Volcanoes, Lakes & Back Roads

I concentrated on relaxing my shoulders; as my mountain bike and I bounced from one rock to the next. A steady spring rain beat a staccato rhythm on my helmet. I followed the dirt road traveling through verdant valleys, winding between looming snow covered volcanos, and skirting around vast emerald lakes. “Ruta de los 7 Lagos” or route of the 7 lakes, the only passageway through the Region of Seven Lakes, is considered the most beautiful route in Argentina.

Rounding a bend, I was startled by a large dog heading toward me. Then two gauchos on horseback appeared, with four other dogs running alongside the horses’s hoofs. Covered with wool ponchos and rain-soaked felt hats the gauchos’ stern faces were blank as they slowly cantered pass. I stopped in amazement and looked back to see them disappear into flashing lights. Two bicyclists some 100 yards behind me quickly grabbed a few camera shots.

This, was the last ride day of our “Backroads Mountain Bike” tour through the Lake District of Chile and Argentina. The Chilean Lake District covers an area from the city of Temuco south down to the city of Puerto Montt, bordered by the west by the Pacific Ocean and to the east by the Andes, which form a natural border with Argentina. The Argentinean Lake District covers the area from this Chile/Argentine border, north to the town of Alumine and south to Esquel. The most well known place of The Lake District is the city of San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina.

In the Lake District of both countries the Andes are lower as are the mountain passes. Past glaciation and volcanic activity formed the landscape. The area is scattered with lakes, rivers, waterfalls, snow-covered volcanoes, and rainforest. The beauty of the area has resulted in alpine resort towns, which attract adventure seekers for snow skiing, fishing, white water rafting, trekking, and bicycling. The unpaved roads and lower altitude of the mountain runs are appealing to mountain bikers.

Our group consisted of 10 other bicyclists including two guides. One guide would accompany us on our ride, while the other swept our route with a van — providing nourishment, warm clothes or when you had enough, a lift to the luxury of our inn for that night which always was the best accommodation available and often five-star quality.

Our trip began in Puerto Varas, Chile at the Hotel Y Cabanas del Lago, overlooking Lake Llanquihue. This town has become the headquarters for the many adventure sport outfitters. There is a Patagonia Store with fleece jackets, hats etc. for those who want comfort and style in their sport clothes.

I took it as a good omen that our first “official” group function was lunch: a lavish spread of quiches, marinated salads, cheeses, sliced meats, breads, apple torts, local homemade chocolates and toffees, wine and juices. We certainly weren’t going to go hungry during this 11-day trip.

That afternoon we were fitted to our bicycles and given a demonstration of mountain biking techniques. We were each provided with a helmets, two water bottles, lock and cable, and front and back red bicycle bags. The front handlebar bag had a transparent plastic map case for the day’s directions. The royal blue eighteen speed bikes had front shock suspensions to ease our journey over rocky roads. The guides explained that the maps would offer long and short ride options for the day with designated van pick up points. Then, we got some practice in on a six-mile warm-up ride through the small town and surrounding countryside.

Throughout the trip, our helpful guides, Fernando Aguila and Holly Richter, handled all the details: arranging meals and lodging, transporting luggage, cleaning our bicycles… even entertaining us with card games. All we had to do was pedal, eat and enjoy.

The next morning at dawn I awoke early to view an orange sky and the new moon setting behind the Volcan Osorno. After a hardy breakfast we biked around Lago Llanquihue, which at over 22,000 acres is the second-largest lake in Chile. That day as we biked the miles, one volcano seemed to loom larger as another shrunk. We took a break at a small farm were we posed for photos alongside llamas and marveled at the beauty of the caged pumas.

We ended the day at the Hotel Ralun, set amid blooming rhododendrons, lilacs, roses and azaleas. The estate-like grounds, including a swimming pool, ended on the shore of the Reloncavi estuary with a dock and canoes. At the other side of this glacial inlet, the southern ridge of the Andes appeared like a snow-topped stone wall. We each had private rooms within separate cottages.

Our first layover day was at the rustic Hotel Ensenada, which is filled with antiques and a massive open fireplace where we sat around playing card games and reading. Outside the gardens were in bloom. The only scheduled activity was an afternoon rafting adventure on the Class III portion of the Petrohue River. Since the hotel was near the base of the Volcan Osorno; some of the group spent the morning riding their bikes up to the snow line of the volcano.

The next day we joined the tourists, traveling on a popular bus and boat tour, called Cruce de Lagos, from Chile to Bariloche, Argentina. The bus from Ensenada traveled through the lush rain forest of Parque Nacional Vicente Perez Rosales, stopping for a short hike to a rushing waterfall. Next we hopped on a ferry across the Lago Todos los Santos with views of more rain forested mountains and islands, and waterfalls. Lunch stop was at the Hotel Peulla followed by a bus across the borders to Argentina. The bus stopped at both borders for photos and an impromptu snow ball fight. The tour ended with a ferry ride on the Lago Nahuel Huapi to Llao Llao.

