24th October 2016
I first came to El Calafaté in Southern Patagonia a decade ago. On a scouting mission to see what we could do in the region, I was blown away by the vast, yellow steppes, the far away snow-capped Andes, the spiralling clouds in a seemingly endless sky and of course the spectacular glaciers. So with a few days to kill before my riding group arrived in Buenos Aires I decided to return to experience it all again.
And of course it hasn’t disappointed. Staying at the wonderful Eolo Lodge (one of my top six hotels in the world), we trekked on the Perito Moreno glacier, walked across the steppe spotting all manner of birds – including flamingos – rode horses high above the valley where the views were as commanding as any I have seen and took a boat up Lago Argentina to Estancia Cristina, and its that that I am going to write about here as I believe the place has a very interesting story.
In 1901 an English merchant seaman called Percival Masters heard the Argentine government were giving land away to anyone prepared to farm it and pay some modest taxes. Knowing something of the region from his time at sea, and believing a story that the hills in Southern Patagonia harboured seams of gold, Percival persuaded his wife, Jessie, to leave their home in Leamington Spa and strike out a new life at the very end of the earth. It took them another 13 years wandering – during which time they had two children, Herbert in 1902 and Cristina two years later – before they finally sailed up the giant Lago Argentina, and found the beautiful bay that they took as their new home.
For the first year they lived in tents while they slowly started to pull together a new life on the frontier. They made their first home, part of which can still be seen today, using local stone and mud as cement and through many arduous journeys in a boat Percival made himself, brought 300 sheep up to the farm from El Calafaté. The sheep were too far away from any market to sell the meat and so they produced wool that would be sheared each year, cleaned and then shipped back to town, from there to Buenos Aires and from there all the way back to Europe.
As can be imagined by all accounts the children loved their exciting life on the frontier. Cristina was particularly partial to roaming the hills with the hired gauchos and helping out wherever she could. But life in this remote location came with its risks and when in 1924 a common cold turned to pneumonia forcing Cristina to lie in her bed in a fevered sweat, there was little the rest of the family could do but hope and pray. Sadly it didn’t work and after a short illness Cristina died. Directly after this they named the place in her honour, Estancia Cristina.
Amazingly perhaps Percival and Jessie both lived here into their 90s, and Herbert up to his death at the age of 83. It was Herbert’s wife Janet – herself daughter of a Scottish frontiersman – that was first persuaded to start accepting guests to the estancia in the 1990s and turned it into a remote B&B.
Janet was the last Masters to die here, aged 79 in 2002. Now as the estancia resides in the national park all farming has ceased and the place is a very stylish lodge with 20 rooms and a lovely living area where well-heeled guests can eat great food and drink fine wine after having enjoyed a number of excursions across what was once a vibrant farm.
Looking around the excellent museum the lodge has put together telling the story of this remarkable family it is hard not to be amazed by the life they chose to lead. To leave Leamington Spa at the end of the Victorian era and head quite literally to the end of the earth, to forge a new life where no humans had lived before shows a pioneering spirit that must be hard to match. It was a privilege to look around their home and understand a little of what an extraordinary life they lived.
Now on a plane back up to Buenos Aires. My group arrives tomorrow to ride from estancia to estancia across the Corrientes wetlands. Should be fun.
Jonny was Tour Leading our Argentine Estancia to Estancia Ride