Patagonia is not a country. There aren’t even official borders. To find it on a globe, look to the bottom for Antarctica. Then, locate the Drake Straits in the South Atlantic Ocean and travel north across the water about 600 miles. There Patagonia begins on the southernmost tip of the continent of South America in Chile and Argentina. The geographical area known as Patagonia travels up about a third of the way of both countries.
A handsome traveler told me it’s where one might disappear and also re-appear forever changed by the nature of the place with its continuous mountain ranges, soaring volcanoes, rocky vistas pushed up from the earth, carved out caves, aqua colored lakes, calving glaciers, deserts, fjords, falling waters, vast plains (pampas), ever-changing forests including lush jungles, canyons, pasture lands and sparkling rivers.
One sees shore birds such as flamingos and pelicans together with birds of prey casually intermingling with song birds, wild horses, farm animals, guanaco, rabbits, foxes, little deer, big birds called rheas, packs of wild dogs with domestic dogs and kitties running around (or lying around) virtually ignoring humans.
Its dramatic blue sky can change in the blink of an eye, bringing every type of cloud formation on the windiest of winds, with all kinds of moisture in every different direction — including sideways. That’s why there are so many rainbows, and also, why layers of clothing are required even in the middle of summer.
Having blind wanderlust, I found myself in Patagonia before I really knew any of the above — and shortly thereafter was told I had an appointment with a horse by the good people at Venture Patagonia, who were helping with travel arrangements (more on that later).
I’d been vacationing in Chile’s spectacular national park, Torres del Paine (TDP) — home of the Paine Masiff (part of the Andes). So, I couldn’t understand why Carrie from Venture Patagonia called to ask if I could get to the dock in Puerto Natalie’s earlier. What’s the rush? People don’t normally hurry in Patagonia, it’s a much more relaxed atmosphere. I’m talking super chill. And I’m not a morning person!
But I was being beckoned to a special place. This was one of Chile’s estancias or ranches — which was on The Antonio Veras Peninsula — a short boat ride away from Puerto Natales; and to make a sentence hideously long, I must say that Puerto Natales is billed as a small city, but behaves more like a big town filled with some pretty good restaurants for its remoteness and youth hostels housing wilderness seekers, many of whom are experienced hikers traveling to the TDP — Phew!
So, grudgingly I got on the road leaving the park. A little over an hour later I arrived at a dock south of Natales on “The Fjord of Last Hope or Ultima Esperanza.” There I was greeted by two gaucho dogs and three hearty gentlemen including the handsome traveler mentioned above.
Cristian Renner, a lean gaucho/guide in extremely worn leather pants, knee-high-boots and thick wool sweater (in the middle of a Patagonian summer), said he was worried with all the rainbows about. Now, there’s a statement I’d never heard before! He added that many people don’t follow this theory, but he found rainbows indicate changing weather and he was worried about our safe passage to the Peninsula. I had indeed seen three rainbows that morning on my way from TDP. Finally, I understood it was the weather we were racing, which I was told at times can make a crossing nearly impossible. And this was in the middle of their summer — late January.
After hurriedly boarding the small cabin cruiser with twin Yamaha 150s, I stayed out back to comfort the two excited dogs. Cristian and the aforementioned traveler gathered in the cabin around Edwardo, another Gaucho who was captaining our vessel with a big smile.
Sure enough the seas did start to get even rougher with waves coming from all directions as we neared a channel toward our destination. But Edwardo handled the evolving seas as I imagined he did a horse, effortlessly landing us at the end of a long wooden dock.
From there we could see a low slung multi-windowed red house in the midst of a lush, rusty field with hills and mountains beyond. Looking north, there was a paddock filled with handsome white horses. Further into the property, there were a few more out-buildings, a very small solar array, decorative old farm equipment scattered about, a sheep cleaning foundation and a dirt road that stretched up and away disappearing into the hills.
After decades of fearing horses (hey, they have big teeth) and a hearty lunch of roast lamb, the other traveler, Cristian and I headed to a barn to strap on some half chaps. That’s from the knees down folks! Normally, there are more guests, but it was just a party of two. This gave Cristian some extra time to give me a succinct approach to riding, before hoisting me up onto el Maquinito — the Little Machine. (Note: most machines are considered feminine in the Spanish language, but my horse was a dude, so I’m giving him the el Before and the O at the end!)
Of note, Patagonian saddles are very small. These are butt-sized leather seats with thin stirrups dangling down for your feet. One places a couple of natural blankets on the horse’s back, then the saddle is cinched on this blanketing before layering a folded sheepskin on top. This makes the seat extremely comfortable. Not that I would have anything to compare it too, except hearing over the years, people complaining about being sore after riding.
Something about being on that Estancia, a lifelong fear of horses washed away (more than six decades). It seemed to be the only thing one might do in this rustic setting with this handsome stranger, wild gaucho and herd of white horses. As opposed to going to a barn in the states, which seemed to be more about people going around in circles than horses. And, seriously, Cristian’s clear, concise and commanding directions made sense. I also had a primer from a dear friend named Patience who grew up on a horse farm. She said use your thighs, not your feet on the horse, as their underbellies are more delicate.
Also, the horse has to know you are the boss! But instead, Maquinito and I developed an understanding. I quickly realized this wasn’t his first trail ride. So rather than pull on the reins to direct him, I used my thighs as Patience had directed. And, I think he liked that so he didn’t pull a lot of shenanigans. I’m not saying he didn’t try — with the bending down to grab some sweet grass here and there — but with a quick tug on the reins, he knew I wasn’t going to fall for that.
The longer we rode, the more my fondness and respect for this animal grew and the more proudly he carried me through some pretty difficult terrain. I’d pat his neck and speak his name glowingly after each steep maneuver up or down hill, while saying to myself, “lean back while going downhill and down while going uphill or is it lean … oh, just roll with it.”
