Text and photos: Mariana Lafont
“I have always thought there is nothing better than traveling on horseback; the road becomes an infinite series of arrivals. You arrive at a crossroads, a flower, a tree, the shadow of a cloud on the sand of the road; you arrive at a stream, the summit of a mountain, an unusual rock. It is as if the road were conjuring surprises to gladden the hearts of travelers.”
Patagonia: remote, beautiful, and wild. Its mountains and deserts can be explored by 4×4, on foot, and horseback, as the Vagamundo group suggests. Tamisietta Obleitner and Attila Missura met in Zurich in 2001 and have been together ever since. They now live in Patagonia with their three children; they are, in fact, my neighbors. Tamisietta was born in Austria and lived in the Tyrol. She worked as a make-up artist for films and advertising but she has always had a love of horses. Attila was a lawyer in Zurich, but the couple spent their summers in Patagonia. He loved cycling, but he took up horse riding with his wife and Bernabé Mayorga (Bequi) ―a gaucho neighbor in Rincón de Lobos, El Hoyo, and partner of the couple in the Vagamundo tourism enterprise.
The day before our departure I packed my necessities into a weatherproof bag that would fit in the horse’s saddlebags. I met Andrea —recently arrived from Buenos Aires— a German horsewoman and lover of the tango. We had lunch in the garden and learned about our trip.
The following day we met at Attila and Tamisietta’s place, where the horses waited in the corral to be saddled. The guides’ children had breakfast and chatted with Bequi, our expert, who is intimately familiar with the trails we would be riding. He has loved horses since childhood and used to accompany his very knowledgeable uncle on rides. Young Bequi loved to make the horses run; his uncle would scold him, saying that “it ruined the animals.” “My uncle was right,” says Bequi and adds: “Now I tell people not to make the horses run, since it makes them disobedient.”
Attila and Bequi readied Tobianao, the pack horse that would carry our belongings. Andrea brushed Tortuga, Tamisietta saddled Oro Negro, and I greeted Viento. Bequi’s mare, Ruanita, was ready. The pup Bufón frolicked about happily in anticipation of his first trip. Between one mate and another, we prepared food and took care of last-minute details. We left at eleven for Desemboque, where the Epuyen River empties into Lake Puelo. A tranquil road skirted the river we later forded. We felt that first rush of adrenaline ―the adventure had begun. We came to a busy motorway, but the horses continued on serenely and we spotted Cerro Plataforma. When we reached a metal bridge, we got off and crossed on foot so that the noise would not scare the horses.
Two hours of traveling brought us to Lake Puelo National Park’s 70,000 acres of protected Valdivian forest (temperate rain forest). The lake sits in a narrow valley crowned by Mt. Tres Picos; glacial sediment gives the water its hue. We admired the lake’s turquoise blue color as we rode through areas that had suffered fires. We ascended the mountain via a narrow trail alongside the lake. We were still five hours away from Turbio when Tami noticed that Oro Negro had thrown a shoe. This was not the best place for impromptu repairs, but the horse could not continue, so a new shoe was put on then and there. We entered El Turbio Regional Park and traversed 7.5 miles of gently undulating trails for six hours. El Turbio is an out-of-the-way area inhabited by a handful of families descended from Chilean pioneers. It is still so isolated that visitors need to travel 11 miles on foot or horseback to get there. The mainstays of the economy are small-scale ranching, government jobs, and summer tourism.
Halfway there, we had lunch in a clearing, where the shade of the trees mitigated the heat. We continued among waterfalls and spotted some hikers. Viento got nervous and wanted to turn back because he caught sight of a red bag tossed away by a hiker resting nearby. I was surprised to learn that the simplest things can frighten a horse.
