Back in the Saddle

by Liz Caskey on January 12, 2018

Argentina_Horses_17In South America, there’s a serious horse culture that is an integral part of life here. It’s not just gauchos, cowboys, either.

The real gauchos are actually in Argentina and Uruguay, but there are Chilean cowboys, huasos in elegant rodeos throughout central Chile. There are the baqueanos in the Chilean Patagonia. Chalanes are elegant white-robed horsemen in Peru.

Of course, there are those sexy, sleek polo stars of Argentina and the tiny jockeys bobbing on fast racing horses. Mostly, though, there’s a lot of trusty old arrieros–horsemen who lead trail rides.

I got on my first horse at the age of 8. I didn’t ride again for nearly twenty years. Enough said.

As we expanded our travel business, the opportunity to get back on horseback presented itself time and time again. I declined. Finally, I decided to confront the real reason for my avoidance of riding.

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I was scared.

When I examined my fear, it became clear that it was all about the unknown. My mind imploded with all the what ifs.

I feared the animal, not being in control, not knowing what to do if the horse got spooked, or worse, fell off the horse. But what really paralyzed me was my pride. I didn’t want to look like a fool.

Thanks to the support of my husband, an accomplished jinete (rider), I put my ego aside and decided I was going to do this. Who knew, maybe I would even like it!

We met Don Pepe, a huaso in Chilean wine country. Dressed with the traditional flat-brimmed straw hat called a chupalla, a freshly pressed button-down shirt, jeans, polished black boots adorned with silver spurs, he would be my guide to getting back in the saddle.

Our ride would take us into the Andean foothills, returning through the leafy, sloped vineyards. Not exactly starter terrain.

Too late. I’d gotten this far. There was no turning back.

Don Pepe first laid out the central tenant of happy horseback riding. “Liz”, he said with the staccato Chilean accent, “a horse is the perfect mirror of the human that is with it. He does not lie.”

He continued, “If the human is afraid, so is the horse. If the human is confused, the horse is afraid. If the human is frustrated, the horse is afraid. If the human is disrespectful of the horse, this makes the horse afraid.”

So basically, anything not producing feelings of safety and peace will cause the horse to feel afraid. Side note as to why this is: The horse is a prey animal and always fearing a predator.

I swung my leg over the saddle and took the reigns. He looked at me very seriously and said, “This is a partnership—60% you and 40% the horse.”

He was referring to how the rider must show acknowledgment and respect for the horse through thoughtful communication and demonstrating confidence.

Crap. I was pretty sure my horse was going to sniff me out as a newbie in less than a minute.

Don Pepe, who’d been a huaso his whole life, told me, “If we aren’t connected with ourselves emotionally, it’s very hard to feel confident riding a horse. It starts with our attitude. We have to be willing to connect with the horse and acknowledge them as another living being. It’s not about dominating—it’s about partnership.”

At that time, I didn’t quite metabolize these inner lessons of horseback riding. Over time, I would start to understand them.

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Experience is a wonderful teacher.

As I rode, I silently thanked the horse, stroking its mane, and relished taking in nature from this unique vantage point and speed. When I dismounted, I felt relaxed and centered.

Don Pepe asked me how I’d felt. I smiled and answered, “Cuando vamos de nuevo?”

I started to seek out horse riding more frequently. I rode for longer stretches, on varied terrain. Any place we traveled, I wanted to ride.

We explored many areas of the Central Valley in Chile on horseback., from vineyards to Parque Nacional La Campana with its 400-year-old Chilean Palms

One summer ride, at Estancia Rancho y Cuero in Mendoza, the resident gaucho and I got caught in a flash thunderstorm high in the Andes. It was pouring rain and the ground had become slippy with mud. A lightning bolt descended from the heavens about 100 meters away, rattling my nerves. Normally, I would have been a total, panicked mess. However, the gaucho radiated total calm and confidence in his horse, my mare named Fernet, and my ability to ride her. To this day, I remember his quiet strength. I stayed calm and so did Fernet in the midst of that raging storm.

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That was when I got how a horse could be a true yunta, partner.

