Our experience at the Estancia had been loosely arranged through a friend of a friend met whilst staying in BA. We didn’t really know what to expect, so we had in our minds that we would stay a few weeks and see how we liked it. We were volunteering in exchange for ‘a room and food’, sort of like ‘woofing’.
Turns out it was one of the best things we have ever experienced. It’s hard to sum up this 7 week experience in a blog post but I will try my best to make it as interesting and captivating as possible. Despite falling in love with the place, it had its tough days! I will try and tell the story mostly through the pictures we took.
We stayed on site every night whilst the owner would return to El Calafate. The Estancias main income is via tourists who come to ride horses across the Patagonian landscape. Esteban, the owner would bring the clients each morning and also bring fresh food.
Our day-to-day routine changed often but our mornings tended to be the same. We woke up at around 7:45am and headed over to the main house where Max would light both fires, heat the water and I would prepare the milk for my ‘babies’.
Breakfast was simple, toasted bread on the fire with jam and big mugs of coffee and tea. The front of the estancia,that looked over the drying lake and the mountains, had floor to ceiling glass windows, offering an uninterrupted view. We would stand eating breakfast each morning at the bar, admiring the ever changing mountains that got more red as autumn loomed.
Teddy, the resident ‘gaucho’ would come down from his room at some point and join us. He was the ‘main man’ in charge of the horses and unlike lots of others here in Argentina, has a very quiet and gentle manner with the horses. Max often said, “He looks like he was born in the saddle.”
In the mornings he would feed the racehorse, Irenito, who was stabled at night. Max and him would also go and feed the ‘chanchos’ (pigs); they would eat ALL our left overs, nothing went to waste at the Estancia. Only thing they didn’t like was onions and citrus.
Before the season really tapered off in Mid April, we would have 2 buses that stopped each day on their way to Perito Moreno Glacier. They were full of tourists and travellers who had the opportunity to meet the animals and take pictures of the landscape. We would offer them tea/coffee or cake which was a useful bit of income for the Estancia and a way for Max and I to make some tips.
One morning towards the end of our stay when the weather was glorious we decided to make the trip to the famous Glacier by hoping on one of the buses that passed. As we worked at the Estancia and served the driver and tour guide coffee each day, we only paid the entrance fee to the park (around £13 each), not the tour fee which is pretty expensive.
The 250 km2 ice formation, and 30 km (19 mi) in length, is one of 48 glaciers fed by the Southern Patagonian Ice Field located in the Andes system shared with Chile. This ice field is the world’s third largest reserve of fresh water. Its just mind boggling to get your head around those numbers!
Back to life on the Estancia…..
Esteban would arrive with clients at 9:30am and we would chat and exchange stories until the horses were ready to go at around 10:30 / 11am. Meeting guests was one of the highlights of my time at the farm. I got quite a reputation for just how chatty I was…Lots of the folk down here don’t do much ‘chatting’, just sitting pensively with maté in their hand (unless you get them on to the topic of politics, then they chat a lot.
We met so many cool people via the estancia; couples who were travelling, couples on their honeymoon, European families living in Rio or BA, students on a year abroad. Everyone had different stories to tell and I often had to ride with them for 5 hours, thats a lot of chatting time to fill! But it was awesome.
At some point in the day, we usually had a visit from Sascha, a grey fox who used to play at the Estancia as a cub. She now comes most days for some ‘carne’ and although you can no longer touch her, you can get close enough to enjoy every detail of her face. She is quite exquisite.
Once the guests had finished with their cabalgata, they often went back to town. Sometimes we also had an afternoon cabalgata which meant serving supper to guests and clearing everything away. If we didn’t, we had the Estancia to ourselves.
One quiet afternoon Esteban took us to an old traditional Estancia down the road.
We spent a lot of time with the animals, as you can probably see. Naou and Lolita were both rescued and we would often refer to them as joint Chiefs of Marketing. They run free, as all the animals on the farm do, and everyone passing would stop and take pictures of them.
However, the fact they run free also means they sometimes need reminding to come home. For their own safety we try to encourage them to come back once every few days. They also take 5 goats with them, and they are needed back at the Estancia!
