Published: September 13th 2012April 16th 2012
Sweet San Martin de los Andes, on its alpine lake, is a way-station on the gringo trail through the Patagonian lake districts. Travelers coming from the popular resort of Bariloche, Argentina, are forced to pause for a night to catch the daily 6 am bus over the Paso Mamuil Malal/Tromen to the equally popular Pucon, Chile.
I, too, passed through the town four times as I tacked back and forth across the Andes to renew expiring 90-day visas. However, my stays were longer, and I always crossed the pass on Sundays for the weekly afternoon bus as I'm allergic to early morning anything.
I always stayed longer in San Martin because each of my visits was full of color, friends and great trails. Carnival brought drummers and scantily-clad dancers parading down the chilly streets while spring saw bright yellow Spanish broom covering the hills around town. Early autumn's golden poplars shot flames into the sky, and late autumn's crimson, vermillion and violets covered the town's mountains.
My first visit was with my friend, Nancy, vising me from Santa Barbara. We were touring the famous Ruta de Siete Lagos (the Route of the
psychodelic late-autumn foliage
so bright, it looked like kids' cereal--unreal!
Seven Lakes) in mid-May 2011, the height of autumn color. The mountains surrounding the myriad of lakes were a riot of reds, golds and violets all the way up from Bariloche. In San Martin at the highest altitude, the colors were the most intense and painted the mountains that surround the town.
Upon arriving in San Martin, we wandered the alpine-style stone and wood downtown with its upscale restaurants, chocolate and outdoor shops, leafy streets backed by autumn-colored mountains, and the parks and promenade around the sheltered bay on huge Lake Lacar. Like everyone else, we declared it a little Bariloche and thought there wasn't much to the town. Cute, but not worth spending much time.
So, the next day, we visited the Mapuche indigenous community, Quila Quina. We followed the bluffs of Lake Lacar out of town and then descended a winding dirt road through a forest of autumn-jeweled trees, stopped every few meters to photograph the amazing colors. Finally at the lake was a tiny, isolated settlement. We visited waterfalls, had a picnic, wandered charming trails and visited the primary school that taught a Mapuche curriculum.
We returned to
San Martin after a vain search for a mirador/viewpoint but were rewarded with even more autumn colors. That evening, we hiked a tiny bit in a nearby forest, whetting my appetite to return and explore.
I always stayed in the sweet Secuoya Hostel and became friends with Annie, Gonzalo and a rotating group of workers. It was always great to come back and see friendly, familiar faces. On future visits when it rained, it was heaven to sit at a pine table, looking out at the park across the street, listening to the rain and reading or writing. Nice to have a place that feels like home.
My second visit was six months later in November, late spring, when the mountains were again a riot of color; this time from the invasive, but beautiful Scottish broom that painted the hills bright yellow. Garden and streets were bursting with flowers, and there were lots of spring-returning birds.
On a marathon of buses, I'd come from my favorite high Andean town of Caviahue and was rushing to cross the border on my way to Pucon on the last day my visa was valid.
The Argentine border guard accused me of overstaying my visa, so we ponderously counted out the 90 days on a calendar (not the first time this had happened).
Returning from Pucon, three months later, I'd miscalculated and had overstayed my visa (probably subconsciously I'd wanted to wait for a Sunday afternoon bus). Yikes--if the border guard caught this, I would have been fined $100 since it was my second offense. My first had been the previous winter when I was stranded in Chile for four days because the mountain pass had been snowed in and closed, and my visa had expired.
Thank goodness for ineptitude--immigration computers don't register expiration dates of visas. Thus, when the Chilean guard noticed the possible overstay, I looked at him pleadingly and said I'd been ill. Perhaps he was being kind, or perhaps he didn't feel like counting out the 90 days, but I sighed with relief when he waived me through. Once again, I was very lucky! Hopefully, next time, I won't procrastinate so and will leave at least a week before my visa expires (or not).
It was mid-February, still warm summer in Pucon,
spring Spanish broom
my camera was broken, so this is Pucon, but it looked the same both side of the Andes
but here it was freezing! Several volcanoes had erupted that year, so there were lots of airborne particles (bad for photos), which attracted moisture, leading to a year of increased rain, clouds and cold weather throughout the Argentine lake district. Brrrr!
It was also Carnival, which meant that the thong-wearing parade dancers must have been freezing--better shake those booties: this isn't warm Brazil! Here, the main street was closed to traffic, bundled up locals lined the street, and all sorts of groups banged their drums and strutted their moves.
This time, I spent more time in San Martin and discovered that it is a hiking paradise with lots of accessible trails in the surrounding mountains and along the lake. Unlike our Santa Barbara mountains, which, near the city, have regular trails that leave the rest of the forests intact, here, the mountains are honeycombed with trails. The first two times I tried to reach a mirador/viewpoint, I was always stumped by the constant bifurcations.
Now, I just headed up at various junctions and realized it didn't matter which trails I took--straightish took me along the peninsulas around the lake and up
would eventually end at the mirador. I thought that these additional trails were from deer (as on my home mountains) or the Mapuche who had used them for so long; however, someone told me that it's mountain bikers blazing new paths and destroying the forest in the process--too bad. Yet, it also gave me a sense of freedom to just go any which way, letting go of thinking that there was a "right" way, which I enjoyed on other mountains around town.
From the mirador, I continued through a Mapuche reservation and to the Isleta, a little island in the lake where people lounged and picnicked. On the way, I spoke with lots of friendly residents, admiring their peaceful, wooded lands. Later, I'd see some of these people around town and chat with them--so nice having little connections in a community.
My final visit was in April of 2012, early autumn when rows of poplars blazed golden all around town. With sadness I'd left my beloved Bariloche, which had always felt like home. Now, this visit to San Martin too, was bittersweet, knowing it would be my last. I'd lingered in Patagonia for over
a year, but knew I was leaving it for good. Thus, I spent a week in San Martin, walking tons of trails, seeing the town from all sides of its sheltering, forested mountains.
As on earlier visits, I enjoyed cultural offerings of this small town of 25,000. I again attended the monthly classical music club. The last time I was here, we saw a video of the Resurrection Symphony, Mahler's Second, which I adore. This time it was a biography of the exquisite cellist Jacqueline du Pre. Afterward, we chatted, and I met several expats who spend half of their year in San Martin. I also saw great films in the cinema, which is unusual because most small towns show only action and children's films. A very civilized city indeed!
Finally, after an excellent week of hiking, I traveled an hour away to Junin de los Andes, a smaller, less polished town on the route to Chile. I was milking my last weeks in Patagonia.
There are more photos below