Travel

Hug Some of the Oldest Trees on Earth in Patagonia

Argentina's version of the Redwoods might even have healing powers.

Turismo Esquel
Turismo Esquel
Turismo Esquel

In a place as fairy-tale gorgeous as northern Patagonia, it takes a lot to stand out. But ancient 3,600-year-old trees bordering greenish-turquoise glacial lakes so vibrant they look fake, backed by snow-capped mountains with Andean condors gracefully soaring overhead, make the World Heritage Site of Los Alerces National Park well worth a stop on a trip to Argentina.

Alerce trees (Fitzroya cupressoides) happen to be the oldest living thing in Argentina-and one of the oldest trees in the world. Los Alerces National Park was created in 1937 in order to protect these evergreens similar to the monstrous North American sequoia. Its original name in the native Mapuche language is Lahuan or Lawan, meaning “cure” or “remedy,” hinting that this tree probably holds more power than we know.

But there’s more to this half million-acre park than just cool, old, healing trees. This is an ecosystem that’s home to puma, huiña cat (austral spotted cat), huillín (an endangered native otter), culpeo fox, and gray fox. There are even some random bright pink flamingos and lime-green Austral parakeets thrown in to make you say “huh?” The vibe here is wild enough that none less than famous outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid once took to hiding out in a log cabin nearby.

Between horseback riding to connect with your inner gaucho, hiking through Valdivian temperate rain forest, swimming Wim Hof-style with glaciers in view, world-class rafting on the nearby Futaleufú River, and fly fishing in water so clear you can watch huge rainbow trout swim by, Los Alerces and the surrounding area merits at least a full few days of your time. Consider that just outside the park is Argentina’s up-and-coming wine destination, Trevelin, and you may find yourself never wanting to leave this little slice of surreal heaven.

Most adventure travellers come to Patagonia for the epic hiking of Torres del Paine in Chile or Fitz Roy in El Chalten, but locals know that smaller national parks like Los Alerces hold similar views with a smaller percentage of the crowds. And only in Parque Nacional Los Alerces will you have the chance to hang out with these legendary trees that grow extremely slowly (1 millimetre per year), but reach heights over 150 feet. If you’re looking to slow down and let nature help put everything in perspective for you, the alerces could indeed be what the Mapuche call a “cure.” Here’s everything to know about visiting Los Alerces.

Turismo Esquel
Turismo Esquel
Turismo Esquel

Drive one of the most beautiful road trips

The nearby town of Esquel has a tiny airport, and from there local buses can get you to the park-though it can be a bit of a headache with varying frequency and routes depending on the time of year. For a more streamlined and complete Patagonian experience, land in the larger touristic hub of Bariloche, rent a car, and road trip south along route 40. You’ll be in for the most stunning five-hour drive of your life; one moment it’ll seem like you’re in the lupine-flower-filled setting of The Sound of Music, then blink and you’ll feel like you’re the main character in beige and sandy desert-steppe Dune.

The park has three main access gates. The north gate, fifteen miles from Cholila, takes you in by the Rivadavia Lake area. The central gate stems from Route 40 twenty miles from Esquel and starts you by Futalaufquen Lake and Villa Futalaufquen. And the lesser-used south gate brings you close to the Futaleufú Hydroelectric Complex, six miles from Trevelin. The roads within the park are gravel and slow going, so relax, embrace the pace, and be sure to make a leisurely stop at every roadside waterfall to soak up the view.

Guaxinim/Shutterstock
Guaxinim/Shutterstock
Guaxinim/Shutterstock

Escape the northern winter

The park gets saturated with local tourism in January and February, as this is summer break here. November and December, or alternatively March through May, is ideal for the best chance at pleasant weather with fewer people in the park. During spring in the Southern Hemisphere (starting in November), bright yellow retama bushes and thousands of pastel-coloured lupines colour the landscape. Whereas come fall around May, the lenga trees turn some higher-altitude forests blood red with their changing leaves.

The park entrances have strict hours: Gates open at 9 am and close at 8 pm in the summer. In the low season, gates close at 5 pm. With Argentina’s constantly shifting inflation right now, prices can change overnight, but the entrance fee for foreign tourists is usually the equivalent of around $10 USD, to be paid in cash only in Argentine pesos. Come prepared (and maybe bring extra cash just in case), as there is no ATM in the park. In the off-season of May through October, there is no entrance fee.

Turismo Esquel
Turismo Esquel
Turismo Esquel

This is not a park that is well-equipped yet for foreign tourism, so planning ahead (especially if you don’t speak Spanish) can be a little confusing. This site is the best to point you in the right direction for who to contact for camping, booking a cabin, or planning activities. Don’t expect a fast response from anyone within the park-there is no wifi outside of the main Tourist Information Center and no reliable cell signal.

