San Martín de los Andes, unlike Junín de los Andes, is what you'd call a small city, rather than a town. It's got a real downtown area, a largish bus terminal, and you can see it coming kilometers away while you're still on the road. It's only 45–50 minutes from Junín, south and a bit west, and closer to the Andes; in fact, the main part of the city is surrounded by cliffs and steep hills on all sides, except on the west, where it drops gently towards Lake Lácar.
San Martín is also rather more touristic than Junín. It has a very, very commercial main street full of wooden-roofed shops that sell camping and trekking gear, ski equipment, souvenirs from the very kitsch carved garden dwarf statuettes to the absurdly expensive silver-ornamented mate sets to the very fine leather jackets, chocolate, more chocolate, and clothing stamped with faux-indigenous patterns and the legends "San Martín de los Andes" and/or "Patagonia Argentina".
In contrast (stark contrast) the city is also a haven for backpackers — come from all places in Argentina but mostly rich kids from Buenos Aires, as well as a number of Chileans, and many Europeans — Spaniards, Germans and Dutch seem to dominate. They don't buy souvenirs, or ski gear, or chocolate. Male individuals tend to be profusely and scruffily bearded. Females are often outsized by their own backpacks (and, thank whoever's in charge, are not bearded). They're gregarious and like open spaces to settle for short spans of time.
You can admire the city from two different miradores (watching spots): Mirador Bandurrias, on the mountains northwest of the city, and Mirador Arrayán, directly south and above the coast of the city. While we were staying in Junín de los Andes, we visited San Martín for the day once. I wanted to see the city from the Mirador Arrayán, but you have to walk about 6 km uphill to reach it and there was no time, so I took a cab.
Yeah, I can cheat sometimes! But I'm going too fast. Rewind to the morning. We arrived, equipped with some tips from fellow travelers, and after some breakfast we went and consulted the Tourist Information Office. As usual, the first thing the tired-looking young lady said was: "Do you have a car?", followed by a tragically disappointed look when we replied "no". We decided to try walking towards the Mirador Bandurrias. As it went, however, we got tired in mid-way, so instead we took a path down the cliff to Playa Catritre, a stony beach on the Lácar. Kids were treading on the cold water, and in several spots people were sunbathing, but even around noon the wind from the lake was blowing rather cool. I took my shoes off and fulfilled my already established rite of wetting my feet in the lake.
A couple of hours and a few sandwiches later, we left Catritre and returned to the city, where Carina, a fellow host at Marita's, met with us at the main square. Carina was leaving soon, so she wanted to see a bit more of San Martín de los Andes: in particular, the Chapelco and the Mirador Arrayán. We took a bus to Chapelco (which is less than hour away), and there went up the mountain using the cable car that is employed for skiers during the season. There wasn't much to see or do there. We took the bus back, and then we went to the Mirador Arrayán (where I took the panoramic picture you can see above).
Besides the Alpine-looking houses and buildings, the other thing that impressed me of San Martín de los Andes was... the roses.
I don't know whether it's by government decree or by tacit agreement among the citizens or a combination of both, but almost every front yard and sidewalk in San Martín is planted with roses, of all the conceivable sizes and colours, some solitary, some in dense bushes. The streets outside of downtown are usually also lined with colourful trees. There are very few places where you feel bounded by asphalt and concrete, as in most of our larger cities.
My next installment will be (I hope) the last one. I'll tell you about the hostel in San Martín de los Andes (a place to recommend) and my visit to beautiful Hua Hum.