Saddle up for stellar views and gaucho culture in Patagonia

At Argentina’s isolated ranches, stunning mountains, homegrown food, and cowboy customs reign.

Photograph by Dan Sadgrove
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In Argentina’s remote Neuquén province, two gauchos join a multi-day cattle drive herding Angus-Hereford cows from their high-elevation summer grazing lands to lower winter pastures.

Photograph by Dan Sadgrove

Beyond the treeless spine of the Andes’ Desecho pass in Argentina’s far northern Patagonia, below a steep 1,500-foot scree slope, on the far end of a lush spring-fed pasture—it’s here Saul Jara tends his herds each summer.

Jara and his family have been puesteros (a type of gaucho) for generations. It is a life of seasonal rhythms, moving their goats, cows, and horses between winter invernada lowlands and summer veranada mountain pastures. His government-granted rights to this grazing foothold on public land have been passed down father to son.

A proud Criollo gelding stands tethered outside Jara’s puesto—a corrugated iron shack with no plumbing or electricity where Jara stays. Inside, a blackened pot of goat lard boils over an open fire. Flattened balls of dough sit nearby, ready for a feast of fresh tortas fritas (fried bread). Jara beckons us from his door with a broad smile and his boina cap off, as is customary when gauchos share a meal.

Jara’s hair looks conspicuously combed. Perhaps not surprisingly. His 10 guests—four guides and six women equestrians from three continents—have ridden three full days from our home base at Estancia Ranquilco to be here. He’s seen our approaching dust trail across the Desecho basin for hours. We are one of only a few pack trips this year to reach this far-flung spot.

The allure of gaucho culture

Tough, skilled horsemen—somewhere between noble and unruly, with a legendary capacity for solitude—gauchos and their mystique draw a growing number of travelers to Argentinean riding experiences. Today, most gauchos (and a few female gauchas) work as an integral part of traditional ranches. And options to experience estancia life abound—from grand properties on the verdant pampas (plains) of Buenos Aires province to luxury getaways among the vineyards of popular Mendoza or the Sierras Chicas foothills of Córdoba. Still, the vast grasslands and ancient mountains of the northern Patagonian Cordillera offer what may be the most authentic window to gaucho ways of old.

At Estancia Huechahue in southern Neuquén province, four generations of the Wood family have worked the 15,000 acres of Patagonian steppe to create a self-sustaining ranching operation. Visitors stay on the ranch, but can ride with gauchos, observing their horsemanship while working cattle on the property. There’s also fishing, rafting, and hunting.

Huechahue grows or raises nearly everything staff and guests eat, as they have since settling the property early in the last century. Still, owner Jane Wood Williams says they feel the impact of encroaching tourism in nearby Bariloche and the Lake District—a perennial Patagonian destination. Indeed, most of Argentina’s northern ranching regions have become more developed, with fence lines defining land holdings and confining animals to specific areas. In many regions, gauchos working for estancia owners might ride as often on four wheels as four legs, serving as valued ranch hands.

A ranch at the end of the world

All this is what makes Estancia Ranquilco, and its pocket of Neuquén Province to the north, so extraordinary.

“You can get on a horse and ride for two weeks without crossing a road, a fence line, or any other person except local gauchos,” say T.A. Carrithers, who grew up on a commune in Northern California. Carrithers took over for his father about 10 years ago. He runs the guest lodge on Ranquilco’s 100,000-acre estancia—a blend of far northern Patagonia’s arid sweeping valleys and jagged peaks, sprinkled with free-running horses and springs popping out of the ground. A good deal of adjacent Andean veranada remains uncultivated public land. “The modern world hasn’t pushed in here on transhumance—a lifestyle of moving one’s herds and flocks freely to follow the seasons, summering in puestos,” he says. “It’s still strong with local families here, but fading elsewhere.”

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Intern Adam Bittner and Leo Carrithers-Jara horse around as the sun sets at Patagonia’s Estancia Ranquilco. With no distractions from technology, guests and workers spend nights under the stars, gathered in front of campfires.

You glimpse all this just getting to Ranquilco—a five-hour drive northwest of Neuquén airport, the last hour on a dirt track dead-ending at the tiny puesto outpost of Buta Mallin. From there, it’s three hours on horseback to a final climb ending under the estancia gate with a hand-carved message—Enjoy the Creation. A welcome party emerges from the Casa Grande and sundry outbuildings—a mash-up of wood and stone architecture. Think Hogwarts meets the Ponderosa, far off the grid and a bit off the wall. This is home for two days before we ride out on a seven-day pack trip.

Established in 1978, Estancia Ranquilco puts a 21st-century spin on the owners’ California hippie roots. Since then, talented rebels, seekers, and eccentrics from around the globe have found their way here to work as gardeners and vets, deep-tissue masseuses, blacksmiths, and master chefs who daily bring what’s on the farm to the table in scrumptious fashion. Like a lunch of roasted beets from the garden with balls of labneh, a yogurt cheese, rolled in nuts and homegrown spices crushed into a custom duqqa. And next to the tabbouleh salad of bulgur wheat, chopped mint, onion, and tomato: a Russian roulette of mild to very hot padrón peppers.

And at Ranquilco and other remote Patagonian properties, there’s a very real circle of sustainability. Drinking glasses are cut from the bottom of empty wine bottles (of which there are many). Whether you’re here to fish and chill at the estancia or ride out into the Andes to sleep under the stars, it’s profound—experiencing true self-sufficiency not just by choice, but necessity.

Hardy ranch horses

At the center of it all are the horses—hardy Criollos that make living amid this remote, otherworldly landscape possible. For centuries, the sure-footed native breed has remained the most comfortable, reliable form of transport over much of this countryside. Perhaps that’s why some describe the gaucho and the horse as two parts of the same beast. To paraphrase 19th-century Argentine-British naturalist William Henry Hudson—a gaucho without a horse is a man without legs.

Most of all, there’s a palpable instinct here not to interfere with local puesteros and their families. They are friends and neighbors, revered for their local knowledge. They might trade goats or tend Ranquilco herds alongside their own for permission to graze on Ranquilco land. Deep mutual respect has grown over four decades. There isn’t the more distinct social divide between landowners and gauchos of traditional Argentine estancias—another vestige of Ranquilco’s hippie heritage. “The grandparents of the people who are there now are the people who settled this land, and really, it is their home,” says Carrithers. “We keep things small and I check in to make sure we’re not impacting them.”

It’s daybreak in the Desecho Valley. We break camp quickly, tack up, and ride out to climb over the spine of an even higher pass beyond. No more tents. We’ll be back in comfortable beds at Ranquilco in just a few days. Halfway across the meadow, we halt and wait as one of our guides gallops over to Jara’s puesto. She has gone to thank him again for his hospitality and pass on our goodbyes. After all, that’s what good neighbors do.

Liz Beatty is a writer, broadcaster, and podcaster. Her North Americana Podcast unearths surprising stories that connect Americans and Canadians.