It didn’t quite sink in what I had just done, or why, until the sun rose over Lake Llanquihue. I watched the stormy clouds light up with the faintest hint of sunlight as I sipped at a scalding cappuccino. I was as far South in Chile as I had ever been, almost as far South as you can get by a bus, in the small village of Puerto Varas. That morning, in the dark hours before dawn, I stepped off the bus after a 12-hour overnight ride from Santiago and found this coffee shop to wait for my ride to the farm. Smack dab between international trips, I knew I needed some time to do some soul searching. I had come off a whirlwind trip to the states, which entailed a 36-hour nightmare of flying with a liquid nitrogen dry-shipper full of precious samples, 2 hectic weeks of work in Chicago, and a much too quick visit home. I came back to rest in Savannah for a day before I flew up to Peru for a scouting mission to see what we needed for the next chapter of the study. I worked in Peru for 4 days assessing the logistics of collecting samples from the Amazon and transporting them to the lab in Lima within 24 hours, it seems possible but will for sure be a challenge. I had a big trip to Germany coming up in mid-July, a follow-up interview for a potential job starting in late 2023.
I knew I had about a week of free(ish) time between the trips to Peru and Germany. The day before I left for Peru, which was the day after I arrived back in Santiago from the states, I contacted a Workaway host that ran a horse farm on the coast outside of Los Muermos, Chile. They were looking for help since it’s the off season in the South (winter) and rainy, cold forecasts do not attract volunteers to work outside. Five minutes after a quick chat on the phone with the host, I booked my bus tickets. I decided to extend Savannah’s vacation since this would not be a one way trip (so why put the extra miles on her to return) and she has a big trip to Argentina coming up to get a brand new TIP (vehicle import permit). I would head South on the bus the day after I returned to Santiago from Peru, and I would return to Santiago the day before I’d fly out to Germany.
As I unpacked from Peru and repacked warm clothes that I could trash on the farm, I certainly felt that I must be trying to sabotage any shred of sanity I still had left. Why could I not just rest in Savannah in Santiago for the week and lay low for a bit? Why did I always have to be on the move? All questions I assured myself I’d find answers to along all of these travels. Within the day of my bus ride, I was able to pack, negotiate a new contract for the next month of Savannah’s storage, get cash from the ATM to pay said contract, do laundry, return the keys to the last hostel I stayed in (and have coffee with my friends there), get a covid PCR test (because this horse farm is at a fancy eco-lodge), and have lunch with my current host family/Savannah’s temporary guardians. That evening I took the metro to a massive bus terminal, somehow found the one booth within hundreds for my apparently lesser-known bus company (Fierro), and by 8 PM, climbed to the upper deck of the bus and collapsed in my seat. I slept almost the entire way South.
Sitting at the coffee shop, staring at the lake, I felt a mix of emotions. I felt strong and driven for following my instinct, I knew this trip was what I needed right now. Looking across the table at the seat where my backpack sat staring back at me, I also felt alone and detached. Words from my older friend I had coffee with the day before, at my old hostel, rang loud and clear in my head, “You like being alone, don’t you?” he said. And for the most part I do, despite how uncommon (and sometimes unaccepted) it is. In my weeks of traveling to the US and Peru, I needed to be present and perform, as if it came naturally to me. Watching the sunrise that first morning I knew why I had jumped blindly into this trip. I needed time to recover somewhere far from cities and in a remote place where no one would know me. I needed time for myself.
I was picked up by Marco around noon after I indulged in 3 cups of coffee. Caffeinated and jittery we chatted about horses for the entire hour and a half drive from Puerto Varas, through Los Muermos, to the coast where the Mari Mari eco-lodge sits. The property is massive. Stretching along a cove on the coast, it spans 3,000 hectares – that’s over 7,400 acres! We turned off the main paved road onto a rutted dirt track. We wove through thick, jungle like forests, then across patches of land that had previously been logged for Eucalyptus. At one point we hopped out of his car and looked for three horses in a big pasture who we would be riding down to the stable later in the day. We found 2 first, then the 3rd who had snuck through the fence. This trickster would be the horse I would be riding down later that day, and for most of the week at the reserve. Finally, we arrived at the network of driveways leading to the main lodge, various “cabins” (beautiful, big houses pointed towards the sea with massive windows), the dorm wings for the workers (East and West), and the houses of the managers. Marco managed the horse ranch part of the resort. We stopped at his house first where he gave me the key to my room in the East Wing. I dropped my bag in my room, changed into my Carhartt’s and rain jacket, and got ready to work.
