Mendoza

Before talking about Mendoza, let me just mention that the drive from Santiago to Mendoza is absolutely breathtaking. It also happens to feature the highest mountain of South (and North) America the Aconcagua with its broad wide shoulders. It should also be visible from Santiago, but due to smog, clouds and dust it rarely is. But as soon as you leave the city you can see it sitting there. The road slowly winds up in to the mountains to end in a collection of overlayed, steep hair pin curves giving an impressive view. imageShortly behind the highest point, the border crossing forces the bus to stop and gives you between 20minutes and 4hours to enjoy the view.. So better be prepared. There’s not a whole lot going on, except to wait your turn. The usual questions about endangering Argentina with an half eaten apple are asked and, even if you answer wrong, you’re usually allowed to continue. I smuggled half a clove of garlic into the country this way.
The road back down to Mendoza is much less steep, but just as pretty. The mountains vary in shades of red and yellow, there’s almost no vegetation and the rocks get quite creative in their formations.

Mendoza itself is about as far from the mountains as Santiago.. But less smoggy, therefore the Aconcagua can actually be seen, behind a veil of fog.. It’s not like there’s no smog at all. The city itself has little to offer, but that didn’t matter since we were there mainly for the wine regions around Mendoza. After checking out the prices for the guided wine tours, somewhere north of $100, we decided we could do our own. One can take the public bus to Maipú, rent a bike there and tour the closest wineries. We’d also been given the tip to take the back roads as they were less busy. So at the first occasion we took a left turn and started driving into the country side. It didn’t take long and a lady stopped us to tell us that this is very dangerous and we should return to the busy road because it was “prettier”. After much consideration we decided to go ahead with the initial plan and turned onto the back road, away from all the cars. It turns out she was right, in a sense, because 5min later I had a flat tyre. The thorns lying all over the road had perforated my tire in about 15places.. Too much for the “anti-flat gel” to act fast enough to keep the air in. But almost immediately we had people surrounding us, offering to help and not 20min later we were back on the road.


A sunny day, lots of good wine, great company. What more can one wish for. We stopped at three wineries and something, somewhere was nagging in the back of my head but I couldn’t figure out what. The first winery had a little extra treat, an owl was sitting at the entrance looking out for us.

Meanwhile, I liked the wine at winery viña el cerno so much, that I decided to buy a case of it to bring home. A slight lack of sobriety might have been a factor in this decision. Finally at the last winery, we were already quite drunk, something clicked and I decided to ask the local owner what the rules were regarding blood alcohol while riding a bike.. She just looked at me and said “Don’t you worry, we have an agreement”.. Not quite reassured by this, we set off into the sunset, this time on the main road to avoid any flat tires.

 

It didn’t take long for the first police car to arrive and, much to my consternation, it slowed down and started shadowing us. Even though we were on our best behavior and totally driving as if we weren’t drunk! Still, the police car followed us for a good 10 minutes before finally pulling over and stopping. Much to our relief. We drove on and noticed, soon after, that we must have passed the bike rental. We had gone to far. So we turned around and saw from a distance, that the owner of the bike rental was having a lovely chat with the police car that had been following us! They had only stopped because we had reached our goal… But we failed to notice!

San Martin de los Andes

San Martin was a bit of a bust. Recommended as a base for several multi-day treks in my guide book, the national park office and the tourist office in San Martin hadn’t heard of any of these and really couldn’t give me any pointers on how to get to the starting point. In addition, I got some impressively wrong information on bus connections that made me decide to only stay one night in the town.


The town itself is actually quite nice, as was the hostel I was staying at. It had the same kind of peaceful and relaxed vibe Futaleufu had. But the only “activity” there was a 3km walk to a local viewpoint over the lake San Martin was bordering. While pretty, it surely isn’t enough to warrant a visit.


In the end though, San Martin was unavoidable. For one the road between Bariloche and San Martin is known as one of the prettiest in Argentina. There are two options to get from Bariloche to San Martin by bus: Fast or scenic. The scenic road, also known as the seven lakes circle, drives through absolutely stunning countryside that would probably be better enjoyed with a rental car. However, if you don’t plan on returning to Bariloche (as we didn’t), the bus is a much cheaper option and the view is the same.. It’s just that you can’t stop.


