Last week we found ourselves bussing through some of the weirdest, most wonderful landscape I have ever seen. This was Nahel Huapi National Park in northern Patagonia, an area of nearly two million acres (7,050 km2) right next to the border with Chile. Argentina’s oldest national park, it includes more than 60 lakes, four lagoons, countless streams, more than 1000 plant species and about 600 species of vertebrate animals.
Everything about it is remarkable, starting with the name. In the Mapuche language ‘Nahel’ can mean ‘jaguar’ but it can also mean ‘man who has been turned into jaguar by sorcery’. ‘Huapi’ means island. Nahel Huapi was the name of the huge lake and it’s easy to see why they chose this rather than Mascardi, named for a Jesuit missionary, for the whole park.
There is clearly something magic about this lake. Even before Loch Ness reared her snakey head, an aquatic monster was sighted here, the infamous ‘Nahuelito.’ In the 1920s an American gold prospector named Martin Sheffield saw “an animal with a huge neck like a swan, and the movements made me suppose the beast to have a body like a crocodile.” The Buenos Aires Zoo tried to collect evidence of the monster, which has also been compared to a plesiosaur, but all efforts were unsuccessful. But even apart from monsters, the lake is home to birds like the Great grebe and the ashy-headed goose. In fact, even blue-eyed cormorants and kelp-gulls, otherwise only found in marine habitats, feel at home in this inland mountainous environment.
We started out from Bariloche, which is just south of the park on the southern lakeshore. It was a pretty cold morning so there was a lot of condensation on the window, which John kept urging me to wipe off so he could see the amazing view. The thing that really hits you is that this place has geology to spare. There are rocks all over the place and striations and strata and whatever else they’re called.
Apparently, this area used to be minding its own business as a shallow seabed. Marine fossils have been found at the top of Cero Otto (1,405 m), reminders of creatures that once lived 200 metres below sea level. Then volcanic activity began in the region (incidentally covering the land to the east with ash and creating petrified forests and the Patagonian steppes). About 65 million years ago the Nazca plate began to push against the South American plate from below, fracturing the earth’s crust and ‘giving rise’ to what we know now as the Andes cordillera. Long after that, only about 2.5 million years ago, a huge accumulation of snow and ice covered the area and formed glaciers in the mountain areas. Movement of these masses of ice gradually sculpted u-shaped valleys. Since then there have been fluctuations in temperature. The last great glacial advance happened about 36,000 years ago and retreated significantly about 11,000 years ago. As the glaciers disappeared they left lakes and lagoons. Now, the only remaining glaciers are found on Cerro Tronador (Thunderer—named after the crashing of falling seracs).
So, as you can see, there is a lot going on, geologically speaking. This certainly accounts for the jaw-dropping scenery—hilltops like ready-made castles, dramatically deep valleys, sandy cliffs, and deep-blue lakes everywhere you look.
The park has three distinct ecosystems: the altoandino, the andino-Patagonico and the Patagonian steppe. One of the nice things about my run last week was that I was able to see (and photograph) all three of these special environments.
The altoandino is above the treeline, so looks rather bare and is exposed to harsh weather, particularly snow and strong winds. It features rocky massifs, loose stones interspersed with sand. Vegetation is low-lying and grows mainly in hollows or sheltered places. Species you might see include Chilean myrtle, colorful lichens, and nub-leaved shrubbins. There are small isolated meadows in high mountain valleys where streams of snowmelt converge; here you can see mosses, grasses and flowers such as ‘la Estrella de las andes’ (perezia pedicularifolia).
The andino-Patagonico designates the lower slopes and consists of transitional forest. There are several kinds of beech including the lenga (Nothofagus pumilio), the Antarctic (Nothofagus antarctica) the raulí (Nothofagus alpina) and the roble (Nothofagus obliqua). The Chilean cedar (Austrocedrus chilensis). Underneath these large trees there is a lower layer which includes such shrubs and small trees as different kinds of boxleaf, barberry, Chilean bamboo (Chusquea culeou). There is also black hawthorn, orange-ball tree (buddleja globosa) and broom. In some of the foothills you can see sweet pea and the tall, yellow amancay.
Then, at the feet of these mountains there is the Patagonian steppe, the eighth largest desert in the world by area. But though it is called a desert, it is full of life. There are low-lying plants such as tuft grasses and desert shrubs. Animals living in this environment include the burrowing owl, guanaco, mara, pygmy armadillo, desert iguana and Patagonian gray fox.
Looking through the steamy window, I kept wanting to jump out and explore, and ever since we returned to the city I’ve been thinking about that great, enchanting wilderness and how much of it we didn’t manage to see.