The evening of December 23, Megan and I received some dreadful news. The estancia we had reserved for Christmas Eve had no room at the inn (well, kind of, the estancia could only be reached by ships, and the winds on Christmas Eve would be too high to allow navigation through the iceberg filled channel to get to the place). Like that first Christmas long ago, we were in need of other accomodations. Fortunately, Megan is not about to give birth, and our manger turned out to be a nice country ranch called Estancia Alta Vista (that said, we did end up eating in a barn that night. More on that later).
We arrived at Alta Vista initially skeptical. Estancia Cristina was written up in the New York Times as essentially the best place to stay in the area. The photos we had seen were stunning. We quickly moved past this disappointment. Alta Vista had a simple country elegance with beautiful and stately antiques. It was nice without being overstated. A place that simply felt like home.
Upon arrival we began to bond with our fellow refugees, the other folks who had intended to spend their Christmas in the most remote estancia in the area. Our other travelers were fascinating, and we quickly passed the time with hilarious conversation.
Later that afternoon, Megan and I took a horseback ride with our own gaucho guide. We set off on horseback, the saddles mercifully padded with thick sheepskin blankets for comfort. The horses themselves were very well trained despite constantly being distracted by the gorgeous grasses that grow this time of year.
A half hour into the ride we came upon a meadow dotted with bones. In my finest Spanish, I asked our gaucho who had massacred these helpless creatures. Turns out the mountains are full of pumas. We later learned that the toughest time for the sheep is when the puma mothers teach the cubs to hunt. To ensure the kids get great practice before prowling the hills on their own, the mother will lead them on a massacre of 20 to 50 sheep in a night. I figured sheep were easier targets than our horses, so tried not to worry too much about this apparent danger.
The ride ended on a mountaintop overlooking 300 degrees of mountains, Lago Argentino (the largest lake in Argentina), and several glaciers. Behind us in a field 20 wild horses grazed, and condors and eagles soared overhead. It was nothing short of magical.
The ride down was even more enjoyable as our confidence on horseback grew. By time we returned, delicious smells started to emerge from the barn near the house. It turned out our hosts were preparing a Christmas feast in typical Argentine fashion. They had placed an entire lamb on a metal pole over a large fire with other meats include thick cuts of beef, various sausages (including an incredible blood sausage), and chicken. After a snack of salamis and cheeses accompanied by a local favorite beverage, pisco sour, our hosts lead us to the barn where our gaucho hosts kept the parilla (grill) going. The meal was planned perfectly to avoid distracting from the meat. Sure, we had bits of green things and some potatos, but the star of the show was massive slabs of juicy meat cooked al punto (medium rare) and served on small grills with coals underneath to make sure the meats continued to sizzle throughout the meal. The Argentine Malbecs flowed as well.
During the dinner we learned some of the history of the area as our hosts joined us at the table. The area was settled essentially 100 years ago with primarily British and Scottish pioneers aching to get some land of their own. A few Italians and Spaniards moved to the area, but they quickly migrated to warmer climates. We learned about the different types of sheep to raise different types of wool and the various implications of choosing a merino sheep, for example, as opposed to a cashmere. We learned which sheep give the best wool prices and best meat prices and which would simply fail to survive the Patagonian winters.
The festivities continued until well after midnight although our group slowly dwindled. It was a Christmas to remember, and we felt extremely fortunate that our previous reservation had been cancelled.
And now, off to Chile!