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Don't Cry for Lush Patagonia

'I want to own this paradise," actor Christopher "Highlander" Lambert said last October after eyeing Cholila valley's Matterhorn-like peaks, lagoons with pink and black flamingos, and lush old-growth forests.

The French actor then reportedly offered to pay $800,000 for a lakefront property, thus becoming the latest international celebrity to seek refuge in the Western Hemisphere's most southern frontier - Patagonia.

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In recent years, British restaurateur Charlie Lewis, Italian fashion magnate Luciano Benetton, media magnate and philanthropist Ted Turner and his wife, Jane Fonda, and Hungarian philanthropist-financier George Soros have all bought sizable chunks of Patagonia. Even President Clinton spent the final weekend of his seven-day tour through South America last October in San Carlos de Bariloche, a Patagonian ski town, and reportedly asked about property prices.

The rich and famous are invading Argentina. They're coming in droves to Patagonia to escape the paparazzi and the crowded cities of the United States and Europe or to invest in cattle and sheep ranches. The glitterati are also taking advantage of a stabilized economy and bargain land prices. Patagonia real estate agents say the average price of land is just $20 an acre. "For the past two years, there have been a lot of inquiries," says Keen Van Ditmar, a Bariloche real estate agent. "Patagonia is now in vogue."

While Patagonia contains one-third of Argentina's national territory, it has only about 1 million people, 3 percent of the nation's 35 million inhabitants. Most of the region is an immense, windswept, arid, and treeless plain good only for raising sheep - "the curse of sterility is on the land" wrote Charles Darwin during a 1834 visit. But much of the northern half is similar to scenic landscapes found in Wyoming, Utah, or Montana. It's believed that Walt Disney artists copied Patagonian forest backdrops for the 1942 hit "Bambi."

"We chose it because there isn't a more beautiful place in the world," Mr. Turner told the Buenos Aires daily Clarin last year after buying an $8 million, 11,000-acre ranch called La Primavera (Springtime).

Charlie Lewis, who owns the South American franchise for the Planet Hollywood and Hard Rock Cafe restaurant chains, also purchased a huge tract. In a phone interview, Mr. Lewis said his 32,123-acre, $8 million ranch would be "strictly a family affair" and an "ecological reserve."

Luciano Benetton and George Soros, however, are here to make money. In 1991, Benetton paid $50 million for 2.2 million acres. Currently, he reportedly raises 280,000 sheep on six ranches, producing more than 2 million pounds of wool a year to supply about 10 percent of the wool his clothing empire needs.

Mr. Soros acquired the luxury Hotel Llao Llao in Bariloche - where President Clinton stayed - and more than 1 million Patagonian acres, making him and Benetton two of Argentina's biggest landowners.

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Not everybody is happy about the invasion of the rich and famous. "If we don't stop this tendency, very dark days are ahead," Gov. Carlos Maestro of Chubut Province, part of Patagonia, told a group of students last year.

"Such complaints are similar to what happened in the United States after the Japanese bought Rockefeller Center," says Felipe Noguera, a Buenos Aires-based political consultant. "It's nationalist sentiment."

In a recent letter to President Carlos Menem, four congressmen asked their chief executive to reconsider the nation's open-border policy. "Many who see the purchase of Patagonian properties by the famous and multimillionaires as an amusing event are extremely mistaken...," the letter says. "In a world where the economy is the mother of rules, one has to be very mindful of controlling the expansion of economic colonialism."

Congressman Mario das Neves, the letter's author, says that until a few years ago, it was illegal for foreigners to own Patagonian land along the border with Chile. Mr. das Neves is especially irked about recent rumors that actor Sylvester Stallone bought property near the Turner-Fonda spread and was set to close a deal on a 17,600-acre ranch called Los Murmullos (The Whispers) in the Cholila Valley, just 36 miles from the Chilean border. The congressman sees Mr. Stallone - the star of "Rocky" and "Rambo" films - as the symbol of the flag-waving American. Those rumors, however, proved untrue.

Although a tiny community of 2,103 people, Cholila is no stranger to famous Americans. In 1901, legendary outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid bought a ranch outside town and stayed until 1907.

Americans Adam Canepa and his wife, Kyle Singer, came more recently. The couple were driving a jeep through Latin America in 1990 when they stumbled upon the Cholila Valley's snowcapped mountains, green valleys, forests with old-growth trees, and rivers packed with freshwater salmon. "We took one look at the landscape, looked at each other, and said, 'We have to live here,' " says Ms. Singer.

Today, the couple live on an 880-acre ranch with two dogs and 11 horses, surrounded by apple, plum, and pear trees. They recently built a small hotel to accommodate the increasing number of tourists.

"Last year was the first time that we really noticed Americans coming down and asking questions about land prices," Mr. Canepa says. "I guess it's getting too crowded up there."

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