Cycling above the Clouds

Riding the Andes by Bicycle

New Year’s Eve in windswept Cerro Castillo

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I’d planned to ride from Calafate to Torres del Paine National Park, but a quick look at the weather (wind) forecast (cross and headwinds of 100km/h+) made me think twice. Two to three days struggling along a gravel road in windswept pampa with no shelter and no towns along the way for respite. Not just unpleasant but dangerous. No thank you. I copped out of riding and bought a ticket for the bus.

I was amazed how easy it was to use the bus – I just wheeled the bike straight on, panniers and all, and used my bungees to keep it in place

A while ago I’d reserved a nice hotel in Cerro Castillo – the village just before entering the park – to make sure that even if the weather was lousy, I’d have a nice place to stay for New Years Eve. I was a day early. After some very thorough border checks as I crossed back into Chile (where customs quarantine any fresh fruit, veg and meat and dairy produce you may have to avoid the spread of a problematic moth from further north), I pedalled round town (in some crazy wind) to try to find somewhere to stay. The only other hospedaje was full, but pointed me to a family round the corner who gave me a spot to camp in their garden.

Windswept Cerro Castillo – thankfully my camping spot behind this house was very sheltered

The whole town is surrounded by wind breaks to protect local property

La Ultima Esperanza

The town is in a region called ‘La Ultima Esperanza’ (The Last Hope Section). This name was given when the land was acquired by the biggest cattle producing company in the world – “The Operating Company Tierra del Fuego” – as recently as 1905. Given the constant winds, I can understand why they chose this name! This new ‘section’ was first administered by British shepherd Mr Theodor R.D. Burbury. The first settlers arrived in 1914 and the management of the estancias was set up based on the models of the large cattle ranches in New Zealand and Australia – still in place today.

The family who’s garden I was camping in invited me into their house to warm up over a cup of tea. They had Earl Grey tea and home made cookies!!! It turned out the daughter (in her early 20s) was training to be a Spanish/English translator. It was great to be able to have a proper conversation in English that I could fully understand for once. She told me her grandfather owned the majority of the land in the area with 8,000+ sheep.

The grandfather cuts quite a character and appears in a number of books about Patagonia and the local area

Horses are extremely important to farmers in this region, as much of the land isn’t accessible by 4×4. They are extremely accomplished riders and I saw a number of gauchos riding through the town on their horses. This family’s house was full of trophies the father had won at local rodeos, and it turned out he also made an appearance in an amazing picture of him on his horse in front of the ‘horns’ of Torres del Paine (see next post!) in a beautiful book about Chilean-bred horses.

After another flooded night in the tent (I hadn’t thought about tucking the edges of my new plastic sheeting under the edges of the outer fly sheet, so all the rain had just run under the tent and got stuck on top of the plastic in a puddle that had then risen up through the ground sheet – doh!) I moved to the hotel I’d reserved the next day.

The hotel had lots of beautiful touches reflecting the nearby estancias and local history – the fanciest place I’ve stayed in for a long time:

Saddle bar stools!

A horse bit for a toilet roll holder

Patagonian Father Christmas!

Pictures of the Selk’nam, who painted their bodies instead of wearing clothes

The Selk’nam

The Selk’nam were an indigenous people in southern Patagonia, living all the way down to Tierra del Fuego having migrated across the Strait of Magellan by canoe. They were one of the last native populations to be encountered by Europeans as they settled in Patagonia in the 19th Century. Unfortunately their history is a horrendous story of genocide.

The Selk’nam are famous for wearing body paint in place of clothes in this freezing climate (hence the picture above). But their story is far more tragic. As westerners came to prospect for gold and to set up farms in Patagonia, the Selk’nam were systematically eradicated. As the new settlers cleared land for large estancias (sheep ranches), they deprived the natives of their ancestral hunting areas. Selk’nam considered the sheep herds to be game rather than private property (not a concept they had) so they hunted the sheep. The ranch owners considered this to be poaching and paid armed groups to hunt down and kill the Selk’nam (this is now known as the ‘Selk’nam Genocide’). To receive their bounty, the militia groups had to bring back the ears of their victims.

Missionaries tried to protect the Selk’nam culture but by that stage the population was so small it was already too late. The extinction of the Selk’nam was further accelerated by sickness brought over by Europeans.

(Source: Wikipedia – Selk’nam People)

Estancia Vegas Castillo

I dried out my tent and waited in this lovely hotel for the wind drop. On New Year’s Eve the wind improved a bit during the day and the hotel arranged for me to go horse riding on the border of the Torres del Paine National Park. It turned out the owner of the hotel was the sister of the farmer at the house I’d camped, and I was to go riding with another farmer called Nestor – his best friend. Unsurprisingly it’s a small world round these parts and all of the estancia owners know one another – even if their land extends for miles and miles around.

Horse riding with Nestor at Estancia ‘Vegas Castillo’ (Meadow Castle) just outside Torres del Paine

Nestor saddling up with our lovely warm and comfy sheepskin seat savers

The Tack Room – check out the stirrups hanging up at the back

Looking out over Lago del Toro from horseback

My trusty steed Leona

The outhouses on the estancia

After the ride Nestor invited me to join him to sit by the fogon (stove – like an Aga, fuelled with wood) to warm up in the farm house. I was plied with bread and jam and we shared some maté whilst the women of the household prepared a big meal for New Year’s Eve. Later they would roast a lamb asado (BBQ) outside. With three generations in the house, it was a hive of activity.

When I returned to the hotel, the hotel owner and her whole extended family were there to celebrate New Year’s Eve together. The grandfather was there, with a twirled moustache and sporting a cravat, looking very dashing. They invited me and the other six guests to join them. We had pisco sours thrust into our hands with a wonderful meal, followed by glasses of champagne for the count down to midnight. It was a lovely and memorable end to a very special year.

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