Our top 3 insider tours of Patagonia
BEST FOR: SLOW AND STEADY RIDES
Former rock singer and expedition leader Jonny Bealby has been to the deepest reaches of the Arabian Peninsula’s Empty Quarter, traversed the Silk Route and clocked up more than 90 different countries’ stamps in his passport. But for him there’s something unique about this part of Argentina, deep in southern Patagonia near the city of El Calafate and the legendary Perito Moreno Glacier. ‘What makes it so singular from a riding perspective is the vastness of the steppe,’ says Bealby. ‘It’s almost unimaginable. There is nothing here but grassland which means there is no way to distinguish scale – you look at the peaks, the tail end of the Andes, and think “I’ll reach them in a couple of hours”, but they never get closer. Above, the sky is massive. When the sun shines, it creates the most incredible multicoloured prisms of light – it’s spectacular.’ Bealby’s tours, which can range from 11 to 18 days, celebrate slow and immersive travel, spotting herds of guanaco and staying in remote estancias. On the way back through Buenos Aires, he will direct you to his favourite leather-and-tack shop in Recoleta. ‘It’s got wonderful old saddles, hats, chaps: everything you might need to take on long distances.’ wildfrontierstravel.com
BEST FOR: AWARD-WINNING BREEDS
You need to plot out your dates for this six-night adventure in the northern Patagonian mountains, as it is offered just three times a year. The trips are all about ‘ancient landscapes, rich gaucho culture, strong, sure-footed horses, picnics and siestas on the riverbank’, says Plan South America founder Harry Hastings. ‘There is no better sleep than the hour after eating a good lunch, with a sheepskin for a pillow and a swim to wake you up before the late-afternoon journey.’ Estancia Alinco, which acts as base, is home to a medal-bedecked stud with more than 100 gentle, elegant quarter horses – owner Celina and her two daughters are top breeders. And while the riding is glorious, any non-equestrians can hit Aluminé River, considered to be one of the finest trout-fishing locations in the region. Alternatively, try out white-water rafting and yoga or work in the corrals with the younger animals. Back at the ranch, serious suppers are served by Christian Menendez, the protégé of fire-lighting chef Francis Mallmann. plansouthamerica.com
BEST FOR: HEART-PUMPING ROUTES
James Mahon knows Patagonia like the back of his hand, having spent the past 20 years guiding and adventuring here, as well as taking part in a horse-riding endurance race in Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park and winning it three times. No one else has managed that feat. He’s also picked up a number of nicknames along the way. The farm owners with whom he raced call him ‘bagual’, after the Sierra Baguales mountain range where large herds of wild horses live, and where Mahon’s marathon champion Gavilán came from. Jakob von Plessen calls him ‘mapuche’ – after the indigenous South America inhabitants – because he has explored the region’s ancient Indian trails so extensively. When not working with the Jakotango founder, Mahon tailors a special trip to the far south of Patagonia, on the Chilean side. ‘It is absolutely stunning down there, really rugged, with no tourists at all,’ he says. The adrenalin-fuelled horse safari moves through different swathes of private land between three family farms, starting or finishing – for those who are game – with a stab at the race itself. bagual.co.uk Issy von Simson
My passion for Patagonia goes back to when I was 12 and my stepfather took me here for the hunting season. No one likes to talk about hunting these days, but those trips were transformative. We’d saddle up a couple of horses, grab rifles and set off into the wilderness. It was March, the start of autumn, when the southern beech trees – the nothofagus for which the region is famous – would change colour. There might even be snow. At first light we’d see the steam as rutting stags exhaled into the morning mist. It was all so raw. Each day would end beside a campfire, our food hanging from a tree. That was when my love for the landscape started.
I was born in Austria and moved to Argentina in 1984 with my mother and stepfather when I was four years old. We had a farm on the coastal Pampas near Mar del Plata. I rode to a little primary school every day. There were 30 children and just one teacher, and the blackboard was divided into three sections so that pupils from different years could learn at the same time.
I finished my education at St Andrew’s Scots School just outside Buenos Aires. After that, I took a gap year in Kenya where I worked as a volunteer tour guide for Offbeat Safaris. I ended up staying for 12 years, splitting my time between east Africa and Argentina, buying kit, tents and tack, then horses and, from 2004, leading expeditions. As the years progressed, I did more and more work in Patagonia. When I met my future wife, Zaira, it was time to settle down.
