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  • Writer's pictureMarion Marquardt

Gaucho for one week – our stay at Estancia Mercedes

No show for tourists - real gauchos live and work on Estancia Mercedes
One week with the family Iglesias – Sebastián and Grissel share their everyday life with us
13,000 hectares of land on the peninsula Antonio Varas - enough space for sustainable livestock and farming
The Calafate Fest - a festival in honor of the local Calafate berry

Ever since we arrived in South America, our dream has been to spend time on an estancia and go horseback riding. Everywhere you see horses, again and again you meet a gaucho on the side of the road. We definitely want to immerse ourselves in this part of the South American culture. We've been in Patagonia for a while, still in the very south, around Puerto Natales. A guy who is a friend of the family recommends us to visit Estancia Mercedes. The estancia is very remote on the peninsula Antonio Varas and can only be reached by boat. People still work here, with farm animals such as cattle, sheep and chickens, in a self-sufficient existence. Meat and wool are sold. For a long time now, the Iglesias family has also been offering a stay at the Estancia for tourists - all on a very small, private scale, for a maximum of 6 guests at the same time. We agree on an exchange and are invited to the Calafate Fest to produce a promotion video. The festival is the first of its kind, three days honoring the native Calafate berry. We will make promotional material for the next event in February. What a unique opportunity!

Estancia Mercedes Puerto Natales Fjord Antonio Varas
Arrival at the Estancia Mercedes by private boat transfer

We arrive two days before the festival. We don't know exactly what to expect. A boat takes us both to the peninsula, then we are welcomed in German language. Jimmy and Alina, Swiss volunteers on the ranch, pick us up. Funny! And these should not be the only volunteers. We are driving a gravel road for about an hour until we arrive. A lot of people are waiting for us in the house, above all, of course, Sebastián and Grissel, who live there with their 5-year-old daughter Naitiri. There are also two French couples as volunteers. The house is too small for all of us. For this reason we were asked to bring our tent. We sleep “in the garden”. Very idyllic, right on the beach, with spectacular views and the sound of the sea in the background. From time to time dolphins are jumping in the bay.

Estancia Mercedes Patagonia Antonio Varas
The Estancia Mercedes - idyllically located in a bay on the peninsula Antonio Varas

We are welcomed with a dinner, today there is bull's liver in Calafate berry sauce. Raphaël, French chef, is one of the volunteers and is experimenting with the local berry, which he is processing for the first time. A 2-year-old bull was slaughtered 3 days ago, the innards are used first. All in preparation for the festival. The Calafate berry grows in southern Patagonia and is now - mid-January - ripe. The harvest is quite an effort - the prickly bushes do not bear too much fruit, so you have to search in many corners. That justifies the price of 8,000 Chilean pesos per kilogram, which is around €9. The berry can of course be eaten raw, but also be used in numerous sweet and savory dishes. In addition, with its antioxidant effect, it can be used for cosmetic and medical purposes. Raphaël already has a few recipes in mind that he tries out and presents in cooking workshops at the festival.

Thursday morning after breakfast we go with him and Grissel to pick berries. We see a small part of the 13,000 hectare Estancia Mercedes. The peninsula is surrounded by gentle mountain ranges bordering Torres del Paine National Park. Lush green forests and crystal-clear waterfalls invite to go hiking. Not only the Calafate berry grows here; also chaura (peat myrtle) and murtilla (Chilean guava), as well as berries. We also harvest chilco (scarlet fuchsia) and canelo (magellanic winter bark) - plants that were already used by the Chilean natives, the Mapuches, for nutritional and medicinal purposes. Nature still seems intact here. And we have best spring weather. Micha documents the harvest on video.

Calafate Beeren Ernte Patagonia Estancia Mercedes Puerto Natales
Raphaël and Grissel harvesting Calafate berries

When we are back, lunch is ready. We all cook together. There are meals three times a day, mostly prepared by the volunteers. Cooking is done on a rustic kitchen stove, which is a heater, stove and water boiler at the same time, fired with wood. Simple but universal. On the plate is varied food, always with some vegetables or fruit. The main ingredient, however, is meat. For a few years now I have rarely eaten meat, my need for it has decreased. Here, however, the point of ​​avoiding factory farming and only eating high-quality meat is not counting. It doesn't get any fresher. We know that the wild cub only ate lush Patagonian grass. The meat is very tender and has hardly any fat. Even if we didn't witness the slaughter, we should at least get the opportunity to join when the meat is cut.