For four hours the bus drives through the mountains, past seven lakes (who would’ve guessed), with the last lake being the one San Martin coasts.
Secondly: The direct road from Bariloche to Pucon was, once again, closed due to snow. The only pass remaining open in that area was only served by buses starting from San Martin, so I never really had the option to avoid it in the first place.

Laguna negra

This was the second half of the 4-day-hike I had wanted to do. The original path from Laguna Jakob to Laguna Negra was covered in snow and inaccessible. The alternate road started in the swiss colony, so I made my way back there already making plans on catching up on those beers I had missed out on the previous day. The idea of nice cold beer after a long day’s hike seemed great. Plus I’d be taking the bus home, so no need to be sober. Unfortunately life had other plans. None of the bars and breweries in Colonia Suiza were open, which actually turned into a serious problem when I was looking for a toilet. In the end I had to ask at a school if may enter theirs.. I did not expect the place to be that dead just hours after I had seen it completely overrun by tourists.

Then, finally, I could start on the hike. Contrary to the first part, this hike starts with a steep uphill section. In the woods. Again I was reminded of my friend and had to whole-heartedly agree with her. Stupid trees blocking the view. Luckily, the higher you get the fewer trees there are. And, admittedly, the trees with their red and yellow leaves make quiet a big contribution to the view. Still.. Wouldn’t it be enough if they were on the other side of the valley to look onto? Why do they need to be along the path as well?


The second half of the hike climbs alongside a huge, seemingly unsurmountable cliff. The water of the laguna crashes down in two long waterfalls slowly digging itself into the stone. At the top you’re greeted by a ragged scenery and a strong wind. The laguna negra is very different from the one at refugio frey. Where Refugio Frey and its laguna are located in a small valley, with trees and gras surrounding it, the laguna negra is surrounded by steep dark cliffs. I thought refuge in the refugio almost immediately to warm myself up and enjoy a hot coffee.. After having recovered a bit I explored the area a bit, but didn’t get too far. Between being blown around by the wind and the complete lack of tracks, I decided to stay put for a while before heading back down.


It still amazes me how different the same scenery seems on the way up and the way down. A slightly different viewpoint changes everything and even though I left the refugio before 2pm with plenty of time to get back to the bus stop by 6pm. However, I really only started on the hike back down around 3pm and still stopped every couple of meters to take pictures. Suddenly I found myself with one hour and 5km left and had to seriously hurry to catch my bus.. In the end I made it with about 3 minutes to spare.
I’m still not entirely sure how I managed to lose two hours on the way back down, I must’ve hit a time warp somewhere. It’s the only logical explanation. Surely I didn’t take that many pictures.

Circuito chico

Hiking is all nice and good, but there can be too much of a good thing. Not mountains of course, mountains are always awesome. So I decided to see some mountains by bike instead. Of course, for me, that means seeing mountains at a distance. I’m not a mountain biker and I seriously dislike climbing inclines with a bike. The circuito chico is a 27km loop close to Bariloche, ideal for biking. On the way to the circuito is the …. Which I had been told is among the best views in the world as selected by national geographics. Arriving at the foot of the mountain and keeping in mind my decision not to hike, I directed myself to chairlift. Seeing the prices was all the excuse I needed to hike up after all.


Reaching the top, I had to admit that I had chosen a bad day to come. It was very cloudy and my optimism that the weather would accommodate my desire for clear skies was unwarranted. Even with some of the mountains hidden in the clouds, the view was quite impressive. Water, mountains, forests made for a colorful combination. I stood and watched for a while, until I noticed the heavy clouds closing in at a distance. Keeping in mind that I still wanted to cycle the 30km’s I went back down and walked over to the bike rental. There, to my surprise, I found another drawback of traveling of season: Rather than closing at 7pm, as was advertised on the flyer, they were closing at 5. Meaning I had just under 3 hours left to do the circuit. Including the planned lunch in the swiss colony… I really have a knack for making things stressful. In particular my holidays.


