LUGARES MAGAZINE Nro. 93
By: Gabriela Pomponio
Photos: Kiki Boccarelli
The mouth of the Correntoso river is a privileged area. After a very short stretch, the river is lost in the immensity of Lake Nahuel Huapi. Year after year, hundreds of trout repeat the ritual of spawning in its cold crystal waters. This is not the only place in the world this happens, but one gets the impression it is.
Some steps away, El Correntoso hotel has been watching the mouth of the river since Villa La Angostura was a dream project on the desks in Buenos Aires. This was the early 20th century, and the government was intent on colonizing the area to prevent the advance of the Chileans.
At first it was a boarding house, then a modest hostelry, and by the fifties it was a hotel that promoted Patagonian glamour until the late seventies. After that, it went into a forgettable decline.
Its recent reopening awoke our curiosity, so we left forthwith. When we arrived, we couldn't believe it. Could it be the same place we had once seen or another, or both at the same time? Anyway, it's there now, wood and stone with a modern air that belies the still visible original profile.
As we go into the large lobby, evening is approaching, and we notice at once the warm decor of lenga and cypress wood, the two favorite woods for interior decoration in the area. At one side of the main hall of the house hangs a large period map, an emblem of the fifties.
The windows are enormous, with the obvious intention of allowing as much Patagonian nature and natural light in as possible, laying bare every detail. We go up to our rooms, which have a unique view on Lake Nahuel Huapi. The bathtub, which comes with the room is tempting, but we leave this to the end of the day. A ritual that the hotel has reinstated with great success is "teatime". Sitting at the dining room table and overlooking the lake, we enjoy the ceremony. Far away we can see a gentle, transparent mist on the surface of the water; beyond this, the hills, covered with lengas and coihues. They are mounts Dormilon, Panguinal, Macal and Machete.
The teas they serve offer exclusive blends. Kiki -our photographer- decides to try out the Royal Fruit, a mixture of mango, papaya, peach and hibiscus flowers, with a base of black tea. I plump for a classic: English Breakfast Tea, a special formula blending Premium Indian, Ceylon and China teas, that turns out to be delicious.
The pastry is produced by the expert hand of Maria Stewart, who prepares real delights for the afternoon tea table. We choose warm apple tart and the unforgettable brownie, dulce de leche and meringue cake. However, if you give the scones a miss, that may be your biggest mistake. With the last rays of the sun, we walk to the jetty. By the lake there is an old general store that will soon be turned into the "fishermen's restaurant".
On our return to the hotel, we decide to take a tour through the rooms that evoke memories of the past. These are full of items that have been restored with great talent, and combined with others disconnected with the original history of the place, create a sophisticated climate of simplicity and harmony.
The bedrooms, 22 in all, have their original larch doors and backboards on the beds. They also have enormous wooden roof beams that you can't find nowadays. Some of the boiserie is recycled; with its tough, dark, weather-beaten appearance, it can be discovered in some areas.
The sitting room was redesigned around the great chimney and provides multiple nooks that create the illusion of intimacy. There are many ways of enjoying this decor. Personally I am fond of snuggling into an armchair and gazing dreamily on the lake that can be seen from every corner of the room.
The Story of a Project
Four years ago -we are told by Alex Laurence, the owner and creator of the "new" El Correntoso- he was fishing at the mouth of the river, when he came across a priest saying his matins. During the friendly chat that ensued, the priest told him the hotel was for sale. That chance encounter changed his life; he bought the property, and started out on the difficult task of restoration with his wife, Andrea Cattaneo. "I want this place to bear the seal of our personality", stresses Laurence, and the different objects he has brought from his home bear out his words.
In keeping with his restless character, Laurence conceived an active stay. For this reason, the guests are persuaded to carry out a program of outdoor activities. These come designed for fishermen, sailing fans and, in a combined version, simply for those who flee boredom.
When the villa wasn't there
The background of El Correntoso is the story of Primo Capraro, an Italian immigrant who arrived in the area in 1903.
He settled in the place then known as Paraje Correntoso, on the shores of Lake Nahuel Huapi. He had bought a 625 hectare stretch of grazing land, and couldn't believe his luck: he was now the owner of more land than his whole home town of Belluno occupied.
But "Don" Primo ran out of money to pay for his land, and was forced to repay the debt by making local improvements. He worked with a will as a contractor, managing a sawmill and sailing on the lake. His motor launches were the first to take passengers across the lake; at that time, the only way of getting to La Angostura was by water. The land road meant going through Chile.
So gradually Capraro became the most important businessman in Bariloche and surroundings.
The hotel started off in 1917 as a modest hostelry -directed by Don Primo's wife, Rosa Maier- as a stop-off point for travelers going to or coming from the neighboring country. The locals knew it as "Doņa Rosa's Boarding House". Over the years with its enlargements, it became a hotel, and in 1924 received its first contingent of tourists. There was a grand piano, a real luxury in those remote parts.
In the thirties, Francisco, Capraro's elder son, and his wife Emma took over the business. Guests used to spend a minimum of 20 to 30 days, enticed by the impressive landscape. They fished, went sailing to Isla Victoria, and organized picnic lunches and teas along Ultima Esperanza Arm ("Last Hope" Arm) of the lake. In winter, those who were most intrepid went skiing on Mt Dormilon, with its excellent natural ski runs.
The hotel's fame grew, and by the end of the fifties it was a "benchmark" venue for the elite. It retained its good reputation until the family decided to sell it in 1978.
A day visiting "Estancias" (Ranches)
Claudia, a specialized tour guide, walks along with us on a tour of the hotel surroundings. Among her explanations on geography and remarks on the local flora, we get to the shores of Lake Correntoso, bright yellow with new broom flower. Afterwards, from the bridge over the river, we verify that the abundance of trout is real, and far from mythical.
Halfway through the morning, Alex suggests we visit Estancia Huemul, on the peninsula by the same name. On our way there, the thick forest of La Angostura gives way to the Patagonian steppe. The transition is as obvious as it is pleasant. When we get there, we leave our vehicle and continue exploring the surroundings on a bicycle. This can also be done on foot or on horseback. The Estancia possesses beautiful little beaches on the Lake: a private paradise that all of us at one time or another dream of. It is said that somewhere there is a very old Jesuit cemetery, but nobody has been able to find it yet.
At midday we are treated to a smoked wild boar and a Patagonian mutton barbecue, as well as a ratatouille (a tasty combination of peppers, eggplant, onions and zucchini), all fried up on a plough-disk "wok". A real delicacy!
The property has an added attraction, the red deer. Although abundant, they are shy and difficult to see. In the mating season, the powerful roars of rutting stags shake the whole peninsula.
We return to El Correntoso at the afternoon's end, just in time for a drink. Nahim, the barman, exchanges a few words with us and finds out exactly what we want. He stands me a red-fruit "frozen"; I don't know how he guessed, but ever since I first tried the frozen Central American daiquiris, I've been crazy about them. He judges Kiki to be the strong-drink type, and persuades her to try the "House Special", a personal version of a Martini Gibson.
The dining room is already open for whoever is hungry. The cuisine is marked by the style of young chef Sebastian Guevara. His recommendation today is magret of stuffed duckling with pear chutney. The moon is full, and we go down to the shores of the lake. The water shows silvery reflections now, and the proud silhouette of El Correntoso successfully defying the passage of time is seen against the surrounding darkness.