Up in the Salta province in Northwest Argentina, we saddled up with a mysterious horse whisperer at Colome’s ranch. A man of few words, I was convinced he could read my mind like a book. We snaked through the otherworldly topography, a jumble of red rock and dry riverbeds, vineyards and thorny cacti, snowcapped peaks and the arid desert. That day, he assigned me a feisty horse that wanted to run ahead of the group. About half way through the ride, I burst out laughing at the irony. Of course, the whole point was to work through my own nervousness and need to control.

In the Atacama Desert, one of our longest rides ever, we went through the maze called La Garganta del Diablo, Devil’s Throat. I totally lost it coming down a steep hill. The hairpin turns were too much. I didn’t trust the horse. I didn’t trust my skills. All I saw was the bottom very, VERY far below. I accepted mental defeat and got off the horse. I literally descended that narrow, rocky, winding trail on hands and knees. The horse went down with the arriero, horseman ahead of me, never missing a step. My husband patiently waited until I was safely below then proceeded to maneuver his horse with extraordinary confidence and precision.

Total a piece of cake. There was nothing wrong with my horse.

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It was my own lack of confidence. I hadn’t trusted myself. I caved to fear.

I did learn to ride, eventually, though always with caution. During filming with the No Reservations crew at The Cliffs Resort on the west coast of Chile’s Lake District, I made friends with two young baqueanos, southern cowboys. They were so Zen with their horses that I just had to ride with them. On that beach, with the waves of the Pacific crashing, they taught me to gallop atop an energetic spotted brown and white mare. As we accelerated from a canter to a gallop, my movement synced with the horse. There was nothing other than the sea, the wind, that moment. It was totally exhilarating.

On another trip to Argentina at Estancia El Colibri, the gauchos took us on horseback to nearby Jesuit missions in the Sierra Cordobese. While staying at the Estancia, a polo Mecca, I gathered the courage to take a polo lesson. If I had managed to acquire some experience in the saddle with trail riding, polo riding required a totally different, more advanced, skill set I simply did not have…starting with riding an English saddle…and then negotiating (effectively) the special temperament of a polo horse. Being able to actually hit the ball, without falling off the horse, would also have been good to master. The class did, however, give me a great appreciation for the horses and polo players. I will stick to the polo stands, gracias.

There have been dozens more rides along the Fjords of Patagonia, on windblown estancias near Torres del Paine, under the volcanoes of the Lake District, in the mountains of the Sacred Valley in Peru on the Peruvian Paso horse (the smoothest ride in the world), to name a few more places.

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What I most love about riding is that it truly is an antidote to our obsession with speed.

The three-mile-per-hour pace of the horse is a natural slow down. You step into the present moment with the horse. There is time to appreciate and feel nature close up.

Being in the saddle is not just about the physical trail ahead. It is an opportunity to look inside–to release control and show up in the present. Let go of any other agenda.

We don’t have to make anything happen.

We just have to be an understanding partner for the horse and accept the invitation to join them in the NOW. They offer us the opportunity to take an honest look at who we are being in that moment.

Even today, I would not say I am a great rider. I did overcome a big fear. In the process, I gained experience of how to connect with a horse. I slowed down to savor these amazing landscapes we’ve been fortunate enough to ride in.

I really appreciate the beauty and quiet nature of these graceful, majestic creatures. And I do love the culture of the horses here in South America.

Horseback riding is as much about the communing with the horse as it is about our inner selves. For me, at least, it has been an incredibly rewarding—and revealing—journey.

Giddy up!

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Recalculating

by Liz Caskey on August 25, 2017

Traveler_01Dear Friends, It’s been over a year since the last post on this blog. In the blogging world, that basically means forever. I would start a post here and there, but never managed to finish a single one. I wrote many posts in my head, but I never could seem to find the right words, or the right time to sit down, focus, and do the work of getting the words out of me. It wasn’t that inspiration eluded me completely. My attention and energy was pulled in another direction. Somewhere along the way, I found myself swept up in the current of life and was not tending to my own creativity. The silence on this blog has not been writer’s block nor a disappearance—it has been a self-imposed distancing, of sorts.

