11.19.2012 - 11.19.2012 56 °F
We wake up and have breakfast a little after 7:30. We have scheduled a two-hour horseback riding excursion through the hills and steppe of Cerro Guido with a gaucho and one of the girls who works at the front desk, who will act as our English-speaking guide.
The morning is beautiful as always, just slightly chilly but sunny and, thankfully, not windy like yesterday. We walk to the stables where we meet up with a young couple from London who will be joining us for part of our horseback tour. The four of us strap on leather leg covers that protect our pants from the knees down, as well as comfortable black riding helmets, before we head outside to the horses saddled up and standing along the fence. My horse is walked out first and I hop on with ease, as does Matt (who is riding a horse for the first time today).
When everyone is settled atop the horses, we follow along behind the gaucho in a cluster, with the horses all walking strangely right next to one another, sometimes bumping into each other or putting the riders just a few inches apart. It is not like the times when I've gone on horseback tours as a kid, where all the horses just walk in a straight line. Here, we often have to give our horses a gentle kick to tell them to go, as well as stop or turn them with the reins. Sometimes they stop to try to eat the grass and we are instructed to pull tighter on the reins so they can't keep stopping for snacks. But the horses in general are very gentle and responsive to our commands, and they pretty much just calmly walk together as if they have done it a million times (and I'm sure they have).
The horses, we learn very quickly, have pretty bad gas today and often let them rip as they walk, sometimes with every step or while climbing up hills. It gives everyone a little chuckle whenever a horse lets off gas, as if we are all in the fifth grade and find bodily functions hilarious.
We walk our horses through streams, past herds of curious guanacos that walk closer to examine us, past cows chewing their cuds, and through forests of windblown Patagonian trees. And the dramatic snows of the Torres del Paine mountains are always visible just past the rolling hills. This is an experience neither of us will ever forget, the experience of riding horseback in Patagonia with a local gaucho.
As we walk, I periodically give my horse's neck a little pat and baby-talk to him, telling him how good he is and what a nice, beautiful horse he is. I feel silly, as I always do when I'm the only person baby-talking to animals, but I think if my horse could pick up on any of my positive energy then it will be a more pleasant ride for the both of us.
After awhile, our group splits as the gaucho and the London couple continue up to the top of the mountain range behind the estancia for a four-hour ride, while Matt and I follow the guide back down to the stables. Because they know the route back to the estancia, the horses fall into a fast trot as if they just want to get back so they can freely graze in the grassy fields.
When we return to the stables, I say goodbye to my horse and we walk back down toward the guest house to prepare for a drive south to Puerto Natales, 110 kilometers away (where the nearest gas station is). On the walk to the guest house we pass the San Francisco couple and find out that they have a flat tire that they need to either get patched or replaced. They are supposed to be driving down to Punta Arenas today but aren't sure if or when they will actually be on their way. We give them our sympathy and best of luck, then continue on to our room to change.
We leave for Puerto Natales at about noon and see that the San Francisco couple is ahead of us, driving slowly on a small gimpy spare tire. They wave us ahead and we all exchange smiles through the windows as we pass them. We continue along the dusty unpaved road for awhile when Matt suddenly pulls along the side of the road and gets out, looking at the wheels and making a face at me. Somehow the Americans have all the bad luck while driving on these gravel roads because we, too, have a flat on one of our rear tires.
Thankfully, Matt has changed many a tire and quickly installs the spare. We are worried at this point because we don't know where we can go to get a tire repaired, we don't have the phone number of our rental company, and we don't speak any Spanish. We decide to continue to Puerto Natales as planned and see if we can somehow convey to someone in town that we need a tire repair.
We get back on the road and slowly make our way toward town, but since we are way past due for lunch and the drive is so long, we both get sleepy and pull of the side of the road for a power nap. After about 10 minutes I sit back up just in time to see the San Francisco couple on the road passing us, slowing just a bit too see if we are having problems with our car. We head back out to the road and end up right behind them, following them into town until we pull off at a shoulder and explain what happened with our tire. Stacy and Arthur say that they are going to stop at a gas station and see if the attendant can point them toward a tire repair shop, so we follow them to the gas station and on to a tire shop called El Gringo.
The two cars drive through the streets of Puerto Natales in search of this shop and finally find it because of the pile of dusty used tires lying in a heap alongside the road and seeming to spill out from a tiny workshop door. The four of us jump out and walk into the shop, and realize that the repairman is out to lunch. We stand amongst the pile of tires, laughing at how “South American” this shop looks with the tires just strewn about and how a group of gringos are trying to get help at a shop called El Gringo.
We make small talk for a long time about sailing, our lives back home, our Patagonian vacations, our jobs, and skiing. Finally, the repairman (who actually looks quite a lot like a gringo but doesn't speak any English) returns and, after taking a quick look at the holes in each of our flat tires, rolls them into the shop while Matt and Arthur follow along. Stacy and Arthur's tire is patched within minutes and costs them only $6. But Matt's and my tire is completely ruined because somehow, our tire is punctured on the side, not on the tread. The repairman walks Matt through piles of tires inside the building and points to one, conveying that that one should fit our car. He installs it for us and only charges us $40.
The four of us are immensely relieved, having thought that we may be stuck in town the rest of the day or not be able to have a fix at all. We say goodbye to Arthur and Stacy there between the piles of tires, exchanging emails and phone numbers in case we make it out to San Francisco.
By the time we find a parking spot in town, it is already 3:30 and we are absolutely famished. We grab a table in a nicely decorated restaurant called Afrigonia, which is described as African cuisine in the heart of Patagonia. I order a chicken breast stuffed with spinach and peanuts topped with an eggplant curry sauce, with a side of crispy potatoes flavored with lemon and spices. Matt has a salmon filet with shrimp and coconut cream sauce, with a side of the same potatoes that I ordered. The food is delicious and flavorful, and we eat happily now that we can breathe a little easier. Because we need it, Matt has a glass of wine and I have Cerveza Austral, the local beer from the southernmost brewery in the world.
After lunch we look around a few stores in town before grabbing coffees to go. We drive carefully back to Cerro Guido and are ready for dinner at 7:30. We have cheese empanadas and cheek of fish in a savory sauce; chick pea soup; salad and rolls; beef filet with fresh mashed potatoes; and a frozen raspberry custard. And, of course, a bottle of wine to relax after a somewhat stressful day.
The air is chilly tonight. Happy to have made it successfully back to Cerro Guido after our mishap, we will fall asleep again to the heat of a wood fire, in our cozy room in the dark Patagonian hills.