Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Nowhere Is A Place, In Argentina

The old Patagonian expression is a perfect fit for a place called Helsingfors.

By Paul Gerald

MARCH 28, 2000:  To get there, you'd first fly 5,200 miles south to Buenos Aires. Then you'd get in a smaller plane and fly four hours farther south to Rio Gallegos -- and right until the plane hit the runway you'd be wondering if anybody lives in this godforsaken desert. Then you'd get on a bus and head for the mountains. A couple hours out, you'd leave the pavement. A couple hours after that, you'd get down to one lane. After two hours of bumping over and dodging rocks, you'd be at the end of a 30-mile-long lake, at the foot of mountains where no one is allowed to go because of the rare wildlife that lives there, and looking at the first clump of trees you've seen since, well, Memphis. And when you walk into the shade of those trees, you'd be at Helsingfors.

A hundred years ago, a Finnish man arrived on this lakeshore and started raising sheep. In the 1960s, his son sold it to two brothers who years before had bought the place "next door," that being 5 miles back up the road. Five years ago, they built a new building under the tall, thickly branched trees, with room for 16 guests and a big fireplace and a world-class kitchen and a little stream meandering through the green grass and among the flowers in the yard. It's a paradise in the middle of nowhere. But as they say in (and about) Patagonia, "Nowhere is a place."

And what a place Estancia Helsingfors is. "Estancia" is the Argentinean word for "ranch," but the only sheep you'll see during a stay at Helsingfors will be staked out over the coals when they cook up a traditional asado, or barbecue. That'll be for lunch, served with Argentinean wine, and afterward you can walk along the lakeshore looking for flamingos or nap at the base of a 100-year-old sycamore.

Your $200 per night covers the room and the meals and the excursions, the choices for which are as varied as the scenery. You can take a boat ride across the powder-blue lake to see a calving glacier or up the fjord beyond the estancia to look for guanaco, a wild cousin of the llama, or the rare huemul, an antelope-type critter whose habitat the no-access mountainous preserve was created to protect. Or you can hop on a horse and ride up the hills for a staggering view across the lake to the world-famous Fitz Roy Range, whose granite-columned profile inspired the label for the Patagonia line of clothing and whose mystifying peaks are a collective mecca to climbers from every corner of the globe. Or you can hike or ride up the valley behind the ranch to La Laguna Azul, the Blue Lagoon. Up there, condors soar over a bluer-than-blue lake with a glacier plunging into the far side, a waterfall cascading out the near side, and mountains looming all around.

"Nowhere" is a hell of a place.

The day my uncle and I arrived at Helsingfors, we were just in time for a filet, some Merlot, a salad of fresh veggies from the garden, and flan and strong coffee for dessert. We had a little nap to recover from the road, and then the staff saddled up some horses and we headed for the high country. It was just the two of us and Diego, the son of one of the owners. The other guests -- an architect from Boston with his family, coffee farmers from Brazil, hikers from California -- were already off to the glacier.

We got on our mounts, Largo and Loco, and started our "long" and "crazy" trip. Through blooming flowers and tall grass. Onto rock slopes that the horses handled with ease. Below ridgetops to escape the eternal Patagonian winds. Past a herd of a few dozen guanaco. Through a burned-out forest. And then to a promontory from which the view was, for lack of a better word, planetary.

By this time we had struck up a rapport with Diego, and he turned to us and said, "Quiere tomar mate?" He was inviting us for a mate, a strong tea served in a gourd, but served only among friends. You don't get mate in a restaurant; you get it in someone's home.

So we rode to the "estancia next door," Los Hermanos, which Diego's father and uncle bought decades ago. Diego led us into a dusty, simple room he called the "gauchos' club," where the men who worked the ranch would gather at the end of the day to talk and swap tales and drink strong green tea from a shared gourd. He started a fire, filled the gourd with leaves and then hot water, and we passed it among ourselves.

We felt content and at ease in our beautiful little corner of nowhere.


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