Two Hitch Hikers and a Bad Girlfriend: The Estancia Laguna Verde Story

Laguna Verde

Roberto and Luciano Alba, the owners of Estancia laguna Verde are like family. The opportunity to do business together was a no-brainer. We are really looking forward to seeing where our future together takes us. Fun trips to the lodge for sure and hopefully some new and interesting exploratory trips as well. How we met is for another day. For now we would like to share their story of how they started. In the words of Lucho Alba, “Nuestro Amigo”.

TWO HITCH HIKERS AND A BAD GIRLFRIEND: THE ESTANCIA LAGUNA VERDE STORY.

It was the summer of 2002, when I was vacationing with 4 friends at the small village of Moquehue, in the mountains of north-central part of the province of Neuquen, Northern patagonia, very close to the border with Chile.

A friend of our family has a house there, and he offered me to use it that summer during the month of January, he was going to be there afterwards in February. 

I was extremely happy, as I very much loved that place and also had helped him in the building of his cabin. Specifically I had been involved in his beautiful garden, moving dirt, making a few fences, doing many trips with materials, and so on. 

It was always combined with fishing of course, so as a teenager or a little bigger, our friend would invite me, and we worked with his 3 sons, from 8 to 2, have a good lunch and off we went to fish every day. Not bad at all!

So I was there having a blast with my friends and I received a message from my girlfriend that she was going to come stay for a week. Our relationship was going down the drain big time, and I was pretty sure it wasn’t going to last. She thought differently, and saw our problems and many issues and discussions, as “normal”. 

So the day I went to pick her up at Zapala city bus station, about 2 hours from the cabin,  wasn´t the most pleasant of trips. Me arriving 1 hour late didn’t help at all. Not precisely the best recipe for a good start to her visit!

As we were driving back to the cabin, I was already regretting having said yes to her visit, and the fact that as we arrived to Moquehue, my friends were long gone, and I mean, outta there see you at home, not outta there, be back tonight, didn’t make me happy either.

The next day I thought it would be a good idea to go fishing, so at least I would have some time for me. We were driving to one particular lake I like, about half an hour from the cabin. 

As you head south to this lake, just outside the village, you go through a border checkpoint  because it is also possible to go to Chile from there. 

The border policeman on shift that day knew me from many previous “going fishing” answers every time he stopped me, so I just waved at him, smiled and slowly continued. Right after the check point there were two hitch hikers, with big backpacks, a young couple clearly looking like “gringos”. 

As we approached, they promptly had their thumbs sticking out in classic hitchhiker fashion,and I told my girl: “I´ll pick up these guys and give them a ride” (I had already seen their fly rods sticking out of their backpacks).

She replied with a fierce look and pretty loud: “No way! Hell no! Hitchhikers are dirty and smelly, and it is also dangerous to pick up strangers”.

Well, that was all the firewood I needed to start the fire. I of course stopped, and told these guys I was giving them a ride. Without even daring to look at my girlfriend’s face. 

The couple was totally stoked as they took a look into the bed of the old Toyota hilux truck, where there was a bunch of fishing stuff. Their names were Erik and Leaf Argotti. 

As I loaded the backpacks in the bed of the “green machine” as I called my truck, the woman started trying to speak in a very basic spanish, so, after I let her struggle a little, I replied in english and asked them where they were going. They both smiled relieved, and replied that they were just fishing and camping through Patagonia, so they were cool to go anywhere down the road. Liking them right away and for sure better than hanging out with a pissed off girlfriend, I offered them to come fish with me. 

We went on a little 4 x 4 adventure, and got to a very nice part of Ñorquinco lake, not easy at all to access. As we got to the right spot, we rigged up right away, my girlfriend had not spoken one word on the entire trip, and had a really mean look. In Argentina we would say that she had an “ass face” (cara de culo), meaning a really bad mood face, and that was the case here, she had an ass face the size of a train. 

I didn’t care at all and went to fish with my new found friends and bonded right away. These guys were hardcore anglers, and in no time I realized, that although I was a pretty decent caster, my fishing knowledge and skills needed a whole lot of improvement. 

After we were done fishing, I took them to a nice camping spot, close to the road, so they were on easy access to continue their way. We exchanged emails and I gave them a bunch of flies. I was pretty sure I would not be fishing the rest of my girlfriend’s stay at Moquehue, and that we would return pretty soon. We waved goodbye, and as I was checking them on the mirror, I could not help but think how cool meeting those guys had been, and hoping it wasn´t the last.

