It all started quite a long time ago, however not in the distant galaxy… There were two girls (8 and 13 years old), riding in the same stable in Poland. At first, they really didn’t like each other because they were competing to ride on the same, quite grumpy mare… About twenty years after that, when the girls became adults and had been good friends for years, they laughed at their past rivalry. One day the younger one called the other from Ushuaia and asked her, “Why don’t you come to Patagonia to ride horses with me?” So, the older one, quit her job for a corporation that she disliked and bought a one-way ticket to Argentina. She ended up horse riding in Argentina – in a place that became her personal paradise on Earth, Peninsula Mitre.
Author: Gosia Ostachowicz
So Where are We Going?
Peninsula Mitre is the Eastern part of La Isla Grande de Tierra Del Fuego in Argentina. It is a remote, wild and still unknown place. Every year Mitre has less visitors than any of the Poles. It is the true “End of the World…” To start the journey, you need to travel by car four hours from the most austral city of the world, Ushuaia. The peninsula is infamous among sailors, hundreds of ships have found their end here over the last three centuries. Though the better-known Cape Horn is not far away, the waters around Peninsula Mitre are just as treacherous. The only remnants of human presence there are simple shelters, which are more or less one day’s horse-riding distance from each other (30-40 km) and they only exist in the most accessible part of Peninsula Mitre.
There are remains of gauchos’ puestos and they belonged to the estancia that was founded here in 1918 by Spanish immigrants. There are no roads or bridges, only paths trodden by animals. No electricity, no cellular coverage or other luxuries. Every necessary item comes here on the back of a horse. This land is ruled by wild horses, wild cattle and condors. Traveling is possible only along the Atlantic coast, during low water when beaches are accessible and rivers safe to pass. Peat bog (in Spanish: turba) and mountains cover most of the land. Weather in this austral edge of Patagonia can be harsh. They say you may expect four seasons in one day, even during summer – from sunshine to snow and back.
Tierra del Fuego – Traveling Here is for Adventurous Souls Only!
As I already mentioned, the rhythm of the journey here is determined by the tides of the Atlantic Ocean. The fastest and easiest way to travel is on the beaches. The treacherous turba on the cliffs above makes it difficult for horses to pass. We wander on land stolen from the ocean only for a few hours a day. During low tide, the Atlantic is retreating for even more than a kilometer. Every day, a completely clean, unstable and new world is created here, in which we can put the first trace. We need to adapt to the ocean’s rhythm. We have no influence on it and that is another liberating feeling, we cannot control everything. Sometimes you just have to wait.
The power of the landscape develops slowly. At some point a view of the Atlantic shore appears, which will be our “way” for the next week. Before us are only countless numbers of bays, beaches and cliffs up to the horizon. And the awareness that such a landscape stretches for tens of kilometers. The vastness of space slowly seeps into consciousness. As if the mind needed time to lower its barriers, calm down and start absorbing images. Winds blow away unneeded thoughts, time brings admiration, the desire to be silent and simply to exist.
Grace and Naturalness
We ride the Atlantic coast that seems to be endless. Ahead are miles of an empty beach. The sun turns the thin layer of water into a mirror, reflecting the sky. So, we wander through the sky. Our horses are moving very calmly in trot. The pace is optimal, very comfortable, you have the feeling that nothing else would have made any sense.
Nobody uses the English trot (that is, does not trot in a classic way for European riders, rising up and down in trot), we are just sitting in the saddle. You can go like this for hours, rocking slightly to the rhythm of the horse’s steps. I’m watching my companions, gauchos. They ride in a light, unforced way. Sitting on horses in a way that has been worked out not on the indoor arenas with licensed instructors, but just countless hours spent on a journey and work in the saddle. There is a lot of grace and naturalness in it. Many riders might envy how naturally they sit on a horse.
We are silent. Thoughts slow down and become calm. We only sometimes look at each other and then a gentle smile expresses all the happiness and admiration, no need for any words.
Feeling the Security of the Herd
Such a horse-riding journey seems to be the most natural thing in the world. The sense of time is disappearing again, it seems to me that we have been going through these beaches forever. I have no idea what time it is or how long this trip has lasted. This kind of wandering seems to me the most natural way of using a horse. In the wild this is what these animals do, the herds are moving slowly in search of water and pastures. I love other equestrian sports, but here I have the feeling that dressage, racing or carriage is something that the horses would rather not vote for by themselves if we ever asked them.
