When I went to my grandmother’s house last year to go through her things shortly after she passed away, I found an old scrapbook of photographs that I had never seen before. Page after page was filled with images of her and my grandfather fishing, boating, and laughing with friends against the breathtaking backdrop of Patagonia. The pictures revealed two people whom I’d come to know only through stories—passionate and full of life, with just as much appetite for adventure as for glamour. Every summer, they left their life in Buenos Aires behind for this distant region, a tradition that I had been aware of but that came alive when I discovered the scrapbook.
For an entire month, they and their friends would take over a wing of the famous Llao Llao Hotel (rooms from $240), designed by the distinguished architect (and friend of my grandfather) Alejandro Bustillo, in the Andean foothill town of San Carlos de Bariloche. After spending days along rivers and lakes, the men would don tuxedos and the women long gowns for a formal dinner. The contrast of this elegance with the ruggedness of the terrain captured my imagination so much that I felt a sudden, inexorable yearning to visit these very places. I wanted to retrace their steps to understand them better.
In January, I made this a reality. While my husband, Nacho Figueras, was in Australia for a polo match, I brought my two youngest children, Artemio, eight, and Alba, five, to the region to stay with my father, who rents a farm near Llao Llao every summer. My grandparents would split their time between the hotel and La Primavera, a stunning 25,000-acre estancia on the shores of Lake Traful. While half of the property is now privately owned by Ted Turner, the other half, separated by the river where my grandfather used to fish, is still owned by the same family, the Larivières, who renamed it Estancia Arroyo Verde (rooms from $900) in 1975.
I never met my grandfather—the plane he was piloting disappeared off the coast of Panama when my father was just eight years old—but I’m convinced that my passion for horses comes from him. According to my father, my grandfather lived and breathed equestrian life and felt most connected to this land on horseback. I decided that the best way to feel close to him would be to experience this place as he did.
The Llao Llao Hotel and Estancia Arroyo Verde are separated by a 30-mile stretch of the Andes that my grandparents would traverse often. I booked a guided tour with Jakotango (tours from $800), a company that I discovered is owned by an elementary school classmate of mine, Jakob Von Plessen. After a few days with my family, I left my kids with my father and headed to Jakotango’s base camp, located in Parque Nacional Lanín. After a night in one of its safari-style tents, which had a proper bed, heating, and a private shower, Jakob and I set off for an overnight camping trip. Despite riding along narrow cliffs and staying in basic tents with nothing more than a sleeping bag, I felt completely safe and comfortable thanks to Jakob’s guidance and my sturdy Criollo horse.
The next day we visited the pobladores, or settlers, who still live as their ancestors did more than 100 years ago. Besides raising cattle, they preserve and share their folklore and traditions. Today, the pobladores oversee vast sections of the mountain range. To get to my final destination, the six-bedroom Estancia Arroyo Verde where my grandparents used to stay, I needed to pass through one of these territories, managed by an affable man named Felipe, who led me to the estate. There, I was greeted by Marina Larivière, who, along with her two sisters and mother, Meme, still lives on the property. In the charming main house, we had dinner with Meme, who described how the dining room at Llao Llao would go silent when my grandmother descended the stairs, always after everyone was seated. I could picture it perfectly.
I left early in the morning the next day to fish the Traful River, one of my grandfather’s favorite spots for its rainbow trout and landlocked salmon. It is now a popular destination for catch-and-release fly-fishing. There’s a photograph of my grandfather in one of the halls at the estancia that shows him standing by the river, smiling and proud, holding up his catch of the day. As I stood in this same place, 80 years later, I realized how incredible it is that his Patagonia still exists.