BARILOCHE, Sept 14 — With outstretched black wings more than a metre long, fringed with white feathers, a condor sweeps over our heads and soars effortlessly across the remote ragged mountain peaks of Patagonia, while we try to follow him as far as our binoculars can take us. Possibly spotting carrion, it disappears behind an outcrop.
The Andean condor is an ugly bird. With a featherless pink head and wrinkly neck peeking out from a white downy collar above gigantic black shoulders that give it a hunched appearance as it stands with wings tucked in, it reminds me of a witch — to be exact, Gagool the shrivelled, bald witch in Henry Rider Haggard’s King Solomon Mines.
My brief to Maita Barranechea — the founder and owner of Mai10, a leading bespoke travel agency in Argentina — was to let me meet some people from one of the earliest families who settled in the city of Bariloche in the province of Rio Negro.
So, I signed up for condor watching because I was interested to speak to Lorenzo Sympson — a second generation Argentinian born of Scottish and English immigrants who has dedicated most of his life to the study of the Andean condor, the largest flying bird of prey in the world.
I arrived in Argentina in May, the end of the high travel season in Patagonia and Bariloche — the gateway to Patagonia — and the time it is most lively. San Carlos de Bariloche is otherwise known as Little Switzerland with its alpine forests and stretches of lakes that seem to extend forever. In the city, there are even chocolate shops. Many Swiss, Italian and German immigrants settled in Bariloche in the 19th Century.
European surnames like Brown, Smith, Russo and Kempel are common. Sympson picks me up from the airport together with a ranch owner Andres Kempel, who is of Swiss-German descent. Just 50 minutes drive out away from the city centre, the landscape of Bariloche becomes a parched, endless expanse.
We go into a valley in the Andean foothills in Argentina. It is bleak and isolated, yet stunning.
The next day I explore the greenery of Bariloche and my accommodation at Llao Llao, an Argentinian institution where hotels are concerned. It was built by famous local architect Alejandro Bustillo in the style of luxury Swiss ski lodges.
Located on a promontory, it is surrounded by the Nahuel Huapi Lake on three sides, with one side framed by the Andes mountains.
I hiked up a hill, stopping constantly along the way to marvel at the sights of wild rose hips growing in a profusion of reds, as well as the lush foliage and shrubs.
At the summit, I could see the crystalline waters of the lake.
As a reward for the hike, Barranechea arranges for me to have a “a la plancha” lunch (cooked on a heated griddle) of beef and salmon trout washed down with Argentinian wines from Luke Mallmann, a nephew of Argentina’s most celebrated chef Francis Mallmann, whose family moved from Germany to settle in Bariloche a few generations ago.
Though it was only early autumn, the air was nippy. Fortunately, we had hot food to warm ourselves.
The biggest highlight for me was learning about gaucho culture. The travel agency arranged for me to spend an afternoon at the Estancia Huemul ranch, where third generation Argentinian Silvestre Seres played host.
Seres is of Spanish genealogy, but grew up with gauchos on his family’s estate. It was through making a documentary about gauchos that Seres learned more about gaucho origins, their culture and way of life.
A gaucho comes from mixed ancestry from the natives — what the Argentinians call Indians — who inhabited the land way before the white settlers arrived.
As 68-year-old Roberto Cornelio, a fourth-generation gaucho, tells me while preparing a 10kg baby lamb on the cruz — a rack made to resemble a cross for grilling whole animals — that more young men born into gaucho families are eschewing the traditional lifestyle and opting for other occupations.
The life of a gaucho is hard. Most gaucho boys grow up learning to take care of livestock, farming the land and tending to horses, which means education is not a priority.
As we eat by an indoor fire, Seres tells me that as a boy, he wanted to be a gaucho like most Argentinian boys.
“We think it’s so macho to walk around with a flacon (a knife that gauchos carry to do everything with — from castrating young bulls to cutting food), wearing gaucho pants and a beret, but their lives are actually quite harsh,” said Seres.
But being a gaucho is a birthright, passed from fathers to sons.
Argentina is 29 hours away by plane, but I am grateful for the experience that allowed me to plug into local culture and learn about Argentinian society.
Getting there is a journey in itself. To get there, I took a flight on Qatar Airways with a transfer in Doha and a technical stop in Sao Paolo before arriving in Buenos Aires.
Bariloche is another two hours away from Buenos Aires on a domestic flight, and is the gateway for many going into Patagonia.
But far as it may be, remote destinations like this are gaining popularity with Asian tourists.
Alex Malcolm, founder and managing director of luxury travel agency Jacada Travel, said: “There’s an increase of about 30 per cent of bookings from Singapore and Hong Kong to remote destinations like Patagonia. It’s the sense of isolation and epic landscapes that draw people in.”
Qatar Airways flies a Boeing 787 Dreamliner to Buenos Aires. Take a domestic flight from Buenos Aires to Bariloche, which is two hours away.
For more information on experiences in Argentina, visit www.mai10.com.ar — TODAY