Thursday, October 13, 2016

In Patagonia: Sights of the Steppe

Southernmost South America is “Big Sky Country” but there’s a tendency to dismiss spreading steppes with few obvious landmarks. Between the Strait of Magellan and Puerto Natales – a frequent route for anybody who visits the region – oddball sights like the Monumento al Viento, Santiago sculptor Alejandra Ruddoff’s homage to the nearly incessant winds (pictured below), are the rule rather than the objection. Eventually Ruta 9 reaches the iconic Torres del Paine but, when I first drove here nearly 30 years ago, it was a gravel road that required my close attention to avoid spinouts, and rocks that passing trucks rocketed toward my windshield.
At that time, it took about five hours to get to Natales; today it’s only about three on a smoothly paved highway. There were few accommodations along the route but, historically, the vast sheep farms – known here as estancias – would offer passing strangers a bed for the night. Their cascos (“big houses”), Victorian-style pre-fabs that owed their origins to British immigrants who helped pioneer the wool industry, did stand out on the landscape.
At times, even on the main highway, gauchos guide droves of sheep that sometimes stop traffic, but this landscape is easier to appreciate off the beaten track – about an hour north of Punta Arenas, Ruta Y-50 is a slightly longer but nearly parallel gravel route, smooth enough even for small passenger cars. It leads to Estancia Río Verde (pictured at top), a traditional ranch that’s reinvented itself to accommodate guests and, overlooking Skyring Sound, they’ve converted part of the complex into a small hotel – including an interesting tower suite – and a parrilla (grill restaurant) that’s also open to non-guests. This is one place to savor the grilled lamb that’s typical of the region.

I’ve stayed and dined at Río Verde, and would happily do so again, but I’m not sure I’ll have time this coming summer. This style of architecture also exists at Estancia Río Penitente, about halfway to Puerto Natales but back on the main highway, but their own handsome Victorian may be closed at present (something I’ll need to check when I return next month). Still, I’d recommend the detour to anybody looking for deeper insights into my favorite region.

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