The bike rental all seems to have absolutely zero faith in their renters. At first I thought he was being ironic when he told me to always brake with both brakes and to pedal forward to go forward. But then I saw that the map they handed me included instructions on which gears to use for uphill/flat/downhill. The flat section seems a bit superfluous as there was no flat bit anywhere, only up and down.
The first hill to conquer is the hardest, but it also yields the nicest view because there’s a natural opening at the top with no trees. During this ride I thought back frequently to a friend traveling with me back in Cerro Castillo. She had left us with the words “I can’t take those trees anymore. They’re everywhere and keep blocking my view”. During my stay in Bariloche I started to seriously relate to her feelings and in particular during the bike ride I was often left with the feeling that the view would’ve been amazing if it hadn’t been for the trees blocking it. And those trees didn’t even have any amazing foliage. They were all green.


Even though I was already short on time, I decided to stop at the swiss colony. Mostly because the food there had been recommended to me two months prior when I was still in El calafate and it sounded like an experience. The curanto is a typical dish cooked in the ground. A layer of leaves is burned, meat, vegetables etc are put on top. Another layer of smoldering leaves is added before earth is added on top. Four hours later the earth is removed, the food extracted and served. It has a nice smokey taste with some notes from the leaves. In particular my apple tasted absolutely delicious.

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After being served a selection of meats cooked curanto style a waitress came up and asked me if there was anything else I wanted. I asked if they also had vegetables and she said “Of course, we have everything”. So I let my mind run wild.. Some eggplant would be great or zucchini. Maybe some mushrooms? She turned around and came back with a plate containing a potato, a carrot and an apple.. I’m still confused by this selection of “vegetables”.

The lunch was nice, but it took almost an hour. So when I left the place, I only had about an hour left to do the second half of the circuit, which means that I wouldn’t have the time to stop at one of the breweries that seemed to plaster the way. Maybe it was for the better, don’t drink and drive!

Refugio Frey

This is part of the 4 day trek that came highly recommended by a good friend. The first leg of the trek takes you to refugio frey, a small mountain hut next to a small lake surrounded by mountain peaks. The hike up starts at a not quite picturesque skiing station and takes you along the mountain. My initial plan to use the ski lift and get a head start was crushed by the fact that the ski lifts weren’t running anymore. Again, a drawback of travelling off season.

However I might’ve chosen not to ride the lift anyways as the mountain tops were covered in clouds. So I set out on the traditional path,wondering if I’d have a view of anything at all… As so often, luck was on my side and by the time I reached refugio Frey the clouds had dispersed and I had free skies. At refugio Frey there’s a whole bunch of small little excursions you can do. Which is a good thing, as I had once again made the mistake to believe the times given by the national park office and therefore arrived at noon at the refugio (when I planned to arrive at 2pm). I shortly entertained the notion of doing also day 2 of the 4 day hike. So continuing on the road to refugio Jakob I made it all the way to the next lagoon a little higher up. It turned out to be the first lagoon I was seriously disappointed by. Maybe also because the one of refugio Frey was so pretty. In any case, the climb and the lagoon seriously made me reconsider the idea to rush all the way too the second refugio and I ended up turning around to enjoy what I already knew was incredibly pretty scenery. On the way back down, I could enjoy what I’d missed on the way up: The view onto refugio Frey from a height. Always turn around, the best views might be hiding behind you!

After surrounding the laguna Tonchek at refugio Frey and taking in the view for almost an hour, The second route I took, took me to a viewpoint into the next valley. Lots of reds and greys from the foliage and the mountain peaks. It totally made up for the somewhat failed excursion to laguna Schmoll.

Back at the refugio, I ran into some of the volunteers from my hostel and they told me about this alternate route down, which would allow us to walk along lake Menendez and, in addition, have us reach a bus station where the busses run more regularly and are less expensive. How could I say no!?. What they failed to mention was the additional 10km it added to the hike and by the end of the day, I was getting really tired.

Bariloche

I left El Bolson for Bariloche on Easter Saturday with the goal to celebrate Easter in the chocolate capital of Argentina. Little did I know, that all Easter celebrations are done from Thursday to Saturday and Sunday is the travel day as Monday isn’t a holiday here (as it is in Germany). I managed to not only arrive after the celebrations but also when the good weather switched to bad. Therefore my first target was to get a new jacket, which ended with a very grumpy me, a significantly lighter wallet and a mediocre jacket.. Argentina apparently has protective import taxes on clothing and similar, so what would normally be a 50$ jacket ends up being 200$. And I didn’t really want to go for the 200$ jacket at a 600$ price.

