Authenticity and adventure find their way into almost every marketing strategy of today’s tour operators. As the word ‘tourist’ has become a pariah of travel literature, would be frequent fliers are demanding experiences rather than sites, interactions over observations and unique in place of popular. With demand leading the charge, it is quite easy to find a large supply of companies and guidebooks that sell themselves as heralds of cultural secrets, pied pipers of the road less travelled. Therefore, now that you can Google the key to Pandora’s box and carry a Lonely Planet map entitled “Off The Beaten Path”, it is even more difficult to round a corner of remoteness, to question a moment of unknown or to swallow the metallic taste of fear.
There is nothing at all distasteful about joining a group travel excursion. It takes either heavy research or beaucoup time to search out certain places on your own, and I have recently been pleasantly surprised at how much I have come to appreciate my time “going on a tour”. Like all things, there is a balance, and as a SWF (single white female) on the road, I sometimes have to sacrifice the role of lone ranger for my desire to eventually hear someone say, “Welcome home.” However, as I am trying to hold onto a sense of timelessness or a whiff of wonder, it can nonetheless fall flat when my photo gets invaded by a bedazzled ball cap that reads “Got Wine?” or I am kayaking through a Vietnamese floating fishing village and a mobile goes off inside one of the huts to the tune of “My Humps”…
The point is that even with the plethora of adventure travel guides, it is hard to find the intersection where amply exciting, richly cultural, mostly custom, relatively affordable and kind of safe converge. Well, just follow 2 Chilean horse whisperers, 1 American cowboy, a family of gauchos, a team of horses and a lot of big ass knives, head 8 hours south from small town Balmaceda, onto the edges of Lake General Carrera, into the wild heart of northern Patagonia, and X marks the spot.
Two friends, Cristian and Domingo, were out joyriding through thousands of hectares of privately held Patagonian steppe, wondering how they could not only share this natural beauty with a wider audience but also “create a link between civilization and the vocation of the gaucho,” enriching one while preserving the other. Enter third muskateer Andrew, a Texan gringo and travel entrepreneur who came to Chile to teach English for a few months (a few years ago) and is now successfully running his tour company Pathway Chile as well as launching a new online network for expat teachers. Patagonia Riders was born.
I stumbled upon this company on a message board quite by accident when I was looking for a longer horseback-focused trip in South America and was instantly intrigued by the youth of the tour and its founders. Before I knew it, I was watching Deadliest Catch with Cristian’s brother at his home in Santiago while he went to get me a borrowed sleeping bag and send me 2,500 kilometers south to his two partners and to the trip of a lifetime. I was a bit nervous because I (gasp) don’t like camping and did not have many of the items on the packing list, specifically a big knife, a leather jacket or a “water hat”. The knife was apparently if I didn’t want to wait for someone else to slice me off a piece of lamb at supper (I could be patient I think). Cristian gave me the address of a secondhand leather jacket store (I got mugged on my shopping day in Santiago, so I didn’t make it there). And I told him I didn’t have a water hat, but I had a ball cap!
FYI, a water hat is a poncho, essentially the opposite of a hat…
On the first of my 6 days living like a gaucho, I suspected I had found something special. By the end, I was sure of it because I was dirty, windblown and smelled like a horse. And I couldn’t stop smiling. I guess I now understand the meaning of “so stinking happy”.
This specific area in the north of austral Chile only recently became navigable by car, unlocking greater access to one of the most wild and remote locations on Earth. Describing Patagonia, you find yourself relying on past travel to try to bucket different scenes because the whole picture is overwhelming and incomparable.
Well if you cover up that glacier moraine, then those moors look like Scotland. The marshes by the lake reminded me of the lowlands South Carolina, but then that group of sheep ran across to the estancia, and my eyes traveled up to the Andes range beyond. You know, that peachy sand is straight out of Thailand, except that it’s 30 degrees and covered in Magellanic penguins. Driving through the dusty pampas, we could have been somewhere in Utah. Although those acacia trees took me to the Serengeti. But two minutes later we stopped by a random grey beach off the highway to photograph…flamingos. We had to get back in the car quickly because at over 60 mph, the winds put Chicago to shame.
The end of the world feels more like out of this world.
Gauchos were the main residents of this Wild South during the mid to late 19th century, herding cattle near various estancias and living out the gaucho etymology (and every little gringo’s dream) of vagabond or orphan. Similar to the cowboy, el gaucho became the strong and silent type symbol of the national culture and independence. As expert horse riders, they made up the whole of the cavalries during wars in late 1800’s (on both sides). And like the American Wild West the gaucho golden age is in the past, but the integrity of the memory, the skill and the man is still very much alive.
