Chilean Patagonia: The call of the south

Photo: Mirco Lomoth
Vast open plains, jagged glacier fields, granite towers and a wind which makes trees grow awry – the Chilean Patagonia is a dream destination for nature lovers. And most impressive from a saddle.

Don José rides first. He wears a knife on his belt and a black beret on his head, the headdress of the gauchos. He seesaws back and forth leisurely in his saddle, whistling, occasionally whispering something to his horse. Then he suddenly dashes off at a gallop across a beach at the end of the world lined with silver-grey driftwood.

The road of yearning at the end of the world between Puerto Consuelo and Puerto Natales. | Photo: Mirco Lomoth
We follow, across cold rivers, pressing our legs into the horses’ sides to propel them up steep sandy hills. The ocean lies crimped in the Fjord as if it can hardly hold back its might, the mountains on the other side of the bay still carry left-over snow from the last winter. It is a sunny spring day and the Patagonian wind, which typically bends the trees on the shoreline into open arches, is whipping up foam bonnets of saltwater onto the pebble beach. 

The cows must be somewhere in the underwood, the calves are due to be branded. On a raised area, Hernán García and his son, the owner of the Estancia Mercedes we left in the morning, are on the look-out for them. We have lunch at a clearing, barberry bushes are blossoming deep-yellow. We sit down in the flat meadow which rolls out like a green thickly-woven carpet. Don José lights a small fire, boils water in a dented tea pot. We stay there for a while in nowhere. We drink the bitter tea and sip a strong white wine from a receptacle made of animal skin, we make jokes, laugh, fall silent. Sitting together in nature in the middle of isolated Patagonian is something which will never be forgotten. In the memory, it grows into a yearning for the south, its people and its vastness. A chimango hawk glides above us, its bright wing tips glistening in the sun. When we get back into the saddles, the passing clouds give us goosepimples. 

Beret and horse: A Gaucho’s essentials for freedom. | Photo: Mirco Lomoth
Shortly afterwards, Don José tears off through the underwood, his dogs barking in the distance. They must have found the cows. Estancia Mercedes lies at a beach of dark pebbles and sea shells and a few flat wooden houses with red roofs. A fulmar sits on a boat shed. Landlady María Angélica waits with a beef stew on the stove in the old main building, she serves it with crispy baked potatoes, coloured red by ground smoked chilli. Don José and Hernán García are sitting at a table, displayed above them on the wall are shot guns, horse shoes, stirrups and polished cow horns. It is the other side of a Patagonian social round, crowded on a warm place where nature has become a still life framed by curtains. 

In the early days, sheep farming was a lucrative business for inhabitants in the south, nowadays farms are abandoned and run-down. | Photo: Mirco Lomoth
“Our ancestors made many sacrifices to build an existence here,” says María Angélica. “That’s why we love this place and want to share it.” Family García Iglesias has lived here for four generations, ever since José Iglesias Díaz moved here from Asturien and in 1916 started an exhausting sheep farm on the swampy land of the half island Antonio Varas – only 20 kilometres distance to Puerto Natales and yet far away from the rest of the world. A street was build only a few years ago, before that you could only reach the Estancia by horse or boat. The family has give up the great grandfather’s sheep farming, nowadays there are only cows, and for the last two years, tourists can now experience wild Chile at the Estancia, far away from the usual tourist routes. Host Hernán puffs on his pipe, and invites us to have another red wine, but the ferry is leaving soon. 

Patagonia: Experiencing the vastness and feeling the wind

Patagonia is a myth – maybe because nobody who comes from the North really knows where it begins. If you are in the area, you want to experience the vastness and feel the wind, see calving glaciers or hike to the granite peaks of the Torres del Paine National Park. On multiple-day hikes, you can experience rough nature on your body. In some places you can lean against wind walls, you can march through primeval undergrowth of wind-bent southern beeches and on to lakes and glacier edges. And you can observe condors and ostrich-like rheas.

The Torres del Paine Park is usually quite crowded during the short summer, almost as if it were the only place you could experience nature pure. Southern Chile offers many more possibilities for outdoor enthusiasts: On the road Carretera Austral, you can drive from Puerto Montt to the south through green-growing isolation for 1,200 kilometres . The road passes almost a dozen national parks and nature reserves as well as the legendary Futaleufú whitewater river, a popular spot for water sportsmen the world over who are keen to experience the 50 kilometre long whitewater rapids. 