Unfortunately, the only way around this is apparently to go to Chile. But, the direct border crossing from Bariloche to Pucon had unfortunately closed the weak prior due to snow and the rain and cold winds, didn’t really tempt me into just toughing it out until I reach Chile.
There are downsides to traveling outside of the peak season. Another downside is that the hostels are getting emptier and emptier and you will occasionally find yourself by yourself when you’re really looking for some company. Fortunately, the hostel I ended up at had a big group of voluntary workers manning the reception and having big cooking parties at the hostel every evening. So even though the hostel was empty, I had plenty of company of great company. In addition, since they all enjoyed cooking we also had home made bread and jam every morning.IMG_20170420_220457
Yet another downside of traveling off season is that the nature parks totally unreasonably will close down trails because they’re snowed in and refugio’s because they’re snowed in.. So I had to cancel my plan to do a 4 day hike and split it up into two single day hikes instead.. Cutting out some of the trail I initially planned to do and rewarping it into different treks.

IMG_20170416_145942On a positive note, chocolate never goes out of season and I had so much good chocolate in Bariloche. I could not stop buying more. and more. and more.

I also finally figured out what a submarino, or submarine is. It’s much more innocent than the German counterpart (A shot of vodka in a glass of beer):

It is a chocolate that is submerged into hot milk:

Piquilitron

And suddenly there was fall.

The second hike I did in El bolson was the inpronounceable cerro piquilitron. This is from the parking lot at the platform, not starting in El bolson itself. There’s little merit to walking up to the platform, other than saving the 120 pesos you’d have to cash out for a shared taxi. You walk along the road for 10km, with the view mostly hidden by trees. The constant trickle of cars on the dirt road, probably wouldn’t make it more enjoyable either, but I saw a bunch of people walking up the road anyways.

I would really recommend driving up though, since the hike to the top is another steep 3-4h hike uphill after the platform if one wants to reach the top of the mountain (and the views from the top are way more amazing than from the platform)
From the platform on, small paths leads between trees and open green patches steeply upwards until you reach the refugio roughly an hour in. From there the path alternates between breathtakingly beautiful and breathtakingly scary. On the climb I frequently asked myself why exactly I was doing this to myself.. but the moment I reached the top and saw the view, I knew exactly why I’d come here.

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From the cumbre you can see down into the next valley of steep mountains. There autumn was in full force with deep red autumn forest lying in the center. I was absolutely flashed. The view was absolutely imposing. I started taking fotos like a mad woman and, of course, that’s the moment the little red battery light on my camera started flashing too.. So, I had to take all those pictures extra fast, so that I don’t miss out on one of the views while taking pictures. Luckily I managed to take all the pictures I wanted to take before the battery gave out and we started walking back down.
The way down was mostly scary, the path is steep and slippery and I saw more than one person fall and stumble more than walk it back down. Once we reached the platform again, we were faced with a different issue: How to get back down without walking the 10km, because obviously there’s no taxi waiting there on the off chance that someone needs a lift.

We eventually hitched a ride on the back of car,enjoying the scenery and moving at just slightly higher than walking speed, since the road was bumpy, steep and windy. When we almost reached the bottom we happened to come accross a police control, which nicely informed us that it’s illegal to ride in the back of a truck and we’d need to get off… We got off and started walking the reminder of the road, as it wasn’t far now. But from the way the driver and the three other guys in the back of the truck acted, I had a feeling something was up… And indeed, something was up. Behind the next corner the car was waiting for us.. As it turns out those three guys, happened to be the driver’s sons and their friend. They weren’t going to be left behind. So we hitched a ride until the end of the dirt road and got off before hitting the main road.

Hielo Azul

Hielo Azul is a two day hike with an overnight stay at a refugio. The first day I walked up to the refugio Hielo Azul and on the second day I continued on to Warton via the cajon de azul. In warton a bus stops thrice a week to pick you up and bring you back to civilization. Before leaving on this hike, the mountain office asked that I please register with them.. Especially since I was hiking by myself. They swore they would come and get me if I got lost. The German in me always feels obliged to perform these senselesss administrative tasks, so I duly registered. Since I had noone reminding me to deregister on my return I forgot to do so for two days. Nobody at the mountain office seemed particularly alarmed that I came back two days later than anticipated or didn’t come back when supposed to. I’m wondering how many days one needs to miss before they actually start looking for you.. If it’s more than a week, I’ll probably have starved anyways.


