Estancia Rio Mitre – Patagonian Life

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.

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Introducing Estancia Rio Mitre, located about 40 minutes from El Calafate and only 30km from the Perito Moreno Glacier.
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Cold nights meant waking up to snow-capped mountains.
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The common and rather impressive ‘Crested Caracara’
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The estancia had no wifi, no 3G and not even phone signal. Water is pumped from the ground via a windmill and the electricity comes from solar panels as well as a small windmill. Zero carbon footprint and back to basics! No wind = No water. This happened on more than one occasion when we had periods of 5/6 days with no wind. When the wind did eventually return, the horses knew how to disconnect the pipe and drink up all our supply so it took careful monitoring to actually fill the tank back up!
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The estancia is perched on an area of risen ground looking over a part of the Lago Argentina, which is home to the famous Perito Moreno Glacier. “But where is the lake” I hear you say? 5 days before we arrived, a recurring phenomenon happened whereby the ‘ice bridge, which forms over a 5 to 6 year period collapsed and acted as a kind of suction. This meant that the edge of the lake was now 6km away from where it had originally been. The left over pockets of water attracted pink flamingos.

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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’.

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These are my ‘babies’. Three little calves that were rescued at a few days old and it was now my responsibility to make sure they had their bottle three times a day. The smallest, at times, got more just because he was so cute! I would call them, “Babies, babies, babies!”, which I think everyone found quite amusing, and they would run up to the house from wherever they were grazing. After a few days or so, I quickly got very attached and couldn’t help but name them. Daisy for the big girl, Herbert for the little boy and cheeky Penelope.
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Daisy, sleeping like a dog.
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“Got milk…?”
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Daisy was always fed first, then the greedy one, Penelope and then little Herbert who would always arrive last. One of our job was to sweep all that poop off the decking.
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Max and fellow Argentinian employee, Nelson, were kings of cutting the wood. We would bring in a few wheelbarrow loads each morning and continue to top up stocks throughout the day.
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The retiring lake had left many bits of good solid wood.

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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.

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Sometimes, getting all the morning jobs done was quite a task. So many distractions at 8am!
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When Lolita, the pet guanaco, was in a good mood, she was the most adorable creature and you couldn’t help but have fun with her. Don’t catch her when she doesn’t want to play though, her spit smells rank.
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Maxs morning distraction!

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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.”

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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.

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Introducing, Irenito, the resident ‘loco caballo’. Once a winner on the racetrack, this guy is now used purely as a stallion for the growing herd and doesn’t get ridden. He can be moody but normally means no harm, he just really dislikes the Patagonian climate, and gets damn hungry.

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.

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Perito Moreno Glacier

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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!

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Just to give you some perspective, the average height of the glacier is 74 metres above the water and has a depth of… a whooping 170 metres.
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We have been lucky enough to see lots of glaciers on our journey so far, most notably Glacier grey in Torres Del Paine National Park. However, Perito Moreno Glacier is by far the most beautiful and impressive.
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The autumn leaves turning orange and red against the blue glow of the ice was just epic.
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The puff of white in the picture is when a large block of ice fell from the glacier. We saw some really big tumbles which are incredibly noisy, sort of like a canon going off in the distance.

Back to life on the Estancia…..

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We often had guests stay overnight which would mean an earlier start as we would prefare the tables and make the breakfasts as well as feeding the animals.
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Pinky morning glow
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Chilling with the animals waiting for clients to arrive. Max playing with Naou, the other male guanaco.
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Lolita and Naou
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They have the most beautifully soft hair and big black eyes with delicate black eyelashes.

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.

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My favourite guy, Bajo.
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Identity crisis moment. Where is my saddle?
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Tourists could choose a short rise of around 2 hours with lunch at the estancia, or the ‘largo’ ride which was 4-5 hours and included a stop for an alfresco lunch.

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Riding my favourite horse, Bajo.
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Introducing the rather pre-historic looking Pablito, an absolute gentleman. Riding to the lake was always my favourite and on this particularly day we had experienced riders so we just galloped everywhere.
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On the long ride, Nelson and Max would go ahead and prepare the fire. When me and Teddy arrived with our guests, they would make everyone steak sandwiches with pepper and onion.
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Caught red handed. That leather bag I am holding is full of red wine, chilled briefly in the river, and passed round to share amongst everyone.

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Any view between two ears is a better view.

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Lago Argentina, milky blue glacier water.
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Patagonian cloud formations are just odd. I have so many pictures of clouds!
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If we only had a short ride, lunch at the estancia was either Cordero (lamb) or Bifes con ensalada, depending on what the tourist had pre-ordered. Luckily, Esteban is an amazing chef and varied our meals excellently. All the food was totally delicious, although we definitely consumed more red meat than ever before.

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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.

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She reminds me of my dog, Coco.

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Having a little yawn.

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.

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Making sausages one afternoon

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One quiet afternoon Esteban took us to an old traditional Estancia down the road.

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The traditional ‘white tin houses with red roofs’ as Chatwin often refers to in his book ‘In Patagonia’.
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Majorly fell for this guy

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Native indians painted the rocks many years ago and they are still visible today.

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We had around 30 goats on the farm, they slaughter the boys for meat at around 2 months old and keep the girls to grow the stock.
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Even they were fascinated by Sascha
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Just look at her cute nose!
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The goats here have their babies in the winter. This often means lots of the young have to come into the house to keep warm. These two, who we named Tweedledum and Tweedledee for obvious reasons, were firm favourites and incredibly friendly and curious.

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Once we had ‘clocked -off’ and there was no clients left to entertain, we were free to do as we please! This is a fabulous book detailing the adventures of a journalist, Bruce Chatwin, who came to Patagonia in 1970’s.
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Sometimes, we would just tack up the horses and take ourselves off on a little ride armed with the camera!

