I was awakened before dawn by a heavy downpour. Cold, howling winds were blowing from the lake, and the screen door of our half-dome shelter slammed violently. Snuggled up with a few other hikers, I quickly realized the value of our accommodation design: it is one of the few structures that can withstand the extreme weather conditions that are common in Patagonia. Fortunately, all of us, along with my camera gear, were safe and dry.
But it was an ominous warning of what was to become one of my most grueling and exhilarating adventures as a travel photographer.
A day earlier, baqueanos – Chilean cowboys and cowgirls – had taken us and my guide on a three-hour horseback ride through mountains and streams to a remote drop-off point. From there, we hiked another set of mountains and streams for an additional five hours to reach the distant Valle del Frances, or French Valley, a stunning place nestled between jagged mountain peaks.
Our plan was to spend a few nights there, taking day hikes in the valley to see the waterfalls and breathtaking mountain views. As is often the case, however, the Patagonian weather forced us to change our plans.
Harassed by the storm, we crouched down and waited for the unexpected gust to pass. But after a day with no relief in sight, we instead started planning our escape. But the swollen rivers were impassable, so the baqueanos couldn’t get us back. And the wind had created ocean-sized waves in the lake, making the boat trip too dangerous for rescue. We had only one way out: to hike 10 miles to the lodge.
This was no ordinary 10 mile hike. Hurricane-force winds forced us to crawl up the mountainside. (Hiking standing up with backpacks would have created sails and swept us off the mountain.) Crossing rivers required holding onto ropes with meticulous care, knowing that a misstep would result in our being carried away. Forget to take pictures; it was impossible.
As a photographer, I had been intrigued by the remote and rugged landscapes of Patagonia for many years, voraciously devouring articles and especially photographs of the region. Over time, however, I realized that I rarely saw the place depicted in the fall. Snow-capped mountains, vast plains, windswept lakes, eye-catching cowboy outfits – they were almost always seen in the summer. I set about creating what I couldn’t find.
In order to maximize the possibilities of seeing the fall foliage and to account for the reversal of the seasons in the southern hemisphere, I planned my trip for mid-April. And as a base camp, I chose Las Torres Reserve, an ecotourism destination in the heart of Torres del Paine National Park, in southern Chile.
The reserve offers a wide range of accommodation options, including a luxury hotel, backpacker inns in the backcountry, and numerous campgrounds. You can go hiking and horseback riding in iconic places, including the three peaks of Torres del Paine (“blue towers”), Los Cuernos (“the horns” and the French valley).
As enamored as I was with the remote landscape and the extreme conditions, I also became fascinated by the baqueanos and their culture. Ranging to my sore legs and back after the epic hike, I spent a day at their ranch, barn, and corral observing them and their interactions with the horses and guests.
Although I speak a little Spanish, understanding their dialect and slang was next to impossible. Regardless – their non-verbal communication told me a lot.
The Baqueanos are the descendants of the first horsemen who entered Patagonia over a century ago. They carry on many traditions of their ancestors, including a unique style of dress and a unanimous love for yerba matÃ©, a herbal tea consumed throughout the day and shared in common.
A real love for their horses was evident. I watched for hours the baqueanos bathing, brushing and pampering the animals. They knew horses as well as they knew their colleagues, calling their animals by name and in a tone suited to each horse’s unique personality.
A few baqueanos live in the Las Torres reserve year round, while others are brought in from the area’s ranches for seasonal work. Regardless of their tenure, they all seemed to endure the world’s harshest weather conditions while providing expert care to the horses and guests at the lodge.
As a travel photographer, I have found that the harder it is to get to a place, the fewer people who visit. And Patagonia is certainly hard to reach: it took a nine-hour flight from Miami to Santiago, Chile, followed by another four-hour flight to Punta Arenas in southern Chile, and finally five hours from road to Torres del Paine National Park.
I have also learned that it is more rewarding to take the time to discover a place rather than just seeing it. And the baqueanos of the Las Torres reserve facilitated exactly that kind of meaningful cultural immersion.