Riding with the Gauchos of Las Torres
Torres del Paine
Hotel Las Torres Patagonia is the perfect starting point to discover the beauty of Torres del Paine National Park in Chile. This former ranch keeps the gaucho culture, also known as Baqueanos, alive, sustainably and holistically. The guanacos, pumas (and us) are happy about it.
The clear morning air fills my lungs as I take a deep breath and look up at the granite towers of the Torres del Paine. Their jagged peaks seem to pierce the pale blue sky. I tighten my saddle straps and give Estrella, my sturdy brown mare, a gentle stroke on her neck. She whinnies softly, ready for our adventure.
We set off at a brisk trot down a dirt track, meandering through green meadows dotted with bright wildflowers and bushes that sway with the brisk breeze. The wind is a faithful companion here.
The sound of rippling water sings through the air as Estrella’s hooves balance on the rocks in the stream, fed by melting glaciers high in the mountains. I breathe in the fresh, earthy scent of the Patagonian wilderness.
As we ride higher, the valley opens up, granting me breathtaking views. Snow-capped mountain ranges stretch as far as the eye can see. We pass a tranquil lake, its mirror-smooth surface reflecting the blue sky and clouds above it. I feel tiny, surrounded by the immense beauty of this natural landscape.
The path goes up into the mountains in hairpin bends. I see the Hotel Las Torres Patagonia, our starting point deep in the valley. Las Torres has now reinvented itself as a hotel, but in addition, it still functions as a holistic ranch. But more on that later. The wind picks up, and I am glad I put on five layers of clothes. From this vantage point, the towers of the Torres del Paine look even more impressive. At least as impressive are the pumas that live here. The supple felines primarily hunt guanacos.
Snow-capped mountain ranges stretch as far as the eye can see. We pass a tranquil lake, its mirror-smooth surface reflecting the blue sky and clouds above it
Torres del Paine
Torres del Paine National Park is located in the extreme south of Chile, in Patagonia. It comprises a relatively small but spectacular mountain area with high granite peaks, immense glaciers, emerald lakes, and vast steppes and forests.
The pearl of the park are the distinctive towers of granite that give the park its name. The Tower of Paine rises in three pointed needles to almost 3,000 meters. They form an iconic image with their jagged, grey rocks against the backdrop of glistening glaciers and deep blue lakes.
One of the impressive glaciers is Glacier Grey, which descends from the Southern Ice Sheet and ends in the lake of the same name. Up close, you can watch chunks of ice break off the glacier and fall into the azure water.
The park also has rugged mountain steppes, grasslands, and forests in all shades of green. Guanacos, Nandos, and other wildlife graze peacefully here, but the puma is always lurking. Rivers and waterfalls feed the many lakes, forming beautiful natural pools.
The sun is just creeping over the hills when Pedro, one of the gauchos of Las Torres, gives me instructions on how to throw the lasso. “It’s all about timing and technique,” he says in his slightly nasal voice, “Stay calm and keep your wrist stiff as you throw the loop.”
We walk onto a muddy open field with a herd of horses. Pedro demonstrates how to circle the lasso above your head to build momentum smoothly. With a fluid motion, he throws the loop at a young colt. The lasso lands perfectly around the animal’s neck. The foal rears up and tries to escape, but Pedro holds it firmly.
My first attempts are clumsy, but gradually I begin to master the technique a little. Pedro encourages me as I practice on the fast galloping horses. We bring the captured horses to the ranch. With a steady hand, Pedro saddles the animals. I help him buckle the straps; contentedly, he rubs the shiny coats. “Well done, kid,” he says, nodding. I smile, glad to have learned this skill from a real gaucho.
“It’s all about timing and technique. Stay calm and keep your wrist stiff as you throw the loop”
Ninoska Kusanovic Olate (25) is the youngest generation of rancheros in the Las Torres family business. Nino, as people call her, has been brought up on the gaucho lifestyle. She is fused with horse and mate, the gauchos’ favorite drink. “Las Torres used to be a real ranch with cows,” Nino explains. “My great-grandfather, Antonio Kusanovic Jercic, left Croatia at 15 and started a new life at the end of the world, far from home, here in Patagonia. He bought the Cerro Paine ranch, as Las Torres was first called, for cattle ranching. At one point, we had more than 600 cows grazing on the land.”