Schafe Hund Patagonia Estancia Mercedes Puerto Natales
Sheep on the Estancia Mercedes - Find the mistake :-)

First, however, the Calafate Festival takes place, three days are planned. Nobody knows how many visitors will come. Some friends of the family and influencers are arriving on Friday. Grissel organized the festival entirely on her own, with cocktail and cooking workshops, asado, the typical South American style of slowly roasting over the fire, and numerous local product presentations. Always in focus - the Calafate berry. Behind everything is an immense logistical effort. Bringing any food to the peninsula at all is time-consuming. Organizing the whole thing for a festival is of course much more difficult. If it turns out that a table is needed, it has to be built on site. Fortunately, volunteer Jimmy is super adept at it.

Patagonia Estancia Mercedes Puerto Natales
Jimmy sketches the table, which he quickly builds

Not all the helpers are on board on the first day of the festival, so more work is left to the volunteers. Food is prepared and washed up in unison, in addition to the decoration and everything else that comes up last minute. It's always amazing how, despite the perceived chaos, everything runs reasonably well in the end. Often strange for us Europeans. We would like to know a little more about the plans in order to organize our video project accordingly. Well, we are open to the culture of our hosts and flexible.

Calafate Fest Patagonia Estancia Mercedes Puerto Natales
Raphaël preparing his workshop

The second and third day things are a little more relaxed. After all, there are two professional Asado chefs on site to take care of the guests. We're filming and taking pictures all day. Nevertheless, there is enough time to enjoy and socialize. We meet Susanne, a German who has been living in Chile for 23 years. In addition to yoga courses, she has been offering natural cosmetics made from various native plants for some time. Of course, also cremes based on Calafate. Marcelo, from Kenos Cosmetics, has also discovered the healing, antioxidant properties of this miracle berry. He founded a start-up for a cosmetics line with a fellow student. The second main ingredient is Patagonian sheep's wool with its high creatine content. However, most is about food and drink. In addition, there are activities that visitors can take part in… horseback riding, kayaking, forest bathing and of course Calafate berry picking. During the festival we are busy capturing the various scenes on video.

Calafate Estancia Mercedes Gaucho Puerto Natales Antonio Varas Kayak
We relax with sunset kayaking

From Monday on, things are more relaxed. Grissel and Sebastián have their everyday life, which we are allowed to participate in. After we've had breakfast together, it's time to cut up the pieces of meat from the bull that was slaughtered last week. According to Sebastián, after about 6 days of hanging out, it’s the perfect time for it. In the barn we follow the process. It's the first time for me to see something like this. Sebastián deftly splits a leg with his knife, which he has thoroughly sharpened beforehand. By the way, the whole leg weighs 35 kg. We break it down into individual parts, wrap, label and finally freeze them. For the chest, even Sebastían has to watch a YouTube tutorial to make the cuts in the right place. Funny story. The ribs are cut with a chainsaw, the rest with a knife. All accompanied by beer. Such is the ritual. Later, as Michael tell me, a bottle of whiskey is opened. That happened with the exclusion of women :-)

Incidentally, this bull is only used for personal consumption. The meat can only be sold to official meat dealers for around €4 per kilogram. Directly to butchers or end consumers would not be legal. The processing actually is very time-consuming. Sebastían works on it all day. And of course there is meat for dinner – as every day, for lunch and dinner the evening. In addition, the bota, the traditional leather drinking bag of the gauchos - always filled with wine - circulates. It is passes around. Until finally Pisco Sour is mixed. That's also part of the Chilean gaucho life :-)

Calafate Estancia Mercedes Gaucho Puerto Natales Antonio Varas
Like a real gaucho - wine straight from the bota

The next day it's finally time - we can go horseback riding. We've been waiting for a long time. There was no space for that during the festival. After lunch, Sebastián gets the horses. They are not in a paddock, but live wild on the huge terrain. One horse usually stays close to the estancia; Sebastián rides off with it and looks for the herd, followed by his dogs. This can take up to 3 hours. Finally we saddle the horses and set off - 6 volunteers, the influencers Sebastián and Victoria, Micha and I and of course Grissel and Sebastían. Accompanied by 16 dogs. Micha has some of his photo equipment with him to document authentic scenes, all in his backpack. It can rain at any time, and the terrain is difficult, so everything has to be well packed while riding. First we go in the direction of the waterfall, to a beautiful mirador. The horses are brisk and very sure-footed. We go cross country, through rivers, under trees. You have to be very careful to bend down in time if a branch gets in the way. The horses look for the best way for themselves, as a rider every now and then, you have to press yourself onto the horses’ neck to avoid falling. I love that feeling of being in nature with a horse; you can feel the connection with the animal. Puesto, my 7 year old stallion, is very attentive. I learned the English way of riding, here western or gaucho style is ridden. Almost all of the horses are from the Estancia's own rearing, trained by Sebastián himself. He explains to me the special features of the "Gaucho riding style" and I get along really well with it. Puesto responds perfectly to my commands. You can tell that the horses have grown up here. They know the terrain better than anyone and are fearless. From an early age, the foals accompany their mother, as does a 2-month-old one. So I ride casually, according to the motto "Lean back and trust your horse." And I feel blessed.

