On a 2014 trip to Torres del Paine, a couple advised me that if I had enjoyed that trip, I should return and visit Bariloche and Cochamó. When searching for a March hiking destination for 2016, we returned to this suggestion and booked flights to Puerto Montt, Chile.
In planning our trip, we considered several options before deciding that there was more than enough to keep us busy for an entire week in Bariloche. Rather than lose days to moving between different towns, we decided to make that our home base for the week. What followed was an amazing week of hikes, visiting mountain lakes, and delicious food.
Arrival and Llao Llao
We arrived in Puerto Montt at 11:15am after a double redeye — Seattle to Dallas to Miami to Santiago to Puerto Montt — so we were pretty tired. A short shuttle ride brought us to the bus station in town. We had onward tickets for a 2:00pm bus, but, on arriving at the bus station, we learned the bus was actually scheduled for 3:00pm. The bus station is in a pretty spot by the lake, so we bought some snacks, rested, and took in the view while waiting for our bus.
We’d seen the bus ride as a downside of our logistics. We booked our flights when we did because they were reasonably priced and we had not yet decided what we wanted to do. Had we known we were going to stay in Bariloche, we could have flown directly there via Buenos Aires. To my surprise, though, the bus ride was an unexpected delight, offering views of volcanoes and going through the spectacular Paso Cardenal Antonio Samoré. Every view we saw along this pass made us wish we could stop and explore a bit more.
We arrived in Bariloche around 9:15pm, so we took a taxi to our hotel, checked in, and passed out. The next morning, we didn’t get up too early. Once we got moving, we enjoyed the hotel breakfast (a feast of cheese, meat, breads, and cakes) and walked to town.
At our first stop, the tourist information center, we picked up a town map and current local bus schedules. We then headed to the Mountain Information Center to make reservations for a Paso Nubes trek later in the week. Next, we next maps and SUBE cards, used to pay for the local buses, so we went to a recommended kiosk.
We succeeded on the maps, but kept lucking out on the SUBE card. Everywhere could charge one, but nowhere had one for sale. We moved on to buy groceries, and then to try a few more stores on the way out of town. We finally found one store that could sell us two SUBE cards, much to our relief. (My brother and sister-in-law report the same difficulty in 2017, a year later.)
Now that we a way to pay for the bus, we hopped on a bus to Llao Llao, alighting at Puerto Pañuelo. We had some coffee and started a short hike to Bosque de Arrayanes, along the shore of Lago Moreno, and to Lago Escondido. From Lago Escondido, we continued along toward Lago Nahuel Huapi and Cerro Llao Llao. From Cerro Llao Llao, we had sweeping views over the lake and to the mountains.
An additional short hike brought us back to Llao Llao, where we boarded a bus back to Bariloche. Once in Bariloche, we enjoyed dinner at El Boliche De Alberto, including a tomato salad, steaks, and wine. For dessert, we had the Copa Alberto, a delicious combination of dulce de leche, ice cream raspberries, and whipped cream. We were surprised at both the quantity and quality of the food — just a wonderful meal.
The next day, we woke up and enjoyed another delicious breakfast. We then walked across the street from the hotel to a bus to Colonia Suiza, where the trail to Laguna Negra begins.
This trail follows a stream up a valley for several miles before climbing the steep walls to Laguna Negra and its refugio. Here, it’s easy to lose the trail as there are a number of boot paths in addition to the main trail — we lost the main path at some point, only to realize it when we got to the top and saw other trails coming in.
Ascending the side of the valley, the views quickly improve of the surrounding mountains, before you reach the top and arrive at the lake. Laguna Negra is nestled among high mountains of dark rock and some rolling hills covered in more brightly colored talus.
After a snack and examining the map, we decided to continue around the lake and up one of the talus covered hills, in hopes of getting views to the west, toward the volcanos and Chile. The trail around the Laguna Negra climbs and descends, using ropes and metal rungs in places.
Once around the lake, we enjoyed views back west toward the lake and one ridge over, to Cerro Catedral. With some more climbing, a spectacular panorama greeted us, encompassing Cerro Negro, Laguna Club Andino Bariloche, Mount Tronador, and the spire of Volcán Puntiagudo.
We spent a while on the ridge taking in the view and using the map to orient ourselves to the area before beginning the long walk back to Colonia Suiza.
After 18 plus miles and around 3,000 feet of elevation gain, we were tired. The bus from Colonia Suiza to Bariloche passes by La Salamandra Pulperia, another highly rated restaurant, so we decided to stop in and see if we could get a table. We were in luck and got the last table available for the evening, so long as we promised to eat quickly. The flavors and recipes in this meal were more complex than El Boliche De Alberto, offering an equally delicious complement to the previous night’s dinner.
