Warwick Sprawson finds hiking in northern Patagonia an eclectic mix of the European, the Nordic and even the antipodean  

Refugio Frey, near Bariloche, Argentina

Mountains of colour

Yasmin stops and looks up. ‘Do these trees look familiar to you?’

We are following a clear forest stream, slowly climbing towards a mountain hut, Refugio Frey, where we will stay the night. The trees’ canopy is bright green, splashed with an occasional highlight of red. Treecreepers probe the fissured, grey trunks looking for insects. It’s April and the leaves are beginning to change colour.

‘No, not really.’ I know nothing about Argentinean trees. I’ve never been this national park before – the 7500km² Nahuel Huapi which lies along Argentina’s mountainous border with Chile, roughly halfway down the country’s lanky length.

We continue through the forest, crossing the stream on a bridge of warped planks, the water riffling and plunging through the gauntlet of rocks beneath.

As we climb higher the trees became shorter and the autumn colours more pronounced. By the time we are at an altitude of 1500 metres the trees are only chest height. Their leaves create blooms of colour on the slopes of the surrounding mountains – lime green, gold, orange and Ferrari red – filling the valley like a brilliant tapestry.

Argentina meets Australia

Yasmin pauses to examine the leaves up close. They are the size of corn flakes, crenulated and ruffled like potato chips. They look naggingly familiar.

‘It’s some sort of beech,’ says Yasmin, and pulls a book from her bag.

She identifies the tree as a lenga beech, Nothofagus pumilio, a close relative of Australia’s deciduous beech, Nothofagus gunnii. That the Australian and Argentinean species look similar shouldn’t be a surprise. Beeches spread across both landmasses about 100 million years ago when they were joined in the supercontinent of Gondwana. In Argentina, like Australia, the trees have been pushed south as the climate has changed over thousands of years. They now only exist at coldest fringes of the countries – the southern Andes and Patagonia in Argentina, and Victoria and Tasmania in Australia.

Beech trees changing colour in Nahuel Huapi National Park.

Geography. It sneaks up on you when you least expect it.

Continuing to enjoy the beech’s autumnal display, we head further up the valley, the plants becoming even more stunted as we gain elevation. Lizards bask on rocks in the afternoon sun, reluctantly scuttling away as we pass. The 2409 metre Torre Principal comes into view, the highest point on the Catedral Range, a shark´s tooth of a peak, ranging craggily into the blue sky.

Refugio Frey

We arrive at the refugio, a sturdy two storey stone building with a shingle roof and jaunty red shutters. Behind the hut is a lake the size of a football field, clear as glass and surrounded by a rim of colourful beech. The sweep of mountains behind the lake frames the view, a row of peaks like the teeth on a saw, their bare flanks covered with tumbled stones. Beside the hut climbers check their ropes and gear, planning their attack on the Torre Principal tomorrow.

The hut manager emerges to greet us, a sunburned Argentinean called Fernando, grinning at us from beneath a wild beard. He hands us glasses of homemade lemonade and tells us about the hut as if we were prospective buyers.

The hut’s European look reflects the German heritage of many of the region’s settlers. In the early 20th century Germans, Austrians and Slovenes were attracted to the district by its mountains and lakes, many settling in the nearby town of Bariloche. These pioneers continued the mountain traditions of their own countries, exploring these little-known peaks and naming many features, such as Schmoll Lagoon, Van Titter Creek and Schweizer Pass.

Fernando leads us inside the hut, stepping carefully over a cat sunbaking on the top step. A bevy of cheery hikers lounge at the wooden tables, sipping mate, the Argentinean national drink, from gourds with silver straws. A pile of wood is neatly stacked beside a potbellied stove. Photos on the panelled walls show climbers scaling some of the peaks we can see from the sun-filled windows.

Refugio Frey was built in 1957. A rumour persists that the reason for the network of huts through the mountains was that some local Germans were keen for an escape route to Chile should anyone come looking for former Nazis. This sounds a little far-fetched until Fernando says a high ranking SS official was arrested in Bariloche in 1995.

Mountain luxury

We dump our packs in the simple dormitory upstairs and return downstairs in time for dinner. As the sun sets behind the Catedral Range, we eat delicious vegetable pasta mopped up with homemade bread and washed down with fishbowl-sized glasses of Malbec wine. The other diners are a bearded mountaineer called Tomas and a recently married Argentinean couple who hold hands as they eat.

After dinner we sit around the candlelit table and gaze outside.  The stars shine brightly; the air is so clear even the sweep of the Milky Way is sharply defined. The Southern Cross is prominent, a starry brand high above the dim silhouette of the mountains. We raise our glasses – Australians and Argentineans alike – and toast the geography that has united us here.


Info file

Bariloche: Switzerland comes to South America

Bariloche, the capital of Argentina’s Lake District, is well worth a few days to explore. Despite the town’s remote location near the Chilean border this no gritty outpost, but a cosmopolitan resort town famed for its gourmet chocolate and authentic gelati. The temptations are so numerous that you could gain several kilos just strolling along Avenue Batholomé Mitre, one of the town’s main streets. Just make sure you leave room for a visit to Helados Jauja, known far and wide as making the country’s best ice cream.

Fortunately there are plenty of ways to work off these additional calories. Bariloche’s location, set on the edge of the vast Nahuel Huapi Lake and surrounded by tracts of pine forest and soaring mountains, make it a year-round destination for outdoor adventure. There’s great skiing in winter and in the warmer months abundant opportunities for climbing, hiking, biking, horse riding, fishing and kayaking.

Bariloche also manages to look strikingly different to any other South American town. As tourism began in the 1930s the town officially adopted a Swiss style of architecture, with A-framed log cabins and stone-faced chateaus recalling the buildings of the region’s early settlers, while incorporating local hardwoods and stonemasonry techniques. A unique town in a stunning location, Bariloche is one of Argentina’s highlights.

Fast facts

  • Bariloche is 1600km southwest of Buenos Aires; there are regular flights from about $300 one way. The trailhead is 20km from Bariloche, from there it’s a 10km hike to the refugio. Frey is run by the Club Andino Bariloche, who also maintain a network of other huts in the national park.  The autumn colours are at their best in early- to mid-April.
  • A mattress at the refugio costs $14. The hut can sleep 40, although it can become crowded from December to February. Camping is permitted.
  • From 30 October to 30 April food is available, including a fantastic three course dinner for around $16.
  • For more information on Refugio Frey click here


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