A Gaucho Family Christmas In Patagonia
San Carlos de Bariloche, or simply Bariloche as it’s known to the locals, is a stunningly beautiful town at the foothills of the awe inspiring Andes, straddling lake Nahuel Huapi. The name itself originates from its Mapudungun indigenous past. The word Vuriloche meaning ‘people from behind the mountain,’ and beyond the mountains was exactly where we were heading. Our guide Analia, from the Patagonian Tourism Network was extremely helpful in guiding us around this magnificent landscape meeting Criollo – mixed indigenous, European race – families high up in the mountains living a simplistic way of life.
One of the first families we met took us on an incredible but somewhat sketchy trek up the mountainside of where their charming little house ‘El Arbolito’ was perched. After two hours we finally made it to an abandoned cave, used by the ancient Mapuche people as a place of shelter on their long journeys through the mountains. Looking down at ourselves it seemed as though dreams of a white Christmas had come true. Unfortunately, the white stuff was ash. The cause of which was the Puyehue-Cordón Caulle Volcano in bordering Chile that erupted in 2011 which led Argentina to declare a state of emergency for farmers in the Rio Negro region. It suffocated the vegetation, making it nearly impossible for cattle, sheep and goat to graze, therefore, leading to widespread starvation, it is still having a major effect on the rural people of this region.
Leaving the ash behind, we made our way to another Gaucho family living by Rio Pichi Leufu – meaning small river in Mapuche – some 65km from Bariloche. Ironically, the river was far from small with the constant roar of the rapids tumbling over rocks. Despite being relatively close, there was a surprising contrast from the lush, tree covered mountains and lakes of Bariloche to this sparse desert vegetation and high canyon walls. After a dusty ride on the winding road along the river, we eventually made it to our house where we were due to spend Christmas in Patagonia with Anastacio – a gaucho – and his friendly family. With a long journey ahead of us the following day we went to bed early after another rich feast of meat and wine.
We woke early on Christmas Eve which was a special day, not only because of the festivities but because once a year Anastacio and one of his four sons herd their cattle over 25 kilometres to new pastures to feed for the Christmas period. We were extremely lucky as we were invited to accompany them on this epic journey. So, after a quick lesson from Anastacio’s wife on how to milk the cows, their son prepared the horses while we went inside to stock up on coffee, bread and dulce de leche. Kitted up and ready to go, we trotted off, following our gaucho guides, leading the cattle alongside the river with his four dogs yapping at our tails. It was our furry little friends that were doing most of the work, Anastacio only having to occasionally make a gallop for it when a brave cow tried to make an escape.
After crossing the river through the rapids, trying desperately not to fall into the icy cold water below, we then started to climb up a rocky outcrop, making our way up a narrow path reaching nearly 1,500m. The cows were nowhere to be seen but nonetheless, Anastacio still had a look of confidence about him. The cold started to bite due to the strong winds so we took a moment to shelter in the trees and have a much needed mate break.
Continuing our journey through the forest after our quick caffeine boost we caught sight of the cows up ahead, running petrified but surprisingly nimble over the steep rocky slopes. With our legs and back beginning to tire, we finally came to the opening where the cows were due to spend the Christmas period, peacefully feasting on the lush grass to fatten themselves up. With the cows liberated we found a small thicket of trees to tie our horses up, in the blink of an eye Anastacio jumped off and started a fire in no time at all.
Laying the sheep skin woollen horse saddles on the floor for warmth we sat around the fire and tucked into a smooth Malbec whilst the sausages sizzled away on a cleverly devised branch over the fire. To accompany the meat Anastacio’s wife had prepared a wonderful vegetable tortilla, salad, homemade cheese and bread. It was a magical picnic in a postcard setting, right in the heart of the rugged Patagonian mountains. A truly unforgettable adventure made even more special by our new gaucho friends. After overindulging on wine and succulent meat we dropped off for a siesta with the crackling fire and wind whistling in our ears.
Just as I began to dream about cowboys and indians, I was woken by Anastacio’s son putting the fire out and preparing the horses for our return journey. We circled around the steppe and made our way home via the other side of the ridge leaving the bemused cows behind in their new Christmas home. A sore but thoroughly enjoyable long trek home – an epic eight hour journey in total – was rewarded by Anastacio’s wife who was waiting for us with freshly made dulce de leche pancakes and a roast lamb slowly cooking on the barbecue. It was then time to wash our tired bodies, so we plunged into the icy cold river at the bottom of their garden which was an invigorating experience to say the least.
The night of Christmas Eve – the evening of celebration, unlike Christmas day in the UK – was soon approaching, and the preparations were now in full flow (check out Harry’s Christmas Dinner in Rural Patagonia post for more details). Christmas morning was spent trekking and swimming in the beautiful Lago Gutiérrez before heading back to Bariloche to end our Patagonia adventure. Our sights will soon turn to Chile where we will be meeting more Mapuche communities over the border on our Araucanía Experience Tour starting in January. It’s north from here on.
All pictures by Harry Dowdney