Torres del Paine NP

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I had promised myself I would never get up on another horse. Past horseback riding experiences have shown me that horses and I don’t get along. Typically, I would be told I would be riding a gentle mare.

Then that “gentle” mare would persistently nip at another horse, munch on the grassy smorgasbord and balk at crossing a shallow stream. My horse would also likely turn around and head the other way. Or, unexpectedly take off at a speedy trot, leaving the rest of the group in the dust.

When I’ve spoken of these issues to equestrians over the years, the response is the same. “The horses know you’re not in control and they will take full advantage of any opportunity.”

Hop On a Horse to Experience the Diverse Scenery of Patagonia

Estancia Cerro Guido Patagonia Riding amid the pampas is a glorious experience
Riding amid the pampas is a glorious experience.
Photo by Debbie Stone

So, you might question what I was doing atop another “gentle” mare, this time in Patagonia, of all places. After saying “no” several times to horseback riding, I was persuaded to give it a go by the head guide at Estancia Cerro Guido.

He assured me the pace would be slow and the horse would be obedient (I’ve heard this before). Most importantly, the tour would offer another way for me to experience the sublime landscape and understand how horses and Patagonia are entwined culturally and historically. The group consisted of just my husband and I, the head guide and one of the Estancia’s gauchos or “cowboys.”

Initially, I was very nervous as I got on my horse, Lola. I’m sure she could sense that right off the bat. But after a while, I realized she was content following the other horses without bothering them. She would also respond to my occasional use of the reins and would never stop to eat. I was finally able to relax and truly appreciate my wondrous surroundings.

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Learn About the Gaucho Culture

During the ride, we stopped at a gaucho shelter. Here, we took part in the tradition of drinking mate while learning about the gaucho culture in Patagonia. These “cowboys” are symbolic characters of the Chilean countryside.

The gauchos round up sheep and cattle, train sheep dogs, shear sheep, mend fences and help preserve the natural grasslands. Overall, they play an important role in livestock protection and tend to the horses. They are incredibly skillful riders who appear to be horse whisperers with an almost telepathic connection to the animals. And they are also known to be true pathfinders within this geographical arena.

Estancia Cerro Guido Makes the Ideal Homebase to Explore Torres del Paine National Park

Welcome sign to Torres del Paine NP
Welcome to Torres del Paine NP.
Photo by Debbie Stone

Estancia Cerro Guido borders the eastern side of Torres del Paine National Park in southern Chilean Patagonia. The ranch covers an area of roughly 250,000 acres and is the largest estancia in the area.

The park’s name refers to three tall rock towers that comprise the most recognizable site in the area. These towers are distinct 8,000-foot granite peaks standing as sentinels over the Paine Massif, a spur of the Andes. Torres is the Spanish word for towers and Paine is the Tehuelche (an indigenous South American group) word for blue.

Torres del Paine Draws Visitors From Across the Globe

In 2013, Torres del Paine National Park was declared a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO and the Eighth Wonder of the World. It spans over half a million acres and was founded as a National Tourism Park in 1959. At that time, the main activity of the area was still livestock. Tourism was the purvey of only a few adventuresome folks. In 1970, more acres were added to the terrain and it was officially given the name it’s known as today.

The park is a world-class attraction, often described as one of the most breathtakingly beautiful corners on Earth. It boasts an exceptional landscape that draws avid hikers, nature lovers and photographers from around the world.

At Estancia Cerro Guido Everything’s Included

Dining room at the Estancia
Dining at the Estancia is a pleasure.
Photo by Debbie Stone

As a guest of Estancia Cerro Guido, you can choose either the all-inclusive package or the all-inclusive private package. Both offer full board, an open bar, entrance fees to the National Park and several excursions (shared or private depending on the package). Also included are shared or private transfers from Puerto Natales (less than two hours) or Punta Arenas (closer to five hours).

Pura Aventura Makes a Trip to Patagonia Easy

My husband and I spent four days at the Estancia, as part of a tour we booked with Pura Aventura. This also included stays in other parts of Chile, Argentine Patagonia and Buenos Aires. The tour was private, except for our time at the Estancia, where we did shared excursions with a few other like-minded guests.