The pull of our attention and creative energy has been, no doubt, our family life. I was not overly public (on this blog at least) about my second pregnancy last year. Our wonderful son, Leonardo Martin Ramírez Caskey, was born on November 8, 2016 (on US election day of all days!). The months before his birth were tumultuous with our business in preparation for a very busy high travel season that would coincide with his birth. In 2017, we pretty much jumped into intensive travel with the kids with our Signature Journeys in Uruguay, Harvest Tour and Peru, and then took June and July to escape winter in the US for a little vacation and visit with my family. Leonardo is already quite the seasoned traveler!!

Traveler_02Traveler_03Traveler_04Traveler_05Traveler_06Traveler_07Traveler_08Prior to his arrival, my husband and I just expected to coast into baby #2 since his sister, Micaela, had been such an easy baby. Looking back, I realize we were totally operating on autopilot and had sort of forgotten about the demands of a baby! Of course, little Leo would have none of that. This sweet boy, an intense Scorpio, showed us time and time again, from Day One, that he was a different baby than his sister. As a GPS system advises it’s “recalculating”, his arrival proved to be one constant course correction after another.

A new baby brings so much love along with a good jostle to family, couple, and work dynamics. Prior routines are completely tossed in the air from one day to the next. I often felt that it all should be effortless in that transition of welcoming a new family member because of all the love. The reality is that some days can be tough. They are learning experiences and I have learned that love always gets you through the long or sticky moments. This time around baby and I had breastfeeding challenges (all golden now) I had not faced the first time. Literally the week of Leo’s birth, there were unexpected structural changes in our office that required me to jump into work during this vulnerable period of a newborn (for the Mother and the Child). And then, at only 18 days old, I faced a major infection that landed me in the hospital. Nature is infinitely wise and a health crisis quickly puts all priorities into perspective. I had to slow down and relinquish control to heal.

They often call these challenges “contrast” in creative circles. I think it’s the perfect term. There’s nothing like knowing so clearly what you don’t want to identify the right path (often, the opposite direction). Ultimately, the blessing of Leonardo, among many, has been this opportunity to step back and reassess where we are. For me, it’s been the opening of a more creative and deeply spiritual life. We got so swept up in the current of “what is” that we did not make the time to make sure we were aligned with living our dreams. He helped see that we needed to stop, reexamine, and ultimately redesign our life together—now as a family of four.

Traveler_09Traveler_10Traveler_11Traveler_12Traveler_13Traveler_14I particularly remember one hot night in late December. I was rocking in our bedroom with Leonardo (6 weeks old) sleeping peacefully on my chest. I gazed through the window over the treetops of Parque Forestal towards the Andes. As the blazing summer sun set, the mountains were momentarily swathed in strokes of magenta. I looked down and studied him in awe. Here was this tiny miracle that my husband and I had created. He and his sister, sleeping in the next room, were our most magnificent Creations.

“Whoa, these ARE OUR kids,” I thought to myself.

The baby factory was closed. All the years of wondering about these little souls and now they were HERE! Suddenly, I felt time moving on fast forward. School years, trips around the world, birthday celebrations all flashed through my mind. I knew it was going to pass in the blink of an eye. And then, that big question:

“What do I really want to do with my life? How do I want to live?”

I felt a rush of fear punch me in the gut. The short span of life seemed so real. How did I want to contribute? How did I want to spend my days? I needed more meaning and purpose. I decided to embrace the moment with love. I decided right then and there I would not look back wishing I had spent more time with them. It was time to live in the present and be fully engaged. These early years of their lives are too short and precious. Something had to change. I had to change. I had to scrutinize and shift my own beliefs about how I conceive my work, how much and when I work, define my true purpose in life, reengage with (buried) creativity, and very importantly, connect and allow my inner voice to speak.

Traveler_15Traveler_16Traveler_17Traveler_18This is still very much a work in progress–I don’t think I will ever “arrive”. Day by day, I gain more clarity and awareness. I feel curious and spunky again. I am called to sit down and write. Inspiration is moving through me. I am ready to go on a this fun ride together. And I am finally getting comfortable with this constant state of recalculating. Thank you, Leonardo, for helping us to reconnect us to what’s truly important.

I look forward to meeting you here on the blog again. We’ll be sharing a new post every 10 days as we gain momentum. My intent is that these more personal stories will connect and inspire all of us to step out and live a better life.