During the ride the inhabitants of Peninsula Mitre are watching our trip from the tops of the cliffs. Birds: chimango (like small falcons), carancho (also predators) and condors. It is impossible not to feel the atavistic anxiety when the five-toothed shadow of the condors’ wings obscures the sun. Wild bulls are also watching us, with attention, patiently, without movement, until we disappear from their horizons and their world. They look like dark statues against a bright blue sky. I feel respect for them. I would not like to meet them while walking. The horse gives me a sense of security.
Getting Close to the Local Fauna
But there are also more friendly encounters with fauna: how often do you have a chance to ride a horse close to penguins? Those birds bring a smile to everybody’s faces. There are no penguin colonies on those shores, however some lonely “scouts” leave their families and bravely explore the coast of Mitre. They are not afraid of us, as humans are a rare view for them.
Another example are guanacos. Guanaco is an animal of the camel family that quite resembles a lama. These creatures have incredibly comic facial expressions. I am sure that the creator of Alf (an alien in the 90’s TV series – for you younger readers) took inspiration from them. The herd cannot decide whether it is afraid of me and my horse or would like to see us closely. When I go in their direction to take some pictures, they run away in panic, then stop and with a funny expression of their mouth, are watching us closely while chewing the grass. When I leave, they are following us, until I face them again. We could play this game forever…
The Miracle of Life
There is also a chance to see the miracle of birth, huge groups of sea lions live and breed on the shores. While standing at a safe distance on the cliff you may spend long hours watching a behavior of the colony: majestic, huge males, beautiful, silk-furred females and cute puppies. There used to be many loberias at Patagonia’s coast – places to hunt sea lions fur and fat. Luckily, all of them are closed now and nowadays biologists come here only to study the marine mammals.
And here comes what we were all waiting for, my companions spotted a group of wild horses in front of us. The whole herd made a circle and is cantering in our direction on the beach. It is simply a beautiful view… Just as in a fairy tale… And then for a few magical moments we join them and we gallop together with the wild herd… I will keep this memory forever in my heart.
The Shores Have a lot of Stories to Tell
There are also traces of history all around. Watch closely, those round hill-like shapes on the ground mark places where natives once kept their camps. If you dig a little bit around, you may find one of their stone arrowheads. Amazing stories of those tribes are described in Lucas Bridges book: Uttermost Part of the Earth, a fascinating history of pioneers and natives of Tierra del Fuego. On the shores of Peninsula Mitre there are also many other historic marks – the shipwrecks. Before the Panama Canal was built, passing through those shores was one of the very few connections between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Many journeys had ended because of its rocky shores and unpredictable weather. Remains of the old ships can be found along the beach, as well as some ruins of shelters that survivors tried to build on shore from whatever they could save from the wrecks.
The Duchess of Albany
The most known of those ships is Duchess of Albany. Here, let me borrow a few words from the blog of my friend Karolina Bochenek, (you know, this 8 year old girl from the beginning of the story and marine specialist:) “The steel three-masted sailing ship of the British commercial fleet, built in 1884 by the T. Royden & Sons shipyard in Liverpool, is 253 ft long. It’s structure combines frigate and clipper features.
The ship settled on the shore on the night of July 13, 1893 and for many years remained intact. There are no known reasons for going ashore. Possible explanations range from “beaching to enforce insurance payment” over “navigation error” to “extremely unfavorable weather conditions, despite high tide that limited visibility. During the maneuver only one of the two available anchors was used. Over the years, the ship fell into more and more ruin. Eventually, it fell over. The rusted remains of the stern and bow, which you can see nowadays, are still making a good impression. It was the last sailing ship that was trapped, later many other power-driven ships were stuck there, as were the shores of the US Isle (Isla de los Estados) and Horn, as well as the Mitre Peninsula, are dotted with wrecks.”
