Many inflection points have led rural Argentina, and especially the Patagonia region, to seem trapped in time.

STORY BY ERIC LADD
PHOTOS BY ISAIAS MICIU NICOLAEVICI

 

“This place reminds me of stories of the American West 100 years ago,” I commented, gazing across a vast landscape toward the Andes and nearby Chilean border. Crouched under a willow tree ablaze with fall colors, second-generation fly-fishing guide Peter Treichel peered into a deep, clear pool on the Malleo River and smiled.

“Si, si, I hear that all the time,” Treichel said. “Now cast your line towards that big rock and give it a good mend, there’s a nice fish feeding there.”

With endless similarities to the western U.S., Argentina is home to sweeping horizons like those seen in Montana, dramatic volcanoes reminiscent of those found in Oregon and Washington, remote river canyons like Idaho’s, and immense wild spaces characteristic of Alaska. The country’s raw beauty inspires photographers, writers and painters to travel here from around the world.

Argentines have a proud culture—they sing out loud, aren’t shy about public displays of affection and can easily lose track of time on the riverbanks. Late nights, slow mornings and time for yerba mate tea accentuate most days. Patagonia is a land of rooted traditions, indigenous people and gauchos, and an identity increasingly associated with ecotourism and boundless outdoor resources.

The word Patagonia comes from “Patagones,” the name Portuguese explorer Fernando Magellan gave to the native people he purportedly found there during his 1520 expedition. A mythical race of giants, Patagones were believed to be at least double normal human height, with some early European accounts describing natives as tall as 12 to 15 feet.

Many inflection points have led rural Argentina, and especially the Patagonia region, to seem trapped in time. The nine national parks and three national monuments in the region have protected its sense of vastness and secured nature’s importance in Patagonia’s culture. Cultural anthropologist Francisco Moreno, as well as a series of supportive governments, led the efforts of incorporating large parts of Patagonia into natural reserves.

Moreno was a prominent naturalist and explorer, and for his efforts was given large tracts of land in Patagonia, which he subsequently donated back to the government in 1903, as a precursor to the country’s land preservation efforts. In 1934, a federal law was passed making Argentina the third country in the Americas, after the United States and Canada, to establish a national parks system.

"Our approach to guiding is to always have the best guides, on the best water, at the best times, with the best equipment humanly possible to give our guests the best chance to catch fish in any situation."

 

To discover Patagonia through its remote rivers, ditch the guidebooks and choose an authentic experience with a guide company like Montana-born Patagonia River Guides. Fly fishing in this part of the world is a dream trip fueled by legendary tales of 30-inch fish, gin-clear waters and iconic lodges and estancias. The introduction of trout to Argentine Patagonia began in 1904, and they have flourished ever since.

Twenty years ago, Montana natives Travis Smith and Rance Rathie came to Argentina to work as seasonal guides and after a few seasons they returned to Big Sky Country. During a year off from guiding, Rathie married his Argentine sweetheart and he and Smith decided to finally act on all of the big talk about owning their own company.

“Long story, but we started as the smallest outfitting business in the country and grew into the largest,” Smith said about PRG’s two-decade history.

PRG has become an industry leader in high quality, inclusive and personalized trips at over 50 different locations. Fishing nearly 1 million acres of privately leased waters, in three different Patagonia regions, they also offer accommodations at 12 different lodges.

“Our approach to guiding is to always have the best guides, on the best water, at the best times, with the best equipment humanly possible to give our guests the best chance to catch fish in any situation,” Smith said.

The lodges are handpicked for quality and aesthetics, with front-end travel planning provided by a partner company, LOL Argentina, based in the capital Buenos Aires. Good food and comfortable beds are a must, as days are long, with many river and road miles, and some fishing days ending in the dark.

PRG’s northern operation has an adventurous and pioneering feel to its daily operations. PRG North manager and partner Alex Knull helps organize guest journeys through his hometown region with anglers typically moving river locations daily, and new lodging every couple of nights. Knull and his guides grew up fishing this region together, and a trip with them is like having a good friend show you his secret fishing holes, taking all of the back roads to get there.

PRG North is based out of San Martín de los Andes, an area rich with history, towering volcanoes, vast open landscapes and massive estancias. Locals have a passion for the outdoors—summers and falls are spent chasing fish or hunting, and winter months revolve around the ski mountains.

The elusive Patagonia brown trout is what legends are made of, and one perfect cast can turn a good trip into an unforgettable one.

 

Anglers quickly find that a trip to northern Patagonia is much more than a fishing adventure, it’s an experience where you’ll share fields with red deer stags, learn the ways of the gaucho lifestyle and cultivate a deep respect for the land. Though initially we wondered how we would fare on a 10-day fly-fishing intensive, we soon learned it was just enough time to start to feel the pulse of the culture and perfect our casts.

