We might as well face it. We are going the wrong bloody way! Our plane tickets to Ushuaia were purchased awhile back, shortly after deciding to ride South America instead of Southeast Asia. Leaving in November, usually so wet and dreary, made sense in terms of our own schedules plus it would be late spring heading north so, we thought, a good season to be so far south. It was only after buying our tickets that we started to hear about the infamous Patagonia winds. We naively put them out of mind, ignoring the reality of prevailing winds and simply hoped for the best….what a mistake. We now know the winds start to blow hard and consistently out of the northwest in early spring. We are going the wrong direction at the wrong time of year. Oh well, suck it up!
And then there is that other reality of Patagonia, the vast distances with very little access to water, provisions and nowhere to get out of the wind. We have ridden for hours where our only option out of the wind is where culverts pass under the road which is also Claire’s, and presumably others, go-to pee spot. On the other hand the vast panoramas, the ever changing light and clouds, the diverse wildlife, bird life, the estancias and their denizens, the warmth and hospitality of the locals and the rewards of overcoming the challenges have all made up for the inherent difficulties.
Come hell or high winds we were determined to ride the next stretch ( 213 km) from El Calafate to the famous climbing/trekking centre of El Chalten. At first things went well with nothing more than a consistent but gusty side wind and as we rounded Lago (lake) Viedma, a distant Mount Fitz Roy came into view providing on-going motivation. But as we turned west along the north shore of the lake, once again we were head on into the wind. We rode on to a hoped for estancia but a locked gate nixed that so, heads down, we plugged onwards to what was indicated on our mapping app as a ‘casa abandonada’ . We didn’t make it. Too tired and our options looking pretty grim we ended up camping in a ‘hole’ beside the road. As we prepared our tent site it became a bit of a dust bowl but our biggest worry was what would happen if it rained (eg. camping at the bottom of a clay lined depression), never mind the thought of the winds picking up. We were up early for a glorious sunrise but no easing of the winds. Forty kms later, as serendipity would have it, we stopped at Estancia Santa Margarita for a break from the winds which led to our two day immersion into ‘gaucho’ culture.
We were welcomed onto the ranch (a vast 180,000 acres with 19,000 sheep and a few hundred head of cattle), tentatively by the crew but with open arms by Cristian the young manager. We were invited to dine in the crew kitchen, the typically simple Patagonian fare of roast lamb, potatoes and a most welcome fresh salad (courtesy of the lead hand Bernardo’s wife) during which Cristian invited us to the following days provincial championship rodeo festival in nearby Tres Lagos. As it turned out Cristian was a top level ‘jinete’ (bronc rider) competing for a place at the nationals and Bernardo a super competent horseman who helped the riders get off the bucking broncs after the allotted time. The ‘jiniteada’ was a humble affair and the howling wind didn’t help but the horses, the horsemanship and the competition were all stellar. Once the Argentinian version of barrel racing was over the real action got going with various styles of bronc riding. An often short lived, bare back, stirrup-less version was followed by guys, also without stirrups but with a cinched down knee brace that gave them some purchase and finally the main event, with a saddle (of sorts) and stirrups. The horse bucks in an absolutely wild fashion quite unlike the stiff legged bucking of NA rodeo – see attached video of Cristian’s ride. Numerous riders were hurt but all hobbled off stoically.
We were the only foreigners at the fair, surrounded by every manifestation of gaucho style and didn’t leave until late in the afternoon as both Cristian and Bernardo tended to the horses. We got back to the ranch later that night where Lucho, the cook and fence builder, had grilled chicken waiting for us. For us it was a wonderful experience and a great demonstration of rural Patagonian hospitality. We will not soon forget Estancia Santa Margarita.