Patagonia is a land governed by the wind. Its windswept terrain seems desolate at first glance, but to the trained eye there are oases of life, and remnants of life that once was.
Telsen lies two hours by rock and gravel west of Puerto Madryn. With the kilometer counter running, we had to follow a careful set of directions to learn where to turn to reach our destination – an Estancia of one of the family friends of the whale watching company I was working with.
Compared to the rocky cliffs and flat grazing lands of Peninsula Valdes, the land here seemed to finally take form into plateaus and peaks. A few trees dotted the desolate landscape and shrubs and bushes abound.
The few signs of human settlement were barbed wire fences delineating property and restraining sheep from wandering onto the roads – not that there were that many sheep to be concerned about. Whereas I had seen flocks of sheep littering the landscape of Peninsula Valdes, here only a few could be seen, and even fewer guanaco. I would soon find out why.
We finally arrived to our destination – a quaint, blue-roofed house accompanied by trademark accompaniments of life in el campo: a space for asado, one lonely, turning windmill, farming supplies…
Our hosts, dressed more traditionally than other Argentines I had met, greeted us in English and Spanish. They were eager to start our tour of their property, but only after sharing some mates and a quick snack.
Their property expanded across the region, encompassing plateaus, small oases of naturally occurring water, and petrified forests. The area was ripe with fossils and antiquities. Once traversed by the natives (Tehuelche o Mapuche), their arrowheads and other tools formed from smoothed rocks and petrified wood littered the landscape. Each rock seemed a unique combination of hues, from translucent “Tiger’s eye” to vibrant reds and oranges.
The petrified trees were even more impressive, and harkened to a time long before the passage of the natives. These timber giants were completely fossilized. The bases were nearly as tall as a short person (such as myself!). We could still count the rings and see the ridges, a testament to the living creatures they once were. Yet all of the wood and organic composition was now replaced with minerals, forever preserving its original form.
Also littering the landscape were more recent signs of now deceased life. Elongated skulls of guanaco and shorter skulls of sheep could be found throughout our hike. Some of the guanaco had become entangled in the barbed wire fences, the result of misjudging the fence’s height and becoming ensnared in its lower wiring. The sheep had met an equally tragic fate.
For six years, the land had been ruled by wind and drought. The family had lost nearly all of their sheep and the majority of their horses because of it. What was once their main livelihood had become unviable in a changing climate and rampant desertification.
The desertification of Patagonia is one of the more well-documented environmental problems of the region. Overgrazing combined with an arid climate and water-starved soils lead to degraded vegetation and a desert-like landscape.
When wool growers settled the region in the 19th century, they spurred this process through high numbers of grazing sheep, which reduced and degraded the region’s natural vegetation and foliage and depleted the little water that formed. As a result, sheep were in direct competition for scarce resources with natural wildlife, like the guanaco. They also became a prime target for predators like the puma.
On Peninsula Valdes, an otherwise protected and preserved natural protected area, sheep grazing still dominates the land. Although hunting of guanaco is illegal, it still occurs due to lack of oversight and enforcement. Although the Peninsula was not as affected by the drought and desert conditions as Telsen, the numbers of sheep raised on the Peninsula have noticeably declined over the years (according to locals).
In Telsen, a land far removed and remote from any civilization, the effects of the drought were more imminent and direct. Faced with the loss of a once reliable livelihood, this family is now searching for alternative forms of income.
Why did they invite us to their land? To see if it would be viable as an adventure tourism destination. Here, the low-budget backpacker or middle-income adventurer could experience the true “solitario” lifestyle of the Argentine gauchos. They had all the facilities in place – modest accommodations, grill spaces for asados, and an endless expanse of plateaus and petrified trees to hike and explore.
As if to signal the changing tide, and perhaps fortune, of the region – a light rain began to fall as we made it to the closest oasis to the estancia, with a single tree stretching upwards from the dry soil.
When we returned to the main building, our hosts had prepared an amazing dinner – curried chicken – and dessert – homemade dulce de leche ice cream and Banana’s fosters. With a final cup of coffee, we began our long journey home.
Some photographs from the Estancia