Work involved training/riding the horses since it is off season and there aren’t many tourists. We did guide one family for a quick ride along the beach, but mainly my purpose here was to be an extra hand to keep the horses in check and all 8 of them happy. Mucking stalls is a classic chore, as well as hay/grain/watering, checking hooves for thrown shoes, and moving the horses between pastures. The goal of this Workaway is to share the Chilean Horse. When I asked Marco which breed (technically) the Chilean horse is, he said they weren’t any breed specifically, but more of how the horse of Chile is experienced in this landscape. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t confused by his answer, but in the following days I would understand.
It had always been my dream as a horse girl to ride on the beach of the sea, and that little girl inside of me did squeal with joy on our first ride along the beach. Though about 40 degrees colder than I would have imagined a beach ride, and a little less relaxing being stung with sand and wind, it was everything I could hope for. I rode Palvo (“Avocado” in Spanish), a burly, black Chilean horse, during most of my time on the farm. He would bravely plod chest-deep into the cold sea, ears alert, scanning the horizon as if looking for distant lands afar. We frolicked in the sand and climbed up the coastal mountains into the forest together. Though we barely knew each other, I felt like that horse would do anything for me, just like my horse Raven would. I helped Marco clear some new trails in the forest above the farm. I’d rate this bushwhacking difficulty level as BW4 (see here), and Marco was quite amused this scale existed – it may or may not be the first time it has been used/shared in Chile. Often, it was too thick to pass riding the horses, and sometimes even too thick to walk beside them to lead them through. Sometimes I would lead and Palvo would follow me, other times I’d follow him hanging on to the tips of his tail for him to guide me through the path of least resistance.
After our ride, Marco and I would talk horse talk for hours while completing the chores and taking instant coffee breaks. We were constantly soaked from the rain, either from riding or completing the chores. We worked with the younger, less trained horses in the afternoons. Sometimes we’d lunge them on the beach and other times just work with them in the stable if it was raining too hard. I learned so much about the Chilean horse culture and was able to understand more after my bond with Palvo. In the Chilean culture, the horse is a companion, and works side by side with their human. Chilean horses are short but strong, and seemingly built for the rugged coastal mountains. They don’t like to be pushed or pulled into doing anything (something I can relate to), but if asked gently, they’re willing to work together. Marco is also a veterinarian, so I was able to pepper him with questions while he administered medicine or supplements. I felt incredibly grateful for the opportunity to ride and spend time working with horses and enjoy physical labor, and he was appreciative of the interest and ambitious help.
I’ve always been fascinated with storms on the coast. In my multiple, potential, life trajectories, one is owning a beach house. But not like a nice beach house on a calm beach. I’d want a house perched on a cliffside near the roughest of seas, with lots of windows, so I could watch sea storms blow in. Staying here nearly checks that life goal. At night, the winds howl with the fierceness of northeastern winter storms. Rain pelts the tin roof and I can hear the water gushing from the gutters, down the side of the building, and into the creek nearby. Just a few months ago, it stormed so hard that the main river through the farm overflowed and created a flash flood that was chest deep in the stables. Marco had to move all 8 horses to a higher pasture until the weather settled.
Before this nightly battle of wind, an eerily calm and ominous sunset will give warning to what lay ahead. One evening I marveled at a truly spectacular encroaching threat. I was so mesmerized by the dark swirls of clouds that I didn’t realize the tide was coming in and a huge wave surprised me and filled my boots with icy sea water. The sea is as moody and stormy as I have been lately, and we couldn’t be a more perfect pair.
The week passed much too quickly and sadly my time here at the farm is up. Tomorrow at 6 AM Marco will take me to Puerto Montt with him where he needs to proctor a vet school test (pretty interested in watching that), then I’ll take a bus to Puerto Varas and wait for my nightly bus ride back to Santiago. For my last day today, it was as if the reserve wanted to send me off with a bit of magic. After breakfast in the lodge, I stepped out onto the beach to gape at the most intense rainbow I had ever seen. One end of the rainbow emerged from the dark blue, rough sea waters, and the other ended in the mist of the forest on the coast.
I spent the morning riding Saphuro, another Chilean horse on the farm, alone along the beaches and into the hillside. I spent most of my youth riding alone in the forests of New York, and being alone with a horse again brought back the innate connection between horse and rider. No distractions, no chatting with other riders, just body cues and synchronizing our movements. As the usual storms began to blow in that afternoon, I let him stretch his legs as we galloped along the beach back towards the ranch. We flew.
Tonight I said goodbye to the horses, bye to the sea, and bye to the last stunning sunset in that magical cove.
A song I’ve been digging lately: Dirty Love by Mt. Joy
Map of sleep spots, here!