In my head, I called him the Chilean Marlboro Man.
His name was Luis Cheuquel and he was a baqueano (cowboy) in this vast, untamed Patagonia landscape.
We met him at the estancia (ranch) to go on a horseback ride up into the mountains. Luis – nicknamed Lucho — was finishing saddling the horses as we walked up; he gave us no greeting, nor even acknowledged our presence.
He was a typical cowboy of this region: stoic and silent, living most of their lives in solitude, these Chilean baqueanos are intimately knowledgeable about both the huge expanses of uninhabited land here as well as their horses, sharing an almost telepathic connection with the animals. I watched Lucho work, noting his baggy, woolen gaucho pants with the heavy, carved silver knife sticking out of the waistband. The poncho slung across one shoulder and tied at the waist, the neckerchief, the black beret. The horses moved in tune with him as he checked their saddles and reins, seeming to know what he wanted before he touched them.
Finally, Lucho seemed to notice us and strode over with his arm held out for a handshake. It was bone crushing. My hand was swallowed up in his and I actually felt my knuckles smash into each other; when my hand was released it ached, and I had to resist the urge to rub it.
We mounted our horses and followed Lucho away from the estancia, through a valley of livestock that led to the mountain. We rode in silence, picking our way among rocks, fallen trees, small streams and, the higher we climbed, deeper and deeper snowdrifts. Lucho remained silent in the lead, chainsmoking one cigarette after another as he rode.
As we crested ridge after ridge, the forest gave way to sweeping drops over thousands of feet. Look one way, and you could see the lakes and fjords. Another way, and there in the distance was the town of Puerto Natales. Across to the east, over the next mountain ridge, was Argentina.
After a few hours we crested the highest altitude peak of the day; as I guided my horse up the incline filled with loose rocks, concentrating on his footsteps on the uncertain ground below us, I did not look up until we had reached the mesa. Before me were two huge granite rocks, separated by a distance of about fifty feet. And in between that distance was an incomparable view: the deep valley below, more snow-covered mountains beyond that, complete undeveloped beauty brought about by the cataclysmic forces of volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and glaciers.
I was speechless. Keith and I simply sat on our horses for a while, drinking it in. Two condors began circling overhead; then a third, then a fourth. Finally we dismounted from our horses and took some photographs. A few yards away, Lucho had unsheathed his silver knife and was hacking away at the trees, collecting branches to make a fire.
Half an hour later we were all sitting on logs or stones around a blazing campfire, while Lucho made tea from a bag of yerba mate leaves he produced from inside a leather pouch. There was one silver mug with a straw; Lucho would carefully brew a new cup of the potion, and it would be shared among a couple of us, each new mug passed back and forth until we had all enjoyed the earthy South American tea. The fire was warm on our faces and hands, the light breeze cool against our backs, the sweeping expanse of sky overhead feeling as larger than the world could hold.
This was truly the “beautiful desolation” of Patagonia.
You can read a longer account of this experience at Perceptive Travel.
Photos by Keith Hajovsky