Paso de Las Nubes
On Monday, we awoke early and took a taxi to the Mountain Information Center to meet our bus to Pampa Linda, the beginning of our two-day hike over Paso de las Nubes. The shuttle arrived about 30 minutes later than arranged, enough that if not for the others waiting, we would have been concerned that we misunderstood the time. Once it arrived, we quickly loaded up and set off.
The bus followed the shore of Lago Gutiérrez and then Lago Mascardi, offering views of these lakes and Cerro Catedral; sit on the right side of the bus for the best views. Past the lakes, the bus continued up the Río Manso valley to Pampa Linda.
Once in Pampa Linda, we would have loved to detour to the beautiful Ventisquero Negro. We were not confident we could do that and still have time to make to the Refugio before dinner, so we started on the trail for Refugio Agostino Rocca, on Paso de las Nubes. From Pampa Linda, the trail follows Rio Castaño Overa up a valley before crossing it, climbing over the small tail of a ridge, and then returning to the deep blue-green Rio Alerce, a tributary of Rio Castaño Overa.
The trail stays mostly level to a viewpoint of Glaciar Alerce and its waterfall. Shortly after, it begins a steady climb to the pass. Here, we encountered a group of three or four Magellanic Woodpeckers working away at trees. We watched and listed for about 20 minutes before continuing up the trail.
Eventually, the trail breaks out of the forest into some open patches with views back down and across the valley to the west. Shortly after, we reached the refugio. I sat down in their mudroom to remove my boots, only to be shocked to look up and see Mount Tronador looming above.
We checked in as the staff prepared home-made pasta, selected our dinner, and set up our sleeping bags on our bunks. We wandered out to the refugio’s expansive deck, which looked down on Glaciar Frias and several waterfalls flowing from it. After enjoying sunset, we went inside for a delicious meal.
The next morning, we arose before dawn to watch the sun gradually illuminate the summit of Tronador and the Rio Frias valley. We stepped back inside for a filling breakfast. Over breakfast, some other hikers mentioned a short hike to a nearby waterfall above the refugio, and we got directions.
A half mile walk led us to a gorgeous basin filled with multiple small waterfalls, flowing down from Glaciar Alerce above. The basin was like a moonscape, but the periphery was green and verdant. We explored for nearly an hour before again passing the refugio and descending the pass.
This section of the hike is dominated by Glaciar Frías and Ventisquero Frías. About halfway down, we reached a boot path that led off to the right, where a rocky outcrop provided outstanding views of the end of the glacier, the myriad of waterfalls, and the eroded landscape below. The photo here does not adequately depict the beauty of this place.
With a boat to catch, we reluctantly left this view to continue down. At the valley floor, the trail entered the woods, much more humid on this side than on the southern side of the pass. The trail continued along the east side of Río Frías, with occasional, broken views across to the mountains. Eventually, it crosses Río Frías on a suspension bridge, joins what appeared to be an old wagon road, and enters Puerto Frías.
Puerto Frías is a curious place. Located at the southern end of turquoise Lago Frías, it consists of a handful of buildings for Argentinian customs and Gendarmería, a pier, and a road that leads to Paso Vicente Pérez Rosales and Chile. We sat down by the shore to wait for our boat, and were soon joined by a fox.
We were not, however, soon joined by the boat. Our scheduled pickup time came and went with little hint of activity. Eventually, a few trucks sped up the road and dropped some luggage, followed some minutes later by high clearance mini buses — people on the Cruce Andino, a journey from Chile to Argentina by boat and bus. A while later yet, our boat arrived.
We boarded and cruised across to Puerto Alegre, where buses waited to take us a few kilometers to Puerto Blest, on Lago Nahuel Huapi. It was a bit jarring to go from the quiet of the trail to a prime tourist site. Here, we were told that we also had a wait, and so we had a light dinner from the restaurant and wandered until boarding a bus for a moonlit cruise back to Puerto Pañuelo. We weren’t really sure of our tickets included the Turisur buses back to Bariloche, so we walked across the street and took the public bus back to our hotel.
On Wednesday, we woke up, enjoyed another breakfast of cakes, and took the bus to the Cerro Catedral base. There, we planned to take the chair lift up to do the Frey ridge walk. After we arrived, though, we learned that while the gondola was operating, the upper chair lift was closed because of wind. We contemplated doing it anyway, with some extra elevation gain by foot, but even at the base, the wind was fierce and the forecast offered no promise of improvement. This really wasn’t optimal weather for this hike, and so we consulted the map for an alterantive plan.
We found that a trail left from the same parking lot toward a beach, Playa Muñoz, on Lago Gutiérrez, and decided to give it a try.
The trail wound its way around the mountains, through scrub forest and then an area damaged by a not so distant fire. We eventually reached a junction. To the right, a trail led up to Refugio Frey, while our trail descended approximately 1000′ to the lakefront.
