Byline: Harvey Hagman, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES
Things got too hot in the Old West for Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid and gun moll Etta Place, so the bandits fled to Patagonia, another land of far horizons and open spaces, which gave them a warm welcome.
A century later, this vast territory covering the southern part of Argentina and Chile, the land where Magellan saw "dog-headed monsters," still offers a warm welcome and much more - volcanoes, deep blue lakes, snow-crested mountains and the vast pampas with their legendary gauchos.
Robert LeRoy Parker, better known as Butch Cassidy, who headed the Pinkerton Agency's most-wanted list, wrote home of Patagonia: "I visited the best cities and best parts of South America until I got here. And this part of the country looked so good that I located, and I think for good, for I like the place better every day the country is first class."
A two-hour flight from Buenos Aires, the world's tango capital and ninth-largest city, takes us to Bariloche, where we begin our exploration of Patagonia.
South America's premier ski resort town stretches 20 miles along wind-swept Lake Nahuel Huapi and is surrounded by the national park of the same name and snow-crested mountains. Our adventure-travel leader and man of many talents, Peter Somweber, meets us with a wide smile.
Before we leave, we will know the soaring volcanoes, shimmering lakes, sprawling forests and endless pampas of Patagonia, as well as Mr. Somweber's family and the estancia, or vast ranch, where his father-in-law once was foreman. Mr. Somweber calls the trip his Five Volcanoes tour (www.larc1.com), although there are many more than five volcanoes, and he tailors it to his clients' wishes. Our time is limited.
It's November, springtime in Patagonia. Flowers bloom, snow melts in the high Andes, and ski resorts close. Lakes and mountains resemble the European Alps, but Patagonia's vistas are wider, its landscapes unfold on a grander scale, and it feels like being at the end of the world.
We'll try to see much of it in seven days from Mr. Somweber's seven-passenger diesel van.
First we rest at Villa Huinid, a group of 11 villas on the shore of majestic Lake Nahuel Huapi. We settle in by a stone-and-hewed-log fireplace and relax on an L-shaped couch. The picture window looks out on waving pines, lake and distant mountains. A whirlpool bath beckons.
We enjoy dinner at the world-famous El Patacon, set on a bluff overlooking the lake. Constructed of local woods and stone, it offers a ranch-style interior, big fireplaces and collections of gaucho tools, local art and weaving. In 1998, President Clinton and Argentine President Carlos Menem dined here. Dinner begins with local hors d'oeuvres, smoked deer, wild boar and other meats and fish in a delicious oil, followed by carrot pate, then main courses of wild boar and tender Argentine beef complemented by Argentine wine.
As we set out, the snowmelt has lifted one of South America's deepest lakes about 20 feet. We do not see the Nahualito, the sea serpent first sighted by the Mapuche Indians and lately compared to the Loch Ness monster. Photos and videos are said to have captured it from a distance.
At Cerro Campanario, we ride a lift to a lookout where we gaze upon what the National Geographic calls one of the world's seven most beautiful views. Spread below us is the Prussian-blue, 50-mile-long Lake Nahuel Huapi, which circles forested islands and rings a dense, vast national forest that climbs snow-dusted peaks. Elegant villas and chalets dot the shores of the lake's innumerable bays. To the right, the grassy pampas march north thousands of miles.
"It is one of the few places in the world where the Indians ruled 100 years ago," Mr. Somweber says, "and you can still feel their presence. And in less than 50 miles, you encounter three climates, the dry pampas, the lakes and mountains and, beyond the peaks, the high jungle."
Next we visit a national architectural treasure, the distinctive Llao Llao Hotel and Resort with its cavernous 100-yard hallways and elegant shops. It rises on a grassy knoll surrounded by lakes and backed by sheer rock cliffs and snowy peaks. Activities abound (and rooms start at $230 per night), but we push on toward Chile, awe-struck by the magnificent scenery.
We admire Cerro Catedral (Cathedral Mountain), with rocky spires that crown its peak and tower over its ski areas. After pausing to watch the excursion boats leave Puerto Panuelo, we wind through dark forests, then spot snowy Cerro Otto, (Otto Mountain), a ski area towering over a forest.
We finally leave the lake, gas up and climb the looming Andes. We have just traveled the famed Circuito Chico.