My guess was right on the remainder of the trip with my girlfriend: We left like two days later, instead of a week, that’s how bad it was!

When I got back to the office, I sent Erik and Leaf an email with a bunch of recommendations on many different parts of Patagonia they should check out, and plenty of fishing notes on where to fish, etc.

It was one of those cases where it seems as you make friends almost instantly.

Months went by, and my relationship did end not long after that.

I had not received news from them at all, until one day I got an email from Erik, saying they were back, and that they had had an awesome time, and that “my fishing guide” was really useful, and they had fished almost all of those places I mentioned, which was awesome and I was little envious.

After plenty of email contacts, I heard from Erik that they were returning to South America, stopping first in Peru and Chile, and then crossing to Argentina, and that it would be cool to meet somewhere. 

At that time, I was helping my father build a cabin not far from Moquehue, very close to Ñorquinco lake. So i told them I was going to be there, and for sure to go meet me.

I wasn’t sure they would be able to find me, the place is not that easy to find if you don’t know the area.

So as I was preparing breakfast one morning, on the campfire outside our tent, It was the truck of my dad´s friend, Jorge, approaching. He got out of the truck smiling, guess who came out as well: Erik and Leaf! I could not believe my eyes. They were hitchhiking in the exact same place as I picked them up a year before, and Jorge, who was coming to see me, picked them up randomly at the exact border patrol as I had done before. Pretty cool!

We had the usual “catching up” back and forth, and for the next 15 days we fished and hung out along with some other friends.

They then continued travelling as I returned back home, we invited them to our home when they were done. So they did, and stayed there for a couple weeks, which was great

A few years later, my friend Erik wrote to me and said: “Hey Lucho, i’m going back to Argentina”!

I said: “cool, let’s arrange something to fish together or come visit”.

Erik said: “I can´t! I’m going to do photos with my friends for Trout Bum magazine”.

He said that they were going to Gallegos river and “Jurassic lake”. 

When he said that, I said, hey Erik, that lake does not exist. I know pretty much all the lakes in Argentina, and none has that name.

Well, when he returned he sent me a bunch of photos and told me: Hey Lucho, the lake’s real name is Strobel lake, and the fishing was amazing, the best in my life!

It happened that I showed my father the photos and told him about Strobel lake. Well, turns out that my father had just shown a property to a guy that owned an Estancia at “Jurassic lake” and he was trying to sell it in order to buy a cattle ranch in La Pampa, where we live.

He had received a downpayment for his estancia, and was looking to do the same with a ranch in our home area. 

When my father said that, we immediately thought we need to go there before he sells it, perhaps we won’t be able to go again. 

So that same night my father called this guy, as I listened carefully, and told him we would like to “check out” his estancia if he was interested. He said that he was cool with that as long as it was in the next 4 days, because he was showing the property to an investor. 

I got home that night and told my wife: “Honey, I’m going fishing with dad tomorrow”. She said: “what, in 2 days is your birthday, and i had organized an asado that night and a party for you”. My reply was short: “well, let’s´do it the following week!”. Being really laid back, she just laughed and said we fishermen were crazy people!. Could not disagree with that!

So the next day we left at midday after arranging different work matters for this last minute trip, and we were on the road with my dad and a friend. Long trip! 

We drove for 16 straight hours and arrived at the small town of Puerto San Julián and picked up the owner of Estancia Laguna Verde. We bought different things at a local market, including half a lamb for that night.

After 5 hours of a really bumpy trip, we arrived at the estancia. It was February 22, of 2008. I remember very well because it was my birthday, and one I will never forget! 

Before going to the house, he showed us a couple lagoons on the way that we fished and caught some really nice ones. I still remember fishing as a half dressed lawyer. That is, except for the suit and tie, all was in place. So i could say that the first fish I have ever caught at Estancia Laguna Verde, were dressed with style. 

We got the house, and got settled, Julio, the owner, got busy getting the fire started, and preparing the asado (lamb). The place was exactly the same as it is now. Certainly a great spot.

As he was cooking, I went fishing. My dad and our friend got busy with wine and appetizers. 

I fished and caught several fish at Verde lake. 