Pura Aventura is committed to sustainable travel. They have been recognized by Conde Nast as one of the best travel companies for the eco-conscious traveler. This highly reputable company specializes in crafting tailored vacations to destinations in Europe, Central and South America.

Relax in Comfort at the Ranch

Estancia Cerro Guido has twelve rooms in its guesthouse. It was designed in an authentic English style with all the creature comforts you’d expect from a luxury property. The décor is understated elegance with classic furnishings, fabulous featherbeds, organic amenities and plenty of space. It is cozy and comfy.

Within the guesthouse are two, charming parlors, also in the English style. Guests have full use of these rooms to lounge in, peruse the historical photos and enjoy coffee or tea with a bottomless cookie jar.

Dine With a View of the Towers

The Towers stand like sentinels amid the breathtaking landscape
The Towers stand like sentinels amid the breathtaking landscape.
Photo by Debbie Stone

The main house is where the restaurant, bar and common seating areas are. It is also where the reception desk is located. A wall of windows faces the famed Torres del Paine. Dining every day with such a picturesque view is so special and when the sun sets, it’s magical.

The sky and peaks are awash with painterly hues that change by the minute. If you happen to be up at sunrise (i.e. for the early wildlife conservation safari), the colors are even more vivid and dramatic.

Your Tastebuds are in For a Treat

Plate of food at the Estancia Cerro Guido
You won’t go hungry at the Estancia.
Photo by Debbie Stone

As for the food, you won’t go hungry at the Estancia. Breakfast is buffet-style with fresh baked goods, fruit, cheeses, meats, yogurt and eggs to order. At lunch and dinner, guests choose from a multi-course menu. This includes salads, soups and entrees like hake, chicken, shrimp, risotto, pasta, steak, beef stew, ribs and more.

Occasionally, there is a traditional lamb roast BBQ and dessert is a mind-boggling array of sumptuous sweets.

The food is fresh and seasonal with much of the produce coming from the ranch’s onsite garden. Exclusive wines accompany lunch and dinner.

Service is warm and attentive, as it is throughout the property. Every employee I met, from the restaurant waitstaff and bartenders to the housekeepers, guides and drivers, was welcoming, courteous and helpful. It’s clear that hospitality takes centerstage at the ranch. 

Tour Options Are Extensive

A turquoise-hued lake dazzles
A turquoise-hued lake dazzles.
Photo by Debbie Stone

Tours and excursions are a mainstay of the Estancia. The ranch prides itself on its extensive menu of activities for guests, from short hikes to daylong treks. Their most classic (and challenging) hike is the Base de las Torres or Base of the Towers. This hike is a 13-mile roundtrip that takes roughly eight to ten hours to complete.

If such a trek is not for you, there are plenty of trails suited to a range of levels and abilities. You don’t have to be an uber-hiker to enjoy and appreciate this privileged destination.

The Estancia also offers overland park tours including several short hikes, conservation safaris, cultural and historic tours, horseback riding trips, fly fishing excursions and more. All activities are led by knowledgeable guides who are well-versed in the landscape, history and wildlife of Patagonia. They are clearly passionate about this enchanting place.

Prepare to Be Awed by the Park’s Immensity and Inspiring Landscape

As you explore the area on these excursions, you’ll get a sense of the vastness of Torres del Paine National Park and its surrounds. It’s an awe-inspiring, diverse topography with a never-ending sky.

Whichever tour you choose you’ll be treated to exquisite scenes of snow-capped mountains, forests, lakes in all shades of blue, rushing rivers, waterfalls, glaciers and the immense pampa. Plus, of course, wildlife in their natural habitat.

Wildlife Abounds in the Park

Guanacos are prolific. Photo by Debbie Stone

Torres del Paine National Park is home to the guanaco, puma, fox, rhea, condor, flamingo, armadillo and other creatures. The guanaco is related to the camel, like the llama and alpaca, and is prolific here. It can be found grazing the grasslands, typically in small groups of females with their young and one dominant male.

These graceful animals can run upwards of 35 miles per hour, faster than any other Patagonian animal except the puma. If they sense danger, one of the guanacos will emit a piercing warning cry. This signals the herd, which will swiftly flee.

Guanaco can also jump and are known to leap over fences that are nearly seven feet tall. I saw this happen on several occasions and it’s an impressive feat.

