As car-ferry crossings go, my trip from Puerto Fuy to Puerto Pirihueico was infinitely more appealing than the usual mix of slot machines, duty-free opportunities and chips with everything in the buffet. There was no gift shop; no one was the worse for wear after sampling rather too much on a booze cruise. In fact, there were no below-deck attractions at all.
And if, like me, you weren’t in a car, then you were hemmed in along a narrow, shade-free, open-air gangway either side of the boat. Comfort was in short supply, the potential for sunburn high. But what this ferry crossing offers for the length of its 90-minute duration is some of the most spectacular scenery in South America, coasting through the Patagonian Andes from Chile towards the Argentinian border. There’s a lush, green-velvet rainforest portside and a gleaming glacier-capped volcano to starboard. It can be cold here, and it can rain, but on my journey the air was clear and warm. The cloudless sky – which felt somehow so much bigger than usual – was a startling shade of electric blue.
The trip across Lake Pirihueico is one leg of one of the greatest, but also the easiest, journeys you can make through the Andes. From Temuco in Chile to Bariloche in Argentina, you can (if you have the time, are adventurous enough, and are willing to take minor detours) go white-water rafting, ski, sunbathe or hike through cracks in glaciers so pronounced that they form maze-like corridors. All of these things are possible, depending on the time of year.
Before you pass Go, you have to get to Chile. In my case, this involved an epic 14-hour night-flight from Heathrow, via Paris. Rather than risk a fresh-off-the-red-eye transfer time in Santiago for a flight to Temuco that I wouldn’t, as it turned out, have made, I holed up at the W hotel, drank blueberry caipirinhas by the rooftop pool and snoozed away the effects of last night’s flight.
Normally I’d seek out the most offbeat, locals-only, not-in-a-guide-book restaurant, but I discovered that there was a Jean-Paul Bondoux restaurant off the hotel lobby and a new branch of Osaka across the hall, so I stayed put with superlative ceviche from both.
After a short-hop flight the next day, my tour operator arranged a transfer from Temuco to Huilo Huilo, an astonishing, Tolkienesque version of Center Parcs, fashioned entirely from logs and branches. (One of the lodges is a wild, plant-covered cone that has a constant stream of water gushing from its apex.)
The road trip started out drab but became spectacular, as motorways, mooching cows and the occasional rusted pioneer-town rail bridge gave way to high-impact nature. We passed mountains with soaring trees clustered together in patterns that looked as if they’d uprooted themselves to climb higher. I saw tumultuous rivers and a distant volcano issuing a long, elegant doodle of smoke. We rushed through tiny towns that looked more Alpine than South American. Then, 68km before Liquiñe, as the sunset became particularly golden, we passed an unlikely looking, peculiarly remote disco called The City. This rotunda structure on the edge of a lake looked as if it had landed from space, in the midst of the most striking, gorgeous vista.
Two nights at Huilo Huilo are enough to drive those undelighted by groups of four or five squawking toddlers into a frenzy, but the facilities and myriad rainforest excursions – from birdwatching to ziplining through the canopy – are fantastic and the architecture curious enough to distract your attention from the tots. And for children, of course, it’s an awe-inspiring, adventure-filled wonderland. It’s also mere hiking distance from here to the ferry, which makes it an appealing pit stop before crossing the border into Argentina.
On the other side of Lake Pirihueico, I was picked up by taxi and driven at speed through clouds of dust and a cascade of flying pebbles down an unpaved road to the border. Once in Argentina – via two mildly confusing passport checks – all became Disney-beautiful. This is the Patagonian Lake District at its most wonderful. It’s little wonder that half the Argentinian population want to retire to San Martín de los Andes, possibly the most beautiful lakeside town in the country. The main street is full of varnished log cabins and chocolate shops while the road around the lake itself is a grand widescreen collage of the Great Outdoors: sparkling water and campsites, young couples hitch-hiking, girls in expensive sunglasses swimming and jogging, shirtless boys glistening as they skateboard and perform stomach crunches at the side of the road. Everything and everyone glows with health and energy.
With a fairly long drive behind me, I’d hoped that my next stop, Río Hermoso, would have a decent pool: a dip, a glass of vino rosado and a couple of paperback hours would be just the ticket. However, the eponymous hotel on the river turned out to be a pretty, very modern take on an Alpine mountain cabin, stuck in the middle of Lanín National Park and staffed by women in chic, beige gaucho pants. There was no pool. Instead, there was something so very much better. The hotel sits on a dramatic, painterly bend of Evian-clear river, flanked by soaring, lush green mountains. If any resort has a better view from what is effectively its back garden, I haven’t seen it. As I ran into the water, a condor glided above, drifting from side to side as if being worked by a balletically minded puppeteer.
