Hug Some of the Oldest Trees on Earth in Patagonia
Argentina’s version of the Redwoods might even have healing powers.
In a place as fairy-tale gorgeous as northern Patagonia, it takes a lot to stand out. But ancient 3,600-year-old trees bordering greenish-turquoise glacial lakes so vibrant they look fake, backed by snow-capped mountains with Andean condors gracefully soaring overhead, make the World Heritage Site of Los Alerces National Park well worth a stop on a trip to Argentina.
Alerce trees (Fitzroya cupressoides) happen to be the oldest living thing in Argentina—and one of the oldest trees in the world. Los Alerces National Park was created in 1937 in order to protect these evergreens similar to the monstrous North American sequoia. Its original name in the native Mapuche language is Lahuan or Lawan, meaning “cure” or “remedy,” hinting that this tree probably holds more power than we know.
But there’s more to this half million-acre park than just cool, old, healing trees. This is an ecosystem that’s home to puma, huiña cat (austral spotted cat), huillín (an endangered native otter), culpeo fox, and gray fox. There are even some random bright pink flamingos and lime-green Austral parakeets thrown in to make you say “huh?” The vibe here is wild enough that none less than famous outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid once took to hiding out in a log cabin nearby.
Between horseback riding to connect with your inner gaucho, hiking through Valdivian temperate rain forest, swimming Wim Hof-style with glaciers in view, world-class rafting on the nearby Futaleufú River, and fly fishing in water so clear you can watch huge rainbow trout swim by, Los Alerces and the surrounding area merits at least a full few days of your time. Consider that just outside the park is Argentina’s up-and-coming wine destination, Trevelin, and you may find yourself never wanting to leave this little slice of surreal heaven.
Most adventure travelers come to Patagonia for the epic hiking of Torres del Paine in Chile or Fitz Roy in El Chalten, but locals know that smaller national parks like Los Alerces hold similar views with a smaller percentage of the crowds. And only in Parque Nacional Los Alerces will you have the chance to hang out with these legendary trees that grow extremely slowly (1 millimeter per year), but reach heights over 150 feet. If you’re looking to slow down and let nature help put everything in perspective for you, the alerces could indeed be what the Mapuche call a “cure.” Here’s everything to know about visiting Los Alerces.
Drive one of the most beautiful road trips
The nearby town of Esquel has a tiny airport, and from there local buses can get you to the park—though it can be a bit of a headache with varying frequency and routes depending on the time of year. For a more streamlined and complete Patagonian experience, land in the larger touristic hub of Bariloche, rent a car, and road trip south along route 40. You’ll be in for the most stunning five-hour drive of your life; one moment it’ll seem like you’re in the lupine-flower-filled setting of The Sound of Music, then blink and you’ll feel like you’re the main character in beige and sandy desert-steppe Dune.
The park has three main access gates. The north gate, fifteen miles from Cholila, takes you in by the Rivadavia Lake area. The central gate stems from Route 40 twenty miles from Esquel and starts you by Futalaufquen Lake and Villa Futalaufquen. And the lesser-used south gate brings you close to the Futaleufú Hydroelectric Complex, six miles from Trevelin. The roads within the park are gravel and slow going, so relax, embrace the pace, and be sure to make a leisurely stop at every roadside waterfall to soak up the view.
Escape the northern winter
The park gets saturated with local tourism in January and February, as this is summer break here. November and December, or alternatively March through May, is ideal for the best chance at pleasant weather with fewer people in the park. During spring in the Southern Hemisphere (starting in November), bright yellow retama bushes and thousands of pastel-colored lupines color the landscape. Whereas come fall around May, the lenga trees turn some higher-altitude forests blood red with their changing leaves.
The park entrances have strict hours: Gates open at 9 am and close at 8 pm in the summer. In the low season, gates close at 5 pm. With Argentina’s constantly shifting inflation right now, prices can change overnight, but the entrance fee for foreign tourists is usually the equivalent of around $10 USD, to be paid in cash only in Argentine pesos. Come prepared (and maybe bring extra cash just in case), as there is no ATM in the park. In the off-season of May through October, there is no entrance fee.
