By Lorie and Paul Bennett
It's peaceful here on the pampas. The only sounds are breezes tickling the eucalyptus leaves, the sizzle of whole spitted lamb over hot coals, horses nickering in the pasture, quiet conversation on the porch. We're at Estancia El Rocio, just over an hour from frenetic Buenos Aires. At Estancia Peuma Hue near Bariloche, in Argentina's Lake District, our eyes feast on shafts of sunlight striking the hills, the antics of colourful cauguén duck and Patagonian hares and, later, on the magnificence of a full moon riding over Lago Guitérrez.
Off the beaten path, usually at the end of rough dirt roads, lie some elegant havens of warm hospitality—the estancias of Argentina. We visited two of them during the six weeks we travelled there. At both, we experienced more than just room and meals at a five–star hotel—we were privileged to feel, if only briefly, part of an extended family.
In Buenos Aires, taxis rush six–abreast on three–lane roadways and tango music is everywhere. Just 60 miles away lies Estancia El Rocio where life slows w–a–a–y down. Owners Patrice Graviêre and Macarena Llambi warmly welcome us into the refined life of the pampas estancia. We've been delayed because, to ensure the security of guests, El Rocio's location is not well advertised. And Carmelo, our driver, forgot to bring the map. However, after a number of stops to ask directions, we pull into the driveway having enjoyed our tour of the countryside.
© Estancia El Rocio
We've come for the day, but immediately wish it could be for a week. It's still cool in the early spring, but the sun is shining and we sip coffee as we chat on the porch of the Provençal–inspired home. Wisteria is in bloom, grassy vistas stretch to the horizon and the espresso is superb. Of a French banking background, Patrice speaks three languages well. For Spanish–Argentine Macarena, English is more difficult. Her flair as a decorator and former buyer for Hermes shows throughout the dream home that is their personal residence.
"The architect basically took my design of a house that I created when I was 12 years old and made it a reality," says Patrice. "Now we want visitors to feel they are honored guests in our home." And we do. We're shown mementos lovingly collected on travels throughout the world, including whimsical bathroom scales in the shape of a pig, 18th–century doors from a Jesuit monastery and striking Mexican ceramic lantern masks. A 19th–century armoire from Portugal serves as a well–stocked liquor cabinet in the living room.
© Estancia El Rocio
Here, Chef Ramón Perdomo presides over full cooked breakfasts and elegant meals matched with fine wines. But today's lunch is outdoors, a traditional asado (Argentinean barbeque). Fellow guests are a New York writer with his Russian–born wife who arrive by taxi and a honeymooning couple from Washington, D.C. who came in by helicopter from Buenos Aires' Ezeiza International Airport the day before. Conversation is easy yet stimulating, staff are quietly attentive and the time before lunch slips comfortably by. A large table is set picnic–style and we're treated to ribs from a whole spring lamb, carefully tended for about four hours by gaucho cook Luis Etehuest and his cheerful young assistant Eduardo Lourtau.Ramón provides the "agregados" (side dishes) including a salad of local greens and baby spring potatoes in minted butter. Our outdoor feast ends with homemade vanilla ice cream and fresh strawberries.
© Tim Leffel
At this elegant 260–acre ranch, horse–riding and polo are passions pursued by the owners and many guests. But a charming solitude may also be enjoyed. This is a perfect place for reading a book by the pool on a warm day or by the fire if it's cold; for enjoying a glass of wine and good conversation with guests from around the world, or for sinking into an easy chair for quiet contemplation. Shutterbugs find the glorious sunsets a must.We tour the stables and meet some of the gauchos and horses, then drive a few miles to a neighboring ranch where a scratch chukka of polo is under way. The game ends as the sun is setting and Florencia, one of the lively riders, introduces herself and invites us to join them at her table for more fine Argentinean food.
Reluctantly, we leave, assuring Patrice—and ourselves—that we will return to more fully experience his wonderful home and hospitality. But we don't think we'll play polo!
