The final instalment in Daniel Neilson’s series of travel guides about the best outdoor activities in Argentina; see his previous posts on climbing Aconcagua, whitewater rafting and hiking in Torres del Paine.
Horseback riding through Patagonian landscapes; photo courtesy of Estancia Huechahue.
The Patagonian Lake District, with its famous Siete Lagos route, is undoubtedly one of Argentina’s outdoor highlights. It’s stunning whichever way you go, but nothing beats on horseback.
The days pretty much go like this: wake up in camp, light a fire to warm water, drink some mate tea, lazily eat some facturas (pastries), saddle up and hop on a horse, amble around some of the world’s most idyllic countryside, get off the horse, set up camp, help the gaucho with an asado, eat meat and drink wine overlooking a mirror flat lake, sleep into a divine slumber.
We’ve had quite a lot of adrenalin in the previous blogs in this series: Hiking in Torres del Paine, climbing Aconcagua and whitewater rafting. So for the last one, we’re going to pull it back, hop on a horse and spend a few days trotting around the Argentinian Lake District.
When I first arrived in Argentina knowing little more about the country than they spoke Spanish with a funny accent, on day one I vividly remember being told about the Siete Lagos (they also thought it would be funny to teach me the least important Spanish words as my first – did you know polystyrene is ‘telgopor’?). It wasn’t the last time I was asked about the Argentinian Lake District. After ‘do you like mate?’ and ‘have you had an asado?’ the next question was often about the Siete Lagos. The Argentines are understandably proud of this area of their country – it’s one of the most beautiful, and also quite accessible.
The Ruta, or Camino de los Siete Lagos, often refers to a 110-kilometre car drive along Ruta Nacional 234 in the Neuquén province between the towns of San Martín de los Andes and Villa La Angostura. But cars are for brutes, and we prefer riding brutes.
The Seven Lakes at the foot of the Patagonian Andes are generally considered to be Correntoso, Escondidio, Espejo (Mirror Lake), Falkner (named after a Jesuit priest who never actually saw the lake, but I guess San Martín never hung out in downtown Buenos Aires), Lácar, Machónico, Villarino, and they mostly lie in the Nahuel Huapi National Park, the oldest park in Argentina, and Lanín National Park.
Crossing a Patagonian river on horseback; photo courtesy of Estancia Huechahue.
The Siete Lagos provide a focal point to a vast area which is full of gut-wrenching scenery (just look at these pics). Much of the horse riding is through woodland, with glimpses of the lakes and snow-smothered mountains while crossing rivers, past waterfalls and through valleys.
The Patagonian Lake District has long captured the imagination of the world’s greatest travelers. Bruce Chatwin noted the beautiful desolation, the vast snow capped peaks and flower carpeted foothills. A few days on horseback in the beautiful Alpine-styled resort of Villa la Angostura on the shores of the peaceful Lago Nahuel Huapi or the lively San Martín de los Andes, you’ll be waxing lyrical along with Chatwin, Hudson, Theroux and Darwin about Patagonia’s superlative beauty.
How to do it
While the Siete Lagos is the focal point, there are hundreds of horse riding options throughout the area. There are two options: Firstly, through estancias (ranches) which tend to offer complete packages in a wide variety of itineraries for all abilities. Secondly, the tourist information office in San Martín and Villa la Angostura will have a list of providers.
While the Siete Lagos route is usually around 4-5 days, there are many other options from half-day trips to a nine-day crossing of the Andes to Chile.
It will be cheaper to book when you arrive, but there are several tour agencies in the UK that can book horse riding adventures in the Patagonian Lake District, for example Last Frontiers, Exsus and Journey Latin America.
One of the most consistently recommended guides over the last decade is Jane Williams at Estancia Huechahue. She offers rides across a vast estancia and around Lanín National Park (although she’s a but too far from the Siete Lagos), plus other itineraries around the ranch from three to nine days.
All pack trips (those involving a stay overnight) will be guided and gauchos will often work as porters who will set up camp (if camping) and cook – this is most likely if actually riding around the Siete Lagos. Other excursions, such as some at Estancia Huechahue, will go from estancia to estancia – the luxurious option.
There are also campsites around most of the Siete Lagos, but camping anywhere quiet is considered fine.
Horseback riding and camping in Patagonia; photo courtesy of Estancia Huechahue.
When to go
During the winter months (June to August), the area is a ski resort, although some horseback riding is offered. However, roads often close during this time, which makes reaching all the lakes difficult. Summer temperatures can reach around 35C (95F), while the most pleasant times are during the spring and autumn with generally warm days but pretty cold in the evenings. The finest time is in late spring and most rides run between September and May. July, August and January are by far the busiest times.
How to get there
Nearby Bariloche is one of the most popular destinations in Argentina for skiing in the winter and holidays in the summer. It is therefore served by daily flights from Buenos Aires, several a day through the high season, and cheaper buses. It’s a similar story with Neuquén, the provincial capital 400km away. From here, there are plenty of buses to San Martín de los Andes and Villa La Angostura. There are also flights from Buenos Aires to San Martín de los Andes during the high season.
What to take
The days tend to be warm and the evenings cooler, so some kind of layering system is best. Boots, chaps and jodhpurs for riding, but most things can be hired (and good luck resisting buying a new pair of Argentinian leather boots). Sunscreen, hat and sun glasses are essential, and don’t forget some swimwear – there are seven good reasons for taking a dip at the end of the day. It rains once in a while too, so be prepared. I’d also suggest a windproof jacket. You may feel more comfortable with your own helmet if you have one.
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