The magenta sun sets, turning the bearded tree limbs a faint pink; the remote region takes on a mystical, otherworldly look before night falls like a black curtain. We fill out border forms and follow a narrow mountain road through a majestic pass. We're flanked by dense, rain-soaked vegetation as the road twists and descends toward two volcanoes, Puyehue and Osorno.
The van pulls up on Lake Puyehue at Termas Puyehue, Chile's most famous hot-springs resort. The immense hotel and sprawling compound lie on the edge of Puyehue National Park. We head for the bar for a welcome drink, a pisco sour, the national drink of Chile, and adjourn to the huge dinning room to feast on a tasty buffet.
After a hearty breakfast, Mr. Somweber points out the 7,000-foot volcano Puyehue, with its perfectly round mile-wide crater. Earlier, he dropped off a group of Austrians for a six-hour climb to the crater wall, then drove to the volcano's far side to pick them up.
We try the humid thermal inhaler, view the hot springs, then bounce up along the dirt road to the towering volcano Antillanca. Huge ferns hang over the road.
We hike in the national park along clear, steaming streams where in summer people make their own hot pools in the rocks. Then we stop at the ski lodge run by the German Andino Club. Its lifts disappear in cloudy mists shrouding the volcano's white snow and black lava.
Climbers hiking to the crater rim leave from the ski lodge. Mr. Somweber, a mountain guide, leads groups of climbers up three of the five volcanoes on his tours.
After a buffet lunch at Termas Puyehue, the sky clears and we tour the hotel's cattle and vegetable farm, swim in the thermal baths and try the mud bath. Later, our road cuts between two white-capped lakes and passes the biggest hacienda in Chile, where cattle graze peacefully in green meadows under the shadows of volcanoes.
Forests spring up, then disappear, as we wind along the dirt road to Lake Llanquihue. We follow Mr. Somweber's dictum: Never take main highways; never take the same route twice. As our road snakes along the lakeshore, darting through forests, small fisheries, lumber mills and tiny towns, we are treated to a burnished pink-gold sunset that sets the landscape afire in rainbow hues.
We pull into lakeside Hotel Cabanas del Lago in Puerto Varas, a small, sleepy town called the Lucerne of Chile. Settled by Germans in 1915 on government land grants, it is squeaky clean, full of flowers and cozy cafes and surrounded by placid Llanquihue.
Volcanoes Osorno and Calbuco rise on the horizon as the town exudes an overpowering sense of serenity. Later, we leave the picture-perfect town and wind through neat German farms.
Puerto Montt is not picture-perfect. It's a hodgepodge of old and new strung along a bay. Once it was the terminus of the Pan American Highway and the railroad. It's still a jumping-off spot for cruises down the famous Laguna San Rafael to glaciers, fjords and points beyond; here the Carretera Austral, the dirt-and-gravel Austral Road, begins its oute through wild, rugged, isolated territory.
The weather is typical, cloudy and chilly, as we shop at the Indian market, visit the fish market and watch the fishing boats and ferryboats dock. On our drive north, the bays become more beautiful, the landscape more pastoral.
We pass thousands of straight rows of Douglas, Oregon and Ponderosa pines. More rows of eucalyptus and other trees flow up and down the hills. One of the world's best tree-growing areas, this is a major exporter of computer paper.
Later, cattle dot rolling green meadows fringed by forests, reminiscent of Bavaria. We don't have time for Valdivia, one of Chile's most beautiful cities, but we do visit one of Chile's most-visited places, Pucon. Brightly painted wooden flowers greet us as we enter Pucon.
The 600-room, genteel Gran Hotel Pucon on the shores of Lake Villarrica welcomes us, feeds, entertains and rewards us with a morning view of volcano Villarrica, whose 1984 eruption melted a glacier and sent an eight-mile red ribbon of lava racing down its flanks. Three days before our arrival, it threatened to erupt again.
The town is a center for rafting, hiking, climbing, biking, camping and touring in two vast national parks. Outfitters completely equip climbers and provide required guides for the six-hour ascent. At the top, barbecues are lit, while deep in the crater, a lava lake bubbles.
Our goal is less strenuous as we drive to the ski area and the Cuevas Volcanicas, caves produced by a lava stream 50 years ago. We don helmets, then descend 1,000 feet to see how hot lava tunneled through chocolate-colored minerals, and we look at volcano exhibits and maps outlining flows anticipated in the future.