Un abrazo, Liz
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Machu Picchu: To Marvel and Appreciate

by Liz Caskey on July 13, 2016

Peru_Machu_Pichu_5Machu Picchu doesn’t need much of an introduction.  The ancient Incan city appears on the bucket lists of many world travelers. Perched 8,000 above sea level in the dense jungle of the southern Peruvian Andes, it was once thought to be a royal estate for the legendary warrior Pachacuti, largely responsible for building the Inca Empire during the 15th century. The huge stone citadel was rediscovered fairly recently in 1911 by Hirim Bingham. It was spared the destructive wrath of Spanish colonization largely because of its remote location and the incredibly rugged terrain.

Machu Picchu is not easy to reach–but that’s part of its mystique. You either have to hike (anywhere from 2-7 days) to arrive on the Inca Trail or take a thrilling train ride that snakes along the gushing Vilcanota River to the town of Aguas Calientes and then hop on a bus that serpentines up the steep mountainside (let’s say a dozen and a half curves, at least) to arrive at the Citadel.

Peru_Machu_Pichu_3 Peru_Machu_Pichu_4Since much has been written about Machu Picchu by anthropologists, archaeologists, engineers, historians, astronomers, and even astrologists, after half a dozen visits in recent years, I still struggle to find the right words to convey what Machu Picchu is. Given that I am not an expert on it, my intent is not to rehash it’s history nor the many theories as to why it was abandoned. That’s not the point of traveling thousands of miles to visit Machu Picchu, either. It’s a place to go to marvel and appreciate creation in all respects: human creativity, ingenuity, culture, the force of Mother Nature, and our ever-present universe. It’s a place that is best observed through an attitude of appreciation. In this post, I want to to take you there in feeling with the help of my husband’s gorgeous pictures which capture some of its marvel.

Here we go!

Isn’t it awesome that Machu Picchu was built with eternity in mind both in construction and worldview? From atop the steep mountain it looks upward to the heavens and is an amphitheater for the sounds of nature: eternal silence, birds chirping, the howl of the wind, the murmur of the river churning thousands of feet below.

Doesn’t it feel like the surrounding mountains quietly gaze down upon us visitors like wise elders? How much have they seen since they were created millions, even billions, of years ago? How long will they be there? Our passing on this earth as humans is so short yet marvelous.

Isn’t the stone masonry amazing? It’s an entire city made from cut stone fit together without mortar. Some of the boulders weigh over 100 tons and are fit so tightly that it’s cracks can’t even be penetrated by a knife. How did they ever move them on that steep  mountainside?!

Can you appreciate how advanced Inca civilization was for its time? They measured the mountain springs so they’d have an idea how much the water would vary in a year and created canals throughout the city to carry fresh water to 16 fountains (some over ½ mile away). In hygiene, they were more advanced than piers in Europe at the time.

Aren’t the Incas ingenious to have realized their largest challenge was the unstable earth on the mountain? They first stabilized the slopes with over 700 hundred terraces for drainage and then leveraged them to cultivate crops as they were first and foremost an agricultural society. Without those terraces, the mountain would have slid and so would their precious city.

Isn’t it incredible that Machu Picchu was laid out with an aesthetic design that integrated the beauty of the surroundings into the citadel itself? For example, the ancient windows have views peering down to the Urubamba River below or onto a mountain peak. The guardhouse built on a strategic bluff overlooking the city isn’t entirely utilitarian purpose; it’s the best vantage point to admire the architecture and surrounding area.

Doesn’t it blow your mind to think that the fastest runners baring urgent messages from Cuzco could arrive on the Inca Trail in less than two days (a trek that normally is four)? Many mountain passes are over 14,000 feet in altitude!

At Machu Picchu, I suggest finding a patch of grass on a terrace away from fellow visitors to sit quietly for a moment. Just drain your mind and feel the place. Appreciate the sensation of being directly connected to earth and nature. This is no ordinary spot on our planet. Revel in the warm sun caressing your face, a cool breeze rustling to tickle your neck. Let the magnificence of being alive and the present moment shine down upon you. There’s nothing to do other than appreciate. Perhaps this connection is what the Quechua culture (which was then governed by an Incan Emperor) refers to as the “Pachamama”; the ever-constant presence of Nature, and its power and beauty.

