Hot Springs & Waterfalls

We’d seriously considered not heading to Malargüe yesterday because we really liked Valle Grande but fuck me, I’m so glad we made that 200 kilometre dent in the journey. The mighty Ruta Nacional 40 is the stuff of legends. It’s the kind of road people do just too say they’ve done it. Y’know, like Route 66 when it still existed in its entirety. That doesn’t mean it’s a lovely, sealed road that absolutely won’t rattle your teeth to bloody stubs.

Well shit me, it’s beautiful!
It’s also compulsory it seems to have stickers printed so you can help adorn the signage.

All we did today was drive which to be fair was the whole plan for the day. I didn’t anticipate how long it would take though but guys… What. A. Drive. Oh my gosh. It was sealed for the first part, then the eyehole fodder kicked in and I repeatedly slowed down and demanded that Tarrant take all the photos. All of them. In hindsight this could be one of the reasons it took so bastard long. Then the asphalt was replaced with gravel and, well, that just didn’t give up for what felt like my whole life.

You have to keep your windows closed and the air blower on recycle but apparently this doesn’t mean you’ll completely escape the dust.

What stands out though is the complete lack of rest stops. Someone is missing a trick here. Build a lay-by, put a composting toilet in, sell coffee and snacks. Like, please? Don’t make me beg. Endless kilometres of dirt road and nowhere apart from one little place we found to pull over and enjoy the astounding views, or just have a piss not in full view of every single road user ever. It did go back to tarmac after a long, long time and I could have fucking kissed it.

Those black volcanic rocks and those beautiful red hills though 😍

After Chos Malal we swung a right onto RP6 and it was completely unsealed all the way to Copahue. All 200 kilometres of it, kicking up stones in varying degrees of “oh shit, the paintwork”. Some of it was the piles of gravel that laugh in the face of your straight line attempts. Parts were those chunky rocks and you have to slow to a crawl to avoid punching holes in the underside of your vehicle. Far too much of it was clinging to the side of a mountain with a drop to the right and no fucking crash barrier. I’m not sure my bum will ever unclench. Tarrant’s eyeholes were very happy though, I just prayed to all the deities I could think of that we wouldn’t meet a 4×4 tearing around a blind corner in the middle of the road.

RN40 traffic jam.

We rolled into the very cute little village of Copahue at around 6pm and pitched up at the campsite here. I think this place exists purely for the thermal pools, we’re 2000 m.a.s.l. here, and at the foot of a volcano so obviously it stinks like rotten eggs. If you’ve ever been to Rotorua that’s the kind of nasal assault we’re talking about here. It’s eggs. When eggs smell like eggs it’s absolutely fine and I’ll shovel those buggers into my chops all day, but when things that aren’t eggs smell like eggs it’s like,oh hello gag reflex. Been a while. Definitely going to get away with letting a lot of violent farts loose up here.

There are a few pools you can’t go in in Copahue because you’ll boil to death.

We were slightly concerned when we rented the tent that we’d be boiled alive in it but so far we needn’t have worried. We woke up on our first (and only) full day in Copahue and it was utterly bastard freezing. I guess 2000 metres will do that to a climate. The steam from the hot pools billowed into the frigid air, more dramatic than yesterday when the sun had warmed the village.

Obviously kicking myself for being too fucking lazy to just walk to the pools to get a better photo.

The clouds crept over the mountains this morning and it was overcast, but in that way when it’s cute when a mountain town does it. It wasn’t grey or miserable or any of those things that have you drawing the curtains and scouring Deliveroo for something suitably stodgy. We decided to start our day with the whole reason we were in the area to begin with. Salto Agrio. Tarrant was doom scrolling Instagram one day and a drone video of a particularly stunning waterfall slid past her eyeballs. It wasn’t the actual waterfall that caught her eye though, it was the colours. The plunge pool was a deep blue but it was the rocks they contrasted with that did it, this impossible red colour fringing the pool.

Las Maquinas. This was on the way to the waterfall. I think it’s abandoned now but the Argentine army built all this in the 1940s to provide thermal treatments.
You’ve got to cross this bridge to get in and out of Copahue. It’s got a cascade, bright red rocks and a couple of monkey puzzle trees.

Once she realised it was in Argentina and, as luck would have it, so we’re we, we started looking into the logistics of getting there. A bit of a cunt as it turned out with zero accommodation within our budget but once we’d rented the car and the tent it was very much back on the menu. Off we fucked then, back down the unsealed roads to stick it firmly into our eyeholes. There’s a car park because it’s popular but only, it seems, with mate wielding domestic tourists.

Salto Agrio, the whole reason we were here in the first place.
And looking the other way down the Rio Agrio.

