When many people picture Argentine Patagonia they envision the famous granite towers of Mt. Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre. In their eagerness to visit these stunning peaks many travelers stay in the transportation hub of El Calafate, but to do so is to miss the opportunity to experience another essential part of Patagonia: the estancia. Estancias are large (sometimes enormous) rural estates used for raising livestock. Before World War II, the “Oro Blanco” or “White Gold” economy thrived as the price of sheep’s wool made estancia owners very wealthy. In the 1960s wool was devalued after the invention of polyester, but the estancia tradition continues to this day, thanks in part to the quality of Patagonian mutton which is renowned the world over for its low fat content. In and around Los Glaciares National Park where you will find the famous peaks, there are multiple estancias, some authentic operations, others revamped and restored relics of the Oro Blanco Era that welcome overnight guests.
On a recent trip to the region I stayed at Estancia Nibepo Aike, an historic estancia that existed before the area was established as a national park. Visitors are provided comfortable, semi-rustic accommodations in the guest house. While guests are toured around the grounds and given sheep sheering demonstrations and a little flair from the gauchos (Argentine cowboys) as they display their superior horsemanship, a show exclusively for tourists this is not. Nibepo Aike is a functioning estancia and the guests are able to witness the daily sheep and cattle farming activity that still generates the majority of the estancia’s revenue. Every evening you can watch the gauchos run the sheep in from their grazing pastures and then sit down to a traditional and delicious Argentine barbecue with Patagonian lamb that was harvested hours before.
A few kilometers away from Nibepo Aike is the smaller and more plush Hosteria Alta Vista. With only 7 rooms for guests, Alta Vista feels like a quaint English bed and breakfast set in the middle of wild Patagonian beauty. When the weather is agreeable guests can take afternoon tea in the sprawling garden. Alta Vista was built in the 1920s by the Yugoslavian Stipicic family. This hosteria specializes in horseback riding and offers guided excursions through the park. Alta Vista is no longer a working estancia, but if you’re interested in witnessing gaucho culture firsthand, the owners also own nearby Estancia Anita which has 20,000 sheep and is a pleasant walk or horseback ride away.
For those who love the history of the estancia tradition but don’t necessarily need the proximity of livestock, Estancia Helsingfors does a great job of representing its rich history while providing modern luxuries. The estancia was originally built by the Finnish settler Alfred Ranström in the early part of the 20th century. It was remodeled and opened as a guest house in 1996. With a capacity of 20 guests, Helsingfors feels like a cozy home and the small staff is on a first-name basis with every guest. One of the best excursions offered by Helsingfors is a hike or a horseback ride/hiking combo to Laguna Azul. This remote lagoon is off of the main tourist route in Los Glaciares National Park and hard to get to unless you are a guest at the estancia, making it unlikely for you to see anyone else on the trail. After a moderately exerting climb you are rewarded with an intensely blue lake which looks up at the Laguna Azul Glacier.
The newest and most luxurious option in this region is Eolo. This hotel was designed to evoke the English estancia tradition. The rooms are ample and decorated with an understated luxury. Small details that acknowledge the history and tradition of the region abound, such as vintage, mix-and-match tea ware from England and traditional Mapuche fabric on the furniture. Unlike historic estancias that were built for utility and in the lowlands of valleys to protect them from the ceaseless wind, Eolo was placed at the top of a hill and is uniquely blessed with sweeping views of the La Anita Valley. The hotel can organize many excursions to go see nearby Perito Moreno glacier or go horseback riding on their 10,000 acres, but chances are you will prefer to spend time in the spa or sit in the inviting library looking out the ample window while contemplating the vastness of the Patagonian steppe.