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Very risky considering we were probably a good hours walk from home! Bag luckily didn’t move and posed perfectly!
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Patagonia at its most wild and wonderful
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This is very typical and often seen in Patagonia. These random rocks are referred to as ‘erratic rocks’. They are a piece of rock that differs in size and type from the native rocks in the area where it rests. These were probably transported by glaciers and are used as indicators which mark the path of prehistoric glacier movement.
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As you may have noticed, throughout our blogs there are lots of pictures of birds. Max has become somewhat of a ‘bird man’. He spent lots of time dashing around trying to get photos of the notoriously enormous Condor. These vultures have around an 11ft wing span, finger like feathers curl up on the tips of their wings and a white collar around their necks making them easy to identify in the sky.  One minute I would be chatting to him, the next thing I knew he was racing across the field with the camera. Maybe this was the one, the one that would fly close enough to the ground! Sadly it never happened. They fly so high up and even when we caught maybe 20 of them eating a dead cow, they are so shy that we just didn’t get any good pictures. We have literally hundreds of pictures of black specs in the sky. This was the best one!
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An Eagle poses perfectly

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By the time we left Rio Mitre, Max was riding everyday with me, happily galloping off into the distance to follow a bird he wanted to photograph.

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No one could believe we had Flamingos on what was left of the Lago Argentina. They did begin to fly north as it got colder in April but otherwise they seemed perfectly happy in this icy cold glacier water.

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Max pinched my Bajo!
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Practising my plaiting skills!

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!

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We would call them from the car and they would run behind us.

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“We are back, now what?”
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Max and Naou got very close in the last 2 or 3 weeks. They would play most days. Naou was rescued when he was found as a newborn on the side of the road. This often happens unfortunately. Mothers give birth and then get startled and because lots of the fields are fenced with thin wire, the mothers jump them and the babies are left stranded.

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Sadly, on our last day at the Estancia we found out that Lolita had been shot. She was luckily alive but she was very swollen and sore. She was taken back to the Estancia and from what we last heard, she is recovering. They eat guanacos here so perhaps whoever did it thought she would make a nice meal. However, these guanacos always wander off with 5 goats so we suspect it was some sort of vendetta.

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.

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Max and the tourists who were there on the day they slaughtered 10 sheep, were invited along to watch. I couldn’t stomach it.

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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.

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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?

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The pigs spent the next week or so eating the entrails of the horse out of this trailer. Pigs by name, pigs by nature.

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.

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Mozart saying hi to the chanchos

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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.

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A passing gaucho stops for a chat. Obviously the ‘Chiefs of Marketing’ are interested in what he has to say.
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“Off to check out if there is anything tasty in the larder, don’t mind me…”
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3 of the best; Bajo, Narango and Colorado.
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A few times a week people would come and ask to fish in the lake. Sometimes, before they went home, they would come back up to the estancia and drop us off a fish for supper.
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Our suppertime view when we didn’t have clients, which was a lot of the time as the season drew to a close.

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.

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8 thoughts on “Estancia Rio Mitre – Patagonian Life

  1. Nerys

    Really enjoyed this part of your blog. Reminds me of the lovely horse ride I had there. Your photos are so much better than mine but at least I’ve still got the ones you took of me on the horse whose name I forget.

    Cheers
    Nerys Mcbride
    Tiaro Queensland

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    1. Hi Nerys, I was so pleased to see you were following the blog. I hope you are well and enjoyed the rest of your trip! I have now updated this blog with a video too! Check it out! We are currently in Bolivia and we have just experienced our trip highlight! Find out what it is in the next few weeks on the blog or follow us on Facebook – OffSheWanders! Lottie X ps. Your horse was called Lucho (or Mr Grumpy as I nicknamed him)!

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  2. Christina and Bernard

    Lottie ….. how well you have managed to bring to life your time at the estancia, with beautiful photos, interesting descriptions and details of your routines each day and most of all, your very personal and honest comments. It makes such good reading and is very touching … what an extraordinary expérience for you both. And good for you for turning Max into a gaucho …! Much love Christina

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    1. Glad you enjoyed it B & C! Max is a Gauchita (a little gaucho), not quite a fully fledged Gaucho just yet! It was certainly an experience we still talk about all the time, so I guess it’s the place that has really captured our hearts so far…! Spk soon xx

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  3. Hi Max and Lottie You are both living the dream but working quite hard as well by the sound of things. I believe Lottie has a career as a documentary maker i you chose, the photos are quite incredibale. This experience will be hard to top but i am sure you will both try hard to do it. Please pass on our regards to you families for us.
    Love to you both
    Don and Nyna

    Like

    1. Hi Don and Nyna, thanks so much for your kind comments! I am glad you enjoyed the blog, I can’t take all the credit, Max is also a very good photographer too! It’s been an incredible journey so far and we have just experienced our trip highlight ! Keep an eye on the blog to find out what it was or follow Off She Wanders on Facebook! Best to all of you! Love Lottie & Max X

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  4. Laura Gittins

    Hi, i am trying to contact the estancia to stay there in January but no one is answering – do you have a contact address for them? You have inspired me!

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    1. Hi Laura, this is normal. It’s very authentic down there and the idea of answering emails and encouraging customers to book is lost on them. Best thing to do is book via a hostel called Schilling Hostel in El Calafate (if you need a hostel, this one is amazing). You don’t need to book way in advance but January will be one of the busier months so maybe a few weeks ahead would be best. If you’re not staying at a hostel in town, email them anyway and they are usually super helpful. They speak good English too which may be useful for you. Rio Mitre also have a Facebook page so you could try them via that! Hope this helps. You’ll love it, it’s truly magical… If you don’t mind something a bit rustic, stay the night too to get a real feel of the place. X

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