Updated April 2023: The Estancia changed their name from Caballadas to Rio Quillen
I arrived at Estancia Rio Quillen, a private estancia in Argentine Patagonia, fairly exhausted from a busy week in London. But with only 2 nights booked in (5 nights minimum is recommended), my guide wasn’t going to waste any time on showing me around. As my 4×4 pulled up to the Swiss-chalet style lodge, Santiago Uriburu was leaning against the door with a wide smile, effortlessly gaucho-cool with a lopsided boina slumped over his forehead. ‘Grab your chaps!’ He commanded. ‘I want to show you something before the sun goes down.’… I’m not one to turn down an adventure… so quashing my jet-lag complaints and splashing water over my dust-covered face (Patagonian dirt roads are relentless), I was whisked to the stables and helped onto a pile of sheepskins atop my stocky Criollo horse. ‘Sheepskin’, Santiago winked at me, ‘is Argentina’s secret to always winning at polo!’
We set off at a gentle walk, threading our way through green pastures dappled with grazing cattle, crossing a river so clear you could count the pebbles on the bed. Santiago began telling me about the estancia – he’s a natural raconteur and instantly feels like a friend. That relaxed, warm welcome has always been one of my favourite Argentine traits. Having lived all over, from Washington D.C. to Hawaii, and grown up between Buenos Aires’ polo world and the wilderness of Patagonia, Santiago is just what you want in a local guide; someone who understands your world, and knows just how to share the wonders and differences of his own. Speaking with such passion about the estancia’s history and their hopes for its future, I could tell that for him, Rio Quillen is a rare piece of paradise, and he loves sharing it with guests. He married into the Lagos-Marmol family that has owned the estancia for over five generations (110 years), and his charming wife, Isabel, runs the lodge with absolute diligence, taking care of anything you might need. Seeing their kids; mini-gauchos, traditionally dressed from head-to-toe, I envied the complete freedom of their childhood, and was delighted to see them taking off at a gallop into the evening sun, no doubt in search of adventure.
What makes Estancia Rio Quillen so special is the scenery, part of which is Lanin National Park, ranging from valleys to canyons to mountains, all within the confines of a 20,000 hectare estate – the vast space of unspoilt land all around you is staggering. A few dirt roads make some areas accessible by jeep, but the best way to explore is on horse-back (more than 70 horses roam free on the estancia). Santiago’s love of the land and his desire to protect its beauty is completely inspiring: ‘You just jump onto a horse and you’re gone, exploring whichever way you choose, with nothing to worry about and a complete sense of freedom. There are few open, wild spaces like this left in the world – so pristine, and it’s our responsibility to keep it that way.’ There are still parts of the estancia he hasn’t reached, saying he just needs time to head off on a long cabalgata to explore beyond the farthest peaks and ravines (he rides out with virtually nothing, finding that the land offers him almost everything he needs). His words that struck me most were these: ‘Our mission is to preserve and protect this place so future generations can enjoy it.’… If only all remaining places of natural beauty were in the hands of those with foresight and morality akin to this…
We dismounted half way up the hill having reached a patch of volcanic, rocky steppe, to look back over the lodge, nestled into a circle of trees for protection against the wind, and cast our eyes over the sunset view. No wonder he wanted us to get here before dark… it was the perfect spot to take in the most spectacular scenery of the estate. To the west, a chain of mountain and volcano peaks were just covered from clouds that had rolled in. Below me, lush pasture land carved by a fast-flowing trout river led across the valley, where a dense Pine forest crept uphill away from the lodge (the lumber business is huge in Patagonia), and beyond that I could just make out the peculiar shaped tops of an ancient monkey puzzle (araucaria) forest – extraordinary pre-historic trees that are survivors of the Jurassic era and only grow at a certain altitude. I could see so many worlds within one estancia and mused that Rio Quillen would be the perfect setting for a The Lord of the Rings adventure.
As we headed back, Santiago explained the family’s intentions for the farm; to give guests an exclusive experience that few Patagonian lodges offer, with only small groups of friends or family staying at a time, and providing complete flexibility for each day’s adventures, whether that’s riding through beautiful scenery, navigating the pampas and mystical forests by foot, camping out under the stars, or spending a day in solitude, sunbathing on a lake-side beach with a picnic lunch. Estancia Rio Quillen is so remote and removed from civilisation, making it perfect for anyone wanting to spend time outside, enjoying life’s simple pleasures such as fishing (the estancia boasts 3 rivers as well as the vast Lago Quillen). They also have 700 head of cattle, allowing guests to ride out with the gauchos to help with herding, branding and daily ranch activities.
