Patagonia, perhaps best known for its massive glaciers, towering mountains, deep fjords, and vast steppe (windswept plains), covers more than one million square kilometers (400,000 square miles) and plays host to an incredible variety of landscapes and wildlife. Stretching across South America, from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans, this region straddles two countries divided by the Andes Mountains: Chile and Argentina. While the border of Argentina remains today much as it was by the mid 1880s, it is notable that the boundary between the two countries was disputed for years, and the final border recognized today wasn’t agreed until 1978!
Argentine Patagonia includes almost four-fifths of the Patagonian region: approximately 800,000 square kilometers (308,000 square miles). Set in the shape of a triangle, it comprises roughly one-third of the country’s landmass, and the incredible diversity of landscape, geology, wildlife, and plant species extends far beyond that of the glaciers.
The original inhabitants of Patagonia are the Mapuches, a nomadic tribe who lived on both sides of the Andes in northern Patagonia. Beginning in the late 1800s, European colonization began, and Argentina became home for many European cultures including Welsh and Spanish, with Northern Patagonia dominated by Italian, Swiss, and Germans.
Development began quickly, with the expansion of industry – everything from wool-producing estancias to energy production and mining to agriculture. Concurrent with this development was the rapid rise of townships across the land. Fortunately, the settlers understood the great resources that were contained here, and several national parks were established to protect the rich natural inheritance of this incredible region.
Patagonia’s famous Lake District is set in the northern part of the Patagonia region. This enormous area, comprised of beautiful lakes and spectacular mountain peaks, stretches 1,500 kilometers (900 miles) from Lago Alumine in the north, to Parque Nacional Los Glaciares in the south. Divided again into two regions, north and south, the Northern Lake District encompasses a 500 kilometer (300 mile) stretch of lakes, forests, and mountains, and plays host to four national parks – Lanín, Nahuel Huapi, Lago Puelo, and Los Alcerces.
Parque Nacional Lanín, where Caballadas is located, is the northernmost of these four parks, and Bariloche, located in Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi, lies directly to the south. Both are home to ample hiking, climbing, fishing, and horseback riding in summer, and skiing and other snow sports in winter.
Located on the border with Chile, Lanín National Park is a diverse gem featuring multiple eco-regions. From the arid Patagonia steppe (plains) to the east, to mid-altitude forests, to alpine highlands, and finally to volcanic summits in the west, the park spans 3,920 square kilometers (1,508 square miles) and contains 24 beautiful lakes with glacial origins. It was established in 1937 to preserve natural ecosystems and landscapes, including the north Patagonian Andean forest where the plateau and the Andes meet.
The park is named for the imposing Lanín Volcano. Rising to a height of 3,776 meters (12,388'), the volcano dominates the park’s landscapes from every angle, towering 1,500 meters (4,921') or more over the other peaks in the area. Graced with eternal snows, its conical tip provides a great backdrop for hikes and horseback rides, picnics and photography!
In addition to the volcano, Lanín is well known for its abundant and unique natural resources. Blessed with glacial lakes, raging rivers, and quiet creeks, it is reputed for its fine fishing, with an abundance and variety of trout. In the dense woods there is the Pudú, the smallest deer in the world, with a body that is perfectly adapted to this environment. It is one of the endangered species protected within this park, as is the Huillín, a kind of mink.
And Lanín is home to one of the most peculiar looking trees in the world – the Araucaria araucana, or monkey puzzle tree – one of the world’s most enduring species of trees. Endemic to the temperate rainforests of Argentina, it is found only in the cordillera (mountains) of the Neuquén Province in Argentina, and at similar latitudes across the border in Chile, along the eastern slopes of the Andes. It grows on impoverished volcanic soils at considerable altitudes, between 600 and 1800 meters (1,969' and 5,906'), and is protected in Argentina. It is an evergreen conifer, reaching up to 45 meters (150'), with a top that resembles a sun umbrella set upon a sturdy trunk that grows to 2-meters (7') in diameter. This fascinating tree species is a prehistoric survivor and has been around for more than two hundred million years. The ones you see today are descendants of those that survived the great volcanic eruption that flattened most of Patagonia 150 million years ago. The pinon, its fruit, are eaten by many animals, but are also are a staple of the native Mapuche diet, and that of other local inhabitants. Sacred to the Mapuche, the tree is also called Pehuén in their native tongue, Mapudungun.
Estancia is a Spanish term describing a large rural estate, with many similarities to the English term ranch. Unlike a hacienda, which could be any type of agricultural venture, estancias, most typically located in the southern South American grasslands, the pampas, have historically always been livestock (cattle or sheep) estates.
During the first centuries of Spanish colonial rule, cattle introduced by the Spanish roamed free and man undertook raids to catch and slaughter them. In the 19th century stationary ranching ventures started to form in the pampas, with permanent buildings and marked livestock with clearly defined ownership. They were called estancias, the term indicating the stationary, permanent character. The immigration of the Welsh to Argentina in the late 19th century added sheep ranching to the region.
The gaucho, the estancia's ranch worker on horseback, stands as one of the best-known cultural symbols of Argentina. This rough, tough free-riding horseman of the pampas, a proud cousin of the North American cowboy, has been elevated to the level of myth, celebrated in both song and prose, well endowed with the virtues of strength, bravery, and honor.
Most estancias were founded early in the 20th century and follow a similar layout: a tree lined entry and main residential area (the trees forming a windbreak and the flat and often bare pampas), with a large main house in traditional criollo or imitation English, French, or Italian style, surrounded by gardens and lawns. In recent decades, agriculture has intensified as a profitable industry, and often shifted the estancias from livestock to crop farming. A small number of estancias, particularly those with historic architecture have been converted into guest ranches.