At the waterfall, which is called Cascada de los Amores, we take beautiful pictures of the couples - as it should be, at the place of love.

Calafate Estancia Mercedes Gaucho Puerto Natales Antonio Varas
Couple shooting at the Cascada de los Amores

We continue through the forest which is getting denser. Sebastián wants to catch some calves that need branding. He follows the fresh tracks of the cow dung, the dogs search in the wider area. We ride towards a plateau, it goes steeply uphill, through muddy terrain in the forest. This doesn't seem to be a problem for the horses, but for some riders it is. There is a fence on one side, trees on the other, thick branches above us. A horse stumbles and the rider falls. Nothing bad happens, thank god. And get back up quickly, I learned that as a child. Micha also had to jump off his horse twice because it had sunk in and couldn't get up on its own. On the plateau we have a magnificent view over this wild Patagonian landscape. Fantastic! We take some nice shots of Grissel and Sebastián.

Calafate Estancia Mercedes Gaucho Puerto Natales Antonio Varas
Sebastian in his element

Suddenly Sebastián discovers a young bull. Now there's no more time for explanations. He has to follow the animal immediately in order to catch it with the lasso. Unfortunately, due to our riding skills, we only have a limited chance of following or helping, let alone taking pictures. We only hear the dogs barking, horse and bull puffing. Unfortunately, the bull escapes. Sebastián explains that there is no chance of catching a full-grown bull in open country. Even when the lasso is in place, the animal has such strength that it pulls horse and rider with it. There are only realistic chances if the animal runs towards an obstacle, e.g. a tree, where it gets caught. Then you have to wait until the animal gets tired. As a next step, it is held from several sides with a rope, the horns are removed to reduce the risk of injury. In a place where there are no nerves, of course, so that the bull has no pain. Then the animal can be taken "home" on the lasso. Killing it on the spot doesn't make sense, since the meat would have to be transported. Incidentally, such an action is described in an article in the 2015 issue of National Geographic, where Sebastián, with some gauchos, captures wild cattle from his great-uncle's territory in Sutherland, in the north of the peninsula. Very worth reading! A small excerpt of the documentary can be watched on YouTube.

Calafate Estancia Mercedes Gaucho Puerto Natales Antonio Varas NatGeo
The Estancia Mercedes even made it into the NatGeo Magazine

We are blown away by how close we can experience real gaucho life. Some time later, the dogs pick up the scent of cattle again. Sebastián follows them with some of us, we stay at the gate to prevent the animals from escaping in the other direction. And so we finally reach the estancia at 10:30 p.m. with 8 young cattle in tow. Quitting time! We are exhausted after 6 hours on the horse. And we will feel our muscles for the next few days. But absolutely happy for such an unique experience. Some moments I felt like I was in a NatGeo documentary myself :-)

Unfortunately, the branding cannot take place the next day, it rains all day. If the fur is wet, obviously, marking the cattle will not work. We relax our muscles, do yoga, collect fresh mussels for dinner... The estancia is a magical place. I can actually imagine spending a whole year here to experience all the seasons. Unfortunately it is already time for us to return to the mainland the next day. Before that, however, a bull has to be slaughtered, to be sold. A unique, albeit brutal, experience. We are asked if we want to do the killing, however decline. I don't want to make the animal suffer through my hesitant or wrong handling. Sebastian is experienced. A skillful stab in the neck, one in the heart and the bull is dead. The fresh blood is usually drunk. Sebastián passes the cup around among us. The dogs get the rest. Then it's time for skinning. Of course we help here. It's not that easy to damage neither flesh nor fur. But I'm a fast learner :-)

Unfortunately, we then have to leave, so that we cannot help with gutting and further processing. As a farewell, there is ceviche (the Chilean name for carpacho) from bull testicles - freshly prepared with onions and lemon by our French chef Raphaël. Fantastic! With this taste on the lips it's time to say goodbye.

Calafate Estancia Mercedes Gaucho Puerto Natales Antonio Varas
Ceviche from bull testicles - freshly prepared by Raphaël

We are blown away by this authentic experience. We felt like part of the family, shared everyday life with them and learned so much. What I definitely want to keep for myself is the Patagonian serenity. A proverb says "El que se apura pierde su tiempo.", which means something like "He who rushes loses time." So true! But now I'm going to do some detox from meat and alcohol :-)

Follow this link for more about the photo project on the Estancia Mercedes, as well as the final >>> Promotion Video.

Calafate Estancia Mercedes Gaucho Puerto Natales Antonio Varas
Evening mood at the Estancia Mercedes

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