Aren’t you grateful you decided to travel to experience Machu Picchu first hand? It’s impossible to return unchanged and uninspired. It’s a testimony to the creativity of man and the everlasting power of nature. Thankfully, the Incas had the vision to build Machu Picchu for eternity so that many future generations (like us) can appreciate, adore, and marvel at it.

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A Patagonian Crusade

by Liz Caskey on May 24, 2016

Patagonia_Chile_Awasi_33I am standing, or better said, paralyzed on a steep mountainside in the Chilean Patagonia. To the west in the distance, the Torres del Paine (the three granite towers from which the park takes it name) are shrouded in dark, threatening clouds.

We are already a couple hours into this trek and it’s only been pura subida. An icy wind whips against our backs. Gazing up at the summit, our progress feels like we are inching along. There’s no path here. Just loose stones, gravel, and boulders with patches of snow and ice.

Daniel, our guide, suggests zigzagging compactly in this last section as it becomes more vertical. I look below and see our hotel, Awasi Patagonia, nearly 1,000 vertical meters below. We are almost at the top of Sierra Contreras, the mountains rising directly behind the hotel. Somehow, those mountains didn’t look quite so tall from the lodge. A strong wind gust rips again, making me wobble and almost I loose my balance. I slide and catch myself.

What on earth did I sign up for?!

I momentarily curse my decision to have embarked on this full day “adventure” trek. This is supposed to be fun? Surveying my options, there’s no easy way up nor down. The only solution is that I have to get a handle on this situation. NOW. I collect myself and focus. I follow Daniel by stepping in his footsteps. I concentrate on taking that one step with all my intention. I don’t look up nor down. I stay totally present. I breathe deep and have some faith that I can do it and I will (eventually) get there.

After what felt like an eternity on that mountainside, we arrive at the summit of Sierra Contreras and are rewarded with a stunning 360-degree panoramic vista of Sierra Baguales, the Torres, the Horns of Paine, Sarmiento Lake, rolling valleys and the golden prairie of estepa extending towards El Calafate, Argentina. I feel like the last woman on earth. A lone condor circles low overhead keeping a cautious eye on us. In reality, this was only the half point of the trek (getting off the mountain proved to be equally harrowing), but it was the mental tipping point of the excursion for me. I had conquered myself. During this trip to Patagonia, our sixth time (if I haven’t lost count…), I would conquer myself again…and again.

Patagonia_Chile_Awasi_16 Patagonia_Chile_Awasi_36Patagonia_Chile_Awasi_5 Patagonia_Chile_Awasi_25Patagonia_Chile_Awasi_10 Patagonia_Chile_Awasi_2We returned to our villa at Awasi in the late afternoon with our private, wood-fired hot tub heated up and bubbling away with a dry sparkling wine in an ice bucket. I could have hardly imagined a better set up after the severe thumping my quads had just taken. Awasi is remote. Very remote. From our home in Santiago, it had taken us nearly 12 hours to get there, door-to-door. Entering their reserve, partitioned off from the Tercera Barranca Estancia, the sensation is perhaps the same isolation and grandeur of nature that the European settlers felt when they arrived in these far-flung lands over a century ago.

Remoteness is the big draw and reason why people make the journey. The twelve luxury yet eco-friendly villas (860 sq. ft. each) were built with native lenga (beech) wood and each has a sweeping view of the Torres del Paine. The view of those granite towers and the Paine Massif is haunting. Inside the villas are planked with the same wood to mimic the surrounding beech forest with handsome, warming touches like sheep’s wool skins on the floor and blue oversized armchairs. The villas are discreet and blend into the surroundings of the reserve. Here it’s not uncommon to see guanacos (Patagonian llamas), rheas, foxes, condors, and according to guides, even Puma tracks. I sincerely hoped not to have a close encounter with a Puma walking back from dinner that evening.