The further south you go, the more flat countryside with bleak open flatlands you will see. Sometimes there maybe a sheep in the middle, sometimes a herd of Cuanacos or a rhea in a tattered feather dress. Work done by human hand seems lonely here. There are fences in the middle of nowhere, and sitting next to trees gone awry, people hope for letters in sheet-metal houses at the end of very long approach roads. After a while, there is a sign: Welcome in the province of last hope.

Patagonia: Chatwin created a destination of longing

Horse riding trip to Milodon’s Cave. Between the old drawings on rock there is a replica of a giant sloth. | Photo: Mirco Lomoth
It was Bruce Chatwin, who, with his book “In Patagonia” turned the far south into a destination of longing for those living up north. The pieces of skin of a strange animal which a cousin of his grandmother had sent him from Patagonia, led him here. While searching for its origin, he travelled from Tierra del Fuego to Chile, all the way to the cape of last hope, to Puerto Consuelo. There, he met Hermann Eberhard, of German origin, whose grandfather had discovered a cave in 1896 containing remains of skin and bones. The remains turned out to be those of a mylodone, a giant plant-eating sloth, extinct for around 10,000 years. It is possible to visit Eberhard’s Estancia, it is only a few kilometres North of Puerto Natales: white houses with red roofs stand in front of an impressive panorama of black mountains with snow-covered peaks. On the fjord, black-necked swans bob up and down, the ones Chatwin had already observed. Puerto Consuelo used to be a sheep farm, then the prices for wool dropped and since then, moss has been growing on the fences. Tourists come around once in a while to go paddling, horseback-riding or to eat lamb which is roasted on a steel cross over a fire. 

“The mountain range over there is called Dorothea, my great great grandfather named it after his daughter,” says Erik Eberhard. He sits in the saddle wearing high leather spats, the inevitable beret on his head. We ride to Milodon’s Cave, the horses’ hooves sink into the mud, their fur shines due to exertion. Whitey-grey and dead tree trunks jut out of the flat bushes, pale green lichens hang off them and blow in the wind like long beards. Clouds dart across the sky, throwing flying shadows on the world, a cold wind and a mild afternoon sun bring a lot of colour to our cheeks. At the foot of a hill we unsaddle and let the horses rest and graze. Erik shows us faded drawings on grey rocks underneath an overhang. Snakes, circles, finger prints, thousands of years old. He leans back against the rock and looks out across the countryside, up to the distant peaks of the Torres del Paine and to Miylodon’s Cave which opens up like a black wound in the rock. The love for this place sparkles in his eyes, as he looks at the horizon, at rough nature. To the south.

 

4-Seasons Info

In Chile's wild south

Getting there 

LAN flies daily from Frankfurt to Santiago via Madrid and further to Punta Arenas (www.lan.com). Rent a car from the airport. 

Accommodation and activities

Hotel Bories House in Puerto Natales offers comfortable rooms (www.borieshouse.com). The owner organises horseback rides and multiple-day tours (www.estanciatravel.com). In Puerto Natales, the tour operator Tutravesia offers kayak tours (www.tutravesia.com). You reach Estancia Mercedes on the Antonio Varas peninsula via ferry (estanciamercedes.cl). Estancia Puerto Consuelo is located around 20 kilometres northwest of Puerto Natales (www.fiodoeberhard.com). Mylodon’s Cave (www.cuevadelmilodon.cl): trekking trips in Patagonia (also in Torres del Paine NP) offered by Wikinger Reisen, phone: +49 23 31/90 46 (www.wikinger-reisen.de).

General information

Further travel information on Patagonia and Chile in general on: chile.travel. Good travel guide in German: Chile, Stefan Loose Travel Handbücher, Globetrotter order no. 17.86.48.

Chile at Globetrotter

Chile will be in focus in October, with pictures and more information in the Globetrotter stores Cologne and Munich, information on: www.globetrotter.de/chile. On www.chile-globetrotter.de, you can also win a great Chilean adventure at Wikinger Reisen and find more inspiring travel tips.

 
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