Anyway. This waterfall. It’s amazing and I fucking adore waterfalls but in this case we’d have come here just for the rocks, the river and the trees. The waterfall was just a very, very happy bonus. The whole area is volcanic hence the hot springs up in Copahue but this means they have the hexagonal basalt columns all over the place. The thing that happens when lava cools and cracks. The eyehole fodder is strong with this one. The water is acidic which creates the red rocks with iron oxides and hydroxides. The trees are the most epic monkey puzzle trees you’ll ever put in your eyeholes. The shape of them is so striking against what is already an otherworldly landscape.

Here’s a better look at some of those basalt rocks.

We hung out there for a while then drove into Caviahue to see a few more small waterfalls. The rocks weren’t as red here but the monkey puzzle trees were in abundance and they’re as much of an attraction as the cascades that the short trail steers you around. At least they were for us anyway. We saw four more waterfalls, it took way longer than it should have on account of the fact we had to stop quite regularly to pick our jaws up out of the dust, and to take a metric fuck tonne of photos. It’s beautiful. I can’t get over the basalt formations either, they’re absolutely magical.

These are on the cascada trail in Caviahue. I can’t get enough of these rocks.

Caviahue has an actual supermarket so we stocked up on the things we’d need to not die of starvation over the next couple of days then headed to Kraken Café for some lunch. We expected the town to be expensive given where we were, at the foot of a volcano at the end of an unsealed road, so we didn’t balk at the price. We ordered milenesa and chips, and they brought us two milanesas each and more chips than would fit in the average human stomach. Fucking amazing! Every moment that ticks by I love this little corner of Argentina even more. That would do for dinner too if I were ever hungry every again after the sheer quantity of carbohydrates I just bombarded my digestive system with. We fueled up the car too before we headed back to Copahue via a few viewpoints.

The monkey puzzle trees are the hardiest of all the pines and they’re native to this region. They’re also obnoxiously photogenic.

Copahue then! We’re only staying here and not Caviahue on account of the fact this is where the campsite is but we’re not sad about it. We’re shuffling distance from the hot pools. We don’t have to worry about getting dry and getting into a car to get to our accommodation, we can literally see the steam from the pools from our tent. I squeezed myself into the swimwear I bought before I ate all the pies in the world, willed my nipples to stay where I’d tucked them, and off we went to the termales.

One of the better cascades. Cascada la Cabellera de la Virgen.
Also more than a little bit photogenic, here’s Cascada del Gigante.

Laguna Verde was a very pleasant 30°C today and it’s completely free to enter, you just have to assure them you’re not going to die. You’re only allowed to be in there for twenty minutes so you need to register with the attendant then you’re free to grab a pool noodle and bob around in the fart water to your heart’s content. There are loads of tiny bubbles that feel like a jacuzzi but you learn very quickly that these little buggers are the source of the pool’s heat when you nearly melt your fucking toes off. You can touch the bottom but where the bubbles emerge it’s absolutely bastard scorching there in the tiny stones. Yeah okay, I’ll just hover over them on my pool noodle thanks.

Juuuuust one more monkey puzzle photo then I promise I’ll stop. Can we just appreciate the patterns on the bark for a minute?

We were summoned after our twenty minutes had elapsed and given that we had to wait for an hour before we did anything else we warmed up in the sun (because that breeze is bloody freezing when you’re a bit damp), grabbed some water to drink because my throat was sticking to itself I was so dehydrated, then we went to pay for the Laguna del Chancho, which means, Pig Lagoon, probably because it’s an actual mud bath.

Isn’t Caviahue just a little bit cute though? You can’t tell in this photo but this lake is fringed with red rocks.

We had to wait until 5pm but it’s not actually policed by anyone. We didn’t want to take the risk though, we’d no idea what would happen if we went from one pool straight to the other. Would we combust? Or melt? Would our brains trickle out of an ear or our skin slough off and we’d be sat there all sinewy and glistening and an example of what not to do as people roll their eyes and mutter, “Bloody foreigners”? Best not find out hey. We’d tried to find out what we were meant to do but Google wasn’t translating very well so we decided to just watch what others were doing until a lovely woman, another customer, asked us in English if we needed help as this pool was quite complicated. Yes please!

Laguna Verde. Because it’s green.

She explained that we had to register with the attendant, cover ourselves in mud from the buckets, let the mud dry in the sun then tell them we were going in so they could time our twenty minutes. Thank the deities for this lady! She was a great help so we duly handed in our paperwork promising we weren’t going to have a heart attack and started slathering ourselves in mud. Right, so, I don’t like things on me. I only put suncream on because Tarrant does it for me. I only moisturise because Tarrant draws the line at sharing a living space with flakes of skin that used to be attached to me. So yeah, this was an experience. Another lovely woman who spoke English took my phone to take photos for us and I look like I’ve gone head to head with Medusa and lost.

Laguna del Chancho. Because it’s a mud bath.