The main lodge sits slightly above the villas with picture windows framing that bewitching view. Awasi Patagonia is now a Relais & Chateaux property and is the most intimate and exquisite of all the properties in Chilean Patagonia today. With a staff-to-client ratio of 3:1, the service is outstanding as is the cuisine, headed up by the dynamic duo of Federico Ziegler and his sous chef Víctor Vilugrón. Every evening, after a hard day of excursions and being exposed to Patagonia’s fickle climate, you sit down to a Michelin-star level restaurant with a tasting menu that creatively incorporates indigenous ingredients, local flavors and often foraged foods. Everything is made from scratch on-site: the bread made daily from a collection of different sour dough starters to the exquisite desserts, including a chocolate cake scented with pines from the property. The cuisine is refined yet experimental, pushes the envelope yet is sufficiently familiar, and most interestingly, channels the rugged Patagonian landscape outside the window onto your plate.

The next morning I awoke very sore. Sore as in getting up or sitting down from any position was near impossible. A day of restoration was in order. Plus, we wanted another afternoon to relish that view from our villa, followed by another hot tub / sparkling wine session and, most likely, a long siesta. We went to ride on the far side of Sarmiento Lake in an ancient lenga forest. Many of these native deciduous grow to be huge, like redwoods, and date back hundreds of years. They possess a particular elegance and presence that I find very zen. Tragically during the fire in late December 2011, which burned over 40,000 acres of forest, many of these trees perished. Somehow, though, this particular forest had been spared.

Our gaucho was a quiet, pensive guy who was very at one with his horses. It was exactly the energy we needed that morning. He silently led us across crystalline babbling streams, weaving the horses through the lenga forest covered in old man’s beard. Many trees bore clusters of pan de indio, a sweet, spongy funghi found only in the Patagonian region. This local delicacy foraged by Natalinos and the cooks at Awasi was prepared as a pickle for dinner that night. We rested up because the next day we had a very long trek ahead of us. A trek that I had been putting off for over 18 years to repeat.

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We arose to blue skies, not a single cloud, and no wind. The Universe was providing the perfect opportunity to tackle the hardest trek in the park to the base of the Torres del Paine. I had done the trek many years before as a study abroad student in Chile in 1998. On that first trip as an ill-prepared, non-camping backpacker in the park, our group had set off in not the best of conditions: high winds, no guide, non-sufficient food and water, no map, and zero idea of what to expect. Even in the greatest conditions, this trek is quite demanding. On that trip as a student, in the “Valle de los Vientos”, a windy pass, we had encountered nearly 90km wind gusts. Mind you this is a narrow stretch of the trail with a sheer drop off (no guard rails) thousands of vertical feet below. Then, towards the end to reach the base of the towers, scaling the vertically stacked boulders proved to dizzying. Not being much of a hiker at the time, compounded with no guide, I nearly lost it. I came home unscathed but mentally traumatized. I was acutely aware of the real danger you could get in trekking. It had been one of the longest days of my life. I swore I would never do it again.

My husband on the other hand, a real mountain goat, had been lobbying for this hike for years during many trips to the park. With the Awasi set-up of a private (experienced guide), an appropriate amount of food and water (that the guide even carries, how wonderful!), hiking sticks, proper shoes, and no wind, I finally caved. Deep down, I knew I had prove to myself it could be different. It could even be a wonderful experience.

The trek is the longest in the Torres del Paine at 19 kilometers round trip. Keeping a good pace, that means eight full hours of hiking. Even if you just walked leisurely (not considering several serious climbing/cardio parts), that’s nearly a half marathon on your feet. It’s also a trail that you do twice: you ascend and descend the same valley. More than the stamina, which I knew I had, my challenge would be in facing my fear of the Wind Valley, that vertigo, and those big, scary boulders.

I decided to employ the same strategy as on Sierra Contreras. As we got to the first hairy section, the Valle de los Vientos, I just took a deep breath and moved through it.

“Don’t look down. Don’t look up. Just concentrate on where you step. Daniel knows what he’s doing. Francisco (my husband) is behind me. All cool, Liz, all cool.”

