The thing that has always struck me about Patagonia is how impossibly vast it seems. Seen from the Argentinean side, the sawtooth peaks of the Andes tower over the western horizon. It is a land of giant condors, 100,000-acre estancias, guanacos (the high-desert cousins of the alpaca and the llama) that lope along with the fluid grace of Kentucky Thoroughbreds, succulent grass-fed steaks grilled over a wood fire, muscular Malbec wines, and—what first attracted me 35 years ago—big trout.
After a two-year pandemic layoff, last month I returned to Patagonia with my fishing partner, Will Hereford, for a fly-fishing pilgrimage that started in the mountains just south of Esquel—the terminus of the Patagonia Express and an inviting target for early-20th-century train robbers, Butch Cassidy among them.
Our first stop: Las Pampas Lodge, on the tablelands at the foot of El Cono, a long-dormant volcano. The main building is a grand timbered affair, nestled in a dell surrounded by the deep-green alpine forest and set against a backdrop of El Cono to the left and its consort, La Desnuda (the Naked Lady), to the right.
The guest cabins are modular arrangements of shipping containers, surprisingly charming despite their industrial provenance. Each pair of bedrooms shares a lounge with a well-stocked bar and a woodstove—quite welcome if your rain jacket decides to give up its waterproofing in the midst of a chilling downpour, as mine did.
Snowmelt and the upwelling of springs throughout the Río Pico aquifer have created a variety of fly-fishing opportunities in the area: spring creek, freestone streams, and lakes. This is an optimal range of fly water—when cloudbursts and wind turn the fishing off on one stretch, there are always fallbacks.
The variety proved invaluable during our stay as the southern hemisphere’s summer quickly turned to fall. Despite the challenges of wind and weather, on three successive days I caught brown trout that would have been my catch of the year in North American waters—all of them more than 20 inches on a dry fly.
The most satisfying of the lot required the gentlest cast to a spring-creek trout, who finned seductively in a narrow target zone about 18 inches wide. The cast would need to be on the money, with little chance of a do-over if the trout rejected it.
On the advice of our head guide, Anca Colm, I offered a Parachute Adams, a trusty fly-rod go-to. The trout took it in with a slurp. In such shallow water the fish couldn’t dive—the brown trout’s preferred method of fighting—so it went airborne, with three or four leaps that sprayed an arc of gleaming droplets in the late-morning sun. When he finally came to hand, we admired the handsome kype (hooked lower jaw) of a mature male ready for spawning. We took a few minutes to revive the trout before releasing it.
After three days of fishing, Will caught and released the biggest trout of his life—last day, last cast, 22 inches.
We left the next morning for the seven-hour drive to Parque Patagonia, the newly created national park to the south. The forests and rushing rivers of the highlands slowly gave way here to a rolling landscape, each mile more sere with fewer trees and more scrub.
Our first stop: Las Pampas Lodge, on the tablelands at the foot of El Cono, a long-dormant volcano.
We began to see groups of guanacos. Nervous Patagonian hares peeped out from behind bushes, hopping, sniffing, freezing, then bolting as if they had, only at that moment, discovered the exact combination of maneuvers to avoid dismemberment from raptors, foxes, wildcats, and pumas.
As we continued, the rivers were fewer. Their valleys stood out like emerald slashes among the orange, red, and buff colors of mesas and canyons. Late in the afternoon, we arrived at the portal to Cañadón de las Pinturas (the Painted Canyon).
Our lodging for the next two days: La Posta de los Toldos, a comfortable and well-cared-for frontier outpost: clean beds, hot water, good food, good wine, and reliable Wi-Fi. Quite near to the lodge as we arrived, we watched a pair of choiques (lesser rheas) peck in the grass for seeds and insects. Along with guanacos, these ostrich-like birds were hunted by the indigenous people who preceded the Spanish.
After settling in, there was still time for a hike along the rim trail of the Cañadón, guided by Laura Cambiaire of Fundación Rewilding Argentina and her colleague María Mendizabal. Along the way, they pointed out campsites and trails that the foundation has created to attract visitors (where it is hoped that tourism revenue can help replace the income from land that is retired from cattle rearing as the eco-system is restored).
We arrived at the trailhead as the late-afternoon sun lit the walls of the canyon. Their layer-caked colors put me in mind of the Badlands of South Dakota. Below us, the valley floor shone with the silvery-blue water of Río Pinturas, its banks lined with willows. Across the way, and in the shadow of an overhanging cliff, we could barely make out the Cueva de las Manos (the Cave of the Hands), a UNESCO World Heritage site.
We returned the following morning, hiking along a well-laid-out trail that led to a close-up look at the white-on-red and red-on-white handprints of the guanaco hunters who arrived at the end of the last ice age. The colors of their handprints were as vibrant as if they had just been made, although we learned that they were left there between 8,000 and 12,000 years ago. They are so vivid that you feel as if ancient hands are greeting you across the gulf of a hundred centuries.
After two nights in the park, we headed south and east again, across hundreds of miles of steppe. More guanacos and choiques. Giant condors wheeled overhead, their shadows like dive-bombing Messerschmitts as they dipped and swooped.
We were stoked for more fishing. Our destination: Lago Strobel, sometimes called Jurassic Lake because of its enormous rainbow trout. This would be my third visit there.
We hiked along a trail that led to a close-up look at the white-on-red and red-on-white handprints of the guanaco hunters who arrived at the end of the last ice age.
Estancia Laguna Verde Lodge sits on a windswept mesa above the lake. Far from any woodlands, it is a simple one-story, metal-roofed building, much like a salmon camp in similarly treeless Iceland. The owners, Roberto and Luciano Alba, are avid anglers as well as aficionados of Argentinean wines, which are liberally poured each evening, notably some old vintages of Carmelo Patti that I look forward to each time I visit.
The mesa is dotted with lagoons holding trout of up to eight pounds. That’s all well and good, but the main event, as far as I am concerned, is Lago Strobel, the big lake, where the steppe drops off into a caldera—the remnant of a volcano—with miles of waters as blue as the Gulf of Mexico.
Although there can be days of flat calm where the trout will sip dry flies, you should also be prepared for 60 m.p.h. winds. If you can stand your ground (not a figure of speech) and get your fly in the air, the wind can carry your cast to feeding trout.
In four days of fishing, it was hard-core casting. Everyone caught fish. One of our group took a 21-pounder. After much scrambling on the shore, and a near dip in the frigid lake, I managed a 15-pounder.
We ended our stay, as one always does at a Patagonian camp, with a crucified lamb, roasted for many hours in front of a roaring fire. Just like gauchos, we ate meat still sizzling from the grill, doused with chimichurri and salsa criolla. The guides broke out their guitars. Cigars were lit. More wine was poured. Those of us who could carry a tune broke out in song (as did those of us who couldn’t). The Southern Cross shone diamond bright in the midnight sky.
Mai 10, a Buenos Aires–based luxury-travel agency, can arrange almost anything you might like to do in Argentina, including visits to Las Pampas Lodge and Parque Patagonia. You can book Estancia Laguna Verde directly through their Web site
Peter Kaminsky’s Outdoors column has appeared in The New York Times for many years. He is also a cookbook author, most recently with Francis Mallmann, of Green Fire