When I mentioned to a friend that I planned on returning to the Bariloche area, he asked, “Why? Isn’t that place just for Argentine skiers?” Bariloche is certainly that, with 37 lifts, some 75 miles of runs and 3,700 feet of vertical drop at the Cerro Catedral resort alone. But I always visit outside of ski season, to enjoy cruises on island-speckled Lake Nahuel Huapi, scenic hikes in the mountainous national park surrounding it or trout fishing on nearby rivers.
Many have compared Bariloche to Switzerland, and though there are similarities, this analogy does Bariloche a disservice. The region very much has its own identity. One key difference is that around Lake Nahuel Huapi, vast swaths of land remain completely pristine, with any development forbidden by the national park. Some of it feels Alpine, with rugged snowcapped mountain peaks, but waterfall-streaked primary forest — including a section of the Valdivian temperate rain forest — covers the rest.
Having received a number of complaints about my current recommendation in Bariloche, Llao Llao Hotel & Resort, I decided to make the historical 205-room resort my first stop. And indeed, the original building of the hotel has drawbacks. Guest rooms are tiny, and windows tend to be too small to enjoy the views. The furniture and baths, too, could charitably be regarded as “traditional.” And the food in the restaurants failed to dazzle. The buffet lunch in the conservatory-like Winter Garden restaurant was hit and miss, and the Patagonia Coffee Shop restaurant offered relatively simple comfort-food dinners like trout empanadas with saffron, and shepherd’s pie of local lamb. (The more upscale Los Césares Grill & Pasta was closed during our stay.)
Nevertheless, Llao Llao remains a compelling choice because of the 43 accommodations in its newer Moreno Wing. Though connected to the historical building via an enclosed bridge, this wing functions in many ways as a separate hotel, with its own front desk and bar/lounge. The Deluxe Moreno Lake Studios have terraces with magnificent panoramic views of Lake Moreno and the mountains crowding around it, but even better are the Deluxe Moreno Lake Suites, which also have double Jacuzzi tubs facing the lake as well as stone-faced woodburning fireplaces in their separate living rooms. The furniture was comfortable and contemporary, but touches such as hardwood floors and antler chandeliers gave the space some character. I especially liked the brown marble bath, which came with dual vanities, a separate shower clad in fossil-rich limestone and a wicker armchair and ottoman, in addition to that marvelous Jacuzzi tub.
Along with the grandly proportioned lodge-inspired lounges in the original building, guests can take advantage of the spa and fitness center, with a large (but shallow) heated indoor-outdoor pool overlooking the mountains. It felt wonderfully invigorating one afternoon to float in the warm pool as clouds and cool drizzle wreathed the nearby peaks. Mrs. Harper had a restorative and reasonably priced “Patagonian Massage” in the spa, which, she was surprised to discover, included the services of two therapists! A game room with billiards, vintage foosball tables and video games offers additional diversions for children, and in fine weather, the 18-hole golf course in front of the hotel has memorable mountain and lake views from its fairways.
The grand lodge-inspired public spaces; the historic atmosphere; the fireplace and lakeview Jacuzzi in our suite; the dramatic setting.
The mediocre food; the lack of a single point of contact. (Different people handle restaurant reservations, spa appointments, activities and transfers.)
A nearby Italian restaurant, Il Gabbiano, offers complimentary transfers to and from Llao Llao.
Aside from Las Balsas, a lovely property two hours to the north on the opposite side of the lake, the hotel which gives Llao Llao the most competition is the 31-room El Casco Art Hotel. Located between Llao Llao and the city of San Carlos de Bariloche, El Casco calls itself “the first hotel dedicated to art in Argentina,” and its owner, Buenos Aires art collector Ignacio Gutiérrez Zaldívar, displays some 500 (mostly Argentine) works throughout the hotel. The public spaces still feel homey, however, with wood floors, wood beams and exposed-stone accent walls. To the left of the check-in desk, a luminous landscape painting by Juan Lascano depicts the lake as seen from the floor-to-ceiling windows in the bar, where several bronzes stand among the comfortable beige sofas and armchairs. The adjacent lakeview restaurant, decorated with high-quality still lifes and surrealist paintings, has more sophisticated food than Llao Llao. I particularly enjoyed the crispy-skinned lake trout with beet purée, peas, cauliflower and grapefruit.
The best accommodations are the six Nahuel Balcony Studios and the two Master Suites, all of which have terraces facing the lake. We were upgraded to the “Soldi” Master Suite, which displays a dozen post-impressionist-style paintings and sketches by Raúl Soldi, whose frescoes adorn the dome of the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires. They enlivened an attractive but fairly anonymous contemporary décor with wall-to-wall beige carpet and furniture upholstered in tan and light gray. Both the spacious living room and the bedroom, which had two additional armchairs, faced the furnished lakeview terrace. Neither the guest bath nor the limestone-clad master bath had windows, but I appreciated the latter’s layout, with well-lit dual vanities and a jetted tub.
Like Llao Llao, El Casco has an indoor-outdoor heated pool, but during our stay it appeared murky (because of recent rains, we were told), and the plastic flaps dividing the pool looked in need of a good cleaning. Unable to resist another massage (because of the peso’s fall, hour-long treatments usually cost around $40), Mrs. Harper booked a “Tension-Relieving Massage with Algae Cream.” Unfortunately, the technique of the therapist sometimes felt perfunctory, and at the end, she left the room without a word, leaving Mrs. Harper, who had a towel over her eyes, to wonder what was happening.
Overall, our stay at El Casco Art Hotel proved enjoyable. Though the hotel is closer to San Carlos de Bariloche, it is not as convenient for sightseeing as Llao Llao, which stands within walking distance of Puerto Pañuelo, the base of several sightseeing cruises, as well as Parque Municipal Llao Llao, which has fine hiking. I also preferred the layout of our suite at Llao Llao, especially with its fireplace and lakeview Jacuzzi. And although the views from El Casco were memorable, the panorama from our terrace at Llao Llao was stupendous. On our last morning, the perfect arc of a rainbow framed the lake as shafts of light glowed green and golden on the mountainsides. The only thing missing from the preposterously beautiful scene before us was, seemingly, a unicorn.
Our spacious suite; the sophisticated cuisine; the impressive art both in the public spaces and in our room.
The sometimes unprofessional spa staff; the difficulty in getting information via email.
The hotel offers a list of appealing activities that can be arranged, but you have to request it.