Arriving at the Bariloche airport from Buenos Aires, we're greeted by guide Martin who drives us to Estancia Peuma Hue, pointing out the sights along the way. It's early springtime and there's still skiing on nearby Catedral Mountain.In less than an hour, we turn off the paved highway and bump over 1.5 miles of rough single–lane gravel track to the property, spotting colorful ducks, wild hares, horses and sheep along the way. Clouds soon hide the sun and the weather turns cool and windy. But the warm welcome at the estancia, at the far end of Lake Gutiérrez from Bariloche, more than makes up for the day's moody weather. Owner Evelyn Hoter and manager Marcelo Marpegán join us for a late lunch and, over homemade pasta and a glass of wine, we're introduced to our surroundings and the activities that are offered.
© Lorie and Paul Bennett
The 500–acre lakefront property sits within Nahuel Huapi National Park's near–pristine forests, amid creeks and waterfalls. The scenery is ever–changing as scudding clouds give way to shafts of sunlight, spotlighting a cataract splashing down the D'Agostin peak that looms over us. The Mapuche words "peuma hue" mean "place of dreams." A psychologist, Evelyn now lives her dream and graciously shares it with her guests. We feel we've been invited to spend time with a friend. The estancia's beautifully–decorated rooms and common areas are in several buildings scattered over the property. All have been custom–built and lovingly furnished, often with pieces crafted in the estancia's carpentry shop. And all enjoy spectacular views.
The main house has four bedrooms as well as dining and sitting rooms. We're offered the large upstairs master suite. Wide windows offer stunning views in almost all directions including up—there's a unique glass ceiling over the tub! We take photographs from the balcony. A guest house is reached over a hanging bridge and the creek cabin is the original house on the property, appropriately restored. Another cabin well up the mountainside is totally secluded and "suitable for honeymooners or others seeking privacy," says Evelyn. A separate board room offers facilities for larger gatherings and a lovely non–denominational temple is ready for weddings, concerts and other events.
© Lorie and Paul Bennett
At 2,500 feet above sea level, it's pleasantly cool here in summer and winters are almost snow–free. Evelyn tells us that the lake is swimmable on very hot days. "This area is very safe. No snakes, no big cats, nothing here will harm you," she adds with a grin. Guests may go trekking, horseback riding, kayaking, fishing, bird–watching or rope–climbing right on the property.
Evelyn introduces us to Cristhianna Barrett, her "horse whisperer." Cris will match a horse to a guest's needs—so Paul is offered the quietest and oldest mount on the estancia! She encourages local children to ride and learn to play polo. She fashions mallets from local bamboo, making them lighter for smaller hands. Opportunities for other activities include rock climbing on the peaks and whitewater rafting in the valleys. Evelyn belongs to Al Sur de Nahuel Huapi, a team of the area's hotel owners and tour operators, and can connect guests with whatever they wish to do and professionals who will help them do it.
On a day of wind and rain, we give up our planned raft ride on the Moreno River and settle for a drive through the country with Martin and his rafting friend, Andre. The valleys of the Continental Divide are visible when we set out, but not the mountaintops. We stop to admire "Chinese lanterns"—a form of parasite that lights up the trees. Calafate bushes hold promise of edible berries in late summer. Trees include myrtle and Patagonian beech, prized for its timber.
At a private riverside cabin we're served paté and wine as we chat about Argentinian politics and lifestyles with the two young men. Both hail from big cities but choose northern Patagonia's close–to–nature lifestyle. On our return to Peuma Hue, the mountains reassert themselves under a clear sky. On our final night, we choose to dine out at the charming restaurant, Cassis, overlooking Lago Gutiérrez. The setting is lovely, the lamb strudel and loin of venison are superb, the Malbec is a fine pairing and the desserts are totally decadent. Marcelo welcomes us back to the estancia with a brandy nightcap as the brilliant full moon makes its transit over Lago Gutiérrez. It will be hard to leave in the morning for our lake crossing into Chile.
Story by Paul and Lorie Bennett