Story and photos by Gabriel O'Rorke
The Torres del Paine National Park in Chile is a prime hiking destination, but with tour and lodging company Explora having a luxury hotel with stunning views inside the park, their equestrian program allows you to cover more ground.
Flying from Santiago to Punta Arenas, we set off on the five-hour transfer to Explora's Hotel Salto Chico. Stopping en route for a very civilized lunch at a 100–year–old roadside inn, we finally pass through the gates of Torres del Paine National Park just as the sun was setting.
Having claimed this prime spot almost 20 years, Explora is one of the few hotels lucky enough to be located inside the park gates. And the views couldn't be more impressive, with the towers of this iconic mountain range serving as a backdrop and a waterfall cascading below the black-and-white wooden hotel. The reason I'm here, however, is because Explora Salto Chico has started a new Riding Exploration: a four-night trip for horse–mad travelers. The schedule consists of two half-day rides, and a full-day finale ride to the icebergs.
On arrival, it's straight to the bar for a Pisco Sour to sip whilst the guides explain how it all works. (One of the perks at Explora is that everything is included so you don't have to worry about signing for any additional billsƑ.
Nacho is in charge of my initiation and he arrives with a large map tucked under his arm. We talk through the plan for the next few days, but Nacho stresses that everything is flexible and the next day's activities are always confirmed the night before. As you would expect from one of Chile's elite tour companies, nothing is rigid and you can mix and match depending how your muscles are bearing up. Plus, you don't have to stick with the horses—there's always the options of a hike or boat trip if want to make sure your own two feet still work.
After a delicious breakfast, I head out for my first ride. The stables are just 15 minutes away and are home to 26 horses who are very well tended to by Explora's very own gauchos. The ride on my schedule is a 5–mile route called Rincón del Puma, which takes one–and–a–half hours and is pitched as an easy ride with a relaxing climb up to a viewpoint overlooking Lake Toro, the Serrano River and the Andes Mountains. Since I grew up surrounded by horses, the guachos and guide decide on a change of course and we head to Donosito, a more challenging ride involving cantering through the pampa grass and wading through a couple of rivers.
A few hours fly past, and soon it's time to return to the hotel for lunch. With the majority of guests out on full day excursions the dining room is nice and quiet, and I enjoy the sound of the Patagonian winds battering against the windows as I sip warm broccoli soup. After soup comes congrio, and to finish I have coffee ice cream and an espresso. With a few spare hours before my afternoon ride, I lie on a sunny sofa overlooking the Paine Massif and have a little nap. True indulgence.
Patagonian Pampas and Snowy Peaks
The plan for the afternoon is to head to Río Serrano, a 10–mile ride pegged as advanced. The main reason experience is required for this one is that you need to be in control as you canter through the open fields.
Starting out along the Serrano River we stop to take photographs in front of the snowy peaks of Mount Balmaceda before returning through the pampas below the towers of the Paine Massif. Refreshed, exhilarated and wind swept, we return to the hotel, day one complete.
Between 5pm and 8pm, there's a lovely lull when most guests head down the wooden slatted steps to the spa. The brave jump in the lake (at 10 degrees it's a little like being stabbed all over with needles, but you certainly feel alive and kicking afterwards) or there's a line of al fresco hot tubs where the waters are more temperate.
Estancias on Horse Paths in Patagonia
The next day we head to Explora's second stables, which sit in a secluded spot an hour away from the hotel. Rural and rustic, there's a quincho (BBQ) area here, and every few days Explora guests come down for barbecued lamb and homemade empanadas.
But before lunch my fate is an 11-mile ride. We begin by crossing the deep Chinas River, climbing up and down hillsides and passing the Laguna Jara Cruce.
Our destination is the remote Estancia 2 de Enero, a farm belonging to the owner of Explora. We stop here for mate (a typical herbal tea favored by gauchos on both the Argentinian and Chilean sides of the border) before cantering back along the high ridges following the scent of lunch. Guanacos (Patagonian llamas) disperse as we pass, some jumping over a fence in perfect line.