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Winter Travel | Magazine

A trip to a ranch where the cowboys wear berets

The sprawling ranches of Patagonia draw tourists eager to watch gauchos at work.

Sebastian Garcia Iglesias (left) and his brother Rodrigo round up cattle and guide visitors at Estancia Mercedes in Chile.
Phil primack
Sebastian Garcia Iglesias (left) and his brother Rodrigo round up cattle and guide visitors at Estancia Mercedes in Chile.

Think of estancias, the sprawling ranches of Patagonia, as the Argentinian and Chilean equivalent of America’s vast cattle farms in the West, and the gaucho as a beret-wearing cowboy.

Created mainly for sheep farming in the 19th century, many estancias are still working operations where riders herd sheep, round up stray cattle, and do many other jobs made even harder by Patagonia’s vastness and unpredictable weather. Many now see tourism as a less strenuous way to survive, drawing visitors eager to watch, work with the gauchos, or just take in the often stunning and isolated setting.

Estancia Mercedes (estanciamercedes.cl), settled in 1916 and still operated by the Iglesias family, offers all this and more. It features spectacular mountain and water views, fine horses to ride, and, above all, a welcoming warmth that makes us feel more like family than visitors. “We have no TV or Internet, but here you can experience what is important in life,” says Sebastian Garcia Iglesias as he saddles a horse for our winding ride up a forest trail to a roaring waterfall. “Few places in the world have such a pure connection with the earth.”

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Getting to Estancia Mercedes starts with a short boat ride from the Chilean port city of Puerto Natales, followed by a 45-minute drive down a gravel road that as recently as a decade ago required a full-day journey by horse. We only took a day trip but wish we had spent a night or two in one of the two guest rooms. That would mean more time with the Iglesias family, maybe even enough to help them round up feral cattle. And more of some of the best food we had in all of Patagonia, homegrown, home cooked, and home served.

“You can live like a real gaucho here,” says Iglesias. Not a bad way to go.

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