In the upcoming Breadcrumbs, a review of the favorite and funniest footprints, dwellings, photos, foods and faces of this journey thus far, my week with the Patagonia Riders family will be featured as Favorite Extended Group Tour/Excursion. To provide more color on why this adventure deserved such applause, here is an unworthy description of a day on the trail. Hopefully it will inspire you to ride with me next season and to explain how the best was won.
The Gaucho Day
You open your eyes. You can smell the fire, hear the snorting protests from the horses being saddled. It must be morning, but everything is black. It takes about two seconds of being constrained by the snug sleeping bag for you to remember why you’re stretching blind and to throw back the heavy canvas of the lorna tent you are rolled up in like a burrito. That’s better. Good morning Patagonia!
Your response is a pouncing puppy jumping into the cozy space, licking your cheeks and blocking the reach for your soaked boots that you forgot to pull under the sheep skin before you literally got tucked in last night. Idiot. At least you just got a free facial. The ladies room is the forest to the right, so at least you never have to wait in line. You give up trying to remember the last time you showered – you stopped caring yesterday – as you awkwardly half somersault out of the sleeping bag and start to pull on the squishy shoes, checking first for the omnipresent caterpillars that pack a sting. So worth the first you had last night…sleeping out beneath the stars. It is more like a planetarium out here without fluorescence for miles, so you drifted off arguing about constellations.
It was Orion’s Belt…ha!
While stuffing up your bag and liner, the only items other than a small saddlebag you strap on your horse each morning, a friendly face hands you a hot ham and cheese roll and offers to hike down to the stream to refill your water bottle. You also gave up on employing your iodine tablets yesterday. Rebel!
Sniffing out the location of your tin coffee cup/wine glass you dropped near the campfire, you dump out the remnants of last night’s whisky to make way for some café con leche, a bit more akin to Irish coffee this morning. Getting ready didn’t take long – today’s outfit conveniently happens to be the same one you wore yesterday with the knot in your scarf (OK, it’s actually a beach sarong for which you are trying to find a cold weather occupation) moved to the opposite collarbone for a twist – so you have time to survey the activity around the camp and relish how badass you still feel in your borrowed chaps.
“Would my husband like this? No, he couldn’t handle it,” jokes one of your adopted Texan moms, part and parcel to a group of 6 including Andrew’s mother who are one part magnolia, two parts steel, and this side of the Rio Grande didn’t know what hit it. They’re welcoming, hilarious and speak without hesitation – even to the guys y’all have been reminded don’t know a lick of English. You’ve won a lifetime subscription to Austin guest bedrooms and that was just for voicing that Out of Africa is in your top ten..or was it for admitting you secretly cleaned your nails last night?
Sorry I’m not sorry.
Angels sing as the Chilean newlyweds Juan and Francesca come out of their tent. They are both so beautiful you could almost hate them if they weren’t so damn charming. You were officially in love when they doublehandedly turned base camp into a disco using only their headlamps and some impressive beatboxing skills. Truly juan in a million. Unce unce.
Francisco, the young gaucho rounding up horses, canters across the field in his cherry red beret, bushy ivory portineros and hazelnut rebenque whip fanning in his wake. He will live alone for years at this campsite in a one-room wooden cabin, normal formative years that are the gaucho way. You wonder if he talks to the dog, or if it has started talking back? Time continues to bend as you watch head gaucho Don Felix saddle horses in a tedious tightening and tying of caramel leather and creamy sheep skin that doesn’t include one buckle.
Domingo, who grew up on this land and rides like a centaur, is methodically loading the pack horses using oval wicker baskets that are woven shut, a process of that takes over an hour at the beginning and end of each day. And yet he still spun together chorizo pasta from scratch over the fire last night in front of a captive audience.
Andrew is doting on the Ya Ya’s, making sure all questions are answered with a smile. It must be his big boy knife that keeps him so cheerful and confident. It is one of the only places where you believe the reality of needing one of these mini machetes with ropes to cut, branches to hack, lambs to skin and cervesas to open. These guys make Eagle Scouts look like pansies. They are the product of hundreds of years in the saddle. They are cowboys. And you know what they say about gauchos with big knives…
“Morning sassafras,” you mumble as you walk over to Lachigua (sp?) to load up and move out. No one will tell you what her name means. They just chuckled when you asked. She tried to buck you when her BFF got taken back to the estancia yesterday, which provided some translation, but no grudges necessary. She is just strong-willed. You know someone else like that, so you let her sneak flowers during rest stops. Or you pretend you’re letting her.
