Global Village: Horseback riding with the gauchos of Patagonia

With our borders closed, New Zealand feels more remote than ever, but we are still part of the seven billion team that is planet Earth. We may be confined to our little corner of the world right now, but we are doing ourselves a disservice if we act like this no longer exists. In this series, we’ll spotlight people around the world doing things that make the world a better place. And places, experiences, traditional cultures and moments of travel that have the power to surprise, delight and remind us how lucky we are all to inhabit this world. Take this as an inspiration for when our borders finally open.

There is a carcass of beef hanging from the ceiling, suspended by hooks over an open fire. It has been roasting slowly for several hours, dripping fatty, salty tears in the flames below. Every now and then Miguel, the smiling but silent gaucho (Argentinian cowboy), pushes him and pushes him, before going out to smoke and sip yerba mate, the bitter, caffeine-rich tea beloved by South Americans.

We are in Patagonia, the vast arid landscape of over a million kilometers that stretches across the southern tips of Chile and Argentina. It’s so big (big), that if you let New Zealand fall in, you would need all of Interpol’s resources to help you find it.

Depending on who you think, the name Patagonia means “land of giants” or “land of big feet”. But what everyone agrees on is that this region dates back to the arrival of Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan around 1520, when he thought the people of Tehuelche were 10 feet tall. While this is probably an exaggeration (or the result of too much yerba mate), you can see Magellan’s reasoning – how could a land of such immense space not have colossal inhabitants to match?

Petizo was exactly the kind of gentle, slow horse the writer had hoped for.

Martin Haughey

Petizo was exactly the kind of gentle, slow horse the writer had hoped for.

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The great gash of the snow-capped Andes mountains divides Patagonia in two – on “this side” are the glacial fjords and temperate rainforests of Chile, on “this side” the steppes, grasslands and Argentinian deserts that s ‘stretch for miles.

We drive an hour from San Carlos de Bariloche to a 10,000 ha estancia (farm) that has been raising beef cattle for years.

Life hasn’t been kind to me in the pruning department, but kindness comes from Miguel’s form affecting me a nine-year-old male horse appropriately named Petizo (short in Spanish). I glance at Petizo’s liquid brown eyes and fall in love.

Fortunately, Petizo is a gentle soul who somehow senses that my confidence indicator is in the red. He looks at me as if to say, “Don’t worry ma’am, I’ll take care of you.”

Although our guide Steve grew up further north, horses are in his blood.

Martin Haughey

Although our guide Steve grew up further north, horses are in his blood.

Miguel shows us how to ride gaucho style, with the reins held loosely in one hand, and while it seems a bit awkward at first, as we go single file, I relax into the slow paces and sweet from Petizo. He’s made this trip so many times, he ignores my feeble attempts to lead him or encourage him to go faster or slower: this is his territory and he will zigzag there as he always has.

We drive over mostly flat terrain, a labyrinth of trees that shed their leaves for the winter and mountains whose sharp peaks split the cloudless sky. It is a beauty that no architect can imagine, no town planner can plan.

The sun is now high in the sky and it is time to return to the dining room. In our absence, they took care of preparing asado (barbecue) and making mounds of empanadas, delicious pockets of pâté filled with beef, ham or cheese.

I’m no meat eater, but even I have to admit that the smell that fills the small room is alluring – smoky, salty, oily and charred, the essence of the Patagonian countryside.

Miguel cuts the asado (barbecue) after our hike.

Martin Haughey

Miguel cuts the asado (barbecue) after our hike.

Although gauchos speak broken English, we learn of their deep and constant love for the land and their horses.

“I used to live in the city but I always come back here,” says Jesus, a 30-year-old gaucho who cuts up pieces of meat from the carcass with a horribly sharp knife.

“These valleys and steppes invade you and it’s hard to stay away. I am a proud first Patagonian and second Argentinian.

On the way back, we try to keep our voices satisfied as we share stories of the hike when, on a glorious morning, all was well with the world. Considering what is wrong now, this is not a bad achievement.

The gauchos quickly take care of saddling the horses for their next ride.

Martin Haughey

The gauchos quickly take care of saddling the horses for their next ride.

Stay Safe: New Zealand is currently subject to restrictions related to Covid-19. To verify safetravel.govt.nz before you travel to stay up to date on the latest travel advice.


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