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Posted on June 26, 2019
In October 2018 Abbie from In The Saddle travelled to southern Chile, where she took part in the Estancias Ride through the iconic Torres del Paine national park. In this blog post she tells us about her much anticipated visit to this special part of the world.
Winning your first rosette, cantering on the beach or watching your idol go clear at Badminton. There are some horse-filled moments that remain etched on your memory forever. For me, riding beneath the snow-capped peaks of Torres del Paine on our Estancias Ride was one of those experiences. It is difficult to put into words just how impressive the scenery is, how small and insignificant it makes you feel to ride there.
This is not the trip for those who want top tier luxury or four course candlelit suppers, but will be a top of the wish list dream-come-true for riders who enjoy adventure, dramatic scenery and exploring off the beaten path.
By day we ride through forests and out onto the open plains. There are exciting canters, as the alarm call of guanaco herds drift towards us on the breeze, sounding like a car failing to start. Guanacos are the wild descendant of the domesticated llama; they are protected within the park and so are quite numerous. By night we stay in comfortable rooms at estancias in incredible locations, like Hotel del Paine nestled on a bend of the Rio Serrano. Waking up one morning to a sharp frost, we were treated to a special view of the mountains through the mist. Estancia Perales, on the shores of Last Hope Sound and Cerro Guido, a large working estancia, with horses, sheep and cattle, are other favourites.
There’s far more life in this remote part of Chile than I imagined. We spot Andean geese, flamingos, rhea (a flightless bird), black-necked swans, ruddy ducks and caracaras, as well as armadillo and skunk. One afternoon on the way back to Cerro Guido we stop at the top of a steep embankment to watch four condors soaring on the thermals, their huge wings ending in feathers that stretch out to look like fingers. We’ve seen a number of condors overhead in earlier days, but watching them at eye level is so special.
The horses are perfect for the job throughout our trip and we ride four different sets. The first horses are steady, ideal to ease us into the gaucho style of riding (think long stirrups, sitting trot and feet further forward than English style), whilst we recover from our long flights. The second set are amazing; so careful and sure footed over boggy ground and steep terrain, and yet ready for exciting canters across the pampas. At Tercera Barranca the horses are kitted out with brand new saddles and we happily ease our now-aching muscles into the cushion-soft sheepskin.
Our final set of horses at Cerro Guido are great; they are workmanlike when tackling steep slops, forward-going in canter and true professionals on our last riding day to Lake Sarmiento, when things turn cold and it becomes so windy that we can hear nothing except the air rushing past our ears at what seems like 80km and hour!
On some days we ride for 7 or 8 hours, but we are well fueled by breakfasts of eggs, toast and coffee and revived by the two or three course evening meals with Chilean wine. The picnic lunches on this ride were some of the best I’ve ever had – hot soup (a different flavour each day including tomato and basil, beetroot, carrot, cheese and broccoli), followed by dishes like salmon, falafel, beef, trout and cheeses, accompanied by salads, crackers and bread. Our feast concluded with cake, chocolate and tea or coffee with Baileys.
Each riding day was as exciting and varied as the scenery. The most memorable for me was Day 3, which started with a boat trip up Last Hope Sound into Bernardo O’Higgins national park, spotting sea lions and glaciers along the way. After lunch, we set off on an 8 hour ride through forests of beech and cypress and along rural paths, with teasing glimpses of the lakes and mountains to come. After hours of technical riding, we descend a hill, cross Nutria River and in front of us is our first clear view of the Torres del Paine. Cantering on the plains as dusk descends, we feel as though we’ve earned the incredible view before us.
Another memorable day is the morning ride across open pampas to Grey Lake, from where we set off on a 3 hour boat trip up to the three different faces of Glacier Grey. Pictures cannot really do justice to the icebergs and glacial formations we see, nor the towering face of the glacier, which is over 30 metres high.
Another fantastic route was on day 5, when we rode directly towards the Paine Massif mountain range, with views so dramatic and beautiful you need to see them for yourself! Long hours in the saddle were more than worthwhile, as we splashed through streams, travelled past azure lakes and gazed at the huge granite mountain peaks beyond.
There’s an incredible photo opportunity on a disused bridge (see above); the snowy peaks of the towers reflected in the bright blue waters of the lake. The last part of this ride took us out onto the soft pampas of the Patagonian steppe, where big herds of guanaco graze until they are spooked by our approach.
During my trip in October we were blessed with bright sunny days and no wind (until the last day), but in this extreme climate you need to be prepared for sun, wind, rain, snow and sleet and must dress accordingly. Warm layers and good waterproofs are essential. Long chaps (leather or waterproof) are a good idea to protect you from the elements and the thorny Calafate bushes.
Lake and mountain enthusiasts will be in their element, as will adventurous riders who like heading off the beaten path. Highly skilled photographers and also those less skilled with a camera will delight in the endless photo opportunities. You will quickly realise it is quite hard to take a bad picture in this magical landscape – a breath-taking view can be found everywhere you look. Even my phone took great footage when a cold spell temporarily killed off my camera battery!
What a trip we have had – fabulous weather, great company and our wonderful guide Armando, who knew the answer to every single one of our endless questions. We quizzed him on topics from sheep populations to bird life, from history to weather patterns and everything in between. He was one of the most knowledgeable guides I’ve ever ridden with!
Whilst the long hours in the saddle and extreme climate of the Estancias Ride might not suit everyone, if you are a competent rider and happy to try riding gaucho style, then I’d urge you to book this trip – it is a once in a lifetime adventure and one that will stick in your memory forever.