The central steppe of Patagonia, a region that stretches across Argentina and Chile in South America’s southern frontier, sweeps eastwards for thousands of miles from the foot of the Andes Mountains.
night, Patagonia’s sky is bright and streaked with shooting stars. It is so
clear, you can trace the outline of the Southern Cross, a 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.
sheep estancias (ranches) and forgotten villages dot the expansive
landscape. Built a century ago, they evoke a lost spirit of romantic Patagonia,
when adventurers, Anglican missionaries and settlers arrived at the bottom of
the world to evangelise or find fortune. Some of the region’s more infamous
adventurers included Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The American outlaws
toiled the land here while running from the law. They built a log-cabin on the
outskirts of Cholila, Argentina, a lyrically named village, where they lived
for six years until 1907, before fleeing to rob banks.
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.
was until Mt Hudson, the giant volcano that straddles the Southern Andes
between Argentina and Chile, blew 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.
this catastrophic event, the steppe estancias have opened their doors to travellers.
As century-old working ranches, these accommodations are far from the smartly
packaged tourist estancias that dot the outskirts of Buenos Aires. Unchanged in
a hundred years, they are a thrilling experience.
Estancia Telken is a small, weatherboard ranch house nestled amid
21,000 hectares of open plains. In the 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.
from Estancia Telken include horse riding, with gauchos (Argentinean cowboys) to 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, is the
gaucho’s best friend, Argentineans say. 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.
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 is earthy, a little raw. It is
distant from the madness of modern living.
is with estancia owners and fellow guests. The cooking is hearty fare: roast
Patagonian lamb that 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.
Argentina? Check out some of these top estancias:
Estancia Monte Dinero
overlooks the Magellan Strait. Guests stay at its ranch house, built in 1880.
sons of Anglican missionary Thomas Bridges founded Estancia Viamonte in 1902. It remains in the Bridges family and faces
the Atlantic Ocean from a cliff top.
and nature-watching are activities at Estancia La Angostura, a steppe estancia built in 1916.
rural activities amidst blissfully isolated plains.