This is not a park that is well-equipped yet for foreign tourism, so planning ahead (especially if you don’t speak Spanish) can be a little confusing. This site is the best to point you in the right direction for who to contact for camping, booking a cabin, or planning activities. Don’t expect a fast response from anyone within the park—there is no wifi outside of the main Tourist Information Center and no reliable cell signal.
As for what to pack? While the internet will tell you that average summer temps can be in the 70s or 80s, what you don’t usually hear is that there can be frosts even in the middle of the summer season. At any time it can decide to rain, blast you with sun, or kick up incredibly strong winds. Bring layers and an “open to enjoying whatever happens” attitude.
Hike to waterfalls, lake views, glaciers, and ancient trees
There are 19 official hiking trails with different levels of difficulty. Maps can be found in the Information Center, which is also where you should register to let them know where you plan on hiking in the park.
The easiest walk would be the Irigoyen Waterfall Trail, which in an easy five minutes will have you cutting through forests and along the river for views of a tranquil waterfall. This one is good if you just need to get out of the car for a few minutes to stretch your legs.
A step up, but still an easy walk, is the Mirador Lago Verde trail, which is 1.3 miles with an elevation gain of 200 feet that takes you up to a picturesque lake overlook, an ideal spot for busting out a thermos and drinking yerba mate like a local.
For a better chance to see wildlife, the Lago Verde & Glacier Mirador Trail is a 5.1 mile partial loop trail with an elevation gain of 1,158 feet, still easily doable if you’re in decent walking shape and want to feel like you did a “real” hike.
If you’re feeling extra ambitious, try climbing El Dedal Peak (high difficulty, lasting about seven hours). From the summit, you can see part of Futalaufquen Lake, the Situación Peak, and the Desaguadero River valley.
If you want something with a bit more flair, try trekking the 24,000-year-old Torrecillas glacier. You’ll need to book this excursion ahead of time, as it requires a 40-minute boat ride and a certified guide.
And if you have come this far to see alerce trees, you can’t leave without a visit to the Alerzal Milenario. Boats leave from Puerto Chucao to cross Lago Menéndez, where you disembark and follow a trail to one of the oldest trees on Earth, “El Abuelo.” Plan this excursion ahead of time, as there are few boat options per day and the limited tickets sell out fast in the summer.
The trails are well-marked and provide reliable information. If you come when there’s snow, heads up that the covered trails will be difficult to follow—they aren’t exactly well-trodded in the winter.
Drink wine, explore ice tunnels, or ride the Old Patagonian Express
After you’re done hiking, there’s so much more to do in the area. You can horseback ride or explore ice tunnels, or be decadently lazy and take in the Patagonian scenery by boat excursion. To further enjoy the water, you can rent a kayak or fly fish (fishing season is November 1 - May 1). Or simply find yourself a secluded spot on a pebbled beach, eat a picnic lunch of empanadas, then siesta unapologetically for the rest of the afternoon.
Just outside the park are the microbreweries of Esquel (and a wonderfully intimate and well-stocked wine bar called Hache Patagonia). From there, you could also ride La Trochita, a still-functioning steam engine train. Known as the Old Patagonian Express, it feels like you’re being transported to a different era. Nearby is Piedra Parada for world-class rock climbing.
Head towards Trevelin for wine tasting at Casa Yague (the second-most southern winery in the world) or Contra Corriente. If you happen to be in town late October or early November, check out the tulip fields nearby in full bloom. Also in Trevelin, Fondo Sur serves up upscale but never pretentious farm-to-table food, or take in high tea with all sorts of yummy desserts made with heavy cream at one of the Welsh tea houses in town.
A quick and easy jaunt over the Chilean border (just a few miles outside of Trevelin) will land you in Futaleufu, home of some of the planet’s top white water rafting.
Where to stay near Los Alerces
If you’re on a backpacker’s budget or just feel like going rustic, you can camp in one of the seven organized campgrounds with infrastructure or nine wild camps. Especially if you plan on traveling in the summer months, reserve a spot ahead of time. There are multiple cabins and hostels in the park as well, but close to the park outside of Esquel is Huemules, a glamping company offering cozy domes that make for a very comfortable and memorable stay. The vineyard of Casa Yague in Trevelin also rents out homey private cabanas.