Chile on Horseback- A Very Different Patagonia
A horse riding holiday through Patagonia's stunning landscapes. Five days exploring the wilds along the Chile/ Argentina border.
by Rebecca Armstrong
For the amateur equine-lover, a horseback trip through Chile's 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.
Horse Riding Patagonia- an Estancia to Estancia Trek
We arrive late in the night under a brilliant full moon to our warmly lit estancia (large estate) and accommodations, Lodge Cerro Guido. After unloading the gear we gather around a cozy fire, snack on appetizers and drink 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 heads off to a soft bed and a good sleep. This is 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 meet our horses. We bring 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 riding vacations 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 beautiful valley cut by a river. Our destination is 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.
Comfort in the Wilds of Patagonia
We all set about to our tasks to make our new space more comfortable. There is 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 welcome them with a hearty dinner of roasted lamb, hot coffee and warm homemade bread. In this rustic hut, candles and headlamps our ambient lighting, surrounded by new friends united in adventure and good spirit, we drink simple red wine, tell stories and play games to pass the time. Outside, the wind whips around the puesto, but we are warm inside, not another soul for miles.
The following day we head toward our next puesto, La Rosada and the Argentine border. The unmarked route is new for the group except to the gauchos. It proves 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 is so beautiful it takes my breath away. As we cross this unforgettable expanse, the cold is so intense and uncomfortable we push on quickly, with hopes to return someday to take in this beauty again.
The trail leads back down into the river valley. The sun comes out to warm our bodies and we stop for a hot soup and fuel up for the rest of the journey. Not long after the river section ends we can hear the bellows of cows from the distance and our spirits lift knowing that La Rosada was very close. The narrow valley opens into a green grassy field filled with Argentine cows that have crossed the open border. Our inner cowboy awakens and with a whoop and a holler we chase the cows back over the border. One little calf so overwhelmed by the excitement, it staggers around like a drunk and falls in a heap on the ground. Diego and Angelo, two of the Chile Nativo guides, race over to the calf to see if they can save it by stroking the poor thing to calm it down. It quickly recovers, jumps to its feet and races 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 reach 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 turn our puesto into a cozy home. In a flash the place is tidy. There is a fire blazing in the Magallenic stove and we are all rehashing our day over a delicious hot 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 have been shared among our group both on and off horses. It's been a beautiful trip and there is still more to come.
Our ride follows a two-track road that winds its way back toward the national park. The sections to come are ideal for cantering our horses and fulfilling cowboy fantasies of old black and white movies from our childhood. Just about the time we are all ready for a rest and a meal, we arrive 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. When you leave, you are expected to clean and restock the hut as you found it.
Surprising food on the trails
We are lucky that there is 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. After several days of riding and no stores to be found, we still eat like royalty. There is smoked turkey, various cheeses, and sliced tomatoes. Angelo teaches me how to serve and prepare mate in the traditional way and Julia films some shots of the puesto and our lunch while we relax in the warm hut, visiting with our hosts who had returned to greet us. Eventually we gather our belongings and remount. With the winter light, we needed to push on to make it to our next destination, Laguna Azul.
Just as the sun is setting we arrive 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 almost every estancia we visit, they seem to be known and welcomed, and so are we. We have spent an extra day getting to Laguna Azul and we need to send word back to the Julia's family 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 good friends with the ranger and enters into the house with confidence to use the radio. The way back 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. I instead focus on this rare opportunity I have to ride at night. We arrive back to the estancia house tired and cold. We are happily surprised to find that Diego, Julia and Javiera have set up all the tents and sleeping bags. What a team!
Our last day of the riding holiday 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 take advantage of our proximity to the Park to return to work. We sadly say 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), the majestic Andean Condor soars above us. 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 treasures 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 the trip. 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.