I have been riding horseback five straight days, eight to 10 hours a day.
I have ridden up mountainsides, across mountain valleys, in thick mountain forests and through deep mountain rivers, where my horse was actually swimming. The temperature never rose above 38 degrees and the wind seldom blew less than 25 miles per hour. The Gauchos tell me my muscles will harden and I’ll get used to the bumpy ride. They tell me I will stop feeling the cold and being wet won’t be so bad, and that all I’ll need to warm up is to share a hot cup of mate.
It’s been three weeks since I last rode a horse, and my back muscles still feel like they’ve been rolled up with a sardine can key. My feet, no matter how much warm water I soak them in, hang onto a chill like they are saving it for a sunny day. My face has become permanently wind-burned. I have been battling the flu (not swine). I’m lonely, tired and cold. And for some reason, I’m loving every minute of it.
It looks like I will be spending the winter in Puerto Natales, Chile. I have found myself situated in an apartment next door to the Erratic Rock Hostel, living rent-free in a small apartment with a heater and a view of a dilapidated backyard, broken fences and rooftops that stretch a few miles, beyond which is an ocean inlet and several glorious snowcapped mountain ranges. All I have to do to remain here is take some photographs for the hostel’s website, a few family portraits of the owners’ families and do my small part living in a communal environment.
So, Erratic Rock is my home base. In the three or so weeks I have been here I have managed to contact and become friends with several groups of Gauchos. First, there’s Adan and his brother. These are two Gauchos who live in Natales in tiny houses heated by woodstoves. The houses are about 15 feet apart and put up their families; both men have wives and two daughters. Adan works in the mountains herding his sheep and cattle, while his brother helps and works several days a week away from home on a nearby estancia.
Next, Gonzalo and Holmen: These are two hardcore Gauchos who live just outside the border of Torres Del Paine National Park, one of the most beautiful places on earth. They couldn’t be happier riding their horses, managing their sheep and cattle, drinking mate and cutting wood for the winter. On Astorga, their estancia, is a main house and Gonzalo’s small abode, just next door to a stable and a couple corrals. There is a generator for electricity at night and a whole lot of beauty to look at all around.
Finally there’s Raul and his family. Their life is more of the same; however, Raul and his entire family live in a town called Cerro Castillo, which is nestled between Natales and the national park. I’m not sure, but I think his family runs a souvenir/coffee shop alongside the whole business of being Gauchos. I will finally be visiting and living with them next week.
Gauchos are as tough as they come. Unfortunately, like other cowboys around the world, Gauchos and their families are struggling. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to make a living competing against major industry. They say they want a better life for their kids. My question is: What is a better life? Living the life of a Gaucho out in the mountains, or having a job in a town to make money? The Gauchos and their families may be living out their last authentic generation. I am glad I’m here to experience it.