Branching Out on Lago Nahuel Huapi

Lago Nahuel Huapi, in the Andes foothills near Bariloche, as seen from our cabaña.

Lago Nahuel Huapi, in the Andes foothills near Bariloche, as seen from our cabaña (click to enlarge).

Lake Nahuel Huapi spreads and branches out in all directions around this pocket of the Andes foothills of Patagonia, and its water has mesmerized us since we arrived a couple of weeks ago. Its surface changes almost hourly with the weather, from a glassy reflection to white-capped waves. It even harbors its own Nessie-like legend, and the kids are fascinated by the idea that maybe, just maybe, a plesiosaur-like creature whom locals call Nahuelito is lurking in the waters just off our cabaña’s deck. Nahuelito was caught on YouTube and the Sci Fi Channel, so it must exist, right? We all got a good laugh out of this clip, especially the music:

YouTube Preview Image

The lake dominates the center of Argentina’s oldest national park with the same difficult-to-pronounce name, Nahuel Huapi (try na-WHELL whoppy), which is a phrase from the indigenous people, the Mapuche,  meaning “island of the jaguars.” In the center of the lake sits a 12-mile-long finger of an island called Victoria.

Whoo-hoo, we're going on a boat ride! We were all smiles when we boarded the Cau Cau boat for Isla Victoria.

Whoo-hoo, we're going on a boat ride! We were all smiles when we boarded the Cau Cau boat for Isla Victoria.

A few days ago, when the rain around Bariloche let up for a day, we jumped at an opportunity to board a boat for a day trip to Victoria. We didn’t research it much but simply wanted to get out on that water and see the views. One thing we did plan ahead and do right, however, is go on a day when an English-speaking guide was scheduled for the tour. Thanks to this wonderful guide and some good luck, we discovered a dream field trip for kids and grown-ups alike: visually stunning, physically active, and awash with interesting science and history lessons.

The six-hour tour is run by an outfit called Cau Cau and takes off from Pañuelo Port next to the Llao Llao hotel. We boarded a big, comfortable catamaran that can seat over 250, but on this off-season cloudy day we were joined by only about 50 other tourists. The guide, whose name I didn’t catch, translated everything for our family so we could hear about the history of Isla Victoria on the half-hour ride over.

Kyle didn't want to look up from the book he was reading on the Kindle, even when Morgan tickled his chin.

Kyle didn't want to look up from the book he was reading on the Kindle, even when Morgan tickled his chin.

He told us it was this island, not the lake and surrounding park, that first had the “Nahuel Huapi” name, until it was changed to honor some pioneer named Victorica. Then the Europeans around here in the late 1800s confused Victorica with Victoria — or maybe decided that everything should be named Victoria — and the queen’s name stuck.

The island was severely deforested for timber, but then in the mid-1920s Argentina’s agricultural minister decided to turn it into an environmental laboratory of sorts by planting numerous exotic species and experimenting with forest management.

The guide tells Colly and Kyle about how a tree nicknamed "monkey tail" evolved.

The guide tells Colly and Kyle about how a tree nicknamed "monkey tail" evolved.

We got to see, for example, 80-year-old sequoias that grow about 30 percent faster and bigger than their siblings in California because of environmental factors unique to the island (stuff like the soil, climate and dearth of threats to its growth). Seeing these giant redwoods, feeling their spongy bark and marveling at their size was like receiving a surprise gift from back home.

In another corner of the island, where pine were closely planted in perfect rows like in a tree farm, we saw how they grow straight, tall and virtually limbless to reach the sunlight. Standing in stark contrast to the uniform trees was a twisting, gnarled old pine with branches in all directions — one of the oldest trees on the island, having survived the previous century’s deforestation. We decided the old tree reminded us of Ed Asner’s character Carl in Pixar’s Up.

The giant trees made Kyle seem more impish than usual.

The giant trees made Kyle seem more impish than usual.

If my arms were big enough, I would have hugged this tree from home. It's one of many California sequoias planted on Isla Victoria. They're only 80 years old but grew faster than their California counterparts.

If my arms were big enough, I would have hugged this tree from home. It's one of many California sequoias planted on Isla Victoria. They're only 80 years old but grew faster than their California counterparts.

Then it was time to board the boat and head to a smaller island for a tour through Arrayanes National Park to explore an ancient grove of arrayán — a type of myrtle native to Argentina and Chile. Who knew that a bunch of myrtle trees would be worth writing home about? These cinnamon-colored species twist and embrace like dancers, their peeling bark creating a vibrant two-toned texture and pattern unlike anything I’d ever seen.

A pathway leads through the forest for about a half mile.

A pathway leads through the forest for about a half mile.

The arrayanes up close.

The arrayanes up close.

At Arrayanes National Park, with the Cau Cau catamaran in the background.

At Arrayanes National Park, with the Cau Cau catamaran in the background.

When we headed back to the port, the clouds began to lift and part as the sun went down and tinted the sky pink. With our heads lifted high to look at the sky, who knows if we might have missed a Nahuelito sighting?

These peaks are considered mere foothills the Andes.

These peaks are considered mere foothills in the Andes.

Lago Nahuel Huapi in the late afternoon light, as seen on the boat ride back.

Lago Nahuel Huapi in the late afternoon light, as seen on the boat ride back.

kyle on boat

Kyle kept a lookout for birds.

At last, a bit of blue sky!

At last, a bit of blue sky!

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,