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More by Volker Poelzl

Trekking in Patagonia

Explore Argentina’s Pristine Mountains and Support Native Communities

Patagonia: Monkey Puzzle Trees
Lanín National Park protects large stands of monkey puzzle trees.
© Volker Poelzl. All Rights Reserved.

The scrub forest on the mountain slopes gleamed in the bright hues of fall foliage, the high valley was saturated with lush grasses, and tall monkey puzzle trees grew scattered across the valley, with their large crowns silhouetted against the storm clouds in the sky. The trail led me across a timeless landscape of mountains, rocky plateaus, and verdant valleys in a remote section of Argentina’s Lanín National Park. There was little sign of life except for an occasional Andean condor circling in the sky and a native shepherd with his flock of sheep.

Lanín National Park, located in northern Patagonia, is a narrow stretch of land along the border with Chile and protects nearly 1,600 square miles of lakes, mountains, and Argentina’s largest stands of native monkey puzzle trees. Exploring the park’s pristine ecosystem is a unique chance to see rare plants and animals that are endemic to the park.

While the barren high plateaus resemble a moonscape strewn with rocks and boulders, the dense forests in the lower elevations teem with life. The forests are home to several species of southern beech, some of which grow up to 150 feet tall, and at every turn in the forest hikers will find an amazing variety of flowers, blossoming shrubs, and butterflies. Hikers may also spot flocks of native parrots, giant woodpeckers, hawks, and eagles, as well as flamingoes, ibises, geese, and other waterfowl that make some of the lakes their seasonal home.

The Native Community

This remote region is not only home to some of the least visited mountains in northern Patagonia, but it is also the homeland of the Mapuche Indians. In this part of Argentina the Mapuche have experienced a major cultural revival in recent years. The Mapuche today are increasingly aware and proud of their culture, history, and traditions; and they have demanded the return of lands traditionally occupied by their ancestors.

Since its return to democracy in 1982 the Argentine government has returned sovereignty of some federal lands to native communities. Lanín National Park is currently Argentina’s only national park with a co-management plan that includes the active participation of the resident Mapuche. It attempts to reach a careful balance between preservation and the traditional livelihoods of the several native communities located throughout the park. The small town of Junín de los Andes, one of the main hubs for visitors to the park, is the region’s main center of Mapuche culture. The local church is a lively example of the religious beliefs practiced by the Mapuche, where Christian elements are combined with Mapuche traditions and symbols to create a unique testimony to contemporary Mapuche culture. There is also an outdoor sculpture garden, modeled after the Stations of the Cross, where Christ’s suffering is paralleled with the suffering of the Mapuche people during the Argentine conquest of their territory in the late 19th century.

When I visited Lake Huechulafken, a popular destination in the national park near Junín de los Andes, an indigenous park ranger at the visitor center was proud to explain a few basic elements of his culture. He told me that Mapuche means “people of the earth,” and he showed me the traditional symbol of the Mapuche universe, based on the “kultrun,” a ritual drum. The symbol, traditionally painted on the hide of the drum, is a circle divided into four parts, which represent the four corners of the Mapuche territory, as well as celestial bodies and the four main deities. Then he explained that most place names here take their origin in Mapundung, as the native language of the Mapuche is known. The mountains not only bear native names, but they are also steeped in traditions and mythology. For example, according to legend, the region’s highest mountain, the volcano Lanín, has been covered by a glacier ever since a chief’s daughter was sacrificed there to appease the gods.

Patagonia: A Mapuche Community
A small Mapuche community along a backcountry trek.
© Volker Poelzl. All Rights Reserved.

The Potential for Ecotourism

For the most part, the Mapuche depend on their traditional livelihoods based on herding cattle, sheep, and vicunã (a relative of the llama), which they lead up to the national park’s remote high meadows during the summer. They also collect pine nuts from the abundant monkey puzzle trees to sell locally. However, due to the lack of other income and employment opportunities, most Mapuche live in poverty. The traditional subsistence livelihood puts a growing pressure on the fragile ecosystem. Overgrazing, timber extraction, and population growth are among the main threats to the park’s ecological balance. Ecotourism is only in its infancy, but to help preserve the environment and provide income alternatives for the native communities the parks administration has begun to develop sustainable strategies. In accordance with the co-management plan the Mapuche now manage the campgrounds, provide mountain guides, and offer excursions on horseback. These activities provide some of the few income sources for the members of the indigenous communities that live inside the national park. The Mapuche also preserve their extensive cultural traditions and indigenous handicrafts, among them hand-woven textiles, musical instruments, woodcarvings, and traditional food items. They are for sale at the various communities and at cooperatives and crafts markets in nearby towns.

