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Chile on high: on horseback in Patagonia


We are heading to Patagonia, at the southern tip of Chile. There are not a lot of domestic plane travelers in Chile at six o’clock in the morning on a Saturday – and I can’t imagine there are many saying, “Hey, let’s go where it’s cold and there’s lots of snow and ice!”

The Andes from on high

The Andes from on high

The flight over the Andes is my reward for tolerating all this air travel. The view of the mountains south to Patagonia is nothing short of sensational. The mountains with their snow-capped peaks quickly change to totally snow covered with glaciers and ice fields. It’s a beautiful sunny day so it is a true winter wonderland from the air. It all seems so odd to me because, when heading south in the northern hemisphere, I am accustomed to warmer climates not to increasing amounts of ice and snow.

We come out of the mountains and land in the flat, barren ice fields of Punta Arenas. This is the crown jewel of Chile’s Patagonia. Resting on the Magellan Strait, it enjoys the distinction of being the furthest point south that you can travel in the continental land that is Chile. Next stop is the Antarctica, 2000 kilometres to the south, for those who wish to continue.

We have to make a phone call which is not an easy task because we don’t even know how to use the phone as the numbers are different for calling inside or outside of Santiago which is now more than 2100 kilometres away. Add to this the multitude of phone numbers we have on our list. Is it a cell phone or a landline? Incoming or outgoing? I have no idea; it’s all a nightmare in the making.

Our journey heads north by bus from Punta Arenas; a very nice, comfortable touring bus I might add. Still, three hours on a bu-u-u-u-us can only be so good. The scenery for the first hour is Ontario in February. Snow-covered, rolling hills – I manage to sleep through most of that. Then I clean my glasses. That takes three minutes. Once we pass the half way mark the snow all but disappears and it is Africa. I’ve seen this terrain before but with elephants. It’s flat and barren with scrub-like brush and dried trees but in the distance the Patagonia we came to see beckons. High, piercing peaks lend promise to our next two days adventure.

Puerto Natales is a quaint little town of 18,000 that will require further investigation on my part. It reminds me of Anchorage or Homer, Alaska with the snow-covered mountains absorbing it; all very interesting because I have never been to either of those northern locales, so I could be wrong.

Carlitos, our driver, brings us to the hotel and we quickly realize we are going to be completely spoiled here. There is a staff of 10 or 12 and we are the ONLY guests. That almost makes me feel guilty – almost! The sun will be setting soon so we have just enough time to explore the grounds of the hotel. Claudia, the hostess, then takes us up onto the green roof to enjoy the sunset. The roof blends into the land as it is sodded and seeded so is totally grass covered. This is all done by design. The whole philosophy seems to be one with the environment. This way of thinking appears to be predominant around here.

The sunset across the fiord is close to perfect. The air is crisp and incredibly clear. The yellows, oranges, reds and magentas in the sunset saturate your vision as you stand there and watch. I find I have to take the camera away from my eye so I can fully enjoy this most noble of nature’s treats. The clearness and stillness of the cold evening air simply magnifies all that is wonderful about this particular sunset. Ah, Patagonia! We are here!

The Sierra Dorotea Mountain overlooks the town of Puerto Natales and is known for its dense beech forests, deep gorges and small lakes. We are about to undertake a horseback ride up to the lookout this morning. The ten minute drive to the ranch offers stunning views of the mountains through the misty snow. Upon arrival we are greeted by Alan, the authentic baqueano, a Chilean gaucho. He is not here solely for the benefit of the tourists; he is here because he knows the mountains, he knows the horses and he knows what to do if anything goes wrong. Andreas, our guide, is also accompanying us. Carlitos, our driver, is not.

