Land of the Gauchos; Patagonia Has Lakes, Volcanoes, grassland.(TRAVEL)

Article excerpt

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. …