It has all the trappings of Patagonia: Towering volcanoes, glacial lakes, soaring mountains and scenic trails. But unlike its neighbor Bariloche, San Martin de Los Andes isn’t making headlines—yet.
We’d only been hiking for about 90 minutes when we reached a rocky clearing. Although steep in parts, the hike up the small mountain wasn’t terribly technical. The remnants of that winter’s snowfall obscured the trail in many places, forcing us to improvise our way through thick evergreen forest and occasionally find ourselves thigh-deep in icy snow. While the uphill slog wasn’t enough to leave me breathless, the view did. It was as if an Argentinean deity, a postcard-maker and a group of Instagrammers had conspired to create the perfect travel photo.
A cloudless blue sky served as the background for the snowcapped Lanín volcano, which at 12,467-foot-high (3,800 meters) is the highest peak in this part of Patagonia. There are several smaller peaks to the north and the gorgeous deep-blue Lago Tromen; the border with Chile lay a stone’s throw to the northwest. And it’s because of all this that travelers are starting to flock to the nearby town of San Martín de los Andes, quietly becoming the newest adventure sports mecca in South America.
The hike was so short the stunning view felt almost unearned; I’ve spent days walking through wilderness elsewhere in the world for less of a visual reward. But over the course of my week exploring Parque Nacional Lanín, it got harder and harder not to get jaded by the sheer amount of beauty surrounding us.
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The volcano towers over the land, providing the perfect backdrop for nearly every adventure sport you can think of. On any given day, you’ll find locals, a few lucky expats, and tourists running or pedaling along the gravel roads surrounding San Martín, climbing the Lanín volcano, or kayaking one of the province’s seven spectacular lakes.
Filled with gear-rental shops, bakeries, breweries and atmospheric hotels, the town center resembles a Swiss ski village—which isn’t surprising, given the proximity of the popular Chapelco ski resort. In many ways, San Martín de los Andes could be considered the younger sibling of its better-known neighbor, some 118 miles (190 kilometers) to the south—San Carlos de Bariloche.
“You can do all the same activities—ride mountain bikes, ascend volcanoes, and kayak lakes and rivers—but with far fewer people.”
Julián Carielo, AndesTrack
But as Bariloche has grown, many less affluent adventure seekers were priced out and began to migrate north. Imagine Denver, maybe 30 years ago, before its rugged edges were buffed away, when things were still affordable and locals welcomed visitors with open arms.
While travelers have flocked to Patagonia for years, most activity has centered around the southern region, where Los Glaciares National Park and the famous Perito Moreno glacier hold great appeal. But Northern Patagonia offers multiple advantages over the south, says Rosaura Carielo, who runs AndesTrack Expediciones with business partners Julián Carielo and Diego De Angelis.
“The north offers a better, more stable climate and the same sensation of wilderness,” says Julian. “You can do all the same activities—ride mountain bikes, ascend volcanoes, and kayak lakes and rivers—but with far fewer people.”
While few people outside of Argentina know about this paradise surrounding San Martín de los Andes right now, word is slowly getting out, and the number of flights to the area is increasing as a result. In winter, visitors are primarily Argentinian, Brazilian, or Chilean, and looking to hit the slopes at Chapelco. But come spring and summer, Europeans, Americans and Canadians begin to trickle into the area.
For centuries, the indigenous Mapuche community carved the trails along the mountain; and now they’re adapting those same trails for nature-loving outsiders.
With so many glaciers scattered through the province, it’s no wonder that the more than two dozen lakes and rivers are almost impossibly clear. Paddling the Rio Chimehuin, I spend almost as much time contemplating the pristine aqua color of the water as I do focusing on the class III rapids. Peering over the side of the rubber raft, I can easily make out the individual rocks covering the river bottom, even though they lie dozens of feet below the surface.
Cyclists will want to tackle the 62-mile (100-kilometer) Seven Lakes Road ride, which follows Route 234 and passes through both Lanín and Nahuel Huapi national parks, multiple waterfalls, and, of course, the seven lakes: Machonico, Escondido, Correntoso, Espejo, Lácar, Falkner, and Villarino.
On our ride, we come across two tanned Bosnian-Canadian bikepackers, tucking into a lunch of bread, cheese, and tomatoes on a bridge overlooking the Lácar. The pair had left Vancouver two years ago and had just made it down to Argentina. For the past week, they’ve been cycling with an Italian who was riding on a fully loaded 20-inch folding bike. The trio are all smiles as they recount some of their adventures on the road—and seemed to agree they’d saved the best spot for last.
A few small towns dot the roads between San Martín and the surrounding the national parks. While this isn’t the sticks—you’ll easily find food and drink—you might encounter difficulty obtaining a new bike tube or kayak paddle, so a little prep is key. While much of Route 234 is blacktop, other roads go from pristine pavement to chunky, washboard gravel to pavement again—with seemingly no warning or reason. As a result, riders should definitely opt for wide tires and low pressures.
On my last day in town, Julian invites some of the more experienced mountain bikers to go for a quick ride on the singletrack on the southwest edge of town. For centuries, the indigenous Mapuche community carved the trails along the mountain; and now they’re adapting those same trails for nature-loving outsiders, charging a 10 or 20 peso fee to hike or ride them.
The original plan was to ride the gravel roads up to the top of the mountain, then take the trails down, but as we’re running short on time, Julian convinces one of his pals to shuttle us up. And thank goodness. As the truck noisily labors up the steep switchbacks, we’re thankful it’s the engine straining and not our weary legs.
The ride down is much more fun. As we rocket back to earth, our tires kick up huge clouds of dust. The trails are fast and fun, but we force ourselves to stop every so often to admire the views of San Martín de los Andes below. It’s a good bet that it’ll look much different the next time I visit.
After nearly a decade at The Indianapolis Star, Robert Annis broke free of the shackles of gainful employment and now freelances full-time, specializing in outdoor travel journalism with bylines in National Geographic Traveler, Outside, Afar, Bicycling and Men's Journal.