There are several ways to travel from Río Hermoso to Bariloche, the tourist capital of the Argentinian Lake District. My guide advised that we avoid the well-travelled Road of the Seven Lakes, as coaches churn up so much dust that views become almost invisible, while other traffic moves at a snail’s pace.
Instead, we took Route 63, which was more a riverbed of pebbles, rocks and boulders that just happened to be arranged in the direction we wanted to go in. Forty-five minutes in, as we juddered past a battered traffic sign that had clearly been subject to repeated drive-by shootings, I wondered how far I was from chronic whiplash. And yet, the scenery was a soother, and my attention was soon diverted to my guide and her stories of the local Mapuche people, who speak a language that cannot be written and name their children at the age of three, when the town’s designated wise woman decides on what it is to be.
Bariloche is the most obviously populated town in the area, and locals bemoan the ever-increasing tourist numbers, but with so much space around an immense body of water, it absorbs its visitors fairly easily. As I looked out beyond the figures diving elegantly off the pier behind the El Casco Art Hotel, silhouetted by the sun, things seemed as idyllic as you could hope for. Across the road, at Alberto’s – the best-known parrilla (grill) in town – dinner was served amid waves of deafening holiday excitement as Flintstone-large slabs of medium-rare bife de chorizo landed on tables accompanied by black pudding and bottles of delicious local red. I may love the most fancified suppers, with complex reductions, amuses-bouches and palate cleansers, but fundamentally, you can’t beat a great steak and a few bangers. And Alberto’s does it better than anywhere else in the world, with rustic aplomb, and for about a 10th of the price of a visit to Hawksmoor in London. Weeks later, I was still hankering after a return visit.
Bariloche’s other must-visit restaurant is Cassis, run by German émigré Ernesto Wolf and his chef wife, Mariana. While the view back at Alberto’s consists of the grill and some passing traffic, at Cassis you sip local Chandon on an elevated wooden platform overlooking moss-banked hills, a placid lake and canoeists cutting across the horizon through butterfly-like ripples. It’s dreamy – as is the romantic dining room, which serves a Patagonian lamb strudel that rates as the best use of any wool-clad creature of all time.
My journey across Patagonia came to an end at Llao Llao, a rambling 228-room Swiss cuckoo-clock of a hotel, with an astonishing aspect over a lake and snow-capped mountains. Río Hermoso may still beat it for its privacy and intimacy, but the sweeping views across the valley at Llao Llao are nothing short of amazing. They resemble an almost too-perfect painted Alpine backdrop, unreal and intense. Neck-deep in water, looking out from the infinity pool, it was easy to imagine that this was the absolute edge of the world. Then the sun disappeared, black clouds gathered as if conjured by sorcery, and great gusts of wind sent parasols hurtling over that edge and on to the lawn below.
It was a reminder that all of this isn’t laid on just to prettify Facebook photographs, or as accompaniment to an al fresco club salad. This is Patagonia: real, wild, beautiful and a humbling privilege to be a part of.
Mark C O’Flaherty travelled as a guest of Air France (0871 663 3777; airfrance.co.uk), which flies daily from various UK airports to Paris and on to Santiago and Buenos Aires.
l Exsus (020-7337 9010; exsus.com) has a 10-night package taking in a similar route, from £2,450pp, including flights, transfers and board.
W Hotel, Isidora Goyenechea 3000 Las Condes, Santiago, Chile (00 56 2 770 0000; starwoodhotels.com). Doubles from US$249 (£155), room only.
Huilo Huilo, Km 55 Camino Internacional Panguipulli, Neltume, Región de Los Ríos, Chile (00 56 2 335 59 38; huilohuilo.com). Doubles from US$144 (£90), with breakfast.
Río Hermoso, Ruta 63 km 67, Paraje Rio Hermoso, Parque Nacional Lanín, San Martín de los Andes, Argentina (00 54 2 972 410 485; riohermoso.com). Doubles from US$320 (£200), with breakfast.
El Casco Art Hotel, Avenida Bustillo Km 11.5, Bariloche, Argentina (00 54 11 4815 6952; hotelelcasco.com). Doubles from US$208 (£130), with breakfast.
Llao Llao, Avenida Ezequiel Bustillo Km 25, Bariloche, Argentina (00 54 2944 448 530; llaollao.com). Doubles from US$184 (£115), with breakfast.
Eating and drinking
El Boliche de Alberto, Av Bustillo Km 5,800, Bariloche, Argentina (00 54 29 44 462 285; elbolichedealberto.com).
Cassis, Ruta 82, Lago Gutiérrez, Peñón de Arelauquen, Bariloche, Argentina (00 54 294 447 6167; cassis.com.ar).