As for what to pack? While the internet will tell you that average summer temps can be in the 70s or 80s, what you don’t usually hear is that there can be frosts even in the middle of the summer season. At any time it can decide to rain, blast you with sun, or kick up incredibly strong winds. Bring layers and an “open to enjoying whatever happens” attitude.

Turismo Esquel
Turismo Esquel
Turismo Esquel

Hike to waterfalls, lake views, glaciers, and ancient trees

There are 19 official hiking trails with different levels of difficulty. Maps can be found in the Information Center, which is also where you should register to let them know where you plan on hiking in the park.

The easiest walk would be the Irigoyen Waterfall Trail, which in an easy five minutes will have you cutting through forests and along the river for views of a tranquil waterfall. This one is good if you just need to get out of the car for a few minutes to stretch your legs.

A step up, but still an easy walk, is the Mirador Lago Verde trail, which is 1.3 miles with an elevation gain of 200 feet that takes you up to a picturesque lake overlook, an ideal spot for busting out a thermos and drinking yerba mate like a local.

Turismo Esquel
Turismo Esquel
Turismo Esquel

For a better chance to see wildlife, the Lago Verde & Glacier Mirador Trail is a 5.1 mile partial loop trail with an elevation gain of 1,158 feet, still easily doable if you’re in decent walking shape and want to feel like you did a “real” hike.

If you’re feeling extra ambitious, try climbing El Dedal Peak (high difficulty, lasting about seven hours). From the summit, you can see part of Futalaufquen Lake, the Situación Peak, and the Desaguadero River valley.

Turismo Esquel
Turismo Esquel
Turismo Esquel

If you want something with a bit more flair, try trekking the 24,000-year-old Torrecillas glacier. You’ll need to book this excursion ahead of time, as it requires a 40-minute boat ride and a certified guide.

And if you have come this far to see alerce trees, you can’t leave without a visit to the Alerzal Milenario. Boats leave from Puerto Chucao to cross Lago Menéndez, where you disembark and follow a trail to one of the oldest trees on Earth, “El Abuelo.” Plan this excursion ahead of time, as there are few boat options per day and the limited tickets sell out fast in the summer.

The trails are well-marked and provide reliable information. If you come when there’s snow, heads up that the covered trails will be difficult to follow-they aren’t exactly well-trodded in the winter.

Turismo Esquel
Turismo Esquel
Turismo Esquel

Drink wine, explore ice tunnels, or ride the Old Patagonian Express

After you’re done hiking, there’s so much more to do in the area. You can horseback ride or explore ice tunnels, or be decadently lazy and take in the Patagonian scenery by boat excursion. To further enjoy the water, you can rent a kayak or fly fish (fishing season is November 1 – May 1). Or simply find yourself a secluded spot on a pebbled beach, eat a picnic lunch of empanadas, then siesta unapologetically for the rest of the afternoon.
Just outside the park are the microbreweries of Esquel (and a wonderfully intimate and well-stocked wine bar called Hache Patagonia). From there, you could also ride La Trochita, a still-functioning steam engine train. Known as the Old Patagonian Express, it feels like you’re being transported to a different era. Nearby is Piedra Parada for world-class rock climbing.

urismo Esquel
urismo Esquel
urismo Esquel

Head towards Trevelin for wine tasting at Casa Yague (the second-most southern winery in the world) or Contra Corriente. If you happen to be in town late October or early November, check out the tulip fields nearby in full bloom. Also in Trevelin, Fondo Sur serves up upscale but never pretentious farm-to-table food, or take in high tea with all sorts of yummy desserts made with heavy cream at one of the Welsh tea houses in town.

A quick and easy jaunt over the Chilean border (just a few miles outside of Trevelin) will land you in Futaleufu, home of some of the planet’s top white water rafting.

Huemules - Reserva de Montaña
Huemules – Reserva de Montaña
Huemules – Reserva de Montaña

Where to stay near Los Alerces

If you’re on a backpacker’s budget or just feel like going rustic, you can camp in one of the seven organized campgrounds with infrastructure or nine wild camps. Especially if you plan on traveling in the summer months, reserve a spot ahead of time. There are multiple cabins and hostels in the park as well, but close to the park outside of Esquel is Huemules, a glamping company offering cozy domes that make for a very comfortable and memorable stay. The vineyard of Casa Yague in Trevelin also rents out homey private cabanas.

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Cathy Brown splits her time between travelling the globe writing for Lonely Planet and CNN, working with Indigenous rights in the Brazilian Amazon, and hanging out at home in her garden and hosting permaculture and medicinal plant retreats.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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