Journeys: Above the Noise
The 44-foot ketch Bonita, built in the shipyards of Buenos Aires in 1982, cuts through the water of Lago Nahuel Huapi. The snowcapped Andes of northern Patagonia—a region Argentines call the Lake District—reflect off modest ripples as the sailing and motor yachts docked at Porto Pañuelo recede aft. “Handkerchief Port,” says my guide, Nahuel Alonso, as he motions back toward the docks. “Wives stood on the hillsides and waved them at the men heading out on the lake to fish.” Juan Diego Tato, the young Patagonian captain of the Bonitaand frequently—to his obvious irritation—the yacht’s first mate as well, rolls his eyes in amusement; Tato was born in an age when meteorological advances and global positioning satellites already had made such displays of emotion anachronistic.
During Alonso’s childhood in the 1980s, he spent many days playing cowboys and Indians at the Bonita’s destination, the 12.5-mile-long Isla Victoria, where a hike will lead to the island’s sole hotel for lunch. The youthful pursuit was an appropriate activity in Argentina, where the image of gauchos on horseback herding cattle across the pampas is a source of national pride. True desperadoes Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid operated a ranch in Cholila, a half day’s drive south of Porto Pañuelo, before recidivism sealed their fate. (Argentine authorities eventually chased the pair north into Bolivia, where they perished in a hail of bullets.)
Porto Pañuelo lies 30 miles east of the city of Bariloche (itself a two-and-a-half-hour flight south from Buenos Aires) in Llao Llao. Pronounced zhao zhao, the resort town’s name translates as “sweet sweet,” a term for a fungus that grows on the region’s trees. Llao Llao sits at the southernmost end of Nahuel Huapi, a 60-mile-long lake that was gouged out by glaciers and filled with meltwater at the close of the last ice age, which, considering the snowfields and glaciers dominating the horizon in all directions, appears to have ended yesterday.
Despite its location in the Andes, Nahuel Huapi never freezes—some parts of the lake reach depths of 1,490 feet—and is somewhat akin to a massive Highland loch. As if to emphasize this resemblance, each spring bright yellow bands of Scottish broom line the shores. The lake even has its own monster, a plesiosaur whose initial sighting a century ago predates that of its cousin in Loch Ness. As with Nessie, photos of Nahuelito are grainy, and they lack accompanying objects needed to determine the creature’s size. Witnesses have reported its length at somewhere between 15 and 150 feet, but aboard Bonita—over a Patagonian brunch of smoked venison, trout, salmon, cheeses, tomatoes, almonds, walnuts, and bread washed down with a glass or two of Malbec—the sobriety and sanity of Nahuelito’s many spotters are discussed and subsequently dismissed by Alonso and captain Tato.
After dropping anchor in a secluded cove off Isla Victoria, where minerals sluiced into the lake by the island’s many streams have turned the water turquoise, we transfer to the beach in a dinghy. A few steps lead us to a stand of gnarled-trunk arrayán trees. It is said that the trees, which grow in abundance on Victoria, were the inspiration for the eerie forest in Disney’s Bambi.
Alonso and I head into the island’s mountains, where condors soar above forests of Andean cypress, and Magellanic woodpeckers flit through the coihues trees, a native evergreen often covered in an ethereal lichen known as “old man’s beard.” Victoria also is home to cauquenes (a Patagonian goose), wild boars, and Patagonian hares, and cormorants that are forever busy about their nests high up on the walls of lakeside cliffs. The lake’s name of Nahuel Huapi, or Isle of the Tiger, was the native Mapuche name for the island, and many Patagonians believe that pumas—which occasionally are sighted in the Andes peaks surrounding the lake—once populated Victoria.
Alonso has brought me to the island to view the local wildlife, but also to experience something of which Patagonians are proud. Before we embarked on Bonita, my guide spoke of a natural condition that had, in the course of a week’s visit, already proved a common feature: a great and, at times, all-consuming silence that Patagonians refer to as La Tranquilidad.
My week began in Buenos Aires, where I met Emmanuel Burgio, an avid backpacker, graduate of the London School of Economics, former investment banker, and founder of the boutique adventure travel company Blue Parallel. As he explained over plates of filet mignon at Cabaña Las Lilas—widely recognized as the city’s finest parrilla, or grill—Burgio formed Blue Parallel in 2002 with the intention of “bridging the gap between the backpacker and banker worlds and matching a service with the needs and desires of my former bosses [at Credit Suisse First Boston’s Investment Banking Group in New York City].”
Burgio’s company, which designs bespoke journeys throughout Latin America from its offices in Maryland and Buenos Aires, conducts pretrip interviews with its clients to determine appropriate itineraries. There are no preset dates for Blue Parallel expeditions, and plans can undergo radical changes at a moment’s notice. “These may be custom plans,” says Burgio, “but if the customer wishes, they have to be changed on the run. It happens all the time. It’s why we give everyone a cell phone when they arrive.”