We rode for five and a half hours into the hills mostly forested with beech trees, across plateaus and down again until we came upon a small house much further up on the same Fjord.
Cristian said, the horses would be tied in this green field laced with golden grass to graze overnight. I dismounted and took a few minutes to fawn over Maquinito, brushing the dust off his back with my hands. He, also, allowed me to gently clean the gunk out of the corners of his eyes. I should note that the right side of his face had a terrible scar but this only made him more attractive for one on an adventure.
Cristian said he'd take care of the horses, then follow along and make us dinner. Had we died and rode to heaven?
The adventurous gentleman and I made our way across the expansive field to the dwelling, perhaps one would call a cabin. Upon entering, we found our luggage had magically appeared. Well, not exactly magic, as we later discovered there was a road along the shore to this seemingly remote cabin.
While unpacking, we heard Cristian’s footsteps. Greeting him in the main room, we found he had laid out cheeses, almonds, peanuts, jam, cured meats, grapes, dried fruits, crisp crackers and dark chocolate before breaking out about a dozen bottles of Chilean wine on a big rustic table.
“What would you like to try?” he said.
One hears so much about South American Malbec, but that is Argentina. We were in Chile, where Cabernets and Carmeneres are more prevalent. Cristian opened a two year old Adobe Reserve Carmenere from the Emiliana vineyard. It was robust and delicious, and an organic wine, too.
Before dinner, the traveler and I walked down through pink pampas to the shore, which was made up of mostly smoothed out rocks of varying sizes. Suddenly, we started to see bones among the stones. These looked like pieces of a large animal’s spinal column. Then an entire bleached out horse skull appeared and the jaw bone of what we thought might be a puma? And, later, up the beach more skulls — a fox or a skunk or a rabbit?
Showing our haul to Cristian he surmised that the puma and the horse may have been in a fight before both succumbing and landing in the fjord.
Cristian, a self-proclaimed black sheep, from farther up North in Chile, plied us with stories of his country that one can’t find on the Internet. Meanwhile, he was broiling Merluza (hake) topped with stewed tomatoes and sweet onions, which he then served with heavenly boiled potatoes. It’s not easy to make a boiled potato heavenly, but he did. We switched to a white wine — Dona Dominga Sauvignon Blanc. The whole meal was so simply delicious. But perhaps anything would taste better in that setting, especially after riding in the fresh air for five hours.
Many things in Chile are softer than in the states — the wines, the saddles, the wool, the air, and the water. But not the mountains and many of the roads, Chile has a lot of unpaved dusty roads and the most active volcanoes in the world.
After a sound sleep followed by a full breakfast, we all mounted up the next day for the ride back, which involved visiting a hillside cave where two children’s skeletons had been found in a vessel placed there some 300 years earlier. There was a lot of conjecture on that find, which I couldn’t find later on the old Internet?
The side of that hill was exposed, revealing incredible oceanic fossil formations. We tied our horses to some trees and made our way up to the cave. This location also presented a magnificent view of the Fjord which by the way is part of the Pacific Ocean. Cristian pointed out the spiny calafate bushes closer to the ground, so I was able to taste this native berry in the field. These are sort of like a South American version of a wild blueberry, but with a purple hue and tastier. There is a legend that if you taste one in the wild you are sure to return to Patagonia.
After marveling at so many remnants of another time in the rock face, we mounted back up and rode through an old growth forest dominated by woodpeckers, then down through a grassy meadow complete with foxgloves and fuchsia bushes — to eventually land along the rocky shoreline, where we rode along the fjord, crossing the occasional stream.
Our final destination was back to the original ranch house for a sheep herding demonstration conducted by Edwardo the other gaucho who had piloted our boat. With a series of whistles, he controlled one dog who ran about a dozen sheep around us.
Before climbing back into the same boat that brought us to the estancia, I found my horse, el Maquinito, and thanked him for his expertise and kindness towards this first-timer. As I bid him goodbye with a bit of moisture in my eyes, I couldn’t help but think of the British singer, Sade’s “It’s Never As Good As The First Time!”
Then, we headed back across the water. It was the same gentlemen, plus Vincent, who manages the Estancia. Our destination was The Singular Hotel still on the Fjord just outside Puerto Natales in Puerto Bories. There, I had promised to meet the handsome traveler/horseman in the bar just before sundown for a game of chess.
If you do venture to southern Chile, The Singular Patagonia (as there is also a Singular Santiago) is a must-visit. It’s a brilliant renovation of a former sheep processing plant into a luxurious hotel also on the Fjord of Last Hope. It’s reminiscent of a more rustic time awash in simple luxuries complete with a museum of its former industrious use. Being from Upstate New York, it reminded me of the Great Camps in the Adirondack Mountains with a Patagonian twist.
By any standards, this was an incredibly romantic experience, arranged by Venture Patagonia, which was founded on a great romance. Venture is headed up by a young North American woman, Carrie MacLean who ventured to Patagonia, met a young man whose family owned the estancia and never left.
As a well traveled former Innkeeper myself, I can vouch for her expertise in travel arrangement, which is par excellence. To contact Venture Patagonia — check out the very well done website, https://www.venturepatagonia.com/.
So, again, what and where is Patagonia? For me now, it will always be a state of mind securely attached to my heart, where nature rules. And, thankfully, a place I am destined to return to.
Ellen Leahy is a former Innkeeper and small town Editor residing in a village on the north-end of New York’s first Finger Lake, Skaneateles. She was born in Pasadena, California and raised on the Jersey Shore and the Coast of Massachusetts. She started her travels early as her first transcontinental trip was in the womb — after being conceived on the Staten Island Ferry. Reach her at email@example.com.