One of the unique things about coming to the estancia as a tourist is that there is no prescribed tour or timetable, you arrive at Rio Mitre and it runs as it would on any other day. It’s a small operation and if they are doing something that they think the tourist will find interesting, Esteban is more than happy to invite everyone along.
That brings me to the toughest day. After lunch one day, the owner decided to kill one of the horses. I was shocked by this casual decision and felt very uncomfortable about the whole thing. This horse was only a 2 year old and their reason was that it was ‘wild’ (the few times they had jumped straight on its back). I explained (in my best Spanish) that I don’t think 2 years of age is old enough to decide if the horse is worthy of being ridden. They rounded it up into the corral, lassoed it and shot it. Its mother neighed for it for the next 48 hours. They butchered it there and then, right by the tackroom and most of the meat was given to a friend who had collected some wood for Esteban a few days previously.
This was ‘food for work’ rather than ‘money for work’. I couldn’t understand this cavalier attitude and rather uncivilised way of life. I really struggled to get my head around it. For them it was just ‘custom’. They think of a horse as no different to a cow. Why was I different? Why couldn’t I see that?
Ever since then, I have re-evaluating my thoughts on meat, probably compounded by the fact I fell head-over-heels in love with those calves. I never, in a million years, could have eaten them. As Max pointed out, all the beef I eat starts as cute and as ‘individual’ as Herbert, Daisy and Penelope, who very much had their own personalities. I just gave them names and fed them, so it got to me. I still don’t know what their fate is. I didn’t want to ask because I was afraid of the response I would get, and didn’t want to hear it knowing I could do nothing about it.
Is it right to think of horses as differently to cows or sheep? I knew those sheep roamed our land, I knew they had their throats cut and it took a good few minutes for them to die but I still ate that meat. Perhaps I need to accept that this is just a culture difference; it’s as simple as that.
For me, there will always be something different about horses though, especially when I feel like the owners owe something to these horses. These horses earn the money to put food in the mouths of his family. Surely the two year old deserved more of a chance in life. A month or so previously, before I arrived, the same thing had happened to a horse with a broken leg. This I can justify more, no one likes waste, but a 2 year old; no, it just wasn’t justifiable in my books.
Due to this experience I have found myself thinking about my need to consume meat. Do I really need it? What kind of life did the animal have? Does its quality of life make a difference as to whether I should eat it or not? After all, there is a huge amount of research about the carbon footprint of meat. I think I will cut back on my meat intake to once or twice a week. Perhaps this will eventually fade altogether and I will go veggie or perhaps my sensitivity on this subject will pass over time. I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer to my thoughts, this was just one of the things that really got me. I was ready to pack our bags and get the next flight back to BA on the day they slaughtered that youngster.
Communication at the farm was also difficult with no English spoken at all. To begin with I found this barrier very frustrating. I couldn’t voice my opinions or express myself and I couldn’t really understand so I felt had no relationship with the owner or other employees. I would spend 10 minutes looking for the words in the dictionary and going through the sentence I wanted to say in my head, before asking a question. As I was always out with the horses and the guests, who mostly spoke English (even if they were not British), I didn’t get as much practise as Max (who is now virtually conversational). He could joke about with the boys and make conversation and I was left feeling frustrated. However, this eased greatly over time and I now appreciate it in a way because it forced me to learn. Before this experience I couldn’t really say anything beyond the most basic phrases and now I feel like I am getting to grips with the language and i’m enjoying this new learning.
This being said, we would go back in a heartbeat, I just feel its right to point out that it wasn’t all plain sailing. But nothing worth while ever is, I guess. 5/7 nights I would dream of horses, I got totally hooked again. I haven’t ridden that often for so long and I was riding every day for maybe 4 hours or more! We both still think of the farm everyday and one day we hope to return, even if it’s as guests in 10 years time.
Working at Rio Mitre was a once in a lifetime experience. It was raw, real, rustic, traditional and all these things made it unique. It gave us an insight into life in the Patagonian countryside. We couldn’t have asked for more and if you’re ever in the area, this is the estancia to visit.