Fortunately, the sun had started to come out by the time we arrived at Playa Muñoz. We relaxed on the pebble-covered shore, ate lunch, and enjoyed the view and the surprise warmth. From the beach, we headed back north on a different trail, closer to the lake level. This trail rejoined the road at Case de los Duendes, a park of small waterfalls and streams. Another 20 minutes of walking along the road brought us to Villa los Coihues and a bus back to Bariloche.
Since it was early, we had time to clean up and walk to town. We decided to use this time to explore Bariloche’s chocolate. Havanna Chocolate became our first stop, by virtue of being on our walk into town. There, we enjoyed rich hot chocolate and tried a variety our their candies — our favorites were the Havenettes. These are best described as a small cookie, topped with dulce de leche, and then coated in chocolate to form a delicious poop-emoji-shaped concoction.
That night, we enjoyed dinner at Alto el Fuego on their patio. It was good but not as memorable as the other evenings’ meals. We were also surrounded by groups of Americans talking about politics and trade, and began to wonder if this was related to some security presence we had seen at Llao Llao earlier in the week.
After dinner, we got gelato at Helados Jauja (fantastic!).
Route of the Seven Lakes
Over breakfast, we learned that President Obama would be visiting Bariloche, which suddenly explained the conversation over dinner the night before and the security at Llao Llao. It also made us glad that we had planned to be out of Bariloche that day, so we would not get caught up in traffic.
Our plan for the day was to pick up a rental car and drive the Route of the Seven Lakes (Camino de los Siete Lagos). We had originally slated this as maybe a two-day trip, with some additional exploration at the north end of the lake in Lanín National Park. However, since we still wanted to do the Frey ridge walk and had not found a lot of detailed information on hiking in Lanín, we cut it back to one day.
We walked into town to pick up our rental from Sixt. We had reserved a small SUV/crossover category vehicle, but found that they only had a nearly brand new Ford Ranger available to us. This was a bit intimidating for me to drive, especially in the narrow streets of Bariloche, but we set out.
From Bariloche, we drove northeast along Lago Nahuel Huapi. Just past Dina Huapi, we turned north onto RN237, which follows a scenic route along Río Negro. We continued on RN237 to RP65, which passes through a valley before reaching the south shore of Lago Traful about a hundred feet above the water. We stopped several times for views of the lake and surrounding mountains.
RP65 later leaves the lake and connects with RN40. This passes Lago Escondido (not the same as we walked to earlier in the week) before passing between Lago Villarino and Lago Faulker. We stopped first at Lago Villarino, where the large parking area was filled with a dozen or more hawks, before heading over to take in the view at Lago Faulkner.
From there, RN40 continues north, climbing and then descending next to Lago Machonico. Further north, it again climbs and then descends along Lago Lacar, leading into San Martín de los Andes. We stopped here, picking up sandwiches for lunch and then walking down by the town’s beach.
This was our turnaround point, and so we retraced our route south. Just past Lago Villarino and Lago Faulker, we turned off to Lago Hermoso. A dirt track led us down to this lake, where we found a tree with delicious small plums.
After our stop at Lago Hermoso, we continued south on RN40, passing the turnoff to RP65. Staying on RN40 brought us to Lago Espejo Grande and Lago Correntoso. We wanted to reach Lago Nahuel Huapi before sunset, so we stopped at each of these only briefly. In Villa La Angostura, we turned off on a side street, following it down to Puerto Angostura and Bahia Brava. From here, we watched the sun set over the lake. After sunset, we drove the rest of the way back to our hotel in Bariloche, getting caught in some lingering traffic from Obama’s visit.
Frey por el Filo Ridge walk to Refugio Frey
For our final day in Bariloche, we tried again for the ridge walk to Refugio Frey. Our decision to skip it earlier in the week was rewarded with a beautiful morning with just a few light clouds in a deep blue sky. We still had our rental, so we drove it back to out to Cerro Catedral, bought lift tickets, and set out.
The first part of the lift is in an enclosed gondola, which lets out at a cute bar / restaurant. From here, we boarded a chair lift the rest of the way. This was Kyle’s first experience with each. At the end of the chairlift, it’s just a short 10-20 minute hike to a col below Punta Princessa.
From here, the views open up to the west. The trail continues across boulders, wrapping around behind Catedral on the west side of the ridge. As we crossed the boulder field, we looked up to see a C-17, presumably transporting part of the presidential motorcade home.
At the end of the ridge, the trail reaches another col and a junction at Cancha de Futbol. Passing through the col, we were rewarded with views of Laguna Schmoll, nested in a rocky bowl among Cerro Catedral’s jaggy spires. We descended the rocky trail to the lake, enjoying the view every step of the way. This was Kyle’s favorite spot on the hike, if not on the entire trip.
