"Tell me your happiness level?" our guide demands as he plonks down a slab of flan he's just suffocated under fresh cream and dulce de leche. Having taken over the serving of our table from the elderly waiters in their gaucho-style shirts and blue neck scarves he now demonstrates how to scoop from main plate directly into mouth, Argentine family-style. In that moment I realise it is simply in Nahuel Alonso's nature to share the ways of his world with generous intensity.
The previous evening, at a lakeside camping area on the outskirts of Bariloche, Nahuel (pronounced nar-WELL) welcomed us to north-west Patagonia, which he calls "the end of the world, or the beginning, whatever you prefer". This all-in guide had orchestrated, for our small group, a night of glamping with fur-lined bedding, a table laid with fine china and silverware, a telescope, a crackling campfire, a cook, a magician.
Nahuel's salt 'n' pepper beard, check shirt, cargo pants and cap evoke everything from an Alaskan fly fisher to a Swiss goatherd but the chameleon's voice is unmistakably a product of Argentine Patagonia. And makes Chris Hemsworth sound like he sucks helium for a living.
These two days in Argentina are the most adventurous part of our 12-day tour with luxury experiential travel company &Beyond. For the past week we've been driven around Chile's finest wine regions in plush 4WD vehicles by local guides. We have stayed at, and been wined and dined in, some of the country's most exclusive accommodation: Vik Retreat in Millahue, Hotel Vira Vira in Pucon.
High-end travel often causes me to feel removed from the place I'm exploring but Nahuel has a grounding influence. Despite the frigid night he and his wife and their new baby will sleep nearby in a regular tent. When he slips blood pudding empanadas, prepared by his own mother, into a liquid-filled pot hanging over the fire I ask what kind of oil he's using.
"Fat," says Nahuel.
"Like olive oil?"
Cradling morning coffees we watch the mist dissipate from the surface of Lake Nahuel Huapi which sits at 770 metres above sea level. Our guide's mother named her son after this body of water and raised him on one of its islands. These foothills of the Andes surrounding the beguiling yet dangerously cold 529-square-kilometre lake became Argentina's first national park.
From breakfast we hike up into the forest for a better look at the glacier-clad mountain of Cerro Tronador. On the descent there's a table set up on a rock platform with crockery and biscuits and mate (mar-tay) – the country's unofficial national drink. "Mate is the first thing you have to share in the Argentine life," explains Nahuel and takes a long sip through the metal straw – the bombilla – before passing the gourd to the next person.
He then leads a walking tour around Bariloche. This small city, located on the southern shore of the lake, is a popular base for trekkers, mountaineers and skiers and is known for its Swiss architecture, chocolate and micro-breweries. Our lunch at El Boliche Viejo – a repurposed vintage grocery store – is a rich cultural injection of local people, chargrilled meats and that communal flan for dessert overloaded with cream and caramelised sweetened milk.
After showing us through an art hotel Nahuel decides the afternoon is calm enough to speedboat us out to Victoria Island where we walk unspoilt beaches of his childhood playground. Back in Bariloche we visit the leafy property on the city's outskirts where Nahuel's young family live in a dome home he recently built by googling design ideas and building instructions. The structure absorbs the Patagonian sunshine and holds warmth, and is obviously one of a kind.
Latam Airlines flies daily from Sydney direct to Santiago de Chile. Melbourne passengers need to transit in Sydney for the international flight. See latam.com
&Beyond designs personalised high-end tours of Africa, Asia and South America offering travellers exclusive experiences. See andbeyond.com
Elspeth Callender travelled as a guest of &Beyond.