A Patagonia Adventure

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If Patagonia were a movie set, the director would tell the designers to dial it back.
Ruth Kennedy Sudduth was invited to privately tour several large ecological properties in Patagonia.

When the Patagonia Sur team invited me down to Chile to visit two of the largest properties—Melimoyu, a temperate rain forest between the Pacific Ocean and a glaciated volcano, and Valle California, a classic pampa ranch with trout rivers rimmed by snowcapped peaks and ancient forests—I was reminded of a friend’s comment before my first Rolling Stones concert: “You’re not ready!”

I thought it would be the vastness and unspoiled character of Patagonia that would get me. It certainly did. But what struck me the most was how Chile had accelerated in the 20 years since my last visit, especially relative to the United States. Low national debt, strong growth—propelling Chile into ‘developed world’ status—respect for property rights, and an emerging environmental ethos added to a longstanding sense of civil order and a gringo-friendly culture. The more mundane surprises were modern airports, functioning security lines, gleaming planes, welcoming flight attendants, good food, smooth roads, and clean taxis that accept credit cards.

The Andes are beyond vast. Imagine the Rockies Photoshopped by 10 and then add in volcanoes and a deep-teal ocean. If Chilean Patagonia were a movie set, the director would tell the designers to dial it back because it is too over the top. Watch the film 180 Degrees South for an introduction to Patagonia and to the conservation issues facing this amazing place.

We arrived at Melimoyu, which is set on a perfect blue bay (think Avatar). Our helicopter landed in a clearing in the rain forest next to a white farmhouse overlooking the bay. Lunch was laid out on a long rustic table, with Chilean wine, fruit, and cheese and warm things coming out of the wood-fired oven. Each of the Patagonia Sur Reserves properties has a top-flight chef, house staff, and guides, and the level of environmental sensitivity is matched by comfort, cuisine, and local expertise.

We spent the next several days exploring the rain forest (where the birds are so unused to people that they fly right up to you), floating the rivers, and paddling among dolphins and sea lions. A special trip was a helicopter up to the Melimoyu glacier, the vastness of which puts humans in context. As we flew down from the glacier, we circled over multiple Yosemite-sized waterfalls.

Next, a charter plane dropped us near Chaitén, and we took the four-hour, mostly gravel Austral road east toward the Argentine border by SUV. Good thing: the roads were spectacular but rugged, winding through the mountains, by huge glacial lakes and under hanging glaciers. There were more cows in the road than oncoming traffic. We dropped into Valle California after nightfall, but we could see the huge mountains dark against the sky, with the Milky Way within arm’s reach in the clear, dry sky.

Accommodations at Valle California are in luxury yurts (not a contradiction in terms), with glorious beds furnished with great sheets and wool textiles from a cooperative supported by Patagonia Sur’s community development foundation. The dome at the top of the yurt opens to a view of the night sky.

Boardwalks link the yurts to the “cincho,” a local term for barbecue, in this case a very elegant, contemporary, blond wood pavilion with a huge fireplace, a long common table and a comfortable seating area piled high with books. Here the chef and his very capable staff set up beautiful multi-course meals with great Chilean organic wines.

Our first local excursion was a walk through the valley, then up through a lenga forest, a southern beech forest with huge, 800 year old trees. The forest was magical, with the green filtered light, dappling orchids, and mosses on the forest floor. As we climbed, the woods gave way to a hanging valley with a deep clear lake rimmed by cliffs. The Patagonia Sur team had flown up the chef and the “picnic” preparations by helicopter and greeted us by the lake with hot soup, wine, olives, cheese, sausages, salads and a yummy Patagonian dessert of peaches in heavy cream.

Our following two days in Valle California were filled with fly fishing, mountain biking, horseback riding, hiking, and another flight up to a glacier, this time above Lago Palena, with the brilliant blue glacial lake below on a bluebell clear day.

Between the Ears of a Horse

The best way to see Patagonia is between the ears of a horse. Some would argue it is the best way to see the world, period. But when a place is as remote and the country as rugged as inland Chile, the best way to travel is on the back of a sturdy, short-coupled, insanely agile Chilean horse. “What kind of horses are these?” I asked. “Chilean Horses” was always the answer. They are somewhat Iberian in type; some are gaited, others not. They are handsome, intrepid, and thrifty, getting through the winter on grass out on the pampa.

Our guide, Simon Pablo Tapia Marini, spends the summer season guiding and the winter riding and training young jumpers. But not just any jumpers: back in the camp house, he showed us videos jumping five or six horses at the same show, ranging from greenies jumping one-meter classes to Grand-Prix-level horses: Zangersheides, Holsteiners, and Hanoverians. Horse people bond quickly, so we had a global video-viewing session, finishing off with watching cult-favorite helmet-cam footage of Australian Peter Atkins riding his Argentine horse in Florida.
Simon had the horses all tacked up for us. The bits and tack were interesting. The local sheepskin saddles, familiar from photos, were matched with a broken wire snaffle, with chain in the middle and a leather curb strap. Needless to say, you neck rein.

Simon took us out through the pampa. Every so often he’d take off at a gallop and jump a couple of ditches on the hot little grulla mare he was riding. Macumbo, my sturdy black gelding, warmed up to the idea of going along and proved to be beautifully trained in lateral work and nice off the leg. I wondered whether some of that Iberian classical technique had filtered into gaucho teaching. Or maybe good horsemanship is just that.

From the valley floor we climbed steeply up to the top of a nearly vertical hill in the middle of Valle California. From here, we beheld a commanding view of the entire property, with the rushing Rio Tigre running through it. The late-afternoon sunlight was sharply angled, and the lenga trees were just starting to turn. The sky was impossibly blue. It was like going back 150 years in the American West. No cars, no airplanes, no noise at all. Just the wind and the horses’ breathing.

We were grateful for the beautiful country, the sense of community and inclusion provided by the Patagonia Sur team, and for the chance to experience a remote and beautiful part of the world that evokes an American landscape from the distant past. To spend entire days without a plane overhead, or a powerline, or a cell-phone ringtone—where the water is so clean you can drink from the streams—with kind, knowledgeable people, what more could you ask for?

As 21st-century humans, we can travel all over the world at fantastic speeds. Friends post on Facebook from the Great Wall. So what makes going to Patagonia special? For me, it was the opportunity to experience one of the world’s last remaining wild places. But of course, even Patagonia is impacted by human activity, from deforestation to overfishing to climate change to threats from massive hydroelectric dams. The soon-to-come paving of the Austral road will change Patagonia profoundly.

That’s what is so exciting about Patagonia Sur. The design of the project was to take a multi-dimensional approach to land protection: ecotourism, reforestation, scientific research, education, community development and sales of real estate as part of a very thoughtful land planning and conservation program. It is a huge endeavor that creates community in these special places that enriches the experience of being there.