The Criollos – Argentina’s Equine Ambassadors
I want to pay tribute to the amazing horses of Argentina, Criollos. As you probably know, before Europeans came here, there were no horses in both Americas. Those animals were first introduced by Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors. Some of the horses escaped and lived in the wild for centuries (similar to mustangs in North America). Through natural selection, Criollos became a tough breed. They are confident even in extremely difficult terrain and need nothing more than grass to survive. If you go horse riding in Argentina, you have to ride Criollo horses!
Our journey continues. Let’s cross Rio Policarpo, the most dangerous of Mitre’s river. There is a change in the landscape: groves of evergreen guindo trees (these are the trees that you can see on postcards from Patagonia). From the hill we have a view of the vast bay of Policarpo, somewhere on the horizon there is a pale-colored point: it is the central building of the estancia of the same name.
The house is beautifully located in the heart of the bay. Once 30-40 people used to live in this area. The shelters on the route: La Chaira and Rio Bueno were part of Policarpo and gave shelter to estancia staff. They used to breed sheep and the wool was transported by ship from the port at the entrance to the bay. Can you imagine a farm that covers over one hundred kilometers of the Atlantic coast? It’s something impossible in the “Old World” where I come from in Poland…
Nobody is waiting for us today, just silence. The Last gauchos left Policarpo many years ago and the beautiful family house is ruined now. The next generation started recently to continue their traditions and nowadays gauchos work with cattle and horses in the first sections of estancia. People of good will try to keep puestos in shape by doing all necessary maintenance and conservation works. It is really an enormous effort here, remember that all materials need to be transported on pack-horses.
Horse Riding in Argentina – Our Daily Routine
Days are calm here, the modern world is far, far away. We start mornings by drinking yerba mate (typical drink of Argentina and a few other South American countries, however it is much more than a drink, it is a whole tradition and ritual.) Then literally, “catching” the horses.
The pastures are gigantic, sometimes you cannot spot the other end of the fence. With the help of dogs, we drive our herd of horses to the small coral. Sometimes it can take a lot of time, other times just 5 minutes. But no one is in a hurry, everything happens here without hustle and bustle (as locals say: “Tranquilo, tranquilo” – means calmly, calmly). We spend evenings on calm conversations, cooking and doing small repairs. Our needs here are very simple, take care of the horses, yourself and the equipment.
During the days we wander and wander. Horses are rocking us slightly in the slowest possible trot. You can easily take a nap in this rhythm. The wind is blowing strongly, almost every day. It makes it hard to talk. Words are pressed back into your mouth. So even though we travel together, we are mainly in our own thoughts, sometimes seeing each other only on the horizon or not at all. We orbit around each other, but everyone travels alone. Sometimes we approach each other when we want or need it. Then our paths divide again. Is it not a trivial metaphor of all human relationships and life?
Preserve the Mitre Peninsula
Should we “share” such places with people? Or, keep them secret, do not write about them in guidebooks or blogs to protect them from our possessive species. Keep only for a handful of those who already know its magic. I hesitated to write about Mitre. In the end, I was somewhat convinced by the excerpt I read in the book of another traveler who walked the peninsula on foot: “weather and geography are the jealous guardians that protect some places where humankind, gregarious by nature, choose not to live, and are now abandoned, places where the skeletons of attempted population can be seen.” (per: Perla Bollo,”I am an Island“/”Soy Isla”).
I believe that the Mitre Peninsula is safe from civilization. It will be defended by the location and the people for whom this place fell into their heart. Currently the Asociación Civil Conservación Península Mitre, together with other NGO local groups are working to create a nature reserve here. Please keep fingers crossed for the wise decisions of the Argentine authorities.
Thank you for coming with me so far, I hope you enjoyed Mitre!
Never Stop Exploring
I think that white spots on the world maps and in our knowledge are in such places, as Mitre. Here, monsters that were painted in the past on the edges of sailing maps, have taken refuge from us. It’s so easy to believe that our old dreams could be easily fulfilled with our next step. You can feel again like Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn or Ronja, the robber’s daughter, who chases wild horses. So, please remember: do not grow up, it’s a trap! Just follow your dreams and look for another adventure.
Gosia thanks her amazing friends, the Imbert Family from Centro Hípico Fin del Mundo, for the privilege to visit this truly magical place several times.
Together with her stuffed animal “Seal”, Gosia has a blog on Facebook. Feel free to follow their adventures.
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