two-hour ride went by "like the wind", going through ñire forests and round the curves of the river in the shadow of Mt Adolfo and at the other end, of that of Mt Lenga.
11 o'clock. Right left, forward and back, ordered the captain of the semi-rigid craft that we had boarded to go rafting on the River Hua Hum. This river begins in Lake Nonthue and ends in Chile, in Lake Pirehueico.
11:15. We rowed on and while we navigated the turbulent waters of the rapids, Jose Luis Carnaghi of Ici Viajes explained to me that the Hua Hum is a river that ranges between grades II and III - the calmest on a table that measures difficulties up to level VI. We tried it out: it really is an experience specially for amateurs.
11:30. Splash... A wave hit me in the face (that's what happens when you're not concentrating, I thought), but it wasn't just me, my companions too had to stand up to the unexpected shower.
12. Ah, what a marvelous sensation of peace it was, floating in a backwater, one of several that the river invents as it goes along. Then, off we rowed again towards the shore.
13. Yummy…, those pasties waiting for us on dry land must be really tasty!
Very near the city and passing Vega de Maipu, on the way to the airport, there is a turn-off to Provincial Road 62. This is where a sharp uphill starts among cypresses and maitenes. The Lolog is the most dangerous lake, because when the wind blows, its churns in fury. With or without wind, in summer it fills up with motor vessels.
A good plan is to get away to spend the day in the Curruhue Chico; you have to go round the National Park, keeping to Route 62. From the lookout point it is easy to view the surroundings of this lake and the shape of the other Curruhue, the Grande, safe from any invasion. It is forbidden to fish or camp here: the only thing allowed is looking at it. Past the araucaria forest, one of the few still standing, a beach opens up, great for staying and dreaming for hours.
Further on, the path forks: to the right, it leads to the Lahuen-Co thermal waters with their primitive facilities; there are projects to convert this hidden treasure into a high-class spa. We'll see. To the left, you can get to Laguna Verde and the amazing mirror of the El Toro lagoon.
San Martin de Ios Andes is the tourist capital of Neuquen and goes full blast all year round, hosting fishermen and summer tourists in spring and summer, and skiers who drop in with the first snowfalls and leave with the last cold spells of winter.
Downtown is what it always was, but even more so: it is the throbbing heart of this enclave of shady streets and uniform architecture. San Martin has its shopping street, also called San Martin, with all the services of an efficient city. Tourist agencies, ATMs, corner cafes, it's all focused here. There are more commercial galleries to meet the demand at the time when the tourists go out shopping, and handicrafts now form an important common denominator in the town. But not everything is what it seems.
If you are looking for good regional products, authentic ones, look in the Artesanias Neuquinas exhibition, beside the Tourist Office. The traditional businesses that have acquired a good reputation are still Oveja Negra - to buy everything from creative clothes, ornaments for the house made in local wood, to soaps and carvings - and Raices, with the sweaters of Estela Hardoy, classics like the Australian windbreakers that are found among the other items of clothing hanging from its racks.
Abuela Goye, on the corner of San Martin and Drury, never loses its power of attraction when it is a matter of stopping for something sweet: coffee with the inevitable slice of cake, home-made and very tasty, all of them. Other local-style places that will give you extra calories: the chocolates, truffles, and cremitas of Vieja Aldea, the Pillanhue cookies, and the chocolate and caramel mille feuilles from Abolengo.
We started the day heading south down the National Route 234, stopping 38 km from San Martin, in Machonico; it's the third link, the one before the last, in the Seven Lakes itinerary.
We joined a group that, like us, wanted to get in the Canadian canoes in twos or threes. The guide decided and we accepted his decision, so, once we were settled in and already in the water, we set ourselves to do what we had to in the circumstances, i.e. row. The canoes advanced almost without disturbing the stillness of the water. Rowing is demanding, but the majesty of the landscape overcomes any other consideration. The lake is surrounded by rocky walls. Every so often we made a stop. But after an hour we were worn out. When we got back to our starting point, we could finally get our strength back with the waiting mates and fried cakes.
From the area of Machonico towards Cordoba Pass, the gravel of provincial road 63 leads to the Meliquina. The lake, its forest and the houses hidden amidst the dense vegetation have turned this section into one of the most exclusive in the region. In summer, some tea-houses open up and around them is the typical image of groups of family or friends picnicking in the areas reserved for this enjoyable ritual.
We went on along the same road up to the junction with Provincial Route 64 where to the right appears Lake Filo Hua Hum, and to the left river Caleufu and its leafy valley. A short-cut leads towards Traful Cave - refuge of the ancient inhabitants - next to a natural pool where the brave usually improvise a style of Patagonian "header dive".
Tipiliuke is a real luxury, a fishing lodge set up with all the frills between San Martin and Junin de los Andes, only 12km from the River Chimehuin and 7 from the Ouilquihue, paradises for trout-fishing. The name - as explained by Maria Jose and Kevin Tiemersma, the managers of the lodge - comes from the hill of the same name opposite, which in Mapuche means "backwards heart". If you look carefully, it turns out that the shape of the hill is indeed like a heart backwards.
The premises are part of the hundred-year old ranch Cerro Los Pinos, property of the Larminat family. The story started with Santiago de Larminat when, at just 19 years of age, he arrived in Buenos Aires from France in 1909. He had barely graduated from the Institut Agronomique de Paris, his idea being to set up a livestock business, and so it was that the estancia developed.
The lodge occupies a space near the main house and covers two stone-built houses, surrounded by a park with a wealth of exotic species and a river. It has 14 rooms, plus the curiosity of a sauna inside a fairytale cabin; the decoration is splendid and the service matches the quality of the whole. Opposite spreads an incredible view of a pine wood.
Tel: (02972) 42-9466. In Buenos Aires, Tel: 4806-8877. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Double with breakfast, low season, US$100. For fishers, from US$420 per day, full board. Closed in June.
There is a chapel on the estancia that can be visited. It was built in gratitude when Larminat's only two sons, Bernardo and Andres, came back from the Second World War.
The old main house of the estancia not only keeps its original wooden structure intact, it is also still the place where the Larminat aunts live. Going to visit them is an obligation; in one of the rooms is an exhibition of local Mapuche handicrafts. Shawls, carvings, pottery and woven waistbands are some of the objects on sale.