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Patagonia's Peak Experiences


Your own estancia in Patagonia? Such extravagances are off limits to all but the Ted Turners and Rod Stewarts of the world, two of the region's celebrity ranchers. But even if you can't afford to buy a piece of Argentina's big-sky paradise, you can frolic in one while immersed in the history and tradition that only an authentic Patagonian sheep farm can provide.

Estancias trace their roots to the early 20th century golden age of wool, well before Patagonia became a playground of the jet set. To settle this desolate corner of the world, Argentina resorted to mammoth-sized land grants to attract down-on-their-luck European immigrants. With great sacrifice, this hearty lot prospered over time. Their signature legacy was the modest, corrugated-iron homesteads, often shipped in pieces from England, used to resist the region's fierce winds. Beginning in the 1950s, though, the fleecy livelihood began to languish as synthetic fibers and soil erosion advanced. To stem the decline, many ranch owners woke up in the 1990s to the economic potential of sharing their way of life with tourists.

Staying on an estancia is an ideal antidote for stress, and in the aftermath of Argentina's peso devaluation starting in January, 2002, costs a fraction of similar dude-ranching operations in the U.S. Whether it's fly-fishing, horseback riding, fossil hunting, or hiking, the range of activities offers something for everyone. More sedate visitors will enjoy poring over family treasures, such as old photos and maps, watching gauchos at work, or reading a book under the austral summer's midnight sun. Sure, a four-star hotel may offer an Internet connection, but no modern comfort compares with the liberating sensation you'll feel installed in your peaceful, quaint quarters and staring out a bay window at Patagonia's fenceless landscape, which is as varied as it is untamed and lonesome.

You can find estancias throughout Patagonia but the quality of accommodations ranges considerably. First-time visitors might prefer the better serviced ones near Los Glaciares National Park, whose gateway is the touristy town of El Calafate, a 3 1/2-hour plane ride from Buenos Aires. The Patagonia ice cap, the world's largest nonpolar ice field, occupies the bulk of the 1.5 million-acre preserve, a Unesco World Heritage Site. From its mantle descend 47 glaciers, the most breathtaking of which, the Perito Moreno glacier, is four times the size of Manhattan.

Within sight of the glacier, Alta Vista is a second-to-none, exclusive B&B occupying the former main house of the legendary La Anita estancia. The 150,000-acre ranch was immortalized as the epicenter of a 1921 uprising. It resulted in the death, by firing squad, of hundreds of striking farmhands inspired, in part, by anarchist immigrant rabble-rousers. Rates starting at $220 a night per room include some meals, prepared by an incredible chef, who cooks up a lot more than your standard fare of broiled mutton and potatoes. You also get tours of the still-working estancia and its football-field sized galp?n, or shearing shed.

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Nearby, with rooms starting at $84 a night, is the Slavic-settled Nibepo Aike. Frozen in time, the century-old farm's down-home charm and unbeatable natural setting, on the shores of emerald-colored Lago Roca, compensate for its lack of refinement. This farm specializes in horseback riding.

From El Calafate it's a four-hour bus journey across empty tablelands to the park's northern end and the alpine hamlet of El Chalt?n. Despite its pocket size, El Chalt?n's privileged location in the shadow of the craggy Fitz Roy massif make it a magnet for hikers and alpinists the world over. If the silhouette of granite spires surrounding the pyramid-shaped Fitz Roy look familiar, it's because these peaks adorn the outdoor wear marketed by clothing company Patagonia Inc. One person who knows these mountains well is Marcelo Pagani, climber-owner of Hoster?a El Pilar, a cozy mountain lodge offering unmatched bedroom views of the 11,171-foot Fitz Roy for just $50 to $80 a night.

Word is quickly spreading about the charm of Patagonia's estancias, and with most farms containing only two or three guest rooms, reservations are a must. Seasons in the southern hemisphere are reversed, so the best time to visit is from November to April. To make a reservation, contact Estancias de Santa Cruz, a Buenos Aires booking agent, at 5411 4325-3098 or estanciasdesantacruz.com. Then, slip on your best city-slicker Stetson and prepare for one wild and unforgettable ride. By Joshua Goodman


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