The Pehuén Region or Pehuén Route is a touristic route that covers the mountain area in the center-west of the Neuquén province, north of the Argentine Patagonia. The central theme of the route is the presence in this region of the only Araucaria (or Pehuén for the native Mapuches) forests in Argentina. The route links the three main touristic centers of the region: Aluminé, Villa Pehuenia and Caviahue-Copahue. Other towns like Zapala, Las Lajas and Loncopué are the points of access or stopover along the route.
The Pehuén or Araucaria Araucana (Monkey Puzzle Tree) is the emblematic tree of the region, being one of the symbols of the Neuquén province. It is a "living fossil" that was already present in this region when the dinosaurs inhabited Patagonia, even before the Andes mountain range was formed. It is an evergreen tree that belongs to the conifers family and can grow to 50 m. Its leaves are scaled over the branches and are extremely tough and sharped. The monkey puzzle tree is a dioecious species, so each individual has reproductive units that are either merely male or merely female. The male produces a cone-shaped flower on the branches ends, while the female produces big cones which disintegrate at maturity to release their seeds, ensuring the reproduction.
Nowadays the Pehuén can only be seen in restricted areas of the Andes mountain range in Argentina and Chile, between parallels 37º and 40º South, and only between 800 and 1,000 m above the sea levels. It grows very slowly and can reach 1,000 years of age. Its wood has an excellent quality, so it has been used a lot on construction and to make masts for boats. Now its cutting is very restricted in Argentina and totally forbidden in Chile, where it almost disappeared completely until it was declared National Monument.
The Pehuén was a sacred tree for the natives of these lands, so they were called Pehuenches, or "people of the Pehuén", one of the native groups within the Mapuche culture. Apart from the hunting, they based their diet on the recollection of the Araucaria seeds, which are very nutritive. With them, they elaborated flour and fermented beverages.
After the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadores they transitioned into a society of ranchers and traders. They moved their camps searching for pastures and water from the high altitude areas in spring and summer to the low valleys in winter. Although, from the acquisition of cattle from the Europeans they consumed beef and horse meat, they were also skilled hunters, getting big animals like huemules, guanacos and ñandues together with other minor ones like foxes, viscachas, otters and birds.
They were fierce warriors, the most bellicose of the area and their different groups were permanently fighting each other. A man's prestige was measured by his courage in the wars and his wealth, which was based on the number of spouses and cattle that he owned. For the battles, they dressed in striking leather-made clothes like cuirasses and helmets, crowned with eye-catching crests. Their weapons were lances, bolas and iron-made swords bought from the Spaniards. Apart from stockbreeders and warriors, the Pehuenches were also skillful and industrious craftsmen. They worked with furs, feathers, leather, wood, and metals to make all kind of tools, clothes and ornamental goods: baskets, pottery, ponchos, leather boots, blankets, necklaces, bracelets, and headdresses. Both men and women adorned themselves with silver-made earrings and painted their faces with colors. They appreciated the European clothes as well, like the riding jackets, sometimes combining them with their own ones. Other characteristics of their culture were the cone-shaped tents and the use of snow racquets.
We do not know much more about this ethnic group that disappeared as such during the XVIII century. First, they were absorbed by other cultures, like the Tehuelches that came from the South and the Araucanos from Chile. Later, after the so-called Conquest of the Desert, launched by the Argentine government from 1869 to 1888, they almost disappeared, most of them crossing the Andes towards Chile. Nowadays they are recovering part of their identity and organizing themselves in different communities in the Neuquén and Mendoza provinces.
The first stop on the Pehuén Route going from south to north is Aluminé, taking route 23 if coming from Junín de los Andes, or route 46 if coming from Zapala. It is a small town of around 5,000 located by the Aluminé River. The touristic infrastructures are limited, still being more a ranching than a touristic place. Its main touristic attractions are rafting the Aluminé River, sport fishing, and birdwatching. The Aluminé River is one of the largest in Neuquén, as it receives waters from numerous tributaries such Litrán, Pulmarí, Rucachoroy, Quillén and Malleo. Its rapids, surrounded by a landscape that combines the Andean-Patagonian forest and the steppe, are divided into four sections with different characteristics and degrees of rough water, ranging from grade 2 to 4+. Regarding the sport fishing, the Aluminé Rivers and its tributaries have excellent spots for fly fishing for trout, both from a boat and from the shores. Birdwatching, and flora and fauna viewing is a growing activiy in Aluminé, with great spots like Quillén and Ruca Choroy Lakes, Barreda Lagoon and the Aluminé River banks.
50 km up from Aluminé, lying on the north bank of Lake Aluminé there is Villa Pehuenia, a young town founded barely 30 years ago that have grown significantly during the last decade. Its streets, which are unpaved, have no name and are dispersed. There is a small center where the town hall, the bank and the police station are, and another small commercial zone from where a peninsula over the Aluminé Lake can be reached. There are plenty of hotels, hosterías and cabins, restaurants, a supermarket and several campsites. Surrounded by an incomparable environment, Villa Pehuenia is an invitation for multiple activities all year long: horse-riding the Araucarias forests, fishing in lakes and rivers, sailing, kayak, trekking the Batea Mahuida Volcano, adventures in MTB or 4WD vehicles and birdwatching. During the winter you can enjoy skiing in the Batea Mahuida Snow Park or do an excursion on dog sled or cross-country skiing.
Caviahue and Copahue are 200 Km north of Villa Pehuenia. Cavihaue is a touristic mountain village located by the Agrio Lake and at the feet of Copahue Volcano, of 2,965 m. It has its own ski resort with 13 runs and 9 lifts. The surroundings are lovely with monkey puzzle forests and spectacular waterfalls such as Salto del Agrio. The lake displays a peculiar milky blue color, due to the sulfur in the water. 20 km higher you reach Copahue, where there is one of the most important thermal springs resorts in the world, due to the excellence of its medicinal waters, vapors, muds, and waterweeds. Copahue does not have a permanent population, as the resort is open only during summer (November to May). During winter several meters of snow cover the facilities.
The Pehuén Region borders on Chile and stretches on the other side of the Andes mountain range where there are important touristic locations such us Curacautín, Villarica and Pucón, and volcanoes like Tolhuaca, Lonquimay, Llaima and Villarica. The main border crossings along the way are the Mamuil Malal Pass from Junín de los Andes, Icalma Pass from Villa Pehuenia, Pino Hachado Pass from Las Lajas and Pichachén Pass from Caviahue.
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