The map I’d been given told me that it would be a 6-7h hike up, however Argentinian hiking times are usually very generous. So I wasn’t too surprised when I arrived at the refugio at half past one instead of four. However the scenery is so amazing that it didn’t matter. The mountain office told me to follow the red sign on yellow.. and I was wondering what sign? A triangle? Circle? Who knows…

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It turns out every sign has been hand painted including different symbols. It started out innocently enough, but quickly became more elaborate going from a simple spiral to a boat or a kid looking at the stars.
Since I’d arrived so early at the refugio, I asked around for hikes I could do around the area. The climb to the glacier was pushed of to the next morning, as it was supposedly nicer in the morning than the afternoon. I was told there’s a nice little waterfall where they contact the water for the refugio, I should just follow the path up.. The path up turned out to be just some vague foot prints where someone had walked to check where the pipes were leaking water. It got steeper and in some parts seriously scary.. and to add insult to injury, when I arrived at the top the waterfall was basically dried out. Nothing to be seen there.
Back down was basically one giant slide, with the occasional grab at a tree root for safety. I ended up seriously scratched up by the bushes. So I decided to go for a less dangerous option and take a dip into the freezing water of the laguna. While crystal clear and a lovely turquoise color, it was also the average “glacier water” temperature of some 5 degrees Celsius. So the bath ended up being very short.
My attempts to create awesome “mermaid jumping out of the water”-pictures also turned out to be major failures. But, even though you can’t tell from the pic, I had a lot of fun!

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However, by that time it was almost evening and time for me to have dinner and have a chat with the other residents of the refugio. I spent a lovely evening with an Argentinian family, playing Dixit, learning about the best opportunities to eat ice cream and chocolate in the surroundings and exchanging picture tips before heading out shortly to take some night time pictures with and without the moon, before deciding that it was time for bed.


The next morning, I started early to see the glacier.. The glacier itself didn’t really do it for me. The lagoon was milky, the glacier covered in dust and I was up too early, since I arrived around 9am. I couldn’t stay too long because I still had a long hike ahead of me. So a definite “Do not repeat” from me.

The second day of the hike was a lot more picturesque, I crossed lakes and meadows with the fall starting to make an appearance in the trees. I also crossed some very creative, make-shift bridges on that day. My final goal that day was the cajon azul. A blue gorge, here again, it would’ve been good to see it in the morning, since the sun hits the water and makes the water truly shine. I arrived in the early afternoon and a lot of the cajon was already in the shadow again. However, where the sun did hit the water surface the colors were truly breath taking. Of course I had to jump in.. but those rivers are just sooo cold, after two little laps, I had to go back out and heat up in the sun.

 

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On the way back I met another girl from the hostel heading to the Cajon Azul. She told me it was mostly flat from there on, just a big rise at the end.. So, naturally, I assumed every incline to be “that final slope”.. However I still head another 90 minutes ahead of me.. And when I finally made it up, I was seriously exhausted and so glad to have reached the end…

The only issue remaining was the bus. Said girl had also told me that the bus didn’t run in the morning and that she’d ended up taking a taxi to reach the bus stop.. So all we had to do was sit and wait and hope for the bus to show up.

Which it did.

About an hour late.

El Bolson

El Bolson is known as a hippy town. Although it’s not all that apparent at first, it becomes very obvious once you walk through the market. It’s a mix of locals selling self-grown organic vegetables, food stands and exile-hippies selling their art, but mostly hippies. I first tried to visit it around 11am, but found out that they hadn’t even started setting up yet. When I came back five hours later, they were already wrapping up everything again. I’m guessing business must be very good or non-existant, but I suspect the latter. I did get to see it the next day.. around 2pm seems to be a good time to catch people between too hungover to get up and getting ready for the next party.


But neither the hippies nor the market are El bolson’s main attraction. The surrounding mountain ranges are. El bolson lies in a small valley, with two mountain ranges shooting up around it. The first day, to get acclimated, I rented a bike to visit some waterfalls nearby. My idea of doing some of the carretera austral by bike died then and there. I did neither enjoy riding or rather sliding through the loose gravel nor swallowing the dirt of all the cars shooting by.. I almost turned around out of frustration. But in the end, there wasn’t too much uphill, the gravel got less after a while and the cars vanished almost entirely once I turned of the main road. The ride ended up being a nice little excursion. The first waterfall, cascada escondida, is a large water fall of 30 meters, that no matter how hard you try you’ll never see entirely.. It’s really escondida.

