EL FOYEL, Argentina -- British-born billionaire Joe Lewis isn't building his new home in either of the two snow-capped mountain chains that run through his Patagonian ranch.
He didn't choose the spot by the 270-foot waterfall, or the crystal river filled with trout that crashes through a deep gorge, or the deep, silent stand of virgin cypress forest.
Instead, his mammoth new stone mansion, with its guest house and tile-roofed stable, sits at the foot of Lago Escondido -- Hidden Lake -- a mirror-smooth jewel that is the double of Lake Louise in Canada's stunning Banff National Park.
Lewis owns the whole lake. Two years ago he bought it, the mountains and the rest of this astonishing 37,000-acre chunk of Patagonia for $20 million, including the improvements he is now putting in.
Over the past two years, the world's rich and famous have been snapping up Argentina's Andean ranches -- land that in many other countries would be national parkland -- like half-price Armani suits.
Ted Turner and Jane Fonda own Primavera, or Springtime, an 11,000-acre ranch within 50 miles of the regional capital, San Carlos de Bariloche.
Fonda is a familiar sight in the city's shops, where "people find out who she is only when she takes out her credit card," says Federico Van Ditmar, a Dutch-born local real estate agent who sold the couple the $8 million ranch.
Hungarian-born investor George Soros has bought nearly a million acres nearby, plus a Bariloche resort.
Luciano Benetton, the Italian textile magnate, spent $50 million a few years ago for nearly 2.2 million acres of sheep ranches, which sprawl along a 60-mile length of the Chubut River valley and supply his company's wool mills.
The celebrity land rush has launched a Hollywood-style rumor mill in this formerly quiet sheep ranching region. Everyone from Sylvester Stallone to the Queen of England has been reported -- inaccurately -- to be looking for land.
In Bariloche, a Swiss-style haven of chocolate and ski shops, locals whisper: Didn't that fellow nibbling fondue last night look a lot like Bruce Willis?
The truth is that the verdant Bariloche area, where land sells for $200 to $600 an acre, is already shorter on top-quality ranches than on celebrities. Van Ditmar, who has sold most of the high-profile spreads, says he can't find enough land to fill a growing flood of orders.
"I have more demand for good ranches than I have ranches to sell," says the agent, who spends most of his days trolling the region's dirt back roads in search of potential sellers and who recently flew south to Patagonia's tip to scout for ranches there.
"I have orders to buy ranches with no price limit, and I can't find them," he says with a sigh.
It's not hard to see what is drawing wealthy Americans to this remote corner of the world.
Joe Wells, a millionaire aviation businessman from Golden, Colo., first came to Argentina 20 years ago as a Mormon missionary. Today he owns three Patagonian ranches, the largest -- at 21,000 acres -- bought just a month ago.
"I absolutely fell in love with the people, the culture and the beauty of the country," says Wells, who spends at least three months a year in Patagonia.
"People say, 'Why in the world do you want to invest in something so far away?' But you can pay for a lot of first-class airfares for what you save over buying land in the United States."
The land he now owns, most of it fertile pastureland at the foot of the Andes near the town of Esquel, lies at roughly the equivalent southern latitude of Yellowstone National Park and would cost 10 times as much in the United States -- except that the United States no longer has such large tracts for sale.
"I like pine forest, dark earth grasslands, rolling fields and cascading waterfalls," he says. "Here I have grass up to my waist all the time. I can fish and ride horseback and look at the mountain and say that mountain's mine. I can float the river and say that's my river.
"There's very little land like this in the world that you can buy. I've flown all over Idaho, Colorado, Montana, Wyoming and even Canada looking for ranches, but about all that's left there is big lots."
For the most part, the turnover in ranches from sheepherding families to rich foreigners has not yet greatly changed the Patagonian way of life. Most new owners, like Wells, hire the former owners or other local workers to continue running sheep and cattle on the property.
What is changing is access to the best land. Before Lewis, a stakeholder in the Hard Rock Cafe chain, built a 15-mile road to his home at Lago Escondido, few locals visited the lake. Now, however, the road has made the trip easy, and his neighbors grumble at being denied access.
At El Maiten, a dusty scrap of a town nearly surrounded by arid shrubland owned by Benetton, residents also complain that they are no longer allowed to fish in the Chubut River or cut firewood on company land.
Their biggest complaint, however, is that promises by Benetton to build a wool-washing plant and to pave the town's streets have gone unfulfilled.
"We had great expectations when they bought the ranch, and it's all been to the contrary," says Miguel Guajardo, El Maiten's mayor.
For the past two years, Benetton has refused to pay its $47,000 annual property tax bill, Guajardo says. The company is said to have concluded it is being gouged by a rate set higher than that for local ranch owners. Ranches of less than 10,000 acres do pay a lower rate, the mayor admits.
"They've bought so much land, we think they need to give something back to the area," Guajardo says.
A more fundamental change may be occurring in Patagonia's age-old character. As Van Ditmar and other real estate agents buy up remote parcels from old-time herders, many of whom eventually move on to town, some observers fear the region stands to lose part of its unique flavor.
Jose Alvarez, a 74-year-old Chilean who has been running sheep and cattle near El Maiten for nearly 50 years, still lives in a mud-daub log cabin, its roof blackened by decades of smoke and pitch rising from his open cooking fire.
His iron bed is padded with sheepskins with legs still attached and hanging over the sides, giving the impression that a flock of ewes is hiding under the ancient red comforter.
A hunk of dried mutton hangs from a piece of baling wire looped around the rafters, and beside a small, round wall mirror there's a comb stuck in a tacked-up cow's tail.
"I made money on cattle and put some away, but now life is too hard and prices too low," says the herder as he digs through a biscuit tin looking for his land papers to close a deal with Van Ditmar.
Pub Date: 9/19/98