And like that….it was over. Not a single breeze blew through that valley the entire time (I gave a nod of gratitude to Mother Nature). We hiked peacefully for a long time alongside the river and then through the forest. As the terrain became rockier and higher approaching the base of the Towers, I knew what was coming. The boulders still had snowpack melting which formed gushing streams diverting around the stones. It was muddy, slippy, and even icy in parts. We had to crisscross back and forth over the water, leaping at times. The guys naturally read the best line to follow so I let them show me the way: where and how to step. When unsure, I stopped to assess and accepted a steady helping hand. My walking stick was my BFF. Near the top, I didn’t look down at the huge rock pile hundreds of feet below. I was too busy figuring out my footing in knee-high snow on an edge. Once again, the summit felt so close yet so far away. We arrived to those magnificent granite towers stretching 3,000 vertical feet into the blue sky above, like they had for millions of years. Nature like this is so incredibly humbling. We often forget that in our modern lives where we look more at our phones than at the sky. At that moment, human life felt so small and fragile against something so large and eternal.

Daniel set up a delicious lunch on an improvised “table”, a large boulder, complete with a checkered table cloth. The warm sweet pea soup was incredibly nourishing. We absorbed the sun’s warm energy and our weary feet were grateful for much needed rest (only 10km  to get “home” afterwards). After a noisy Brazilian group left, the silence became deafening. Occasionally a boulder would shake loose and barrel with a hollow echo towards the frozen lagoon. As it hit the water (or ice), it sounded like a loud clap of thunder.

The return trip was easier. I visualized the complicated parts and moved with more assurance. I actually was, wow!, enjoying myself. On the last downhill stretch, in the bliss of the nearing the finish, I gained too much speed gawking at the stunning view of the shiny turquoise Nordensjkola lake below. I took one distracted step and rammed my hiking boot at full speed into a very large rock. Mierda!!! Pain, pain, pain in my right big toe. I did the “OMG that hurt” jig and tried shake it off, keeping the pace. It was throbbing. Back at the hotel, peeling off my socks, I was relieved that nothing was broken, but definitely some damage had been done. I had stunned (rather, killed) my toenail from the blunt hit. It was already turning deep purple from the trauma. A couple of months later, it would completely fall off as a new one grew in. I had to laugh at my souvenir–a physical reminder of having conquered myself on those Patagonian mountainsides. The good news: the toenail would grow back. The slight pain and discomfort was worth it for the huge breakthrough I had experienced on this trip.

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We bid farewell to Awasi the next day and started the long journey home to Santiago; our toddler was anxiously awaiting our return. As we crossed kilometers of golden estepa, I reflected on the few past days . I didn’t have anything to show for it (other than my purple toenail) but what mattered was what I had proven to myself; what I was capable of doing.

Isn’t this what we seek when we travel? Besides a little adventure, we want to push ourselves beyond our comfort zone, no? We have to stretch to grow and believe in what we can achieve. This is an analogy that applies not just to trekking but to life in general. It is a way of approaching everything. It is a way of being. Patagonia had simply been the catalyst to help me reconnect with my inner confidence and knowing that I can succeed at whatever I decide to commit to. It was profoundly empowering.

Back in the civilization, I continue to keep conquering myself, again and again. The process is pretty simple: focus on the goal, stay present, and always take one step at a time.

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Chupe de Centolla (Creamy King Crab)

This dish appears on the permanent Awasi Patagonia lunch menu. Chef Federico agreed to generously share his recipe with us as we loved it. Chupe in Chile can often be synonymous with a gloppy, heavy casserole-type dish. This version was light and succulent with a copious amount of king crab meat and the addition of savory vegetables. King Crab is in season during the spring and summer months in the southern waters of Magallanes. While this chupe can be served family style in a single dish, I prefer the individual ramekins. It’s too yummy to share.

3 tablespoons butter

1/3 cup fresh red bell pepper, minced

1 clove of garlic, minced

1 medium onion en pluma, thinly cut with the grain

1 teaspoon paprika

1/2 cup fish or seafood stock (if neither available, use vegetable stock)

3 tablespoons heavy cream

½ cup fresh (white) bread crumbs

½ cup good quality grated Parmesan

1 teaspoon leaves of fresh oregano

3 tablespoons fresh chives, minced

1 ¼ pounds (500grs) cooked king crab

Juice of half a lemon

Sea salt and fresh black pepper to taste

Method:

Pre-heat the oven to 190C / 375 F.

