Saturday, December 1, 2012
Parque Nacional Los Alerces (Los Alerces National Park)
On the outskirts of Esquel, the road to the park is paved until you arrive at the visitors’ center. We stopped into the center and chatted with a ranger who gave us a map of the park with tips on camping areas suitable for RV’s, advice on taking another road when exiting the park which would be much shorter than going back through Esquel and cautioned us that Winston must be kept on leash at all times. There was no entrance fee or any other charge for camping and we could stay as long as we want. It seems to us that Argentina charges high fees for entering their main, popular parks like Iguaçu Falls, Punta Tumbo and Perito Moreno Glacier and then little to nothing to go to other equally as memorable but less visited parks. Once inside the park the road is another loose gravel road. These roads, which the locals call “ripo” can alternate between fairly smooth large pebbles to washboard where the trick is to drive at just the correct speed to glide over the ruts but below the level of actual skidding and landing in a ditch or worse, down a mountain side to other parts which are so potholed and uneven that driving at any speed over 8 miles an hour is an absolute mind jarring, bone-rattling experience. This road was no exception and our average speed was about 10 miles an hour. This was ok because the scenery is spectacular. Los Alerces was designated a national park in 1937 to protect the Alerce trees. Alerces is considered to be some of the most ancient trees in the world and while many of the trees in the park are reckoned to be over 1000 years old, some are actually thought to be around 3,000 years old. Running alongside the Chilean border to the west, it nestles into the backdrop of the towering Andes mountains. The park is also part of a complex lake system, connected by a multitude of sparkling, winding rivers. At the southern end, there is also a hydroelectric dam which provides energy to Puerto Madryn. We plan to travel from the southern end of the park around Lake Futalaufquen and follow the river road past Lake Menendez to Lake Rivadavia where we will exit the park in the north, hoping to find a suitable campsite along the way. The first set of campgrounds around Lake Futalaufquen closest to the visitors center were full of cars and we could see quite a few people, not really what we had in mind to enjoy our national park experience, so we kept on driving. Did I mention that the scenery is spectacular? Because it does deserve a second notation. The gravel road winds up and over mountain passes and then down into river valleys to camping areas on the edge of the lake but still we drive on. We have not found the ideal place for us. Just when we started to think we should turn back and re-scout some of the previous campsites, we decided to try one more place listed on the map as Playa El Frances which is at the northern end of Lake Futalaufquen where the Rio Arrayanes enters the lake. The side road down to the river was steep and uneven but when we arrived, it was amazing. We had a flat open area to ourselves with our door opening almost at the edge of the lake. Perfect. We let Winston run a little as we kept a close eye on him and then put him on leash to walk the trails around the campsite. Being a beagle, he would almost certainly take off if he picked up the scent of a rabbit or spied some other wildlife, besides it was the rules! One other couple pulled in and parked a little way from us in the trees and then it was silence. No cars, no other people. At dusk, a deer and her fawn came down to the lake to drink and the sounds of birds settling in for the night filled the area. That night, the stars were just amazing and as we went to sleep, the stillness and silence of this beautiful ancient forest enveloped us.