As we rode up the bumpy dirt road to a remote ranch in the mountain valleys of southern Chile, we saw a cowboy saddling up his horses. He didn’t look toward us or acknowledge us in any way as we watched him work. The horses moved in tune with him as he checked their saddles and reins, seeming to know what he wanted before he touched them. He was dressed in baggy, woolen gaucho-style pants with a poncho slung across one shoulder and tied at the waist. A neckerchief and jaunty black beret completed his traditional garb; and I could not help but notice the heavy, carved silver knife sticking out of the waistband.
Satisfied with his work, he finally turned toward us and introduced himself in Spanish as Luis Cheuquel, nicknamed Lucho. He grabbed my hand in a bone-crunching and solemn handshake, without a smile or expression.
Lucho is a baqueano, Chilean cowboy, who has worked all his life in the estancias (or ranches) of the Sierra Dorotea Mountain range in the Ultima Esperanza Sound of Patagonia. Translated as the “Channel of Last Hope,” its fjords carve through craggy mountain ranges that creep down hundreds of kilometres to the Balameda Glacier, close to the continent’s end. Lucho works the horses on these ranches as his father did before him, and his own teenage son has also worked as a baqueano alongside Lucho since the age of 12.
Lucho was a typical Patagonian cowboy: stoic and silent, living most of his life in solitude in this great, untamed expanse of rugged terrain. He worked the ranches, taking in new horses and taming them, rounding up sheep and cattle in a lifestyle rooted in time and tradition.
Lucho helped us mount our horses and then led us silently, away from the ranch and up into the mountains. Like all the baqueanos, Lucho was intimately knowledgeable about the vastly uninhabited land, leading us easily through the wilderness where there were no trails. Once the livestock and fences of the ranch were left behind, there was no sign of civilization. No roads, no houses, no paths, no people or domesticated animals. There was no way a person who had not lived and breathed Patagonia their entire life would not get lost in this wilderness.
The true skill of the baqueano is that of the pathfinder; he knows how to orient himself at all times, using the sun, the stars and the landscape to find his way. They are famed for knowing how to find shelter and clean drinking water in the middle of nowhere; it is said that they can find their way anywhere, even in the all-encompassing darkness of the Patagonian night.
We rode without speaking, picking our way among rocks, fallen trees, small streams and, the higher we climbed, deeper and deeper snowdrifts. Lucho remained silent in the lead, chain-smoking one cigarette after another as he rode. In my mind, I dubbed him the “Bad-Ass Chilean Marlboro Man.”
The silence quickly became a comfortable companion; in fact, it almost felt spiritual, and to speak or make noise would have changed the truly unspoiled, untouched nature that was all around me. As we crested ridge after ridge, the forest gave way to sweeping drops over thousands of feet. Look one way and you could see the lakes and fjords. Another way, and there in the distance was the town of Puerto Natales. Across to the east, over the next mountain ridge, was Argentina.
As the morning wore away, we crested the highest altitude peak of the day. As I guided my horse up the incline filled with loose rocks, concentrating on his footsteps on the uncertain ground below us, I did not look up until we had reached the mesa (the flat area at the top). Before me were two huge granite rocks, separated by a distance of about 15m (50 ft). And in between that distance was an incomparable view: the deep valley below, more snow-covered mountains beyond that, complete undeveloped beauty brought about by the cataclysmic forces of volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and glaciers.
I was speechless, simply sitting on my horse, drinking it in. Two condors began circling overhead; then a third, then a fourth. A few yards away, Lucho had already dismounted, unsheathed his silver knife, and was hacking away at the trees to collect firewood. After he built a roaring fire, Lucho produced an old silver mug and a leather pouch of mate tea leaves. The fire was warm on our faces and hands as we passed the single mug of steaming tea that Lucho had made, the sweeping expanse of sky overhead feeling larger than the world could hold.
Here, in one of the planet’s last truly wild places, I got a glimpse into a lifestyle unchanged for centuries. The size of Patagonia, its forbidding topography that proves too harsh for much human conquering, and its inaccessibility from the rest of the world creates a place that is rarely found by today’s travellers: a pureness that has been little altered by humankind.
G Adventures runs a number of departures in Chile encompassing a wide range of departure dates and activities to cater for different tastes. We’re thrilled at the prospect of showing you this big blue planet of ours — check out our small group trips here.