The unparalleled paradise of Northern Patagonia

Where the lush, pastoral valleys of Chile bump up against the high, dry peaks of Argentina is a quintessentially private version of Patagonia. James Henderson holes up for a few idyllic days

Millaqueo villa sits in a tiny cove on Lake Nahuel Huapi
Millaqueo villa sits in a tiny cove on Lake Nahuel Huapi | Image: Francisco Bedesqui

Patagonia. The tapering limb of South America, where the Argentinian steppe and Chilean mountains march together for 2,000km to a talon at Tierra del Fuego. By reputation it’s remote and windswept, even desolate; in fact, at its northern limits, Patagonia is rather different. The Lake District around San Carlos de Bariloche, not unlike Britain’s Lake District, has been the Argentinians’ favourite mountain holiday retreat for the best part of a century. I know this country of old, and it is strikingly lovely, with snaggletooth ridgelines that swoop down over granite and rich green forest onto navy-blue water. So this is a welcome opportunity to revisit on a tailored itinerary calibrated to contrast perfectly the high, majestic landscapes of the Argentinian lakes and the lusher, more verdant peaks and valleys of Chile.

There are hotels in the region, of course – but the more authentic way to explore, especially on the Argentine side, is to stay in one, or a few, of the private houses that have existed here since the 1940s. A pick of homes of this fine sort is the preserve of a proper specialist; luckily for me, I am in the more than capable hands of Harry Hastings, founder of Plan South America, which tailors travel across the continent and Antarctica. (The company grew out of his first venture, Plan Buenos Aires, itself born after the mellifluous Hastings found himself offering help to so many friends, parents of friends and friends of parents that a travel business formed around him.)

Millaqueo villa’s waterfront pool house
Millaqueo villa’s waterfront pool house

Arriving in Bariloche, I join his team on the ground, led by a certain Nahuel. Apparently the name means “Puma” in the local language, though, as I discover, “Whirlwind” would be more suitable. There are moments of quiet, but in between them my feet barely touch the ground (literally in one case), as I am ushered around the lakes. On every scenic transfer and during any miniature gap in the itinerary, an adventure is sewn in – a good thing, of course, as options, flexibility and creativity are what you want in a fixer. Thus, before I have even been delivered to the first villa of my stay, I have an afternoon’s worth of quintessential Bariloche-region pleasures. We race off to the traditional parrilla El Boliche Viejo for some of Argentina’s famous beef; Nahuel sidles to the grill and cheekily selects the best ojo de bife (ribeye) and cuts of lamb. After a visit to a local ranch, followed by some nature photography and an early Italian dinner, we head along the lakeside, where stunning villas hide in nooks and small bays.

Millaqueo (Mi-sh-aqueo, in Patagonia’s sibilant Spanish) sits in a tiny cove, looking north and west to the hulking Andes. Most of the traditional houses hereabouts rather surprisingly appear solidly Alpine; Millaqueo rises on a base of granite, with walls of wood and cream render, topped with a pitched and dormered roof covered in wooden shingles. There is plenty of wood inside too, extending the gemütlich feel, but the centrepiece is the massive granite fireplace (it’s cold enough here in winter for skiing). Traditional Argentinian decoration of earthy colours and pewterware is given a twist with Asian artefacts and ceramics from Nicaragua.

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The villa sets the scene well, as the story of these houses around Bariloche is also that of Alejandro Bustillo, one of the leading Argentine architects of his generation. After a decade designing estancias, Bustillo arrived here in the 1930s, just as the area was transforming from a farming region (originally settled by Alpine nationals, from Germany, Italy and, interestingly, Slovenia – hence the architectural vernacular) to a leisure one. Bustillo’s brother Ezequiel had just enacted a system of national parks: he built Millaqueo in 1948, 10 years after his famous Llao Llao Hotel opened. It’s sensitively modernised and extremely peaceful: at breakfast, my only company is a small flock of black-faced ibis patrolling the sloping lawns, the mother shepherding her four nearly grown chicks.

Soon Nahuel and team reappear, and not long after I am scrambling up Cerro López on the Palotinos, the region’s first hiking path, before abseiling – the genuine feet-off-the-ground moment – straight into a cliffside lunch. At one point, a condor sweeps past (condor watching is another regular activity); a few moments later, the breeze from Chile is filled with the strains of a charango, the local ukulele, as a player moves into view from nowhere to accompany our lunch. We return to the villa via the village of Colonia Suiza – the Swiss settled here too – and a visit to Cervecería Berlina, one of Bariloche’s 60-odd small breweries, where the eccentric master brewer Bruno Ferrari welcomes us in for some samples in the Tap Room.

 The terraces of Uman Lodge, in Chile, overlook the misty confluence of two rivers
The terraces of Uman Lodge, in Chile, overlook the misty confluence of two rivers

Back at the villa, I have a moment for some quiet contemplation of the landscape. Key to Bustillo’s vision, in this region of lakes and mountain backdrops, was the view. From the mirador at Millaqueo it flies out across the water and clambers up the Cerro Millaqueo itself. Later, as night falls over an alfresco asado (barbecue) down by the shore, just a single light pricks the horizon. It is an ideal setting to view the illumination of the southern night sky that follows: the Southern Cross, Herschel’s Jewel Box and a vast carbon cloud in the Milky Way.

