Photograph by Tomas Munita, National Geographic

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Sebastián García Iglesias is determined to keep alive the memory and traditions of his forebears who opened up this remote country.

Photograph by Tomas Munita, National Geographic

Q&A: In the Wilds of Patagonia, Cowboy Honors the Pioneers Who Came Before

For Sebastián García Iglesias, the ghosts of his ancestors are stitched to the tapestry of the land they pioneered.

Sebastián García Iglesias, 25, is the great-nephew of a legendary Patagonian cowboy, or bagualero, Arturo Iglesias Alvarez. Arturo died in 1991, at the age of 71, when Sebastián was just two years old, but two decades later, his great-uncle looms large in Sebastián's imagination and in his philosophy of life.

Sebastián, his parents, his brother, and his sister live on Estancia Mercedes, the ranch settled by Arturo's parents in Patagonia in 1916.

When I arrived one wind-blown midsummer morning, I found the estancia very much as it had been in Arturo's time. A place of unworldly charm and beauty tucked between a bay and forested hills, it was where Arturo's family, and then Arturo himself, ran sheep and cattle operations.

In 1960 Arturo bought Estancia Ana María, a ranch several hours by horse from Mercedes, where he lived for most of his adult life. The estancia encompassed a wild, almost inaccessible peninsula known as Sutherland.

In January 2014, Estancia Ana María was sold, and we were to head out and round up wild cattle in Sutherland for the market in Puerto Natales.

The Iglesias family no longer relies solely on cattle and sheep to make a living. Now small groups of tourists from nearby Puerto Natales spend time in the family's home at Estancia Mercedes, partaking in daily life on the ranch.

It's Sebastián's hope to find a way to continue the tradition of bagualear—or rounding up feral cattle—with visitors so that they can better understand the lives of the pioneers who came before him and for whom he has deep admiration.

During the month I spent with Sebastián, I was struck by his ability to reset to kindness and calm after chasing and roping a fierce animal. His deep respect for his horses and dogs was coupled with an unquestioning assumption that they would work as hard and fearlessly as he.

What was clearer than anything, though, was that the land is Sebastián's first and deepest love—and that the ghosts of his ancestors are stitched to the tapestry of that land.

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It takes skilled horsemanship for Sebastián to rope a wild cow on Sutherland peninsula.

It is notable that you, your sister, your brother, and your parents still live on Mercedes Ranch, which was established by Arturo's parents in 1916. Tell me a little about Mercedes.

In 1916 my great-grandfather, José Iglesias Díaz, settled Estancia Mercedes. In those days the place was dedicated to livestock, both sheep and cattle, and forestry work. He built the house and shed entirely by hand, using an ax. He used horses to go around the countryside, and for herding and branding cattle. There were chickens for eggs, and the soil was tilled for hardy annual outdoor crops.

Mercedes is very isolated, and as a result my ancestors formed a strong bond with the land. Along with this came a deep respect for the animals with which they lived and a strong attachment to the family with whom they shared this rewarding, demanding life.

Today the only thing about Mercedes that has changed is the way you get there. It's no longer seven hours on horseback or three hours by boat, but 50 minutes by car thanks to the construction of Chile's Austral Highway in 2004.

For the first 13 years of my life, I came to Mercedes by boat and horse just like my ancestors. That's why I take off my hat to those pioneers who made the country all these years ago, overcoming difficulties and sacrificing their comfort to make this land home.

That's why we wanted to develop a type of sustainable tourism on Mercedes Ranch, so that the traditions and cultures inherited from our ancestors can be kept alive, where visitors can step back in time, can value the simple things through this cultural exchange between us and them.

Earlier this year when you went into Sutherland with the National Geographic team, it was your first time there. [Read "Cowboys on the Edge" in the December 2014 issue of National Geographic magazine.] I know you've heard many stories about when Arturo rode in there, but what did you expect to find?

I had never imagined it would be a place so full of wild magic, or a place where I would encounter in myself the soul of my great-uncle Arturo.

To follow in the path of Arturo, who journeyed there year after year, reaffirmed in me the value of work, effort, and the courage of the pioneers. It was a journey where I realized that everything done by my ancestors and everything I've been doing so far in my life makes sense.

Two days before leaving Sutherland, you and Darío Muñoz went high above the base camp in search of cattle. Unexpectedly, you found a lake that's not visible except from the air. How does it feel to be in a place so secret?

I felt a tremendous boost of energy in my soul and a deep gratitude to be alive. I felt too the great gift of being able to breathe freely, to be with all my senses—my eyes, my ears, my feet—to really appreciate that moment of magic.

When Darío and I were riding along the lake, I felt this great energy behind me. I turned quickly, thinking maybe it was a bull, or I don't know what! Instead, there was a condor flying right at our level. Yes, there was something truly amazing to be in a place touched only by the wings of condors.

What's important to you about bagualear—the cowboy life?

Companionship, friendship, brotherhood, protecting others—this is as important as the ability to capture the bulls.

Also, it is an important place to learn about survival, sacrifice, love, and a respect for nature and for the animals. These are values ​​that go beyond the material and tangible world. It is my desire to share this with people who are not able to be in contact with nature. The secret of life is in our roots.

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This bull died in the chase—a financial loss, but its meat will keep the cowboys fed.

Getting to Sutherland was not at all easy, but you never thought of giving up or turning back. What gives you this determination?

Basically I see myself reflected in the spirit of struggle, effort, and courage of the pioneers, and especially of my ancestors. I think it's important to learn to appreciate all they have done in life, to bring us the life we enjoy today—braving the wind, the rain, the frost, the snow, and the cold. We now have everything so easy, with technology, amenities, supermarkets. But I always wonder ... if they did it, why not me? And in this way, I learn my way into the world with a sense of wonder and respect.

Do you think bagualear is brutal?

Absolutely not. Brutal is a synonym of inhumane—cruel, bloody—and what we do is far from that. For me it's natural. Primitive man sought and hunted wild animals for food, but today most people skip the process of coming face-to-face with the animal and eat meat without thinking of the struggle, of the land, of the process. For me, that is brutal.

Like my great-uncle Arturo, I've dedicated my life to this land. Part of that love involves taking care of the animals on the land. When these animals escape and breed for generations, it's necessary to round them up.

To perform this activity, one needs to be an experienced rider. What the bagualero does requires a lot of bravery and courage as you face the animal as an equal without weapons, only your rope, your horse, and your dogs. It's a fair contest where either may die.