A typical day on the river includes wading or floating in the clear waters of rivers like the Malleo, Chimehuin or Caleufu, with the 12,388-foot snow-capped Lanín volcano hovering over you. It’s easy to get spoiled fishing these rivers, as trout average 16 inches in length, with most hard-fighting rainbows approaching 20 inches. The elusive Patagonia brown trout is what legends are made of, and one perfect cast can turn a good trip into an unforgettable one.

Elaborate riverside lunches are an Argentine tradition, with a gourmet spread of homemade breads, salamis and “vino tinto” as guests swap stories with guides. You won’t go hungry in Argentina, I promise.

Our first stop was at the relatively new and cozy Northern Patagonia Lodge, overlooking the Chimehuin River. With a large deck and wood-fired hot tub, the off- grid lodge is a perfect place to begin planning your adventures. Treichel tied on the famous Patagonia “bicho” dry fly and within minutes a beautiful brown trout shattered the surface of the water. The lodge also offers non- fishing activities, including an hour walk to the breathtaking Lago Huechulafquen, which is more than 19 miles long and one of the birthplaces of Argentina fly fishing.

Sunrise on the Limay can be a living work of art, the sky painted red and orange, while birds and fish frolic in the eddy lines.

 

Moving on to an estancia called Quemquemtreu—a working ranch of nearly 200,000 acres—homemade jams, breads and farm-fresh milk and yogurts greeted us each morning. Quemquemtreu is located deep in a pristine countryside, at the end of a long dirt road lined with tall poplar trees that leads to a compound of cabins and barns built in the 1920s.

In the mornings, guests move slowly while shaking off the late-night dinners of ranch-raised beef and empanadas, paired with endless bottles of regional malbecs. Guides gather on the tailgates of their Toyota Hilux diesel trucks, sipping yerba mate and divvying up the endless river miles that flank three sides of the historic estancia. Ranch managers Paula and Mauricio Zimmerman, have an elegant efficiency that has earned them a nearly 90-percent return guest ratio.

Our guide Hernan Zorzit led a hunt-and-stalk fishing expedition at Quemquemtreu, taking us on side channels of the Collón Curá River, where brown trout get trapped in seasonal pools and become desperately hungry. Hernan introduced us to the downstream stripping technique of fishing minnow patterns, which are prevalent on this river in the fall. With one good cast, a 6-pound brown burst from a shady patch in a coffee-table-sized pool, and the hunt was a success.

A signature offering of PRG North is their “unplugged trip,” where guests are driven two hours from the Andes to the open expanses of the Limay River Valley, to float and camp for three days. The Limay is a wide river with a character reminiscent of Montana’s Yellowstone. The deep runs are lined with red sandstone cliffs and the night sky is a planetarium of unfamiliar constellations.

Flowing between two large reservoirs, which provide most of the region’s power, this stretch of the Limay promises some of the best chances of hooking a trophy brown over 10 pounds, while enjoying a safari-like camping experience.

Waking up riverside in a spacious tent, wrapped in a down comforter on top of a padded cot is a great way to slow down time and immerse yourself in this landscape. PRG provides all the amenities a guest might want, including hot showers, and steak dinners cooked by chef and retired extreme skier, Estanislao “Tato” Vasiuk.

Sunrise on the Limay can be a living work of art, the sky painted red and orange, while birds and fish frolic in the eddy lines. Our days began with the PRG crew waking us up by singing along with their favorite Cuban music while rigging rods and loading up boats. The riffles regularly produced 18-inch rainbows and kept anglers busy between working the deeper channels for larger browns.

The visual beauty of this country’s rivers, mountains and pampas is only rivaled by the grace, humility and good nature of the people who call it home.

 

The next stop on our journey found us at Tres Rios Lodge under a full moon with red stags bugling in the surrounding fields. Tres Rios has embraced the green-energy movement in Argentina, and use wind and solar power to run the quaint and elegant lodge. The chef’s homemade lamb ravioli helped fuel dinner table stories from Oklahoma anglers and longtime friends Mark DeHart and Larry Brown. Tres Rios is a great location to attack a few different rivers, including the Chimeuin and Collón Curá. Both can yield great dry-fly hatches with endless beds, pools and riffles to court trout.

Patagonia has attracted top anglers from around the world, as well as visits from dignitaries like President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Estancia Arroyo Verde was one stop for the former president, and its 20,000 acres of property is stunning, with towering stone outcroppings flanking both sides of its valleys.

For 80 years, the Larivière family have owned and operated this ranch within Nahuel Huapi National Park, and it offers polished European hospitality and more than 10 miles of exclusive access the Traful River. Our guide Alex stalked fish by scaling boulders and climbing to ledges 30 feet above the clear pools to sight cast for trophies. Savvy salmon and large trout inhabit these waters and anglers with a polished cast and patience will love this river.