Hiking in Mapuche Country

There are many magnificent hiking and trekking routes in the northern section of Lanín National Park. The best base for hikes through Mapuche country is the small town of Aluminé, located in northern Patagonia in the Argentine province of Neuquén. The most challenging and rewarding trek is the lake-to-lake traverse from Lake Quillen to Lake Rucachoroi and on to Lake Ñorquinco, or in reverse order. This is a remote wilderness of high meadows, sweeping mountain scenery, and extensive monkey puzzle tree forests.

There is a campground managed by the Mapuche at each lake, where basic provisions are sold. The National Parks office in Aluminé can suggest itineraries. You may also consider hiring a local Mapuche guide for part of the trek, since some paths cross high rocky plateaus at 6,200-ft. elevation without a visible trail. The hikes from Lake Quillen to Lake Rucachoroi and to Lake Ñorquinco take two very long days. There is limited camping allowed en route, so ask a park ranger if you want to split up the long day hikes. Lake Quillen, which has a nice lakeside campground, is also a great destination just for day hiking.

The main challenge for hikers is the difficult access to the lakes and trailheads, due to the lack of public transportation. But despite its remoteness, visiting the northern section of Lanín National Park is a unique and rewarding experience, offering a magnificent natural environment and contact with the Mapuche people, who are genuinely hospitable, helpful, and friendly. By staying at their campgrounds and hiring local guides, visitors can make a small but important contribution toward helping the Mapuche create a sustainable livelihood and improve their standard of living.

For More Info

There is a small ranger station at each lake, and registration is mandatory. Mountain guides only speak Spanish. A GPS can be helpful, especially if you decide to hike without a guide. You can also rent a VHF radio to contact the National Park staff in an emergency. There is no public transportation to and from the trailheads, but park rangers at the lakes can radio for a taxi ($25 to Aluminé).

How to Get There

To explore the northern section of Lanín National Park expect to spend two days to get to your destination from Buenos Aires and two days to get back. You can fly from Buenos Aires to San Carlos de Bariloche and then take a bus north to Aluminé, or you can fly (or take a bus) to the provincial capital Neuquén and then take a bus west to Aluminé. There are daily buses from San Carlos de Bariloche and Neuquén to San Martin de los Andes, Junín de los Andes, and Aluminé. Rental cars are available in San Carlos de Bariloche and San Martin de los Andes. For additional information, contact the National Parks Administration at info@parquenacionallanin.gov.ar or visit the official website of Lanín National Park (in Spanish): www.parquenacionallanin.gov.ar.

Other Destinations in Lanín National Park

Junin de los Andes: Junín de los Andes is a good base to explore the central section of the national park and visit picturesque Lake Huechulafken, 1.5 hours from town. There are lots of day hike options of varying difficulty, public transportation, Mapuche communities, and a Mapuche-run campground. Junín de los Andes is about 3 to 4 hours by bus from the airport in San Carlos de Bariloche (with daily flights to and from Buenos Aires).

San Martin de los Andes: San Martin de los Andes is the main hub for visiting the southern section of the park. There are many beautiful and easy hikes in the nearby Mapuche country. San Martin de los Andes is about 2 hours by bus from the airport in San Carlos de Bariloche.

When to Go

The Argentine summer (December-March) is the best time to visit Lanín National Park, since the weather is warm and stable. Starting in April the weather becomes unpredictable, with storms moving in quickly and nighttime frost.

Guidebooks and Maps

Guía Sendas y Bosques, Lanín/Villa Rica, the best guide to the northern section of Lanín National Park, in Spanish with brief summaries and a glossary in English.

Mapas Sendas y Bosques, Parque Nacional Lanín (not an exact topographical map but still the best resource): www.sendasybosques.com.ar.

Guía Cordillera Verde – Patagonia Norte is a tourist guide to northern Patagonia, with some basic information about visiting and hiking in the northern section of Lanín National Park. It is updated annually and has a short section in English: www.guiaverde.net.

The Lonely Planet Trekking in the Patagonian Andes, the Bradt Trekking Guide to Chile and Argentina, and the Moon Handbooks Patagonia provide some information about hikes in the northern section of Lanín National Park.

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