The next morning, we had an early breakfast and headed to Strobel really excited. One hour later I caught my first ever fish at Strobel, at what we would call later, Monster Bay.

I could not believe the size and strength of those fish. They would take me to the backing in no time, jump several times and go crazy!

After a picnic, I headed to the area we now call Camelot, and spotted fish as I was walking the shoreline. I encountered some amazing sight fishing that got me totally stoked about this place.

The day was over in a hurry, and I wanted to keep fishing till later, but my dad and friend thought better to return with daylight, as we had to walk back.

I got back to the house, I was beat up and had walked all over the place, lots of miles. So I had dinner and hit the sack fast. 

The next morning, the plan was to fish the Barancosso river in the morning and leave by 2 pm. We drove to the side of the rim, and walked down to the river. It was amazing. 

I remember spotting two big fish in a pool. Immediately I got on my knees and carefully made one cast close the first fish. Certainly, with any species, if you make your first cast count, your chances of success improve exponentially, and that’s what happened. The fish saw the well presented leech, and took it without hesitation. As I set the hook, felt the weight of the fish, and got on my feet right away, and all hell broke loose in the pool. The fish was going crazy, trying to get out of the pool, going up and jumping the whole time. Finally, I got the fish to shore, a few photos and back to the water. I was done! So after that, I followed my dad, to watch him fish. I couldn’t be happier with that fish, and I just wanted to admire the river and landscape and soak it all in.

For my father and me, this high plateau landscape has always been very beautiful, and it is a really strong feeling of peace and solitude, that I have never experienced anywhere else. 

Everytime I fish alone at Strobel, something I like to do every time I’m at the lodge, as I’m fishing by myself with no one else on sight, I get transported back to that first visit, and that strong feeling of solitude, calmness and mental peace. You feel the sun, the wind, you look everywhere and admire this raw beauty that Strobel has, something I always lack words to describe.

As we were heading back to San Julian to leave Julio there, what started as a fishing trip disguised as interested investors, mutated into how about trying to buy this place. We thought we were smart, but Julio was way smarter than us. 

Conversations went in that direction in the 5 hour trip back to town, and we learned that Julio´s deal had went south, and the buyer who had made the down payment, did not show up to complete the deal, so he had kept that money, and also was very open to sell it. We had apartments to sell, he wanted to move to La Pampa. His downpayment at the ranch he had wanted to buy, allowed him to keep his downpayment, so he wasn’t losing that money. 

Another coincidence in this amazing ride!

Not long afterwards, we completed the deal. Two fishermen taking advantage of an opportunity to fish a very secluded place turned into buying Estancia Laguna Verde.

We had never owned a lodge or fishing operation, we were not guides or anything like it. We were just extremely passionate fly fishermen. 

After a lot of work and preparation, December 1st of 2008, we were sort of ready to receive our first group, which was an agent along with a filmmaking crew. 

A week later the first group of clients from Argentina. 

After many seasons, which seem like a long time and a blink of an eye all at once, I have to say that it has been the most amazing thing that ever happened to my dad and me!!!

We care about Estancia Laguna Verde as it would be our own little baby, and there’s not one day we get together with my dad that we are not talking about something related to ELV, and how we could improve our program, access new places, explore new areas of Strobel, etc.

The lodge that started with 3 rooms, for 6 guests, has evolved into a 10 room Lodge for 12 guests. We also have built over 50 km of internal roads, shelters to have comfortable lunches by the lake, leased 2 of our 3 neighbour estancias to open up more options, built a 6000 bottle cave for our most selected wines, as well as aging there excellent cheese we bring from our province, and so many more. 

Without a doubt a life changer! The more I think about it, the more I feel it has been a similar ride to fly fishing. Running a lodge as it is fishing, is an endless learning process, where you slowly improve your game and skills, you try to learn from your mistakes, and you work hard to improve each aspect of it.

We always keep in touch with Erik and Leaf, and everytime I can, I go visit them, and we hang out and fish together and catch up.

Who would have guessed how all this would turn out: all thanks to a pain in the ass girlfriend and two gringo hitchhikers!

It was also Rob’s birthday that he fished Strobel lake for the first time and it was also a chance meeting that brought Roberto, Lucho and Rob together. Look for this story on our blog and don’t miss a chance to join all of us at this amazing place.

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