San Martin de Los Andes in Argentina and Pucon in Chile are two all-season resorts in the southern Andes region. Both are surrounded by lakes, forests and mountains. They are popular summer and winter destinations, providing activities such as skiing as well as hiking, boating and swimming.
Pucon is in the “lake district” of Chile, and is easily accessed from Santiago by a night bus or a one hour flight. A three hour drive across the Andes in Argentina (from Chile) is San Martin de los Andes which can be reached also by plane from Buenos Aires.
Here is where the similarities end. The two towns have taken a different view towards growth. San Martin preserved its historic center, which is small, intimate and easy to walk in. The feeling is European: small scale artisanal shops and boutique hotels. Pucon has gone in the other direction — towards mass tourism. I visited Pucon for the first time in over twenty years. I recall that twenty years ago, it was a quaint beautiful little village with many historic houses, mostly inhabited by elderly Chileans of German descent who gave the place an alpine charm. Unfortunately the economic boom in Chile has turned Pucon into a major summer resort for the growing middle class: shopping malls, casinos, chain stores are everywhere and SUVs clog the streets. Many of the old historic houses have been demolished to make way for tacky hotels. A similar process has happened in Puerto Varas in Southern Chile. So while the surroundings are beautiful, Pucon as a town has little to offer these days.
Where to stay and what to do in Pucon
The best hotel in Pucon is Hotel Antumalal in the outskirts of town (see Mapplr review). The main activity in Pucon is climbing the Villarica volcano. It is a full day trip and one can see the boiling crater from the top. However, weather conditions at the top of the volcano change from day to day and on some days, climbing tours are not possible. Termas Geometricas are wonderful Japanese-style hot springs tucked inside a canyon about 90 minutes from Pucon. It is worth the drive. There are many food options in Pucon, but the quality is basic – it is not a gourmet destination.
What to do around San Martin de los Andes
San Martin has much charm with many excellent restaurants and small hotels within the town. In the center of San Martin is the wonderful Antares Patagonia, a large modern house with a spacious green lawn, small swimming pool and sun decks. The suites in Antares Patagonia are huge, comfortable and equipped with all the modern conveniences that travellers expect.
Eating out in San Martin is a delight. Although most visitors to Argentina focus on eating steaks, we have found that the Italian food, notably the fresh pasta dishes, are amazing and as close you get to eating in Italy. If you are not a big meat eater, go for the antipasti and pasta.
Twenty five kilometres outside of San Martin is Hotel Rio Hermoso near the Lanin National Park, which offers more seclusion in nature. Che Guevara passed though the town during his motorcycle trip in South America (depicted in the movie, The Motorcycle Diaries). One can visit La Pastera Che Museum to learn more about his life and the influence he had on Latin America. The Camino de los Siete Lagos (Seven Lakes Route) is a 100 kilometre winding road south of San Martin towards Bariloche and Villa La Angostura through lakes, mountains and forests. Many people cycle the route, and bikes can be rented in San Martin and returned in Villa la Angostura.
When to go
Winter for winter sports and summer for swimming and hiking. Spring and fall are not crowded, and offer tranquility at much affordable prices.