For the amateur equine-lover, a horseback trip through Chilean Patagonia may seem daunting, but given the right group of guides, it can be an experience of a lifetime! Recently I had the chance to accompany a group of Chile Nativo guides, gauchos from Estancia Guido, and two local women working on a video about Patagonia, to scout a new horse pack trip near the Torres del Paine Park.
We arrived late in the night under a brilliant full moon to our warmly lit Estancia and accommodation, Lodge Cerro Guido. After unloading the gear we gathered around a cozy fire, snacked on appetizers and drank Pisco sours while waiting to meet our hosts. The newly renovated Estancia has country elegance and comfortable accommodations, not to mention delicious local cuisine. After dinner and a last view of the stars, our group headed off to a soft bed and a good sleep; our last taste of civilization before heading out for five days of exploring the wilds of Patagonia along the Chile/Argentine border.
It’s May and the Lenga leaves (Nothofogus family) are making their brilliant color change from deep green to fiery red. The weather has started to turn colder and we might have a chance of snow. We wake up early and after a hearty breakfast we met our horses. We brought along two pack horses for our food and gear. I’m thrilled with my horse, a speckled grey gelding named Benedicto Torres; we become quick companions. The sky threatens rain, but holds as we make our way across a mixture of steppe and hills covered in wind-twisted trees and low lying bushes toward Estancia Las Chinas.
Along the way, we stop for a picnic lunch at a small deserted puesto, a rustic hut that the gauchos use while moving the animals. We experience real pampering when our lunch is spread before us. Smoked salmon and cream cheese, avocados, homemade bread and hot soup ease the chill and prepare us for the afternoon. We push ourselves to get back into the saddle knowing that we have quite a bit more riding ahead of us to make it to camp before nightfall.
We can see it in the distance, a welcoming curl of smoke rising from the Estancia las Chinas house…there will be new gauchos to meet, fresh baked bread, hot coffee and friendly conversation. As I know from previous horseback trips in Patagonia, there is no more humble and welcoming a man than the gaucho in his hut. We stride through the gate and the sheep dogs bark excitedly at the new arrivals. We are welcomed by the gaucho known as Metallico, for his metallic voice; he is a heavy set man in his 60s. His easy gaucho air is friendly and welcoming. We are directed to set up our tents in the back pasture. The horses graze around us and you can hear their soft murmurs in the night. Sleep comes fast and deep after a long day in the saddle and a face full of Patagonian extremes.
The following day we head into a river cut valley, our destination the puesto Las Chinas. The ride has some great sections, perfect for cantering and winding our way through Neneo and Calafate bushes. Every once in a while, one of the group will race to the top of an overlook and bring back a report of the areas ahead. Finally we arrive to our puesto; after miles of pasture it was like arriving to a castle. We all set about to our tasks to make our new space more comfortable. There was wood to be gathered, a fire to be made, hot water to boil for mate (yerba mate is a bitter tea that is drank from a gourd through a metal straw, very typical in this part of Chilean Patagonia) and the horses to unsaddle and put to pasture. Our duties pass the time quickly and it feels good to be living and experiencing estancia life. Later in the day the gauchos arrive with the rest of our supplies. We welcomed them with a hearty dinner of roasted lamb, hot coffee and warm homemade bread. That night in this rustic hut, candles and headlamps our ambient lighting, surrounded by new friends united in adventure and good spirit, we drank simple red wine, told stories and played games to pass the time. Outside, the wind whipped around the puesto, but we were warm inside, not another soul for miles.
The following day we headed toward our next puesto, La Rosada and the Argentine border. The unmarked route was new for the group except to the gauchos. It proved to be a challenging day, filled with exciting river crossings, steep descents and a precarious march through a long slippery section of river. I’ll never forget one section called the valley of the moon, a desert like expanse of mountains and hills, stripped of vegetation from the harsh winds and extreme temperatures; colors of chocolate brown and steel gray with a contrasting silver sky. It was so beautiful it took my breath away. As we crossed this unforgettable expanse, the cold was so intense and uncomfortable we pushed on quickly, with hopes to return someday to take in this beauty again. The trail led back down into the river valley, the sun came out to warm our bodies and we stopped for a hot soup and fueled up for the rest of the journey. Not long after the river section ended we could hear the bellows of cows from the distance and our spirits lifted knowing that La Rosada was very close. The narrow valley opened into a green grassy field filled with Argentine cows that had crossed the open border. Our inner cowboy awakened and with a whoop and a holler we chased the cows back over the border. One little calf so overwhelmed by the excitement staggered around like a drunk and fell in a heap on the ground. Diego and Angelo, two of the Chile Nativo guides, raced over to the calf to see if they could save it by stroking the poor beast to calm it down. It quickly recovered, jumped to its feet and raced back to its panicked mother.
