A Cowboy at the End of the World
Story by Shelley Seale, photos by Keith Hajovsky

Riding horses behind a silent pathfinder into a wide open adventure in Patagonia, Chile.

Patagonia Chile horseback

There was no trail.

Only mountains reaching over a vast, desolate landscape; trees and tall grasses that broke through the snow; rocky cliffs that overlooked the estancias (ranches) of Chilean Patagonia. We saw no other people as we followed our baqueano, or cowboy, on horseback across the rugged terrain.

It was this complete isolation, the wild and wide-open spaces that first captured my attention when I arrived in Patagonia two days before. I'm a Texas girl, used to large expanses of topography. But the completely untamed feel of this place on the road to the end of the world was unlike anything I had experienced elsewhere.

Patagonia horse riding

Luis Cheuquel, the baqueano, had met us in silence as our group of four arrived at the estancia for our horseback trek across the Sierra Dorotea Mountain in the Ultima Esperanza Seno—the "Channel of Last Hope," its fjords carve through craggy mountain ranges that creep down hundreds of miles to the Balameda Glacier, close to where South America comes to the end of its southern cone.

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 was slung across one shoulder and tied at the waist, the neckerchief and the black beret finishing out the ensemble. 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. Lucho still had not spoken as he turned away to my boyfriend Keith, who was the next recipient of his handshake.

"Wow, that hurt," Keith whispered to me a moment later; which was a bit of a relief to me, knowing it wasn't just any delicate sensibilities on my part.

Through the Land of No Landmarks

The silent but hearty greeting over, we mounted our horses and followed Lucho away from the estancia, through a valley of livestock that led to the mountain. It was clear that Lucho was no chattering tour guide; he was here to lead us through this wilderness with no trails. Lucho was born into the life of a baqueano; people like us who had not lived and breathed Patagonia their entire life would easily get lost in this wilderness. As soon as the ranch and horses disappeared behind a rocky bend, there was no other sign of civilization. No roads, no houses, no paths, no people or domesticated animals.

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, chain-smoking one cigarette after another as he rode. In my mind, I dubbed him the "Bad-Ass Chilean Marlboro Man."

Pedro and Hector rode with us, two tour guides from the Remota Hotel where we were staying and who had arranged this expedition for us. Pedro had explained to me earlier that Lucho worked on these estancias his whole life; it was a life rooted in time and tradition in this boundless frontier, rounding up sheep and cattle, caring for the horses, hunting and the like.

Patagonia wildlife

"Baqueano is the world we use to describe a person born in the countryside, connected to the work on the estancias," Pedro said. "They are always very close to the horses—animals they use for their work, but also very good partners in lonely moments in the enormous fields where there is no one else other than the horse, the dogs, the sheep and this extended landscape. Lucho knows all of these things about this place because this is what his life has taught him. It is a very special way of life; they are very tough, but proud of their culture, too."

Besides leading riding expeditions, Lucho also worked on the ranches, taking in new horses and taming them; one might call him the South American horse whisperer. The generational circle of baqueanos has continued with his 16-year-old son, also named Luis and called Luchito. The son has worked with his father since the age of 12.

But the true skill of the baqueano is that of the pathfinder. A true one knows how to orient himself at all times, using the sun, the stars, and the landscape to find his way. They are famed for knowing how to find shelter and clean drinking water in the middle of nowhere; it is said that they can find their way anywhere, even in the all-encompassing darkness of the Patagonian night.

I hoped it would not come to that. The plan for the day trip was to ride to the top of the mountain and make camp for a while before riding back down. The silence quickly became a comfortable companion; it almost felt like church, where to speak or make noise would be an affront to the religion of this truly unspoiled, untouched nature that was all around me.

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