The massive Nahuel Huapi National Park extends to the south of Bariloche in a winding maze of majestic mountains and lakes. Whether you're on a day's drive, as part of an overnight getaway from the hustle and bustle of Bariloche, or en route to a world-class fly-fishing lodge, this area is definitely worth exploring. Driving south out of Bariloche on RN 40, you'll pass tall waterfalls and snowy peaks, edge around emerald lakes, and drop through a deep canyon as you head to El Bolsón. This laid-back town has a microclimate that has drawn nature lovers from around the country since the 1960s.
Heading south from Bariloche, you'll find the lovely Estancia Peuma Hue (tel. 02944/15-501030 [cell]; www.peuma-hue.com) on the south shore of Lake Gutierrez. With two large houses and two cabins, as well as a slew of outdoor activities such as horseback riding and trekking, this high-end complex is intimate. It's one of the only ways to live a more rural Patagonian experience so close to Bariloche. A 3-day all-inclusive plan starts at $255 (£173) per person per day.
Continuing south, you'll pass the Continental Divide -- a wide marsh where the water drains north to Lake Gutierrez and then on to the Nahuel Huapi and the Atlantic; and west through Lake Mascardi, over the border to Chile and the Pacific.
131km (81 miles) S of Bariloche
A lovely town of 11,000 set amid a lush valley, El Bolsón is equally famous for its artisan's fair and its microclimate, which makes it almost 7°F (4°C) warmer than in Bariloche. On Saturdays throughout the year, and on Sundays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays in summer, El Bolsón hosts a wonderful Artisan and Produce Market in its central plaza. Stroll the stands for organic fruit, wool sweaters, homemade jams, wooden cutting boards, and microbrewed beer. There are also vegetarian sandwiches, sweet waffles, and delicious Armenian empanadas to grab as snacks. It usually runs from 10am to 4pm. Because El Bolsón is in a basin surrounded by tall peaks, there is great hiking here. One of the most interesting hikes takes you up to the Bosque Tallado, a magical forest with sculpted tree trunks. Inquire at the Tourist Information Center, Avenida San Martín and Roca (tel. 02944/492604), for trail maps and other information.
El Bolsón is also known for its production of hops, its microbreweries, and its annual Beer Festival, held each year in late February. South of El Bolsón by 15km (9 1/3 miles) is Lago Puelo National Park, where visitors can swim, boat, hike, camp, and fish.
Where to Stay & Dine -- The downtown core has some standard hotels, the best of which is Hotel Cordillera, Av. San Martín 3220 (tel. 02944/492235). Rooms have lovely balconies. Doubles start at $70 (£47). Outside town, you can soak up the authentic El Bolsón lifestyle at La Casona de Odile, Barrio Luján, Km 6 (tel. 02944/492753; www.interpatagonia.com/odile), a small inn and restaurant serving French cuisine and local produce. Rooms start at $45 (£30), and for $62 (£42) you can include three fabulous meals a day. Jauja ★, Av. San Martín 3261 (tel. 02944/493505), is home to an outstanding ice-cream parlor and a good restaurant next door with delicious trout entrees. Vegetarians will love La Calabaza, Av. San Martín 2518 (tel. 02944/492910), which serves soups, salads, and quiches.
South of El Bolson
Farther along the road is the village of Cholila, where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid hid out and ranched in peace from 1901 to 1906. They became cherished members of this tiny community. You can still spot the old farmhouse the two fugitives built. South of Cholila, the outstanding Museo Leleque (tel. 02944/451141; Tues-Thurs 11am-5pm) is 6km (3 3/4 miles) from town on RP 15. Situated on an enormous ranch once owned by the South-Land Company, and now part of the extensive landholdings of the Italian clothier family Benetton, this excellent museum focuses on the history of rural Patagonia. Nearby is the Los Alerces National Park, one of the world's finest fly-fishing areas. Its majestic giant alerce trees are more than 2,000 years old, and mesmerizing emerald lakes come into view at every turn. Esquel Outfitters (tel. 406/581-1760 in the U.S.; www.esqueloutfitters.com) will hook you up on a dreamy weeklong fishing adventure, with accommodations in their luxurious and remote lodge. The best lodge around is the Lago Cholila Lodge (tel. 02944/610310; www.cholila.com).
Continuing south is the small city of Esquel, 310km (193 miles) south of Bariloche and 180km (119 miles) from El Bolsón. It's another mecca for fly-fishing and home to a little-known but gorgeous ski resort called La Hoya. Hosteria Canela (tel. 02945/453890; www.canelaesquel.com) is a lovely B&B in the nicest part of town.