Patagonia on horseback. Sounds perfect, right? It definitely is!
When we started making plans to visit Patagonia in southern Chile, I just knew I wanted to explore part of Torres del Paine National Park from the back of a horse. It seemed the natural thing to do there. Like seeing Delhi in a tuk-tuk, or New York City in a cab. You know - when in Rome.
I have to be honest though - I'm not a big horse person. And I'm quite sure my horsey friends would cringe to hear me even use the terms "horse person" and "horsey". But I know so little about horses and horseback riding that I don't even know what to call them! It's not that I don't like horses. In fact, I think they're really beautiful. Majestic. I guess it's like cats and dogs, and horses. You're either drawn to them, or you're not.
I was excited to be spending part of our time in the park at Hotel Las Torres, one of just a dozen or so accommodations in the Torres del Paine park itself. Many visitors choose to stay in Puerto Natales, about an hour away, and drive in for the day. But if you want your days to start early and end late, consider staying in the Park. One of the great things about Hotel Las Torres is their proximity to las torres, the granite towers that give the hotel its name. The hotel is situated where many of the park's most popular trails converge. They also have a full stable of horses on the property with the baqueanos - or cowboys - who work them daily for tours, supply runs to and from mountain refugios, and for the benefit of guests and other tourists.
Our half-day ride to Cerro Paine started out early and we met our guide the next morning in the hotel lobby. She talked about the tour, where we'd be going, and the baqueano who would be leading us.
Baqueanos (pronounced bak-YAY-nos) are legendary in Chile. Known primarily for their ability to guide their way through the Patagonian wilderness, these cowboys are expert trackers and guides, and also known for the special bond they develop with their horses. Like the gaucho in Argentina, the huaso and baquero in central Chile, and even the North American cowboy, the Patagonian baqueano has a long and proud tradition of excellent horsemanship. In fact, the English word buckaroo - referring to the cowboys of the Old West - comes from the Chilean word baquero.
Our small group met at the stable and were assigned horses. My horse was a beautiful Palomino who was a bit older and a little sleepy. I could relate to her! We mounted up and set out for the foothills behind the hotel.
Up, up, up, we rode, the horses climbing higher and higher into the hills. They instinctively knew where to go and I just sat back and enjoyed the ride. I never knew how relaxing this could be with the horse gently rocking you as they walked.
The hills turned into mountains, growing more steep, and a few times I thought I'd fall over backwards if I didn't lean forward. The horses climbed higher still, and I felt the labored breathing of my horse under me. I felt bad for making her carry me.
The higher we climbed, the more stunning the scenery became. Off in the distance we saw the milky aqua green of Lake Nordenskjöld and Lake Sarmiento beyond that. Directly in front of us was the snow-capped Mount Almirante Nieto, but after a short while we turned right and headed toward Cerro Paine and the beautiful granite towers. A thick lenga forest lay ahead of us and the horses followed the narrow path. The forest path was so low and dense, we emerged out the other side with a few more leg scrapes and bruises from branches, but I figured if my horse could handle this so could I.
We reached the flat ridge of Cerro Paine in front of the towers and stopped to let the horses rest.
What a view. Surrounding us were snow-capped mountains, deep ravines, boulder fields, and lush green mountains with a hint of fall color coming on - all of it backdropped by the bluest sky I've ever seen. And those magnificent granite towers.
The trip back down Cerro Paine was equally beautiful. I'm amazed I never thought to turn around occasionally on the way up. The landscape below unfolded in front of us like a sea of never ending hills and valleys, and my horse breathed easier.
All told, our horses had climbed roughly 4,000 feet (1,200 meters) up to Cerro Paine. They were tired and so were we, and it felt good to get back to the stables so they could rest.
If exploring Torres del Paine in Patagonia is on your bucket list, consider doing part of it on four legs. It was an amazing way to see Cerro Paine on a gorgeous fall day.
If You Go:
Hotel Las Torres - phone: +56 61 2617450 / +56 61 2360280
Hotel Las Torres offers several full and half day horseback tours up to Cerro Paine and other sites around the park, including a cultural "Baqueano For a Day" tour where you'll learn about the traditional life of the Chilean Baqueanos. Click here for more details on their excursions. You need not stay at the hotel to book an excursion, however guests of the hotel do have preference if a tour becomes overbooked. Non-guests may book tours at the hotel reception for excursions with guides for the following day.
(Disclaimer: We were tour guests of Hotel Las Torres, and appreciate the introduction to their equine tours. As always, all opinions are my own based on firsthand experience.)
Have you been to Torres del Paine or is it on your list? What is your favorite way to explore wilderness mountain scenery?