The water was a bit hotter than Laguna Verde, it was 36°C, but it was absolutely lovely. The water here only comes up to your mid-thigh and the bottom is obviously mud. You’ve got to sit or kneel and it becomes a game of avoid the tiny fumeroles where the scorching air was forcing its way through the ground and spitting up bubbles. Twenty minutes was fine though. We alternated between enjoying the sun and taking refuge in the shade until our names were called and we slopped out to rinse off in the showers.

I couldn’t actually bring myself to put my arms down and I was walking like I’d shat myself.

This was amazing, but there was one more pool to try. The Laguna de las Algas is a deep green pool of special algae that you dangle just your feet in and it’s bloody scorching! It’s fine once your feet are in,  they’re not going to boil, but the initial shock has you muttering expletives then hoping the kids nearby don’t speak English. It’s not attended so you can stay as long as you want and no one is going to tell you that you can’t have a beer, so obviously we did.

Laguna de las Algas. Because it’s full of algae.

That was us for the day then but what an epic 24 hours. I’m so glad we came here. If we’d stuck to the original plan and meandered up through Patagonia by bus we’d probably have missed this out, deeming the effort to reward ratio unacceptable, plus the accommodation (apart from the campsite) isn’t cheap. But knowing what it has to offer I would say even if you don’t have a car then please do try and get here. It’s a highlight, a hidden gem, and you get to act all smug because you’re off the gringo trail. I do get a bit of a kick when we locate the only English speaker in town, usually because we just tried to communicate in the most godawful Spanish, and they’re happy because they never usually get to practice their English. Definitely need to learn more Spanish though. It’s getting embarrassing.

Jump to “Useful shit to know…”

Caviahue-Copahue, Neuquén, Argentina

Stayed at: Camping Viento Blanco, Copahue

Camping Viento Blanco. I keep forgetting to take photos of the actual campsites. At least we were on grass here, the rest of the site is the usual dust. Showers were always hot but barely a trickle. The WiFi worked well when we were there though he said that sometimes it doesn’t work at all. The owner speaks great English and it’s generally a good campsite. We paid AR$2000 per person.

Useful shit to know…

  • There’s a sealed road from RN40 to Caviahue but the road from there to Copahue is unsealed.
  • If you’re heading to Copahue and leave RN40 to head up RP6 it’s unsealed the whole way. You might prefer to take the much longer way around via Caviahue if you’re adverse to unsealed roads.
  • Copahue is tiny. I don’t think people live here permanently as it’s cut off in winter.
  • It has a tiny shop and a couple of places to eat.
  • Caviahue is a small town and has a small (expensive) supermarket, a hardware store, several places to eat and other shops.
  • It also has a tiny YPF petrol station but it only sells the premium petrol and diesel.
  • There’s no phone signal in Copahue but our campsite had WiFi. I would imagine all the accommodation does.
  • I got full 4G on Claro in Caviahue.
  • English isn’t widely spoken here. Our campsite owner speaks good English though.
  • The road to Salto Agrio is fine for conventional vehicles. If you can get to Copahue you can get to Salto Agrio.
  • Same as the road to the first car park for the cascadas but any further would probably require something with a bit more oomph.
  • In Copahue, the Laguna Verde is free but you have to go inside to the information desk to fill out a health declaration.
  • You hand this to the attendant and enter the water. After 20 minutes he’ll call your name and you have to get out.
  • If you want to go back in you have to wait an hour, and you can’t do another pool or treatment for an hour.
  • I think it hovers a few degrees either side of 30°C.
  • The Laguna de las Algas is only for your feet and it’s hot! No one is attending here, you can sit on the side with your feet in the water as long as you want.
  • Laguna del Chancho is a mud bath which you must pay for. Near the information desk where you fill in your health declaration there’s a cash desk where you pay.
  • At the time of writing it was AR$900 (US$4.80 officially, $2.5 Blue Dollar). I completely forgot to get a photo of the price list for the other treatments.
  • You take your health declaration and your payment receipt to the attendant. Then you cover yourself in mud (not above the neck) and let it dry in the sun.
  • When you’re ready let them know you’re going in. After 20 minutes they’ll call your name and you have to get out.
  • There are showers you can use to rinse off without soap.
  • It was 36°C when we were there.
  • Obviously we rented a car but Rincon run a bus a day to Caviahue and Copahue from Neuquén or Zapala.
  • You won’t find them on Busbud, you’ll need to use their website.
  • We also saw a Costa Viaje bus up there but I’m not sure where they go from or how you’d book.
  • There is a minibus that runs between Caviahue and Copahue three times a day.
We saw this in the window of Café del Montañas by the pools.
  • I would say all of the above is very seasonal so do your research first.
  • No buses go to Salto Agrio but there are tour companies that will take you.
  • Ask at Tourist Information for details. They’re at -37.876982, -71.055109. Or you can WhatsApp them on +54 9 2942 66 8790.
  • I would consider the cascadas walkable from Caviahue.

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