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Angler’s Eden

At the foot of the Andes, the Dallas heir to Frito-Lay has transformed a 100-year-old estancia into a fly-fishing paradise
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THE RED OF AN ANDEAN SUNSET colors the pool, casting
a pinkish glow on dimples spotting the water. I am standing 10 feet off
the bank with 3 feet of water swirling around my hip boots as I study
the 20 or more trout rising to snatch tiny mayflies off the surface.
The Andes loom majestically in the distance, snow-capped guardians of
the Patagonian plain. On a November day at the end of the Argentine
spring, as I slowly strip my line and prepare to throw to the nearest
of the rising fish, I am as close to Eden as an angler is likely to
get.

Fly-fishing paradises are getting harder to find. I
look for four qualities in my paradises: deep holding pools for fish,
high water pressure for showers, soft beds for naps, and the
companionship that comes with great food and good conversation. I found
them all at Estancia Alicura.

Dallasite Ward Lay bought the 300-square-mile sheep
ranch in 1998. For the past four years, he’s been working to turn it
into one of Argentina’s premier hunting and fishing retreats. (I don’t
have space to go into Lay’s personal history, but suffice it to say
that every time you drink a Pepsi, eat a Frito, or munch on a Lay’s
potato chip, you are doing your part for Estancia Alicura.) Lay has
meticulously restored the 100-year-old colonial ranch house, keeping as
much of the original as possible while adding state-of-the-art guest
facilities. The modern additions haven’t intruded on the spirit of the
place. The estancia retains the feel of a 19th-century working ranch,
and it remains intimate, with only four guest rooms, a three-bedroom
guest home, and a communal table for meals.

Life at the estancia revolves around the table.
Fishing ends at sundown, around 9 o’clock, and dinner is served
sometime after 11. I don’t think the lateness of the meal had much to
do with the fishing, as lunch wasn’t usually served until 2 or so.
Dining late is the Argentine way. The meals are meat of all kinds and
cooked by every method: grilled, barbequed, broiled, sausaged,
pan-fried, and roasted. Never have I tasted such meats, succulent and
tender, sometimes garnished with greens chosen to emphasize certain
spices in the marinade, sometimes served one after the other in a
sequence of flavors, sometimes mixed to emphasize the different
textures. If you think that meat at every meal might be monotonous,
it’s because you’ve never eaten meat. Only the Argentineans eat meat.

Estancia Alicura is about an hour north of San Carlos de Bariloche, an Alpine village on the exquisite Lake Nahuel Huapi.
(Argentina is full of Indian place names but no Indians. They were
exterminated in the 19th century.) Bariloche, as it is called, is the
unofficial capital of Patagonia, a wild land of romance and legend,
home to vast ranches and some of the most famous fly-fishing rivers in
the world

Three of those famous mountain rivers—the Collon Cura, Caleufu,
and the crystal-clear Limay—feed the estancia’s 15,000-acre lake. Of
those rivers, the Limay is the most remarkable. Chas Marsh, another son
of Dallas, is the main outfitter for the fly-fishing portion of the
estancia’s business, and one day he took us on a float down the ice
blue Limay. Although the river runs 40 feet deep or more, it’s as clear
as a martini, with every rock and defile as visible on its floor as an
olive in a glass. There is no farming in the arid vastness of the
Patagonian plains, so I wonder if the Limay is what rivers were like in
our pre-agricultural history, before soil erosion and runoff became
constant agents of discoloration.

The Collon Cura and the Caleufu are classic
fly-fishing waters, with feeding lanes for German brown trout and pools
deep enough for native rainbows. I spent an evening on one pool that
produced about 20 good browns on dry fly imitations picked from the
boxes in my vest. The fish didn’t seem to find anything strange about
these norte Americano patterns and took them with a hungry glee, in
some instances jumping out of the water in their greediness. With their
backs arced like a dolphin’s, they shimmered in the golden glow of the
sun shining dimly through the mountain haze. I have seen beauty on
rivers, but rarely moments as beautiful as these.

IN CONTRAST, BUENOS AIRES, LIKE CAPITAL
cities everywhere, is noisy and bustling but surprisingly full of
parkways and green space. Visitors from the United States arrive at the
international airport and have to travel—with their luggage—across town
to the local or internal airport (Estancia Alicura is a two-hour flight
from Buenos Aries). To make this transition as convenient as possible,
the estancia employs a tourist service to greet its guests and guide
them from one place to the next. The lucky guest will be met at the
gate by a stout, short Slovenian woman of indeterminate age named
Maria, the most senior of the service’s agents.

With Maria riding shotgun, we drove down broad
boulevards intersected by narrow streets lined with mansions, each with
a story to tell of mismatched lovers, altered wills, or conniving
nephews. From Maria’s narration we learned of a city haunted by Gothic
tales of lust, lost fortunes, and political revenge, as full of magical
realism as any novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Because we had several hours between flights, we stopped by the antiques district,
three or four streets jam-packed with antique shops and art galleries.
Here is where I first encountered the mystery of the Argentine economy.
The city was in the midst of a financial panic—the peso had collapsed;
banks were shuttered—but I discovered the prices of Argentine antiques
remained as steady as the knife hand of a gaucho. To my reckoning, the
values put on many of the objects I looked at, some of which would
barely qualify as antique, were more appropriate to Madison Avenue than
Plaza de Mayo.

But my interest in various items at three different
stores failed to arouse any inclination to negotiate. I prodded; I
smiled; I frowned. With the English-speakers I bantered and joked. But
even with the foreboding of financial collapse in the streets outside,
the dealers inside their shops remained unperturbed. On the other hand,
hard currency is hard currency, so I’m still a little baffled. Did
prices collapse the next day? Or are my dealers still presiding grandly
over an untouched inventory? The experience has left me curious about
the Argentine antiques market. If there were an Argentine eBay, I would
be a constant visitor.

The Argentine mind may be a mystery, but the
Argentine soul is as large and generous as the Patagonian wild, and the
Argentine experience is as much fun to explore in the streets of Buenos
Aires as on the rivers of Estancia Alicura.

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