Patagonian Adventures with the Mapuche
We arrived in the wonderfully picturesque town of San Martín de los Andes, where our Mapuche guide Maria Angelica was waiting for us. Mapuche – one of the largest remaining indigenous communities in Argentina – are people of the land, as the name suggests: mapu, meaning land; and che, meaning people in their native tongue. Sadly however, their native Mapuche language has all but died out since the Spanish invasion took control of their territories in the 1800’s. Between 1860 and 1885 they were subject to a terrible invasion by the Chilean and Argentine armies that dispossessed and massacred up to 100,000 Mapuche, known as the ‘campaign of the desert.’ Yet, there is light at the end of the tunnel as the indigenous language is now being taught in some rural schools in an attempt to revive it.
The climate, as well as the landscape had dramatically transformed from the stifling hot, dry heat of the north, to a brisk, cold wind that whipped off the lake. Patagonia is the adventure outdoor capital of the world in many people’s eyes and it certainly didn’t disappoint. The rugged lake coastline is littered with campsites, managed by the Mapuche. However, only since four years ago have they had full control of the campsites in which their territory lies, after a long struggle to gain control over local authorities. They collectively divide the work between families on a rotational system, giving everybody the chance to manage the business. Speaking to our insightful guide Maria, it seems as though this shared community spirit is the very essence of their culture.
Besides campsites, livestock and the forest itself are fundamental aspects in their daily lives. Sheep produce wool for them to intricately handcraft clothes and accessories, and the forest provides them with firewood, both of which are essential items against the elements in this harsh environment. Maria took us to meet our host Lidia who lives on a rustic little farm. Her house, built entirely from wood, is nestled between the trees with a stunning view of the mountainside. Keeping in touch with nature, Maria and Lidia took us up the mountain on a beautiful walk through the forest where we came across countless lapwing birds that were noisily defending their territories. We paused for breath on top of the ridge, looking down over the valley towards San Martin de los Andes before heading back for a home cooked dinner.
Breakfast at Lidia’s house was a delightful array of wild forest fruit jams on toast accompanied by mate, whilst huddling around the log stove to keep warm from the unusually cold summer morning. After breakfast, Maria took us on a guided tour around the local community visiting different families along the way. Unlike the Huarpe community of Mendoza, these families are spread out over the valleys in small pockets, horseback often being the best form of transport. We visited a humorous Mapuche lady called Dorilia in her 80’s high up on the hillside in a charming log cabin. She prepared us a rich lunch of roasted chicken, mash potato, lentils and salad from her garden. To wash it down she served us a potent fresh apple juice which had been fermenting for several days, forming a mild version of cider. Maybe this was the reason for her humorous personality.
With a belly full of alcoholic apple juice we continued our journey over the mountain until we came to a tiny wooden hut lying at the bottom of the valley. It was home to a young Mapuche couple with as many kids as chickens and sheep, all running around merrily together, oblivious to the bitterly cold weather swirling around outside. We were invited inside to warm up by the stove with some mate and torta fritas – a typical type of fried dough bread that goes hand in hand with mate. The roof was stained black as it so often is in these log cabins from the constant wood burning. Propped up alongside one of the walls was an enormous instrument, covered in multiple colours of wool. It takes one month to make a poncho she explained, it is hard to understand how they can make a living from such a laborious task. There were delicate handcraft clay, wool and wooden ornaments scattered around her house which are all sold on at boutique shops, fairs and to neighbours.
A day in the life of a gaucho
Leaving the valley, we headed up the hill to meet another family. We were lucky enough to meet the head of the community, an intelligent, well respected middle-aged man with the responsibility of his people on his shoulders. His son, a 17 year old boy called Gabriel was our horse riding guide for the evening. Sporting a gaucho style beret – known as a boina, he effortlessly leaped onto his horse with the type of grace of someone who had grown up riding them. Somewhat less elegantly, we clambered onto our respective horses and followed Gabriel up the mountain in Indian file. It was delightfully peaceful as we entered the forest, surrounded by the steady trickle of a nearby stream and the birds happily singing away. Gabriel told us tales of his adventures over the mountain with his granddad, herding cattle over long distances to find better feeding grounds, learning key survival and hunting techniques along the way. It’s a tough nomadic lifestyle but one that he lives for. We were delighted with a huge steak, chimichurri and red wine on our return.
We woke early in the morning on our final day and stepped outside for some fresh air, as the neighbour was lassoing sheep in the yard with a look of menacing conviction. It was a spectacular sight to see these tough men in their element. We were due to take the seven lakes excursion to Bariloche, to spend Christmas deeper into Patagonia with the Patagonian Rural Tourism Network, but not before going on another beautiful walk through the valley to an isolated log cabin where we had an asado barbeque, feast, cooked on the log stove. Setting off on our walk over the hills it suddenly began to snow, the Patagonian so called summer had surprised us once again.
Rural Tourism in Argentina
Our incredible experience, journeying through the mountains, visiting the ‘people of the land,’ had sadly come to an end. Mapuche’s history may be tainted with struggle and the fight over land ownership. However, thankfully, they are now taking full advantage of a new government provided ‘Rural Tourism’ (RATuRC) network, providing us, ‘the travellers,’ with a unique opportunity to experience this magnificent landscape and learn from their rich traditions. Our journey continues west over the Andes to Chile, where we will spend time hiking through the volcanic region of Araucanía.
Keep up to date with Danny & Harry’s epic trip on the Sumak Travel blog’s AdventureLust category and on Twitter (#AdventureLust). Sumak Travel specialises in rural community based tourism, all over Latin America.
All pictures by Harry Dowdney