Early next morning we are off again, boating to the northern end of Lake Nahuel Huapi, spotting cormorant and condor nests, and eventually pulling up at the beach in front of my second stay: El Santuario Mountain Lodge, in the town of Villa La Angostura, another of Bustillo’s designs. Where Millaqueo has been adapted to modern life, its windows altered to enlarge the view and contemporised inside, this early 1940s seven-bedroom house remains almost unchanged. It is built entirely of cypress, rough-hewn logs outside and planks on the walls and floor within; again, only the massive fireplaces are granite. It’s furnished in period style too, with hefty wooden beds, 19th-century German travelling chests and surfeits of brass candleholders. Currently in the process of joining the Long Run, a sustainable tourism initiative, El Santuario is surrounded by 500 acres of forest that contain a wetland bird sanctuary. The house itself sits in a lawned space between native coihue trees, some of them 40m high and centuries old, and is adorned with roses. The view stretches for 40km along the lake, mountains galloping away in perfect perspective beyond on either side.

Abseiling above Lake Nahuel Huapi
Abseiling above Lake Nahuel Huapi

We know that the Argentines like their country clubs. The oldest, and smartest, of these is Cumelén, just around the corner from EL Santuario, where for decades the country’s wealthiest families, including that of Queen Máxima of the Netherlands, have holidayed. (Her brother owns a restaurant in town.) The clubhouse at Cumelén is actually the earliest Bustillo house of all, built by the architect for his brother in 1937. It is wood again, inside and out, which lends the bar and dining room a comfortable authenticity. And the view is no slouch either, lancing across lakes and islands to the high mountains. When we stop at the clubhouse in the late morning, they are reflected perfectly, rounded granite peaks mirrored in the water of the lake.

But we have places to go: back around the lake, namely, blatting it at 90mph in a bright-red Mara VS2 – one of only a handful of such custom sports cars, built by Scots-Argentinian Roberto Macnie (nickname: “El Vikingo”) in the 1970s using a Chrysler engine, Jaguar gearbox and Triumph instruments. We eventually roar up to the stylish comfort of my final night’s accommodation on the Argentinian side of the border: Los Arrayanes, a modern four-bedroom estate on the shore of the lake. Newer houses around Bariloche use many of the same materials as the originals – the cypress wood polishes up to a light blond – but of course they take advantage of technology, as well as large glass windows and marble. In a way, they mirror the architecture of the modern Alps: Los Arrayanes (Arra–sh–anes – more Patagonian sibilance) may take its name from a local myrtle tree, but this is almost a ski chalet (in fact its owner, Julio Ecker, had a hotel in Courchevel for many years), save for another hefty, quintessentially Argentinian granite hearth in the sitting room.

The recently completed lakeside villa Los Arrayanes
The recently completed lakeside villa Los Arrayanes

Next stop Chile, and some 350km south. We weave along the dividing line where the older Argentine steppe crumples up against younger, more jumbled Chilean summits. While Argentina is windy and often arid, Chile is visibly the opposite: wet and very green.

Just over the border we come to a bowl, Valle Confluenzia, crowded by granite stacks worthy of Norway. And perched 80m above it, on a ledge, is Uman Lodge. Built by Argentinian architects Camps Forcinito Camps, the building is striking, full of unexpected shape and movement. Uman is laid out like a splayed hand: four fingers containing the suites, topped with shingle roof tiles, emerge at an angle from the grass, and next to them sits a larger thumb with library and bar. Encroaching on the cliff edge, they are fronted with glass – 10m of it, in the library. The building has a concrete skeleton, its floor laid with Argentinian limestone, and is elsewhere clad in wood – the walls, fittings and balustrades along the undulating corridors are of cypress and algarrobo, a native carob-like tree. Coihue shingles adorn the exterior walls; copper-coloured for now, they will fade to grey.

Santuario Mountain Lodge’s cypress interiors are characteristic of the region
Santuario Mountain Lodge’s cypress interiors are characteristic of the region

Clearly Uman is about the view, but it’s very different to those I saw in Argentina. The bowl is busy with life and activity – farmland, forest and orchards, sectioned off by poplars and meandering willows. In place of a lake, two rivers converge (Uman means “meeting point”), their rapids creating a constant susurration; in the lodge’s outside bar, the designers have captured this gentle rush in an echo chamber, rendering a surround-sound effect.

My two days are still busy, even without Nahuel’s supersonic presence: after a morning touring the valley, I spend an afternoon on horseback, climbing through forests above a lost lake, Lago Espolón, led by my guide Erwin, who was dressed more as an Argentine gaucho than a Chilean huaso. Most of the next day is instead passed happily, if inexpertly, casting flies for trout, trying to tease them out of their eddies.

Tthe Lake District around San Carlos de Bariloche is Argentina’s favourite mountain holiday redoubt
Tthe Lake District around San Carlos de Bariloche is Argentina’s favourite mountain holiday redoubt | Image: Alex Joukowski/Getty Images

But, of course, I always return to the view, gathering moments of quiet contemplation. On my last morning I am particularly privileged apparently, as the bowl beneath the hotel is pooled with dense fog. It heaves and settles, momentarily exposing the points of poplars before refilling. Eventually it drains away to reveal the fields and riverine willows cast in crystalline relief – as captivating a sight as any Bustillo framed across the border.

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