Nahuel Alonso is getting married next week on a rock high above the lake for which he is named. He will take me there tomorrow.
Is it hard to get to? I ask, concerned about my unfledged trekking skills. No, no, he assures me. After all, the guests must find their way to this wedding venue, on foot and in their finery. His mother and his future mother-in-law, too. If they can do it, so can I.
I accept this reassurance and turn my attention to the water pooling in the valley before us: Lago Nahuel Huapi, the largest of the lakes in Argentina's Lake District in northern Patagonia. The name Nahuel means puma in the native Araucanian language; it was given to Alonso by his Argentinian parents upon his birth in Spain, a world away.
What a prophetic moniker: at the age of five, Alonso moved with his mother to Victoria Island in the middle of Lago Nahuel Huapi. When the fierce Patagonian wind blows, this water becomes an ocean, full of white caps and currents and waves. But the lake that foretold Alonso's future is glass-flat and spangled today; it laps gently at the skirts of the Andes to the west and seeps into valleys tunnelling towards the flatlands in the east.
You'll find nothing at all in Patagonia, Alonso warns me as we cruise out onto the lake. It's a wild, empty sweep of land extending from the Colorado River in Argentina's north all the way to Tierra del Fuego in the cold, foreboding south. Or you'll find everything here: the steppe, poetic with desolation; the transitional forest arising timidly from the plains and growing luxuriant as it approaches the mountains; the peaks standing as testament to the fault lines that undergird this place.
It all depends on your perspective, Alonso says. On what satisfies your senses, and what you perceive indulgence to mean.
"Luxury for us in Patagonia is nature – the lakes, the silence, the atmosphere," he says.
"Here you will find something bigger than your ego."
Even the hotel from which Alonso has collected me – the Relais and Chateaux property Las Balsas, on Nahuel Huapi's north-eastern shore near Villa la Angostura – downplays its image to the advantage of the wilderness enfolding it.
From the outside it is a turreted, indigo-coloured lake house propped upon the shore; inside, it's as cosy as a family home, its suites pared down to evoke rusticity and comfort. No overblown splendour here. No egos to be appeased.
Out on the water, this luxury of which Alonso speaks comes into focus. The breath of the lake, which had sullied its surface at dawn, has been burned off to reveal water of petrol blue; the mountains cupping the lake are striped blond with beaches, jade with forests, black with rock, white with snow; the air is a silent dome punctured only by birdsong and the splash of water against the boat.
A mountain spears the sky to our right – the first one Alonso climbed, when he was nine years old, the one that "changed my life". The cliffs of Victoria Island, his boyhood home, loom to our left. Other migrants have found a home here, too, seafaring imperial cormorants that flew across the Andes after an earthquake in Chile in 1963, adapted to fresh water and decided to stay.
We pull up to the jetty in Anchorena Bay. It's a short climb to the island's plateau and, a little further along, the school Alonso's mother founded when they moved here all those years ago. A handful of children from islands in Lago Nahuel Huapi are still schooled here; their woven mobiles dangle from the cabin's eaves.
This island was the best classroom, Alonso says as he leads me through his childhood playground, a parkland crammed with ponderosa pines and larch, monkey puzzle trees and towering sequoias.
"I love them," he says of the trees. "They're a symbol of how small we are."
Further along, he shakes the fruit from a plum tree. We scoop up handfuls of the purple drupe; juice drips from our chins as we walk in silence, the trees closing over us. There is only the hypnotic tread of footsteps on the forest floor and the sound that foliage makes when you care to listen: scratches and whispers and sighs.
Finally, we shake ourselves loose from the forest and emerge onto a beach that spans a narrow, jewel-bright bay. A picnic has been set out, as though for a queen: candy-striped rug and cushions scattered on the sand; silverware filled with tasty morsels; bottles of Patagonian beer stacked beside the steamer trunks in which they've been magically transported to this empty stretch of beach.
After lunch we sip tea made from Alonso's mother's recipe – rosehip, hibiscus, apple, ginger, honey – and allow the serenity to enfold us.
"What does luxury mean in Patagonia?" Alonso asks. "This is luxury."