The puma is the guanaco’s major predator in Patagonia. But though the puma is faster – capable of running fifty miles an hour – it is a sprinter and cannot maintain that speed for very long. That explains why this animal typically stalks its prey and then springs on it, instead of chasing it down.

Puma Sightings are Rare, But There are Plenty of Other Creatures to Spot

Though I saw countless guanacos during my visit, unfortunately, I never saw a puma. Despite plenty of opportunities to try and spot one while on wildlife safaris, park tours or hiking ventures, these creatures were elusive and remained out of sight.

Our guides would tell of having seen the animals, often in small family groups, particularly at dawn or dusk. But of course, they reminded us that pumas, like all wildlife, have their own agenda and it’s only by chance that people see them.

Besides hordes of guanaco, I saw armadillo, grey fox, flamingo, rhea and condor during my visit. The rhea is identified as Darwin’s or lesser rhea and looks like a small ostrich.

This bird is flightless, but known to be an adept runner. It’s also unique in that once the female lays its eggs, she departs and the male protects the eggs and raises the chicks. The paternal instinct is in full force.

It’s hard not to miss the majestic Andean condor. As the world’s largest flying bird, it weighs over thirty pounds, is four feet long and boasts an eleven-foot wingspan. Due to its weight, the condor needs the winds and thermals to lift its huge body into the air.

When you see a condor, it’s usually soaring over the peaks and canyons of the landscape, keeping its sharp eyes peeled for carrion in scavenger fashion.

Conservation is a Cornerstone of the Ranch

Estancia Cerro Guido is dedicated to wildlife conservation through the Cerro Guido Foundation. One of its main objectives is to achieve the coexistence of the livestock industry and species like the puma, which has been persecuted over the years for being the dominant enemy in sheep production.

The Foundation conducts research and studies to document and demonstrate the feeding habits of the puma in this region. In addition, they show proficiency in cattle handling and protection techniques through the use of guard dogs, particularly the Great Pyrenees and Maremma shepherd breeds.

These dogs accompany the sheep and the puma is alerted to their presence. Wanting to avoid conflict with the canines, the puma wisely moves away from the area.

Monitoring of the puma by means of GPS collars and cameras at key places helps track the animals and show where the “hot spots” are. These represent “risk zones” for leaving livestock.

Land of the Dinosaurs

Another area of research being conducted at the Estancia is in paleontology. Over the past decade, the landscape has been the focus of attention of noted archaeologists and paleontologists from around the world, who have come to do expeditions.

In the course of these trips, they have discovered fossils dating back millions of years. And most significantly, they have found dinosaur bones and the first record of Hadrosaurs in Chile.

A Historical and Cultural Tour of the Ranch is a Must

Gaucho herding the sheep at Estancia Cerro Guido
Gaucho herding the sheep.
Photo by Debbie Stone

To learn more about the Estancia itself, all guests are invited to join a historical and cultural tour of the property. You’ll hear how the place was founded over a century ago and who the key players were in its establishment and growth.

It’s a journey through time involving the roots of the cattle and sheep industry in Patagonia, along with mountain climbing lore. Maps, diagrams and historical photos assist in the presentation.

The tour also takes guests to different areas on the property, including the stables, orchard, garden, greenhouses and shearing shed. Guide note the typical architectural style of the buildings, which are actually restored farmhouses.

If you’re lucky, you’ll even get a chance to see sheep being sheared (depending on the season) and learn how the wool is processed and spun into products for sale. Additionally, you may be able to observe the sheep dogs herding the sheep out of the barn and see how the gauchos deftly work with the animals. These clever dogs are their faithful companions.

The tour not only provides an in-depth view of the Estancia but also gives you an understanding of the cultural heritage of Patagonia, the way of life of the people and the rich traditions that define its essence.

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Author Bio: Debbie Stone is an established travel writer and columnist, who crosses the globe in search of unique destinations and experiences to share with her readers and listeners. She’s an avid explorer who welcomes new opportunities to increase awareness and enthusiasm for places, culture, food, history, nature, outdoor adventure, wellness and more. Her travels have taken her to nearly 100 countries spanning all seven continents, and her stories appear in numerous print and digital publications. 

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