Across the Chubut border, the gateway to Parque Nacional Los Alerces and the end of the line for the “The Old Patagonian Express,” Esquel is a deceptively tranquil town of wide avenues divided by densely planted medians. It’s also a city recently divided by a plebiscite that rejected a nearby gold mine that would have used toxic cyanide to leach the valuable mineral. Mapuche militancy is palpable here: the graffiti says “neither Argentine nor Chilean, but Mapuche.”
A compact grid on the north bank of its namesake arroyo, Esquel (pop. 32,234) is 167 kilometers south of El Bolsón via smoothly-paved RN 40 and RN 259. Alternatively, many visitors take RP 71, south of the town of Epuyén, directly to Parque Nacional Los Alerces. Esquel is also 608 kilometers west of Trelew via several paved highways across the Patagonian steppe, and 581 kilometers northwest of Comodoro Rivadavia via equally good roads. Southbound RN 259 leads to a junction to Parque Nacional Los Alerces, the Welsh-settled town of Trevelin, and the Chilean border at La Balsa.
In addition to Parque Nacional Los Alerces, Esquel has many other points of interest within an hour or two.
From its railway station, next to the old one converted into a museum, La Trochita still makes entertaining excursions to the Mapuche hamlet of Nahuel Pan. Its wooden passenger wagons, with salamander stoves and hard-backed benches, are classics of their era. The entire line is a national historical monument. As the train departs, residents leave their houses and cars to wave as it chugs past their backyards and crosses the highway. Each passenger coach has a guide, but the rolling stock is so noisy that understanding the narration is difficult.
The train takes about an hour to reach Nahuel Pan, where there are good oven-baked empanadas, drinks, Mapuche crafts, and short horseback rides, as well as spare time to visit the Museo de Culturas Originarias Patagónicas (open for train arrivals). La Trochita remains for about an hour before returning to Esquel.
Excursions (US$31 pp foreigners, cash only) usually run from October to the Easter holidays, plus winter holidays, operating up to thrice daily in summer and reducing frequencies the rest of the season to keep only the Saturday service. It’s advisable to buy tickets in advance. For details, contact Estación Esquel (Roggero and Urquiza, tel. 02945/451403).
In the utterly transformed old bus terminal, the Centro Cultural de Esquel Melipal (Av. Fontana and Av. Alvear, tel. 02945/457154) encompasses a variety of art and performing arts spaces. The Auditorium Ciudad de Esquel (Belgrano 330, tel. 02945/451929) shows first-run movies.
Midway between Esquel and El Bolsón, on what was one of Argentina’s largest ranches, the Museo Leleque (RN 40 Km 1440, tel. 02945/452600, ext. 24, 11am-5pm Thurs.-Tues., closed holidays and May-June, US$1.50) covers Patagonia from prehistory to the present. It is funded by fashion icon Carlo Benetton, who purchased the Argentine Southern Land Company and several other Patagonian properties.
The museum houses the collections of Ukrainian immigrant Pablo S. Korschenewski, who left Buenos Aires half a century ago to explore the Patagonian countryside on foot and by horseback. In the process, Korschenewski amassed over 14,000 artifacts, including arrowheads, bone drills, ceremonial axes, grinding stones, and pottery shards. Striking a chord with Benetton, he persuaded the Italian to turn Leleque’s historic buildings, once a general store, hotel, and school, into a contemporary museum that now gets nearly 10,000 visitors every year. Not just archaeological, the exhibits stress contact and post-contact history of the region’s first peoples; regional and oral histories; photographs; and documents. One prize is a receipt signed by Butch Cassidy, who lived in nearby Cholila from 1901 to 1905, under the alias Santiago Ryan.
Administered by the Fundación Ameghino, the Museo Leleque is 90 kilometers north of Esquel. The museum has a souvenir shop and a boliche for snacks and coffee.
Though it’s barely a wide spot in the road, the village of Cholila has become an offbeat pilgrimage site ever since U.S. author Anne Meadows pinpointed it as the location of the cabins where outlaws Robert Leroy Parker and Harry Longabaugh—mythologized as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid—made their last stand in her historical travelogue Digging Up Butch and Sundance (3rd edition; Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2003). Bruce Chatwin also told of the Cholila cabin, perhaps taking literary license, in his classic In Patagonia (New York: Summit Books, 1977).
Butch and Sundance presumably attempted to reform at this cabin hideout, but fled to Chile in 1905 when accused of a robbery in Río Gallegos after the Pinkertons got on their scent. After the 1999 death of the house’s elderly occupant, Aladín Sepúlveda, souvenir hunters looted the unoccupied and crumbling cabin. The municipality has restored the buildings. In fact, they look livable enough that you almost expect to see cardboard cutouts of Paul Newman and Robert Redford, but there are no exhibits within. In theory, a caretaker collects a small admission charge.
Near Parque Nacional Los Alerces’s northeastern entrance, a few kilometers north of Cholila at Kilometer 21 of RP 71 near the signed junction to the Casa de Piedra teahouse, the cabin is visible on the west side of the highway; in fact, buses between Puelo and Esquel via Los Alerces pass within sight of it.
Sports and Recreation
Hiking, climbing, fishing, horseback riding, and rafting and kayaking are all on the docket. Argentina’s Río Corcovado is a Class II-III starter river, but the Class V Futaleufú, across the Chilean border, has world-class white water.
Patagonia Verde (9 de Julio 926, tel. 02945/454396) arranges activities like hiking, climbing, and riding. Frontera Sur (Sarmiento 784, tel. 02945/450505) organizes water sports like rafting (US$75 for a full day) and kayaking on the Corcovado, as well as hiking, riding, and mountain biking. Epa Viajes y Turismo (Av. Fontana 482, tel. 02945/457015) also does rafting and other activities.
For fishing licenses, contact the Secretaría de Pesca (Belgrano 722, tel. 02945/451063); licences can also be purchased at some shops and gas stations. The fishing season runs November-April. Andrés Müller (Sarmiento 120, tel. 02945/454572, email@example.com) is a reliable independent fishing guide.
Only 12 kilometers north of Esquel, La Hoya is a modest ski area that, thanks to its location on the Andes’s drier eastern side, gets a fine powder that compensates for its relatively small size. It’s substantially cheaper than Bariloche, and the infrastructure is improving. Limited capacity can mean long lift lines.
Ranging from 1,350 to 2,075 meters above sea level, La Hoya has 25 runs totalling about 22 kilometers on 60 hectares. Its modern lifts include the 1,100-meter Telesilla del Bosque, which also carries hikers to high-country trailheads in summer (US$6), and the 1,018- meter Telesilla del Cañadón. In season, it also has a ski school and celebrates the Fiesta Nacional del Esquí (National Ski Festival).
Equipment can be rented on-site or in Esquel at several shops, including Bolsa de Ski (Rivadavia and 25 de Mayo, tel. 02945/452379). For other details, contact Centro de Actividades de Montaña La Hoya (Sarmiento 635, tel. 02945/453018).