The eastern slopes of the Patagonian cordillera are cloaked in forests of Nothofagus southern beech. Two species run from northern Neuquén to Tierra del Fuego: the lenga (upland beech) and the nire (lowland or antarctic beech). In autumn both species turn a variety of hues. Associated with lenga and nire are three intriguing plant species: false mistletoe (farolito chino), a semi-parasitic plant; verdigris-coloured lichen beards (barba del indio or toalla del indio); and llao llao tree fungus, also called pan de indio (“Indian’s bread”). The llao llao produces brain-like knots on trunks and branches that are beloved of local artisans.
The next most prominent tree species are two related evergreen beeches, the coihue and the guindo, found mainly in Tierra del Fuego. Both have fairly smooth bark and laurel-green leaves and grow only in damp zones near lakes or, in Tierra del Fuego, by the shores of the Beagle Channel.
One of Argentina’s most remarkable trees, the araucaria monkey puzzle, grows in central Neuquén on volcanic soils. But the most diverse type of forest in the region is the rare Valdivian temperate rainforest (selva Valdiviana), found in patches of the central Patagonian Andes from Lanín to Los Alerces, usually around low passes where rainfall is heaviest. Another tree species found only in the central Patagonian Lake District is the mighty alerce, or Patagonian cypress, which resembles a Californian redwood and is one of the world’s oldest and grandest species.
The understorey of the forests is dominated in most places by dense thickets of a bamboo-like plant, cana colihue. The most stunning shrub, if you catch it in bloom (late spring or autumn), is the notro firebush (or ciruelillo). Of forest flowers, two of the most brightly coloured are the amancay, a golden-orange lily, and the yellow lady’s slipper (zapatilla de la Virgen), whose blooms bob on delicate stems in spring.
Many of the birds that inhabit the steppe are also found in the cordillera. Typical woodland species include the world’s most southerly parrot, the Austral Parakeet (cachana or cotorra); the Green-backed Firecrown (picaflor rubí); the hyperactive Thorn-tailed Rayadito; and two birds that allow you to get surprisingly close – the Magellanic Woodpecker (carpintero negro gigante), and the Austral Pygmy Owl (caburé). Finally, if any bird has a claim to symbolizing South America, it’s the Andean Condor. With eyesight eight times better than a human’s, and the longest wingspan of any bird of prey, it’s the undisputed lord of the skies from Venezuela to Tierra del Fuego. Until fairly recently, this imperious bird was poisoned and shot. It’s now protected in Argentina, with a stable population.
The principal predator of cordillera mammals is the puma. Though chances are that a puma will sight you and make itself scarce well before you sight it, there are extremely infrequent cases of attacks on humans. In the highly unlikely event of being faced with an aggressive puma, do not run, but make yourself appear as big as possible, and, facing it at all times, back off slowly, shouting loudly.
Perhaps the most endangered creature is the huemul, a thick-set native deer, of which fewer than two thousand remain. It is a relative of the taruca of the northwestern Andes, and has likewise been named a Natural Monument. Almost as endangered is the pudú, the world’s smallest deer, measuring 40cm at the shoulder. It has small, single-pointed horns, and is difficult to spot, as it inhabits the dense undergrowth of the central cordillera forests.
Introduced species include the European red deer (ciervo colorado) and wild boar (jabalí), both of which have reached plague proportions in some parts of the central Lake District. The beaver (castor), introduced to Tierra del Fuego in an attempt to start a fur-farming industry, has had devastating effects on the environment. Yearround, no-limits hunting has been permitted to combat this public enemy. Other non-native species have had deleterious effects too: muskrats (ratas almizcleras); European hares (liebres) and rabbits (conejos); and the mink (visón), the principal threat to the southern river otter, or hullin.