La Rosada is a secluded puesto used by gauchos for the summer time grazing of their cows. It’s the type of place you want to spend some time to soak in its natural beauty. On a clear night it’s the perfect place to lie down in the pasture and stare up at the stars next to a campfire. About a 15 minute walk from the puesto I reached a sign post and the limit between Chile and Argentina. It’s a good photo opportunity as well as a chance to feel the remoteness of this location. Upon our arrival, the guides turned our puesto into a cozy home; in a flash the place was tidy, there was a fire blazing in the Magallenic stove and we were all rehashing our day over a hot delicious meal.
It’s the second to last day, and we’re back in the saddle again and on the return toward civilization. We have not seen another person for 2 days. Our group has really bonded over the trip. The advantage of horseback riding is the time you get to spend chatting with your companions and time to contemplate life. Many conversations and opinions were shared between the group both on and off horse. It’s been a beautiful trip and there is still more to come.
Our ride followed a two-track road that winds its way back toward the national park. The sections to come where ideal for cantering the horses and fulfilling cowboy fantasies of old black and white movies from our childhood. Just about the time we were all ready for a rest and a meal, we arrived to the puesto La Porfiada, which translates as stubborn person. The gauchos living in this hut were out with their animals, but typical to Patagonia gaucho hospitality, a stranger is always welcome to come into the puesto, warm themselves by a fire, help themselves to mate and food, and when you leave, you are expected to clean and restock the hut as you found it. For our luck there was a pan full of freshly made tortas (fried bread and a local specialty). Once again the guides set out a spread of food to be admired; several days of riding and no stores to be found and we still ate like royalty. There was smoked turkey, various cheeses, and sliced tomatoes. Angelo taught me how to serve and prepare mate in the traditional way and Julia filmed some shots of the puesto and our lunch while we relaxed in the warm hut, visiting with our hosts who had returned to greet us. Eventually we gathered our belongings and remounted, with the winter light, we needed to push on to make it to our next destination, Laguna Azul.
Just as the sun was setting we arrived to Estancia Laguna Azul which sits on the edge of the Torres del Paine national park and has a privileged view of the Towers. Our arrival is greeted with a rounds of hand shaking and slaps on the backs from our guides. As in most every estancia we visited, they seemed to be known and welcomed, and so were we. We have spent an extra day getting to Laguna Azul and we need to send word back to the family of Julia and to the Chile Nativo office that we are doing fine and will be arriving one day later. Gonzalo, Angelo and I ride off quickly on our horses toward the park ranger station with hopes to catch the ranger before he makes his daily 8pm radio contact with the other ranger stations and the outside world. We ride off at a fast gallop to catch the last remaining bit of light. We arrive to a deserted station, but luckily Gonzalo is a good friend with the ranger and enters into the house with confidence to use the radio. Our path of return is dark, there isn’t much moon this evening, but the stars are radiating in the sky. I am secretly nervous we’ll cross a puma in the night, but it’s not a realistic fear and I set my mind to enjoy this rare opportunity to ride by horseback at night. We arrive back to the estancia house tired and cold to find that Diego, Julia and Javiera have set up all the tents and sleeping bags, what a team!
Our last day of riding takes us past a series of Estancias, Tercera and Segunda, before we reach Cerro Guido again. Our group is a bit smaller. Angelo and Javiera took advantage of our proximity to the Park to return to work. We sadly sad our good-byes, having spent a few amazing days united in adventure. The rest of us continue on and we are joined by a few gauchos we met at Laguna Azul as they head our way to check on some fences. As we ride again through the pampas (steppe), we frighten various groups of guanacos and ñandú. Above us soar the majestic Andean Condor and we even catch sight of a Black-chested eagle. From our perch atop the horses, we can see the land stretch out before us and all the treasure it holds; it feels like we are on a wildlife safari. We reach the Estancia Guido once again, 5 days later, tired and a little dusty, but content and satisfied with a trip well run and a journey fully shared. The wind has picked up again, just in time as we step out of our saddles for the last time, lead our equine companions into the barn and gather our gear to head to a warm shower and real bed. Thanks to everyone in the group for an amazing experience.