Knowing that we are going on horseback I took the time this morning to tuck my pant legs into my socks like a first class dork. I know from experience many years ago that this is helpful when on the horse – nothing dangling, just begging to get caught on something and no exposed ankles and calves chaffing on the rigging, straps and stirrups. As it turns out this is all for naught because the first thing we do before getting on the horse is get our gaiters on. Gaiters are a garment worn over the shoe tops and lower pant legs. They are basically a type of personal protective equipment for riding and perform the same function as my socks were designed to do. It is ironic that in a country where it is not enforced that you wear a seatbelt in an automobile, they pay so much attention to this detail.

It’s been nine years since I’ve been on a horse so it is a good thing that these are the smallest, most well-mannered, gentle horses I have ever seen. They appear to be a cross between what we are accustomed to and a work horse but all in a shorter, more compact package. I know I am taller than him and I think I weigh more but my horse is living testimony that these little guys can handle the load as he hauls me 1000 feet up the mountain, at times in snow up to his belly and then back down again, and we both survive.

It is a long way up, takes about an hour and a half and is absolutely gorgeous. The weather clears as we ascend the mountain and with each step it just gets prettier and prettier. Even though there is two to three feet of snow all around us it is a still, windless day and we do not feel the winter temperature at all. They call this area Sierra Dorotea. I’m not sure what that means but scenic beauty better be in there somewhere.

As the horses climb you can plainly see that although very calm right now there are times when the wind is nothing short of vicious up here. The slant on the trees is very prominent. We are once again blessed with perfect weather. My horse struggles in a few steep spots, at one time choosing to go around the path that the horse in front makes and paying for it by sinking up to his belly in the snow. Who knows, maybe he likes that. When we reach the summit we dismount and just stare at the magnificent panorama. Talk about God’s country – the sun is just perfect and the lighting and colour are exquisite. It’s one of those spine-tingling moments you’ll never forget.

On the summit I stand knee deep in the snow and overlook this eerie moonscape terrain. I can see Puerto Natales far below the low lying clouds and once again I find myself asking, “Are we still on earth?” Beyond the town the mountains surrounding Seno Ultima Esperanza, the Last Hope Sound, are breathtaking. Alan builds a fire to make some mate, a heavy, thick, gaucho tea. The leaves are a species of holly and are steeped in hot water then served in a shared, hollow gourd and sipped through a silver metal straw. You must have complete confidence in the hygiene of your baqueano as you pass the drink around. It is a little bit bitter, it is hot, it is awesome – heaven right here on earth – this is Patagonia, Chile. We sit on a horse blanket around the fire and enjoy some homemade trail mix and cookies that Andreas brought along for us. The blankets are part of the saddle; an English style saddle covered in thick alpaca wool blankets. They are extremely comfortable and, except for the lack of a pommel horn to grab in several panic situations, it has been an amazingly easy ride up.

It is difficult to get back on the horse, as gentle as he is. We are fortunate to catch a few glimpses of some of the mountain wildlife. A beautiful grey fox crosses the path in front of us followed closely by a mountain hare. The condors are visible circling above the whole time we are on the mountain. I had absolutely no idea we had come up such steep slopes. The trip down involves a whole lot of lying back in the saddle, legs stretched fully out hoping that this horse has solid footing. My knees hurt so badly when we get back to the barn that you’d think I had carried the horse down. At one point I do notice that Andreas is on his cell phone – here we go – ruin the whole image. I was going to take my camera out to capture this odd moment but the path was far too steep so I did not. Too bad because immediately thereafter Andreas’ horse slips on the ice, falls on his ass and rolls Andreas off. Horse and rider are both fine but it puts a sudden end to the phone call. Don’t mess with nature and its laws.

Alan, now tipped, drinks a maté tea

It gives me great pleasure to give Alan a 7000 peso tip with the words, “Muy belle vista.” My command of the language is mind boggling, even with two thirds of it being Italian. I hope they are not offended as I tend to mix languages in just about everything I try to say. It was a wonderful excursion conducted in the dead of the Chilean Patagonian winter. Not your average holiday destination, but then few we choose are.

More by Eric Whitehead in his book ‘Then there Was One‘.

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