Patagonia is a rugged place. We’re based in the lake district – the more developed, populated end – but you can still ride here for a week and see no one else. It’s not wild in the way that Africa is, with lions and dangerous game, but in Kenya you come across people quite often and there’s mobile-phone reception. In the past 30 years the Maasai have changed, too; they zip around on motorbikes dressed in suits.
Here, there’s none of that. The sensation of being remote and distant is special. The few people you stumble upon tend to be local gauchos and they’re interesting characters. They live almost like hermits. The further south you go, the more scarce individuals become – and the better it gets.
There are several different Patagonias. I appreciate the vastness of the steppe, but it’s like a desert and the wind howls all day. It always makes me think of being on a boat in the middle of the ocean, surrounded only by the horizon. The coasts are dramatic and beautiful but they are a magnet for settlers as well as travellers.
It’s the mountains I long for. Everything is clean: the water, the air, the snow, the rain – even the dust. Nothing is poisonous. Almost everything is edible. If I was the last man standing on the planet and you had to drop me somewhere, I could survive in the Patagonian Andes. The peaks are like a womb in a hostile place where I can be nourished. Around dusk, the sky turns orange with these soaring, lenticulated clouds – I haven’t seen anything like that anywhere in the world.
A horse opens up the region like nothing else. There’s only one major road – the National Route 40 – that runs north to south across Argentina, with tracks leading off to farms and homesteads. Many areas are unreachable unless you walk or ride. I’m not that keen on hiking; it’s far more convenient to travel mounted as you can pack supplies for a week or two and be completely independent.
As a young man, I used to hang out with gauchos, herding, branding, lassoing and castrating cattle, and I learned to break horses in their rough-and-ready cowboy style. Patagonia is full of semi-wild breeds; we round them up and choose the best ones to break; some haven’t been anywhere near humans by the age of three. These animals are central to the traditional way of life in the south. It’s surprising how deep into the valleys the gauchos will take their cows or sheep to find grazing – you can’t do the work using a quad bike or chopper. All along the Andes, humans depend on horses.
Crossing the Andes on horseback is a mythic rite of passage because of its position in Argentina’s history. José de San Martín, the man who liberated much of South America, rode across the mountain range with thousands of soldiers in 1817. At the time such a military operation was considered impossible, but they did it and freed Chile from the Spanish, securing independence. One of my favourite books is Across Patagonia by Lady Florence Dixie, who travelled from the Atlantic to the Pacific by horse in the 1870s, eating llama-like guanaco and not much else. It was a no-man’s – or no-woman’s – land then and she was a true trailblazer.
But we’re still discovering Patagonia. There are these little corners, secret jewels among the peaks that you come across on rides. Cave paintings and fossils. That’s the magic of the place – it makes you feel as if you’re a pioneer even in the modern age.
Of course, there are challenges to living here. Winters are harsh. There are accidents – I fell and cracked my pelvis one year. We’ve had a couple of volcanic eruptions which covered our camps in ash; that wrote off a whole season.
However, lows are rare. Every moment in the Andes is a high, literally and figuratively. We explore most areas at walking pace, saving the gallops for the valleys. It’s that slow immersion in a landscape that reveals the most and allows our guests to soak up remarkable spots, such as one we call Paso de las Lágrimas, or Pass of Tears. Up there, people get emotional – because of the views, the vertigo, the adrenalin, the elements. It’s thrilling to be so elevated and exposed to the wind and rain. It sounds frightening but it’s stunning, too. One of the greatest joys is to see our riders’ faces after a trip, knowing they’ve had the time of their lives.
We tend to journey about 5,580ft above sea level, which is the tree line. It’s a powerful feeling when you head further up onto the shale and are beyond your comfort zone. You can’t stay there because of the altitude but it’s where the big views are, on the verge of life and death. It keeps the senses sharpened. You are on the edge, close to where condors fly.
Jakob von Plessen spoke to Chris Moss, author of ‘Patagonia: A Cultural History’ and, in a former life, a literature teacher at St Andrew’s Scots School outside Buenos Aires
The seven-night Patagonia Trail with Jakob’s riding-safari company Jakotango costs from about £615 per person per night, full board, and moves between his base camp, mountain fly camps and a gaucho farmstead. The season runs from mid-November to the end of February. Excludes domestic flights. jakotango.com
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