 

During our final day of fishing, I ventured off with guide Peter Treichel for a float on the Chimeuin River, a stream similar in size to my hometown Gallatin River in Montana. At the put-in, Treichel peered over the river and noticed a small mayfly hatch beginning. He tied on a size-20 dry fly, and we slowly approached each pool and riffle.

“Moving slow will pay off on days like today,” Treichel said. We let a few other anxious anglers get ahead of us, which is usually taboo on stateside rivers, as more fishermen downstream disturbing the waters often results in fewer fish. Patience paid off—as we inched our way down the stream nearly every seam produced some action.

On the final bend we encountered our Oklahoma friends, and Larry instantly hooked into the fish of the day, a beautiful 20- inch rainbow. It just happened to be his birthday, and as he fought the fish both boats broke into song, with a Spanish and English blend of “Happy Birthday” filling the canyon air.

While the fly fishing in Patagonia is world class, it’s the people you meet along the way, the history you experience at the estancias and lodges, and the unspoiled landscapes that make the journey unforgettable.

“We want everyone who leaves to go home and tell their friends that Argentina is an easy country to travel to, and to travel in,” said PRG co-owner Travis Smith. “That it is safe, the food is great, the wine is fantastic, the fishing is amazing, the scenery is unparalleled and that the people are friendly.”

There is a lifetime of travel opportunities in Argentina, from wine country in Mendoza and tango lessons in Buenos Aires, to visiting Tierra del Fuego at the far southern reaches of the continent. And the visual beauty of this country’s rivers, mountains and pampas is only rivaled by the grace, humility and good nature of the people who call it home.

Occasionally travel can be distilled into just a few unforgettable moments, like that blood orange sunrise over the Limay River. The 8-pound brown trout I lost at the net the day prior, well, that was pretty amazing too, and will likely haunt me for years. Since I didn’t get a photo, it will have to be a fish tale, until my return.

WHILE YOU’RE IN ARGENTINA

 

At the famous Llao Llao Hotel and Resort in Bariloche, sip tea on the porch, swim in the infinity pool overlooking the Andes, enjoy first-class service in the Restaurant Patagonia, and kayak around Lake Moreno.

Nestled in a valley on the shores of Lake Lácar, the small mountain town of San Martín de los Andes boasts European charm, physically active people, sporting goods stores and coffee shops. Be sure to stop at the Georg museum and eat at Almacén de Flores.

A stunning drive from San Martín de los Andes to Bariloche, the Road of the Seven Lakes can be traveled one-way in under three hours, but a full day is recommended to enjoy all of the sights. Stop at the numerous lookouts for photos, and be sure to hike to Nevinco Falls.

Buenos Aires is a big city with big heart, and there are many sights to see in the Argentine capital. Be sure to visit La Recoleta Cemetery, where Eva Perón—the former first lady and actress, also known as Evita—is buried, along with past Argentine presidents and Nobel Prize winners. The Teatro Colón is considered one of the finest opera houses in the world, and there are endless choices of tango theaters and restaurants to entertain you throughout the city.

WHAT TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO

 

POPULATION DENSITY

Argentina’s population is just over 40 million, with more than half of residents living in the Buenos Aires area. The Patagonia region stretches across both Argentina and Chile, is 402,700 square miles, and with five people per square mile, is one of the most sparsely populated regions in the world.

YERBA MATE

(yer-bah MAH-tay)
Made from the naturally caffeinated leaves of a shrub in the holly family, for centuries South America’s Acheé Guayakí tribe have sipped yerba mate from a gourd for its stimulating effects. The tea is drank socially in Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and southern Brazil, and it’s estimated that more than 90 percent of Argentines drink yerba mate.

ARGENTINA’S DIVERSE LANDSCAPE

Home to one of the greatest ecosystem diversities in the world, Argentina has 15 continental zones, three oceanic zones, and claims part of Antarctica as part of its territory. This huge ecosystem variety has led to a biological diversity that is among the world’s largest.

WHAT IS AN ASADO

“Asado” translates to “roast” in English and is a traditional way of preparing food over an open grill called a “parrilla.” An asado usually consists of beef, sausages, short ribs, and often other meats, including sweetbreads. The meat is sometimes skewered on a metal frame called an “asador” and roasted next to a slow-burning fire.

Huge herds of wild cattle roamed much of Argentina’s pampa region until the mid-19th century, and gauchos there favored cooking asado with the wood of the quebracho tree because it produces very little smoke. Accompanied by mate tea, asado formed the basis of the gaucho diet and is now cooked for guests at most lodges and restaurants.

MALBEC

One of the original five Bordeaux grape varietals, malbec was brought to Argentina from France and has flourished, becoming uniquely identified with well-priced Argentine wine found on nearly every lunch and dinner table. The Mendoza region is the leading producer of malbec in Argentina making it a great stop for wine lovers to have a Napa Valley-type experience.

Eric Ladd is the publisher of Mountain Outlaw magazine.