The constant rain formed a wet filter on the views of the emerald lakes, the majestic waterfalls and the snow-covered, rain forested volcanoes. It was springtime in an El Niño year, and the region was receiving higher-than-average rainfall. That afternoon a patch of blue sky appeared as we docked at the Llao Llao Hotel and Resort. We all rushed to the saunas and heated swimming pool.

The next day there were two bike options either 15 miles or 41. Five of us chose the short route on paved roads which took us up and down hills, pass a lavender farm and small swiss-like villages. The views would alternate between two lakes and rugged mountain peaks. At an overlook we stopped for a group photos with the Lago Nahuel Huapi and the Llao Llao Resort in the background. Upon our return to the resort we returned to the warmth of the pool and sauna while others enjoyed facials and massages. That evening we, especially the men, downed Argentine wine before our group’s tango demonstration and lesson.

The next morning we loaded our bikes onto a small boat headed for Quetrihue Peninsula and the Parque Nacional Los Arrayanes. This park is named for the alerce tree, a gigantic conifer with a cinnamon colored bark and dark green foliage. We enjoyed a beautiful sunny athletic trail ride through open spaces and forest scattered with wild flowers. The entire morning did not see any other people til we exited the park, where we enjoyed a beach picnic at the lakeshore of Lago Nahuel Huapi. Here the van met us and Holly had towels on the sand under a blooming apple tree and a table covered with food, such fried chicken, spinach quiche, fruit, juices and an assortment of local chocolates.

Afterwards we leisurely rode our bikes through the town of Villa La Angostura, where some stopped for ice cream and ski kitsch, to the Hosteria Las Balsas, a small inn that is a member of the Relais & Chateaux. The living room offered a roaring fire in an enormous fireplace surrounded by comfortable sofas and plush armchairs where we relaxed while being served wine and hot tea. A picture glass window presented a panoramic view of the lake and mountain ranges. I watched a fly fisherman casting and a family of baby ducks cruising in the lake, Lago Nahuel Huapi. The cuisine was the best I’ve tasted. One dinner I enjoyed a potato and beet soup, Argentine steak with pumpkin puree and fresh vegetables. For dessert I chose warm pears in honey with ice cream. I slept between lace sheets, while my bike was covered by a shed with a grass shod roof.

The next day some of us headed to the Cerro Bayo Ski Resort for our most challenging single-track trail. One of our guides told us that last year a bicyclist broke his ribs on this segment, but since it was almost the end of the trip, I figured, “What the hell!”

A volcanic-dirt trail, it was littered with fallen branches and raised roots, and presented an occasional creek crossing. I enjoyed jumping the small logs and hopping along the roots as the route mainly headed downhill. The track ended at a fence, which we helped each other lift the bikes over. Other than a few bruises and scrapes we survived.

The trip ended at the Hosteria La Cheminee in San Martin de los Andes. Our last day was a pleasant hike through the countryside with time in town to buy gifts of leather goods and chocolates. That evening at our farewell dinner, we enjoyed a delicious Argentine barbecue with Argentine steaks and wine. We all made promises to exchange photos of our Backroads adventure.

That morning we all sadly departed and I headed back across the border to The Antumalal Resort in Pucon, Chile, overlooking Lake Villarrica. The resort, hidden by large Chilean oak trees, is nested into the landscaped cliff overlooking the lake. Pathways lead down to the shoreline where a sailboat is docked for the use of guests.

I was greeted by the owners, the dignified William Pollack or as the locals called him, “Don Guillermo”, and his attractive daughter, Rony. He built this resort from hand in the fifties, his son designed the furniture from local trees, and Rony Pollack designed the slipcovers and pillows.

In the entranceway, the walls displayed photos of royalty, heads of state and movie stars who have enjoyed this unique hideaway. Posted on the door to my room was a little white card with my name and they explained that no keys are needed. Don Guillermo explained , “ there are three rules: no keys, no schedule and the guest makes the rules”.

For two nights I enjoyed Antumalal’s delicious meals, soaked in local hot springs and explored lava caves of the Volcano Villarica. I only wished for more time to explore the Antumalal gardens of rushing creeks and waterfalls, and blooming flowers — all leading downward to a secluded lake cove.

The Lake District is a nature paradise with towns developed by European refugees and with reservations inhabited by Mapuche Indians and gauchos. The magnificent volcanoes, lakes and back roads of beauty and solitude continue to attract more travelers from around the world.

For information and catalogues, contact: Backroads, 801 Cedar Street, Berkeley, CA
94710. Phone: (800) 462-2848 or (510) 527-1555;
Fax: (510) 527-1444; Website: www.backroads.com).

Hotel Antumalal, Pucon, Chile; Phone: 011-56-45-441011; Fax:011-56-45-441013;
Website: lazos.cl/usuarios/antumal.html). Email:antumalal@lazos.cl

For flights to Chile from Los Angeles, Miami (non-stop), and J.F.Kennedy in New York,
contact LanChile Airlines, tel: 800-735-5526