Argentina is home to astonishing natural wonders that draw thousands of tourists each year - but backpacking your way through Argentina, especially Patagonia, ain’t cheap. Most national parks charge a hefty entrance fee that can deter budget travelers, like myself, and ruin your perception of ecotourism. I found myself frustrated after traveling in Argentina for two weeks and not being able to enter a single national park on foot without paying at least $20 USD. However, Argentines and travelers from abroad assured me that the municipal parks near Bariloche were filled with free hiking opportunities. As my last stop in Patagonia, I was thrilled to finally find affordable access to nature that totally exceeded my expectations. Below is a list of beautiful hikes in the Bariloche area that are 100% free and absolutely worthwhile.
Before you embark on any of these hikes, you will need to buy one thing: a bus card. Traveling by public bus is the cheapest way to access trailheads; luckily the Bariloche bus system is relatively easy to use. All buses leave from Calle Moreno in the center of town. You can buy a bus card at most Kioskos in the center (look for a blue sign that says “Sube” on the shop window) and you can recharge the Sube card at these Kioskos as well. Bus drivers and local passengers are used to guiding lost tourists, so if you have any trouble someone will surely help you.
1) Laguna Negra, Refugio Italia
The Laguna Negra trail takes you through a forested valley along the secluded Goye River until reaching a sharp ascent up granite mountains to Refugio Italia. Not only is this hike full of brilliant scenery with rapidly changing ecosystems - from pine forests, to riverbeds, to mountain tops - the trek to Laguna Negra is also an escape from the often overcrowded trails found throughout the region. Patagonia is at the top of most serious trekkers’ to-do lists, which means that tourists from across the world are scrambling up rugged paths to earn the right to say they’ve backpacked through Patagonia.
Since this hike is 14K (8.7M) one way, be sure to pack food, water, and camping gear if you plan to split the hike over two days. If you chose to camp or stay in the Refugio, please register with the park department in Bariloche (the government does this to try to keep tourists safe and it doesn't cost anything). After a week of uninterrupted hiking around Bariloche, the diversity of flora and landscapes along this trail made Laguna Negra my absolute favorite hike in northern Patagonia.
Getting to the Laguna Negra trailhead will take you about an hour on the public bus. Take bus #10 which runs directly to Colonia Suiza (Swiss Colony), but since it only leaves a couple times each day be sure to check the schedule here. Alternatively, you can take bus #20 which runs every 15 minutes and connect to bus #13 to the final stop in Colonia Suiza. The first European settlement in this region and a cultural heritage sight, Colonia Suiza is a quaint village that looks strikingly similar to its original appearance at the time of its founding in the late 19th century. You have two options of where to get off the bus: right after passing the Goye Stream (Arroyo Goye) and walking about 100 meters (300 feet) in the direction of where the bus is going or at the the end of the line in Colonia Suiza. I advise getting off at Colonia Suiza to experience the adorableness of this quirky town nestled in the temperate valley. If you depart in Colonia Suiza, retrace the route of the bus until 100 meters before you reach the bridge crossing the Goye Stream (see photo). If you are facing the bridge, you will see the trail head on your left. For more information about Refugio Italia and staying overnight, click here.
- Difficulty: High
- Distance one-way: 14 kilometers (8.7 miles)
- Time to complete one-way: 5 hours
2) Sendero de los Arrayanes
Take a hike through the famous Arrayane (myrtle tree) Forest, a species of flowering trees in the myrtle family native to the central Andes between Chile and Argentina with twisting orange trunks that shoot up into the sky. This hike gives you the opportunity to enjoy an abundance of native flora as well as some invasive ones brought from Europe. The beginning of the Arrayanes hike is well marked with informative signs written in Spanish describing the various plant and animal species inhabiting the area, including the illusive güiña, the smallest cat native to the Americas. Sendero a Los Arrayanes is an easy, mostly flat hike that takes you through the forest and along the breath-taking shore of Lago Moreno.
To get to Sendero de los Arrayanes you will need catch bus #20 on Calle Moreno in between Calle Palacio and Calle Beschtedt. Bus #20 runs every 15 minutes, so this hike does not require much planning. When you board simply tell the driver your destination is Llao Llao Hotel, which is about a 40 minute drive from the center of Bariloche, and the driver will charge you accordingly (around 30 pesos Argentinos). Be sure to tap your Sube card to pay and get off when you see signs for Llao Llao hotel on Av. Exequiel Bustillo. You will know if you got off at the right stop if the bus turns and continues up a hill after you have disembarked. Walk along Av. Exequiel Bustillo for ten minutes, following signs to Circuito Chico. The trailhead begins at the wooden sign that says “Parque Municipal”.
- Difficulty: low
- Distance: 2.85 kilometers (1.8 miles)
- Time to Complete: 1:20 hours
3) Bahia de los Troncos
Indulge in the vivid scenery of northern Patagonia, with soaring mountain peaks moulded by hundreds of years of glacial erosion towering over rich green forests and reflected in the crystal clear water of Lake Nahuel Huapi. Bahia de los Troncos is a hidden gem among the many popular hikes near Bariloche and is easily accessible from the city center. Follow the instructions to Sendero de Los Arrayanes (#2 on our list) until the trail through the forest comes to an abrupt end at on the Circuito Chico road. Directly in front of where the trail ends, you will see a sign pointing left to Lago Escondido and another pointing right to the town of Llao Llao. Follow the sign to Lago Escondido, which will lead you along the road for ten minutes (watch out for cars) until you come to a parking lot marked with the trailhead for Lago Escondido. Since Playa de Los Troncos is less explored than the popular trail to Lago Escondido, use the signs pointing to Lago Escondido to guide you. Hike the path for 25 minutes until you reach Lago Escondido and then continue on for 10 minutes until you see the sign for Bahia de los Troncos. Don’t forget your swimsuit! The magnificent blue water of Lake Nahuel Haupi is too inviting to turn down, even when it's nippy out.
- Difficulty: low
- Distance: 3.25 kilometers
- Time to Complete: 2 hours
4) Refugio Frey
The trek to Refugio Frey is a popular one that has you scaling up Cathedral Mountain with striking views of navy-blue waters in Lago Gutierrez, Lago Mascardi, Laguna Schmoll, and Laguna Tonce below. Named after Emilio Frey who was a park administrator in Nahuel Huapi National Park, the hike to Refugio Frey is open year-round to those looking for a full day of outdoor adventure. During the Summer and Spring, the trail is lined with blooming wildflowers and bees - so be vigilant if you have an allergy even though bees rarely sting hikers.
In order to get to the trailhead, catch bus #55 or #55b on Calle Moreno in Bariloche and tell the driver you are going to Refugio Frey or Villa Catedral, which should cost $36 pesos. The bus ride to the end of he line in Villa Catedral is about 40 minutes. From the bus stop, look to the left hand side to the massive car park at the base of Cerro Catedral Ski Resort and look for a wooden sign that has “FREY” written on it. Continue forward, away from the developed ski town, on a wide gravel road until reaching a turn off to a dirt path on the right. Soon you will stumble upon a large map with information about park rules; this is the official trailhead. The hike to Refugio Frey is visually stunning, but noise pollution is heard from the major roads running along the lakes below for the first half of the hike.
- Difficulty: medium-high
- Distance: 10 kilometers (6.2 miles)
- Time to Complete: 4 hours