Next morning I lace up my boots for the hike to the rock where Alonso is going to marry his fiancee, Tasha Filomeno, next week. The path leads off a beach and inclines through a forest before emerging above the tree line.
Up we go, picking our way along increasingly vertiginous slopes, stopping to ogle the condors gliding above us. They're so close we can hear the wind caressing their feathers. Alonso trots up the splintered rock face like a mountain goat; I tread gingerly. The view grows increasingly panoramic so that finally, when we reach the rock upon which the bride and groom will make their vows, the whole of northern Patagonia has spread itself out before us.
Far below lies the white arc of beach where we started this journey. Peaks rise jagged and furious in the west, marking the border with Chile. The fingers of Lago Nahuel Huapi ooze through the valleys. Mountains frame the picture in staggered arrangements, their outline becoming fainter and fainter as they recede into the distance.
"We left the hotel one hour ago, and can you believe where we are?" Alonso cries. "We are climbing in the Andes! We have seen two condors! This is something bigger than your ego."
Yes, it's true: my ego is dwarfed by this monumental feat of nature. And it's crushed further when Alonso asks if I'd like to rappel over the lip of the rock to a ledge below. My nerves fail me; I descend via a narrow, all too prosaic, path instead. At the base of the rock I'm greeted by yet another incredulous sight: yes, the sun-struck water, the mountains rising tall on the other side, yesterday's candy-striped picnic blanket spread out upon a sky-high ledge; but beyond the chasm, a man who seems to be standing on thin air, his head and torso just visible above the precipice. He's perching on a narrow ledge and cooking wild boar and chimichurri for our lunch.
And now I hear music, soft at first and then rising in waves until it washes over me, a melodic, heartbreaking tune. I turn to where the sound is coming from and see a second man, standing on the opposite edge of the mountain, a charango clasped to his chest.
Arising far behind him, as though alert to his refrain, is an extinct volcano named Tronador. This is where Chile begins, and Argentina ends. It's at once the most natural of scenes, and the most cinematic. Behind me, the rock upon which Alonso and Filomeno will marry a week from today, and from which they will rappel once they've taken their vows. Before me, the lake for which the groom-to-be was named, and which he somehow found his way back to.
All around me, wherever I look, bloom fairytales and magic.
FIVE OTHER EXPERIENCES IN ARGENTINA'S LAKE DISTRICT
ROUTE OF THE SEVEN LAKES
The tarring of this 110-kilometre road from Villa la Angostura to San Martin was finally completed in 2015, making it more accessible to people travelling by car or – popularly – bicycle. The route passes through two national parks and skirts seven major lakes.
Conspiracy theorists believe that Adolf Hitler didn't die but instead fled to Argentina, where he lived on the outskirts of Bariloche. Sleuths can retrace his alleged steps from the southern Argentinian coast – to which he was apparently smuggled by submarine – all the way to northern Patagonia's steppe.
With its clear streams and temperate climate, northern Patagonia is a fly fishing hot spot. At Tipiliuke Lodge – on a working estancia near San Martin – guests have access to the trout-filled Chimehuin and Quilquihue rivers, which run through the property.
It's not easy keeping your eye on the ball at Llao Llao Hotel and Resort's 18-hole golf course near Bariloche, but the distraction is worth it: the greens are surrounded on all sides by glacial lakes, national parkland and snow-capped Andean peaks.
In winter, the Lake District's mountains are transformed into snowfields, with Bariloche serving as the gateway to several of the region's ski resorts. The mountainsides dish up powdery snow and expansive views of Lago Nahuel Huapi.
Qantas flies to Santiago from Sydney six times a week, with onward flights to Buenos Aires and Bariloche offered by codeshare partner LATAM. From October 2017 Qantas customers can book codeshare tickets on LATAM's new, direct Melbourne to Santiago service, which will operate three times a week. See qantas.com
The Classic Safari Company offers a range of tailor-made itineraries in Argentina's Lake District, including a six-night package starting from about $A4250 and including three nights at Llao Llao Hotel and Resort, three nights at Las Balsas and all transfers. See classicsafaricompany.com.au
Catherine Marshall travelled as a guest of The Classic Safari Company.
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