We reached Turbio at dusk, dismounted, and wove our way around the rocks. We walked nimbly in front of the horses, keeping out of the way of their hooves. Everything was going well until they were stung by wasps; we let them go and they splashed into the lake. We unsaddled the horses and settled them a short distance away. Bequi lit a campfire and heated water for mate as we pitched tents. Bufón was resting; I took my shoes off to rest, too. I was sore all over. It had been an exhausting first day. The body needs to get used to sitting on a horse for so many hours. It was a tranquil night and we chatted with two hikers who were returning from Cerro Plataforma and supped on delicious grilled meat with rice.
On to Plataforma
I was still sore the next day. We got up early to try to beat the rain and broke camp quickly. When everything was ready, we brushed the horses as the first drops began to fall. The rain pelted down so hard that we were soon wet despite our waterproof gear. We quickly reached the imposing Turbio River and its milky glacial waters. The water level is low in summer, but in winter, when the rain is heavier, the river is dangerous and you have to know exactly where to cross. We took shelter in a forest of coihue trees where we spied a few houses and several waterlogged hikers. The rain continued to beat down and we rode on in silence, stopping only when necessary. Our wet clothing made us feel cold, but the sun shone weakly after we passed a vantage point over the Turbio River, its delta, and Lake Puelo. We lunched near Puesto Morro beside an old log house and the remains of a burnt-out corral. From there, we ascended a steep slope to a forest of Chilean cherry and Antarctic beech.
The rain returned to keep us company for the rest of the journey to Mallín de Mella, where we set up camp and dried our shoes and socks near the fire. We whiled away the hours chatting about the day and planning how to climb to Plataforma.
The following morning we ate a good breakfast after a night spent at 32 °F. No sun appeared to burn away the cold. We readied our food and horses and crossed the stream near the camp. This was followed by an hour and a half of climbing narrow trails hemmed in by Chilean cherry. We crossed many wet meadows, being careful to follow in the hoof prints of Bequi’s horse to avoid stepping in the wrong spot and sinking. We soon reached the base of Plataforma, where there was a lagoon, a stream, and a ramshackle mountain shelter. The trail climbs behind the shelter to a clearing. Luckily, there was sunshine and a cool breeze that day. We tied up the horses at the foot of the mountain in a sheltered spot and continued on foot. We clambered over rocks blanketed with mountain flowers to a vantage point with a view of the meandering Turbio River, the Lake Puelo estuary, and several hanging glaciers. Behind us rose the wall of an eroded gray fortress: Mt. Plataforma.
Everything was different up on top. The forest gave way to an infinite, bare plain that seemed to have been dropped here from a distant, desolate planet. We were extremely surprised to find marine fossils popping up everywhere. We were walking along an ancient lake bed, millions of years old. Andrea, a geologist by profession, kept stopping to look at age-old treasures. A small lake with six great bustards shimmered in the distance. The vast plain enchanted us with its hills, waterfalls, and wet meadows.
It seemed endless. We walked for several hours after lunch. The return through stunted Chilean cherry trees was entertaining. In order to descend the muddy parts comfortably, the horses practically slid down on their hindquarters. This had a big impact on us, so we got off our steeds and walked. We were soon in camp, feeling warm and eating a tasty stew of lentils as we recounted our amazing day.
We spent a rainy night. After breakfast we dismantled our wet camp with resignation. Silent, wet, and cold, the horses were anxious to leave. The entire first part of the journey was downhill. I decided to give the animal its head as I rode. It was a wonderful feeling, and I was surprised to see what the horse could do to find the best way down. We rode for a long time in a Zen state, after which we had lunch and adjusted the cinches, since they loosen and come undone with the steep descents. Bequi greeted some settlers and we returned by way of the school. There, we set up an open camp exposed to strong wind gusts. We returned to Turbio through sun and rain and released the horses, who gleefully rolled in the dirt. Since it was still raining, we improvised a roof on the lakeshore.
When we had finished pitching camp, the sun came out! We were all noticeably tired and each one of us sought out a place to rest and meditate on the journey. We ladies took a dip in the lake under the last rays of sunshine, and there was hot food and good wine around the campfire that night. We were ready for a nice family dinner after our time in the heart of wild Patagonia.
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