One of Blue Parallel’s clients, National Geographicmagazine, recently enlisted the company to handle all of the arrangements for an unprecedented aerial photography expedition that will span Latin America, from the Blue Hole of Belize to the Galápagos Islands and south to the glaciers of Patagonia. Many of the adventures involved with the project—which is ongoing and includes flights in high-wing planes and helicopters, and passage over national parks that require authorizations from a host of government entities—are available to individuals. However, as I learn during my week in the Lake District with Alonso and other Blue Parallel guides, the beauty and silence of Patagonia are best enjoyed from the vantage points of water and land.
The day after arriving in Patagonia, I was standing halfway up Mount D’Agostini, a 2-mile-high peak at the southern end of Lake Gutiérrez, where the view was accompanied by nothing but the whistling of wind through the cypress trees. Gutiérrez, a glacial lake that was cut off from Nahuel Huapi by an enormous dike that a rock slide formed thousands of years ago, sits in a narrow valley 20 miles south of Llao Llao. “You don’t want to taste that now,” said Evelyn Hoter about the region’s eponymous fungus, which, at the altitude where we stood, covered the cypresses. “It is only sweet for a few days of the year. At all other times it is inedible.”
From our vantage point, we could see the cypress-log buildings of Hoter’s eco-lodge, the Estancia Peuma Hue, a 500-acre ranch on the southern shore of Gutiérrez. In a vernal stream, Hoter washed off a leafy plant that she had harvested from a field of white lilies on the steeply angled forest floor. “Miner’s lettuce,” she said as she handed a leaf to me. “Better than spinach for you.” It was as sweet as I imagined the out-of-season llao llao to be.
Peuma Hue, which translates from Mapuche as “Place of Dreams,” is just that for Hoter, a psychiatrist who exchanged her couch for climbing shoes seven years ago, but who at times still seems to be practicing her former profession. “What is it you really want to do here?” she had asked the day before while we snacked on cheese and nuts and sipped Malbec in the main lodge’s sitting room. The answer was looming in the background, visible through the room’s floor-to-ceiling windows: Mount D’Agostini.
Although our climb up D’Agostini ended without reaching the peak because of an unstable snowfield, the hike did provide a chance to hear Hoter explain her current occupation, which consists mainly of ensuring that her guests are comfortable, well fed (four meals a day), and aware of the myriad outdoor activities available in the surrounding national park. While we were on the mountain, we watched far below as two couples who were staying at Peuma Hue kayaked down the lake, paddling toward a trailhead where the men would don backpacks and climb into the mountains while their wives ride horses to the base of a spectacular waterfall fed by a glacier.
Hoter claims that those not familiar with Patagonia misunderstand its nature. “People think it’s for danger lovers, but it is one of the safest environments on earth,” she told me. “You can safely drink the water directly out of the streams here. There are no biting insects, practically no crime, and no dangerous animals. Puma attacks happen in Los Angeles.”
A degree of danger can be found on a 10-mile-long stretch of the Rio Manso, a 60-mile-long river an hour’s drive south of Peuma Hue. Here, Blue Parallel partner Extremo Sur guides kayakers and rafters of all experience levels through Class III and IV rapids that, according to my guidebook, feature large waves and considerable drops.
Resembling a bright orange cosmonaut in a bulky neoprene wet suit, I listened intently as the Extremo Sur guides explained the safety procedures to my group. Because the book also warned that sharp maneuvers might be needed, I eyed my five fellow passengers in the inflatable boat as we embarked. The serpentine Manso, swollen with runoff from the glaciers on Mount Tronador, twisted its way through a valley covered with cypress and arrayán trees. Rapids bearing ominous names—Alka Seltzer, Scrambled Eggs, and Shout and Turn—doused us repeatedly on the journey, but each of us arrived at the Chilean border in one piece. The day concluded with an asado, or Argentine barbecue, on the riverbank, while martin pescadors (Patagonian kingfishers) angled in the Manso
A five-course lunch awaits Alonso and me following our two-hour hike through forests of ancient trees and fields of waist-high lupine on Isla Victoria. From the expansive deck of the Isla Victoria Lodge, 200 feet above Nahuel Huapi, we spot lake perch schooling in the crystal waters. Our captain and cook also can be seen, napping on the dock where the Bonita has tied up. Twenty miles to the west, Mount Tronador, an 11,453-foot volcano that sits on the Chilean border, dominates the horizon.
Tronador, Spanish for “thunderer,” was so named because of the noise made by the house-size seracs (blocks of ice formed by intersecting crevasses and named for the crumbly white cheese) that the mountain’s seven glaciers calve in summer. On this spring day, Alonso and I are the only diners on the hotel’s deck, and the peak appears so close in the clear mountain air that it is not hard to imagine hearing the falling ice. But there is no sound on Nahuel Huapi at the moment, just a vast, ringing, and tranquil silence.