The central steppe of Patagonia, South America’s southern frontier, sweeps eastwards for thousands of miles from the foot of the Andes Mountains.
At night, this part of Patagonia’s sky is pin-cushion bright and streaked with shooting stars. It’s so clear, you can trace the outline of the Southern Cross, the constellation visible only in the Southern Hemisphere.
There is a lot of nothingness here. Little grows in the harsh climactic conditions of the steppe. It is a desolate region of bunch grasses, emptiness and howling winds.
Only the lonely sheep estancias (ranches) and forgotten villages dot the expansive landscape. Built a century ago, they evoke a lost spirit of the romantic Patagonia of old, when adventurers, Anglican missionaries and settlers arrived to the bottom of the world to evangelise or find fortune.
Some of its more infamous adventurers included Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. The American outlaws toiled the land here whilst running from the FBI. They built a log-cabin on the outskirts of Cholila, a lyrically named village, where they lived for six years until 1907, before fleeing to rob banks.
It was settlers, sheep farmers travelling from Scotland, sometimes via the Antipodes, who fared better. They carved a simple life from the granite hardships of the steppe. They founded estancias across the windy plains and appeased the demands of industrialised Europe for raw wool. Patagonia’s estancieros called their sheep ‘white gold’, and prospered.
That was until Mount Hudson, the giant volcano that straddles the Southern Andes between Argentina and Chile, blew its cone with apocalyptic violence in the early nineties. Black ash and molten rock rained down on Patagonia’s steppe. Tens of thousands of livestock perished, mostly prized ewes weakened by late gestation. It was Patagonia’s Pompeii.
Since this catastrophic event, now over a decade ago, the steppe estancias have opened their doors to travellers. As century-old working ranches, these are distant from the smartly packaged tourist estancias that dot the outskirts of Buenos Aires. Mostly, they have space for up to ten guests at a time, accommodated in sepia rooms. Unchanged in a hundred years, they are a thrilling experience.
Inside an estancia
Estancia Telken is a small, weatherboard ranch house nestled amidst 21,000 hectares (52,000 acres) of open plains. In their east the plains climb to the Lake Buenos Aires plateau. The estancia house and its lavender gardens are ringed by poplars, which offer protection from a whistling wind. Inside, the house is a faded daguerreotype of wood-panelled walls, brown linoleum floors and a cast-iron kitchen stove.
Ride with the gauchos
Activities from Estancia Telken include horseriding, and gauchos (Argentinian cowboys), ride the open country with you. Their bombachas – the gaucho’s riding trousers – are stained with dried sweat, dirt and animal blood. There is little technology at Telken, where labour remains manual. The facón, the gaucho’s carved knife, dangles from his belt as he rides. The facón, Argentinians say, is the gaucho’s best friend.
And my, they are expert horsemen. The green-brown steppe rushes underfoot as you canter in their dusty wake. Little lagoons, glassy blobs of brilliant blue water, punctuate the ride, pockets of sharp colour in barren nothingness.
Encounters are with nature. A herd of guanaco, the llama’s wild cousin, bolts when you approach. The ostrich-like Darwin’s rhea, spindly legs like cocktail sticks, hot-steps across the earth. Magnificent Andean condors circle overhead. They are majestic in flight. On the ground they strip carrion clean. Skeletons are left, bleached ivory by the sun. This is the good life: it’s earthy, a little raw. It’s distant from the madness of modern living.
Estancio-style dining: not for the faint-hearted (or vegetarians)
Supper is with estancia owners and fellow guests. The cooking is hearty fare: roast Patagonian lamb which slides off the bone, homemade pumpkin tart followed by apple pie. At Telken, owner Petty talks of childhood in Patagonia. Granddaughter of her estancia’s founder, Petty recalls riding with siblings to nearby Cueva de las Manos (Cave of Hands). It is Argentina’s finest example of prehistoric art. Nobody knew of it back then, she says. They smoked cigarettes in the caves, which are painted with biomorphic motifs from 10,000 years ago. Septuagenarian, born in Patagonia, Petty has a lilting Scottish burr.
After dining, there’s little to do. Talk, listen, read. Chatwin’s In Patagonia is a favourite. Chatwin slept in the barns of the sheep stations. He found the Americans’ cabin in Cholila, and lodged with the descendants of Anglican evangelists. Estancieros remember the English writer, not always with affection. They say he was a romantic, and mixed fiction with fact.
Visiting Argentina? Check out some of these top estancias:
Estancia Monte Dinero: Monte Dinero overlooks the Magellan Strait. Guests stay at its ranch house, built in 1880.
Estancia Viamonte: The sons of Anglican missionary Thomas Bridges founded Viamonte in 1902. It remains in the Bridges family and faces the Atlantic Ocean from a cliff top.
Estancia La Angostura: Horse-riding and nature-watching are activities at La Angostura, a steppe estancia built in 1916.
Estancia Telken: Founded 1915, Telken has rural activities amidst blissfully isolated plains.
For other estancia stays in central Patagonia, contact www.estanciasdesantacruz.com