When asked, Santiago found it impossible to suggest the best time of year to visit. He loves the colours of April and the fact that there are no bugs; winter may be harsh, but riding through snow across a monochrome landscape is wonderfully eerie and atmospheric; after winter in October the waterfalls are overflowing so everything comes to life; but then in summer, bright wildflowers and golden light make everything look like paradise… As we crossed a meadow filled with huge daisies, yellow butterflies dancing over blades of grass, and purple thistles as tall as my horse (he made every attempt to hoover them up), Santiago told me that a new-born foal had been snatched here that very day by a puma. Even though pumas are incredibly elusive, there are plenty roaming the surrounding mountains, and in the dry summer months you can spot their tracks everywhere – Isabel had actually seen one just the week before.
Back in the lodge, I lazed in a hot bath, the aches of my journey seeping away, before slinking to the heart of the house for a typically late Argentine dinner (9:30pm is standard!). A few members of the Lagos-Marmol family were staying and welcomed me in, telling stories of blissful holidays here as children, and I was impressed that in their seventies they were still hiking and riding to the far corners of their beloved estancia. Head Chef, Erika, was wonderful and couldn’t have treated me to a tastier introduction to Patagonian cuisine; a traditional sopa (soup), followed by cheese and spinach pancakes and then glorious dulce de leche profiteroles with homemade ice-cream (I was thrilled to eye these at tea-time the next day as well!). By the time I sunk into my cosy bed I felt a world away from London life, thrilled to be tucked up in this charming home in the wilderness; so isolated; so quiet. I had no trouble sleeping that night…
For my only full day on the estancia, Santiago had planned an exciting full-day ride. Quite unlike the African riding safaris I’ve been on where you’re up at first light to avoid midday heat and spot wildlife at peak hunting time, there’s never a hurry in Argentina. I relished the lie in and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast before heading out for the day.
With a Mapuche-made saddle bag to hold my essentials, we set off to explore another side of the estancia. The day was an extraordinary exploration through other-worldly landscapes, trotting through a shaded Pine forest listening to the wind whistling down the neat corridors that separate the trunks, then puffing up steep hills passing herds of loose horses and enjoying amazing vantage points over distant mountain chains. Santiago was pointing out his favourite camping spots by blue lagoons, rides he’d taken to the edge of volcanic craters, and a distant peak he’s desperate to hike up and ski down next winter! To reach our picnic spot, we meandered through the monkey puzzle forest I’d sighted the day before and was completely fit for a fairy-tale; its crocodile-skin tree trunks were covered in ‘old man’s beard’, a silvery, cobweb-like moss, which made it feel like an enchanted forest.
Stopping at a gaucho outpost tucked into a huddle of monkey puzzle trees, Santiago set up a makeshift wooden table and benches, dressing the table with a pink cloth magic-ed from his saddle bag, and unpacked a hoard of Tupperware boxes, presenting me with an array of spoils; typical Argentine milanesa, vegetable tortilla and spinach rostis – quite the gourmet lunch considering our location! We chatted over a bottle of Malbec, Santiago reminiscing over the time he got snowed in here with some rather jolly Swedes and plenty of wine, before we each sourced our own private siesta spot and I collapsed onto my sheep skin rug for a snooze in the sunshine, lulled by the sound of tall reeds rustling in the breeze.
Refilling our water bottles from a trickling creek, we journeyed back to the lodge, passing meadows bursting with colour from flame-orange and purple wildflowers, and forests with huge fallen trunks that the horses were just managing to step over. I was stunned by how destructive a Patagonian winter can be, and yet how hardy the flowers are that bloom when it releases its clutches.
Retiring for the evening with a book by the fire, limbs sore but satisfied, and indulging in Erika’s signature dulce de leche soufflé, I was in absolute heaven. Having had the fortune of exploring many parts of Argentina over the years, I was surprised to feel my high expectations had been well and truly surpassed. Rio Quillen offers an authentic experience of Patagonian estancia life that is incredibly rare to find and I’d recommend it to anyone in need of some time out (I’m fairly certain that goes for everyone). I was filled with a measure of contentment I’ve only found before in the African bush, with nothing to distract me from the natural beauty all around, and it’s an experience I’m now longing to repeat.