“My great-grandfather, Antonio Kusanovic Jercic, left Croatia at 15 and started a new life at the end of the world, far from home, here in Patagonia”
When word about Patagonia, Torres del Paine, and the three massive granite towers began to spread via word of mouth in the 1990s, Antonio and his wife, Amor Eliana Marusic offered weary travelers a warm bed and homemade food. They converted part of their ranch, built nine rooms, and set up a restaurant. The simple beginnings of Hotel Las Torres.
Around 1996, the development of mountain huts began. Adventurous backpackers, thirsty for adventure, started coming to Torres del Paine in search of that intense connection with nature you feel here. The first mountain hut was Albergue Las Torres (now called Refugio Norte), followed by Cuernos and Chileno. Meanwhile, the hotel grew along with it. Since 2001, the ranch has been called Hotel Las Torres Patagonia. The hotel embraces its cultural heritage and proudly shares it with visitors wishing to glimpse Patagonian gaucho life.
Holistic ranch management
“We feel that we have a long-term commitment to the conservation and sustainability of this land,” Nino says as she sips her mate occasionally. “We decided to get rid of all the cows and start managing our land, about 20 square kilometers, holistically with our horses. Holistic ranch management is the only way to manage our ranch here in Torres del Paine sustainably,” says Nino. “We apply different techniques to maintain the balance between the animals, the land, and the people. For example, we use rotational grazing, regularly moving the animals to other pastures. This allows the plants to recover and prevents overgrazing.”
Nino explains that some pastures are also given rest periods to regenerate. “Our water management is crucial. We make sure there is enough water for both animals and plants.”
Nino stresses the importance of native plants: “We encourage the growth of native plants because they provide food and shelter for the wildlife here. This is how we increase biodiversity on our ranch. Holistic ranch management is the most sustainable way to manage our 191 horses and land, with respect for nature and with all the benefits for people and animals.”
“Holistic ranch management is the most sustainable way to manage our 191 horses and land”
Las Torres is a sustainable tourist destination with maximum commitment to environmental conservation. The lodge offers its guests the opportunity to sustainably enjoy the beautiful nature of Torres del Paine.
That sustainability does not have to be boring proves the extremely nice Las Torres. Also special is their Bar Pionero, run by Federico Gil, a renowned bartender. “I am inspired by pure nature. I have been working at Las Torres for 11 seasons and have created a unique drinks menu. Our cocktails contain fresh, organic produce from the kitchen garden as much as possible.”
He has already won many international awards with them. “My sustainable cocktails are made from natural products and recycled materials,” says Federico. “We want to impact the environment while being creative and innovative positively.” Well, it has succeeded.
Besides its handmade and ecological drink offerings, the bar is against using plastic: “We produce our glass cups from recycled bottles, and we have replaced plastic straws with copper straws that are cleaned and reused. These are important steps towards sustainability,” Frederico said.
Suddenly, I spot a cougar. It strolls up and down slowly and smoothly, making no move to leave, even though they are skittish beasts
I take a moment to take in the magnificent panoramic view. With the rugged granite peaks now behind us, we make the descent. The horses’ hooves clatter rhythmically along the loose gravel path. I relax in the saddle and take in the scenery. Suddenly, I spot a cougar. It strolls up and down slowly and smoothly, making no move to leave, even though they are skittish beasts. Then I see the half-eaten carcass of a guanaco. I am standing between the cougar and its lunch! Quickly I spur Estrella, my horse, and make room for the magnificent beast to continue eating while the granite towers of Torres del Paine look on affably and perpetually.
Hiking O or W?
Thanks to its unique landscape and wildlife, Torres del Paine has become a draw for (eco)tourists worldwide. Crossing the vast plains on horseback or hiking under the majestic granite towers is a real bucket list adventure.
The W hike is named after the shape of the route you travel and takes about four to five days to complete. The trail passes the park’s famous granite towers, past glaciers, and spectacular views of lakes and steppes.
The O hike is a longer, tougher hike that takes about seven to 10 days to complete. This route goes all the way around the Paine massif and offers even more spectacular views of the park’s granite towers and glaciers. You also stay overnight on this in mountain huts or tents on campsites.
Both hikes are challenging and require good physical fitness, but it is worth the effort. The park offers an unforgettable experience for adventurous travelers who love hiking and nature.
Torres del Paine
Hotel Las Torres Patagonia is the place to stay if you want to visit Torres del Paine. At Las Torres you can not only stay in the gorgeous lodge, but also in several mountain huts and there is even a campsite for both tents and campers. From Las Torres you can walk the W and O, but they are also happy to organise whatever your needs are. Horse riding, for example. And afterwards a nice hot sauna. Just to name a few.