We clamber into the Cathedral, the cave's highest room, 24 stories beneath the surface. As there is no salt, the cave is free of stalagmites and stalactites. Retracing our tracks down the volcano, we stop to purchase a gift from the finely carved horses, roosters, waterfowl and local folklore figures. Later, we bump along dirt roads through the narrow, forested Valley of Paso Tromen. Streams race down its center, and sheer cliffs tower 1,200 feet, reminding us of Yosemite.
We picnic in a national park under the snow-flanked volcano Lanin, a perfect 12,000-foot cone topped by a huge crater.
Smaller volcanoes rise nearby, and condors, the world's biggest birds, often soar around it.
Again we cross the Chilean-Argentine border and descend into the dry, flat, vast pampas, splashing through rocky streams and passing herds of red deer grazing on purple sage. For half a mile, a wild-feathered, long-legged rhea zigs and zags wildly in front of the van.
At last we arrive at Estancia Quemquemtreu (Rolling Stone), situated along a rushing, trout-filled river. On the far bank, Ted Turner has bought the 800,000-acre estancia Collon Cura, named after the river. Before 1971, Quemquemtreu was 100 million acres, when Mr. Somweber's father-in-law was foreman, but it has been divided into seven large estancias.
White-bricked and black-roofed bunkhouses, fishing lodges, butcheries, the foreman's house, saddle room, barns, maintenance buildings, stables, corrals and a lush garden lie amid this enclave of silver poplars.
The ranch is home to more than 5,000 cattle, 300 horses and about 30 people. ESPN's "Fly Fishing of the World" brings celebrities such as Troy Aikman and Robert Duvall here to fish; many guests hunt the roaming red deer.
Our hosts, Martin and Pamela Zimmerman, run the rustic estancia. Mr. Zimmerman came here at age 12 with his father, a polo player. He has been foreman for 11 years, and his children thrive here. We're in the sprawling main house, with blazing fireplaces, pantries and a kitchen with microwave and wood-burning stove.
A sumptuous beef dinner, wine, dessert and wide-ranging conversation in an 18th-century-style dining room relax us before bed.
In the morning, after watching the gauchos get ready for the day, we saddle up powerful chestnut and dapple-gray polo ponies and trot out under the poplars to the treeless pampas.
Polo ponies are trained on the estancia from age 3 to 5, then sold worldwide. The estancia's owner, Robert Graham, often plays polo with Prince Charles.
Mr. Somweber leads us through rolling hills, across grassy areas beside the swollen river, along serpentine ridgelines with vast views of the volcanoes and through boundless pastures and points to a distant herd of red deer. We gallop, then trot as he recalls tales of his father-in-law.
Mr. Somweber makes his own trails, following his whims. As the wind picks up, we reluctantly head back, say farewell to the Zimmermans and follow the dirt track across the estancia for hours, splashing through shallow streams and kicking up dust. Hours later, we hit a paved road that leads through the Valley of the Rocks. Massive, twisted formations block out the horizon, then a blue-green river leads us to a wind-swept lake.
We follow serpentine shore roads back to Bariloche, relax in the Villa Huinid Cabanas and sip mate, the green tea of the gauchos. Later, we enjoy asado (barbecue) dinners with the Somwebers and reflect on a perfect trip.
As Mr. Somweber says, "I like to keep the trips personal, like a family, and offer a bit of everything."
* For more information about the Five Volcanoes tour or a Gaucho tour, write Latin America Reservation Center Inc., PO Box 1435, Dundee, FL 33838; call 800/327-3573 or, on the Internet, check www.larc1.com. For excellent accommodations in Bariloche, contact Villa Huinid www.villahuinid.com.ar or call 54(02944)523-523/4.
A lone fisherman stands in the waters of a serene lake in Patagonia as evening approaches. [Photo by Harvey Hagman/Special to The Washington Times]
The distinctive Llao Llao Hotel and Resort is about 20 miles west from San Carlos del Bariloche, Argentina, on the south shore of Lake Nahuel Huapi. Some of the hallways in Llao Llao are 100 yards long. [Photo by Harvey Hagman/Special to The Washington Times]
The view from Cerro Campanario includes vistas along the 50-mile long Lake Nahuel Huapi, which circles forested islands and a national forest. [Photo by Harvey Hagman/Special to The Washington Times]…