Riding through Patagonia is like exploring another planet, several actually. The terrain is at once familiar and foreign, and it changes almost hourly. This is not a single file line, nose to ass trail ride. They are the most challenging and beautiful trails you have encountered, keeping you both focused and hypnotized. You are slowly moving down a dusty hill at what must be a 20 degree angle, part walk, part slide. What keeps you on is the knowledge that Prisspot is less likely to fall than you are, so you just lean back, dig in your heels and trust your horse.
You move through a forest where every tree in sight is covered with old man’s beard moss, one that is completely covered in caterpillars. You trot up verdant hills covered in fallen trees, some that look like sand dunes and meadows that roll like golden waves in the breeze. You canter across a rocky desert and through a damp forest of Christmas trees all in one day. There are vistas of the milky blue lake, braided river systems, sparse steppe and snow-capped peaks. Adding to the unreality, the larger than life skies seem to take up more of the space, each one carefully painted as if by a master’s hand, the clouds stretching out independently like thoughtful brushstrokes.
Someone tosses you the suede flask filled with Malbec to wash down the Calafate berries. They say that those that eat the tart blueberry-like fruit will return to Patagonia. You’ve eaten berry many…
You’ve just maneuvered dozens of switchbacks down a craggy mountain side, but instead of excruciating knee pain you would get trekking, you get an inner thigh workout. One of the Ya Ya’s horses has decided to veer, and she is still fighting him close to the top. With a turn and a kick, Domingo drops the lead of the pack horse and runs to the rescue. You dramatically gallop over to catch the pack horse, imagining this is something out of Zorro. He probably wouldn’t have gotten very far – would you if your body weight was on your back – but no one needs to be privy to your harmless date dreams.
You and one of your new moms hang back from the crowd, racing each other to catch up and then encourage and cheer another lady in her first canter. It’s like a roller coaster where you aren’t strapped in and only mostly in control. One of those times where you wonder who is whooping and hollering until you realize it is you. Braid askew. Wind burnt cheeks. Pounding heart. Begging forgiveness rather than permission.
You could never do this in the States.
You’ll camp tonight in a meadow adjacent to an old cabin where the rain sneaks up on you through familiar crevices. The blackened bead board walls are the product of years of fires, and you chuckle that this is a finish residents pay thousands to recreate on New England’s capes.
Several of the gauchos leave to fetch the lamb for supper, which means they are going to track down a farmer somewhere out there and bring him back to “prepare” on site. It’s a him for sure because female lambs are grown for shearing and rearing, and the males are only good for their meat in their first years. You appreciate the effort, the experience and the result, but still close your eyes. The part of Little Bo that won’t be roasted tonight is hung from the ceiling of the cabin. He is near the wine, so that gets funny later as everyone’s limbo skills wear down.
While the other men set up camp, you and the ladies hike to search for seashells. Seashells? In the steppe? Yes, fossilized ones. Everything around you used to be under water before a big plate push, and high up in the hills you can still see the evidence in the form of a perfectly preserved clam, a etched fan or a spiraling nautilus. Another bit of austral magic.
Andrew rides over to bring y’all back for dinner. You complement his bareback seat, and he asks, “Have you ever ridden bareback?” No. “Want to?” Hell, why not. Projecting more confidence than you feel, over and off you go into the setting sun, vowing never to complain about the comfort of a saddle again, gripping your knees like a nun and yelling, “whoa whoa whoa!” all the way home. Another first. Another unexpected yet exhilarating adventure.
It’s probably obvious, but there is not so much as one cell phone bar ’round these parts**. The cold keeps everyone close to the fire, and the lack of distraction keeps your thumbs in check and your tongues wagging. It is so refreshing. You spend the evenings talking and laughing, creating close friendships in a matter of days. The gauchos, who spend night after night together, still crack each other up. You don’t know what they are saying, but it reminds you of when you and your college friends get together, telling the same stories and reliving the same moments. Among the closest friends, repetition doesn’t wear down a great memory, but renews it.
**one satellite phone is carried for emergencies.
It’s getting late. The pisco gets passed around. Juan-in-a-million throws a few more logs on the fire, and Domingo finally agrees to sing. Since the lyrics will of course be in Spanish, he first explains the story. Around the second verse, one by one, the tenors and baritones of the gauchos join in. Some of them are too shy to even look you in the eye during the day, and yet in the sanctuary of this dimly lit shed, the manliest of men with their big ass knives bare their souls a cappella through songs of love and loss and without an ounce of mirth.
Now that one really wouldn’t happen back home.
You stumble off to bed still humming, and barely hit the pillow (your sweater stuffed inside a sleeping bag sack) before the tarp gets thrown over you and you slip away, enveloped by the physical heaviness of a true tired. You hear the horses calling to each other in the dark, knowing and yet not knowing what tomorrow will bring. It is, after all, the gaucho way.