From here, the trail descends again to the Frey Valley.The trail started rocky but soon reached green meadows. Clear streams criss-crossed the meadows and reflected the surrounding mountains. This was my favorite spot on the hike, and one of my favorites on the entire trip.
Eventually, the meadows led to Laguna Toncek, with Refugio Frey just a bit further. We sat on the lake shore for a leisurely lunch. Over lunch, our blue sky gave way to clouds, and so we got moving down among sprinkling clouds. The trail soon joined the trail we had followed to Playa Muñoz, and we returned to our rental in the Cerro Catedral parking lot not long after. We stopped at the hotel to clean up before going to return the car and eat dinner.
Despite arriving near the agreed upon time, no one was at the Sixt shop. We made several calls to the on-call number before finally reaching someone — awkwardly trying to keep the large truck from blocking traffic the whole time. Eventually someone came and relieved us of the truck. After that wait, we decided to go with a known, tasty, quantity for our last dinner: a return visit to El Boliche De Alberto. We did not regret it.
After dinner, we stopped by our second chocolate shop of the trip, Rapanui, to try their gelato and pick up some chocolates.
In the morning, we woke up early to eat the breakfast the hotel had kindly arranged to have available early. A short taxi ride returned us to the bus station. Our bus took us back over the pass to Chile. There, we were delayed at the border. Some passengers had packed produce, despite the many, many signs admonishing not to. In Puerto Montt, we again relaxed in the bus station before heading to the airport to repeat our route back home. On the flight out of Puerto Montt, we got one great last look at Lago Llanquihue and volcanoes.
When hiking Nahual Huapi National Park, you should register your plans. It’s easy to do online before starting — we made a routine of registering each morning over breakfast. This lets the National Park monitor trail use. If something happens, it is also a starting point for someone looking for you (though that still requires someone to report you overdue).
Where we stayed
There are a lot of hotel and apartment rental options in Bariloche, and there were times when it seemed like we had researched them all. Bahia Paraiso (Booking.com) offered a good compromise as affordable, spacious, walkable to town, and on one of the main bus routes we would need to get to our hikes. We also arranged a great weekly rate, so we had a place to leave our luggage while we were out on Paso Nubes and if we had decided to spend a night on the Seven Lakes route.
We couldn’t have been happier with the choice. Everyone at Bahia Paraiso went out of their way to make our stay great. They offered suggestions and arranged taxis. Despite our insistence that it was not necessary, they had breakfast ready for us on our early mornings. We loved our stay there. When my brother and sister-in-law visited Bariloche the next year, they also stayed at Bahia Paraiso and came back saying similarly good things.
La Salamandra Pulperia: Great food, somewhere between simple and creative flavors, and in good proportions. Cute decor. Even in shoulder season (though perhaps as a consequence of the presidential visit), reservations seem recommended. Northwest of Bariloche on the road to Llao Llao.
El Boliche De Alberto: simple, delicious food in large portions that are perfect after a day of hiking. This restaurant knows exactly what they are good at and they execute it perfectly. Get the Copa Alberto for dessert. Downtown Bariloche.
Bus from Puerto Montt to Bariloche
We bought our bus tickets from Via Bariloche online, about a month ahead of time. I liked having a set plan, but this was a little risky since a delayed flight could cause us to miss our bus. Buying early also meant we could select our seats online ahead of time. We reserved seats at the front of the bus on the upper level. Other than the mismatch between the schedule we purchased and the schedule operated (which turned out fine, but could have been a serious problem if the mismatch was in the other direction), this was convenient and comfortable.
Rental cars in Bariloche
We don’t especially recommend Sixt. While we got a new car in good shape, it wasn’t the class we reserved. We had to wait a while to return it.
Resources we found helpful in planning this trip
We struggled a bit to find good write ups about northern Patagonia while planning the trip. There’s a lot less information online on it than, say, Torres del Paine or El Chaltén. The single most valuable resource we found was TrekBariloche, which offers helpful logistics information, write ups of popular hiking routes, and descriptions of refugios.
I had Moon and Footprint travel guides to Patagonia from a previous trip and we consulted them in our early planning. Neither offered enough detail for planning of our trip to northern Patagonia, but they gave us some ideas for where to visit.
For maps, we purchased Monte Tronador and Paso de las Nubes (1:50,000) and San Carlos de Bariloche (1:50,000), both by Aoneker, once we arrived in Bariloche. The San Carlos de Bariloche map would have helped our advance planning. The Paso de Las Nubes map was less essential to have in advance. If our plan included more exploration of the Pampa Linda area or the Pampa Linda to Colonia Suiza traverse, though, we would have wanted it. Both maps were somewhat dated (e.g., missing the refugio at Paso Nubes); I don’t know if we got old ones or if it had just been a while since they were last updated.