The entrance to the second waterfall, cascada mallin ahogado, illustrates the Argentinian’s desire for signs and prohibitions quite nicely. The amount of signs telling me about all the things that were forebidden was quite mesmerizing.  The waterfall itself is actually part of a hydro-electric plant.. Which managed to maintain the natural beauty of the waterfall, while using it for electricity. The waterfalls were really pretty and the sun was shining relentlessly. But I’m finally adapting to the local climate,  so that I could enjoy the nice heat rather than spend the time worrying about getting sunburned. I returned in the early afternoon, allowing for an extensive visit to the the tourist office and the mountain office, where I was recommended to do all the walks available. I was also given a rather basic map which showed, as usual, distances in time rather than kilometers. Luckily one of my earlier travelmates had introduced me to the awesomeness of maps.me, which allowed me to check the distance and, in walking mode, even the elevation covered in each hike. The latter, unfortunately, turned out to be not entirely accurate, but as a rough estimate it gives a good idea. The estimated times of the app are, however, just about as ridiculess as the ones given on the map. Just to the other extreme. While the map says I’d need 4 hours for 5 km to climb from 1200m to 2200m, the app says it should take less than an hour. Well I’m not ashamed to admit it took us longer than that.

Los alerces

While in Esquel we did one major excursion to the national parc Los Alerces. The tourist information in Esquel had told us that this is the best outing possible in Esquel, so of course we had to go. They showed us on a map, that there was a 3km-hike at the top and a 3km hike just a bit further and a 2km hike a little further down and then a 6km hike a bit further away still.. We looked at each other and asked if it would be possible to do them all in a day? The lady in the tourist information looked at us in disbelief, then acknowledged that maybe, if we’d stop nowhere and walked very fast we could possibly make it, but really it wasn’t a good idea at all. We took that advice to heart but decided to completely disregard it. 20km of completely flat or downhill walking in nine hours didn’t seem all that unfeasible to us and it turned out to be the right decision. Not only did we make it, but we also had time to stop for lunch and several viewpoints and still come up with an hour to spare at the end for an craft beer.


Los alerces is completely different from the landscape around Esquel, which is surprising that they’re so close. It’s a forested area, with large trees, crossed by streams and many lakes. Our first stop was the Mirador for the lago verde. The green lake, named such because it has turquoise water. The three kilometer loop was qualified as easy – intermediate because it contained stairs.. Even though we looked for them, we never did find the stairs. I’m guessing we found the easy-easy variant. From there we walked down to Lago Menendez to have a look at the glaciar. After crossing a slightly wonky suspended bridge, we were greeted by large signs warning us about the presence of pumas and giving us all the tips about how to scare away a puma. This prompted us to do the exact opposite of everything indicated to make the Puma disappear. My travelmate tried to sound like a puma to lure the other puma out of the hiding spot, while I tried to sound like a very yummy sheep or something.. It didn’t work. No matter how big the signs were, we didn’t see any traces of pumas anywhere. Rather disappointing. The three kilometer loop, again classified as easy – intermediate was completely flat and I’m not sure how it could’ve been made any easier. Needless to say that we did not need the indicated one and a half hours to make it there and back.

From there we walked along the second to last trail to the last one. I had read that this hike needed to be registered at the local ranger station. What I did not know is that the ranger station was all the way down the hill, while we wanted to go all the way up the hill. Everyone else seems to know this though because the last person registering themselves to go up to the laguna escondida had been there some ten days earlier.. The only good thing that came of this is that since we needed to go back down to register ourselves as “not lost”, we coincidentally ended up right next to the shop selling the beer making for a nice end to our day.


If you do just one of the loops, I would definitely recommend the laguna escondida, even if it’s the most challenging one as you have to walk up a hill to reach it. The laguna is not the part that makes it so spectacular, even though it is nice. It’s the view over the lago menendez, the lago verde and the green river winding itself around the lago menendez which you get once you reach the top of the hill.