You’d think that the sight of 16 backpackers outfitted head to toe in North Face, Patagonia, and Arc’teryx gear might be cause for concern for a family living on a rural farm in the Andes, but it was quite the opposite. Dona Rosa [a true mama gaucha] welcomed us onto her land with open arms and a kiss on the cheek. She signaled for us to follow her, and she opened up a gate not too far from her house and showed us the field where we could camp for the night. While all of us students, still in the early stages of the expedition, struggled with setting up our camp and trying to figure out where we’d take our first trip for a “backcountry bidet,” a few of our Chilean instructors chatted with the gaucho family over some mate, the traditional caffeine drink of Patagonia. We bought a cow leg from them, which provided enough meat to feed all of us for nearly five days. “The Leg” was a huge source of enjoyment for the group- we didn’t expect to be feasting on the best beef of our lives while trekking through the backcountry!
Over the course of the following days, we moved across the land owned by the gauchos. Since we were lower in elevation and in the valleys, this included crossing multiple rivers, such as the Engaño. Crossing large rivers generally requires one leader in front of a group of five, who directs the group when to step. Each person holds on to the backpack of the person in front of them.
In addition to learning how to safely cross rivers, we gained more and more insight about the life of the gauchos and the etiquette of mate.
The gauchos are the equivalent of cowboys in North America. They are the pioneers of the land here in Patagonia. Having moved south by horseback, these gaucho families are very hardworking people. They’ve built their houses with their own hands, grown their own food, raised their own animals, and taught their children to do the same. In recent years, the government
here has rewarded many of them by helping to improve their quality of life by giving them free solar panels. Even without most modern conveniences, the family that we spent time with seemed more than happy with the things that they did have. They were proud to share their running water with us, and were even happier to announce that they now have plenty of hot water.
Our instructors told us to always bring some mate with us when the gauchos invited us inside their home. A tradition considered to be from the gauchos, drinking mate is a more than satisfying a caffeine fix. It’s all about friendship, a sign of peace and welcome. The actual leaves are called yerba, and the server pours the yerba into the the gourd or mate until it is about 3/4 full. The server then pours hot water over the yerba, filling the gourd. He or she will be the first one to drink it through the straw or bombilla, making sure the water is the correct temperature and that the taste is the right level of flavor and bitterness. The server will then refill the gourd, and pass it to their right. Everyone shares the same mate, usually until the server runs out of water or the yerba becomes lavado, losing flavor.
Following the example of our Chilean instructors, almost all of the students were hooked
on mate after drinking it in the backcountry, usually more than once a day, for an entire month. When we returned to the land of the gauchos after our time climbing, and there was an abundance of yerba in our final ration of food, we celebrated by sharing a group mate.
The highlight of our time with the gauchos, though, was the end-of-expedition asado, a traditional Patagonian barbecue. The men of the family chose a lamb for us, tied it up by the legs, and carried it in a wheelbarrow across the farm. They slit the neck of lamb with the knife always resting on the small of their back, called a facón. They began sheering and preparing the lamb to be cooked over the open fire. They roasted it for the entire afternoon and evening in a special shed they built, dedicated to cooking meat. iWhile the lamb was soaking up the heat of fire, a few of us were allowed to help prepare salad and sopaipillas, fried bread, inside the kitchen. We picked fresh lettuce and spinach from the garden, washed it, and shared some mate as Dona Rosa fried each piece of homemade bread. The resulting feast was delicious, especially after a month of eating oatmeal and rice!