Heat a fry pan and melt the butter. Add the garlic, red pepper, and onion, sweating until they are cooked but not browned. Add the paprika and fry for 1 minute. Incorporate the stock and cream, whisking. Reduce to low heat and cook for five minutes. Remove from heat and let cool slightly.

Add the bread crumbs, most of the Parmesan (reserve a little for the topping), and let sit for 10 minutes to absorb some of the liquid while the flavors develop. After, gently fold in the fresh herbs. Combine with the crab meat, lemon juice, and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Divide among four deep ramekins or in greda (Chilean clay pots). Sprinkle the remaining Parmesan on top. Bake for 20 minutes, or until the cheese on top is melted and bubbling. Serve hot, ideally with a crisp Chardonnay.

Four Portions.

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One Fall Day

by Liz Caskey on April 22, 2016

Montevideo_Uruguay_1 The last day of our Southern Cone Sampler tour, we woke up to glorious sun streaming through the hotel curtains. A mixture of clouds and golden rays illuminated swathes of the blue-grey waters of the Rio de la Plata. It was that kind of pure light that only appears after a stormy night.

We set off to visit the Villa Biarritz market located right off the Rambla, in Punta Carretas–one of the largest and oldest markets in the Uruguayan capital. Ferias, open-air markets, are a tradition in Montevideo and nearly every neighborhood has them at least twice a week. These outdoor markets take place rain or shine, no matter what the weather is up to. The vendors never go on strike and even work on holidays. They are always there selling their fruits, vegetables, eggs, cheeses, fish, and meats to Montevideanos.

The morning was blustery and brisk and it was the first time I needed a scarf in months. Perhaps it a preview for the scores of leeks, gourds, potatoes, and citrus I’d see in the market, signaling the change of seasons to cooler months ahead. To get to the heart of the market, where the food stalls are, we had to skirt a branch that has sprouted up with all kinds of “stuff”: toys, household items, vendors hawking colorful mate gourds (which every single person had in hand sucking through a straw). Villa Biarritz reminds me so much of European markets (particularly French) that I get nostalgic even writing about it. Certainly it stems from Uruguay’s strong European heritage (many Uruguayans are only second generation of European immigrants) from Spain, Italy, France, Germany, and Switzerland. It’s quite the cultural melting pot.

Montevideo_Uruguay_2 Montevideo_Uruguay_3Montevideo_Uruguay_4Here, market vendors neatly arrange their seasonal produce so that it looks like a still life. Butchers, cheese mongers, fishmongers all sell their goods from refurbished, and miraculously still running, 1940s vintage trucks that just add another layer of charm to the experience. As Uruguayans haggled over cuts of beef and which is the best artisan morcilla (sweet black sausage with walnuts) or chorizo (sausage) for their afternoon asado, at the next truck, the cheese truck (my favorite), clients lined up for slices of artisan cheeses from Colonia, particularly the ubiquitous Queso Colonia, the base of the beloved dessert/cheese course, Martin Fierro which is paired with Dulce de Membrillo (quince paste). At the next truck, the poultry guy sold milanesas (breaded cutlets) like hotcakes. Along the stalls with homemade goodies, there was a casera selling pascualina, a classic covered quiche made with eggs and Swiss chard, frequently gracing Uruguayan tables. All of us made a pit stop to stock up on one, cannot-live-without-it item: dulce de leche. The literal translation is “candied milk”, and that pretty much sums up this milk caramel. This stuff begs to be slathered on toast and many Uruguayan desserts have it as the centerpiece. Of course, you can also just eat it (shamelessly) with a spoon. In fact, at this market, it was sold from huge tubs (yes, you read that right) of easily 30+ kilos.

Locals wheeled their little trolleys around filled to the brim with all the fresh ingredients and stoppped to chat with each friendly casero (vendor). Caseros are often farmers themselves, or sometimes a middleman who’s had a stall for decades with his family. These are relationships with people you have for years; they see patrons’ kids grow up and then bring their own kids back to this same market.

Montevideo_Uruguay_5Montevideo_Uruguay_6Montevideo_Uruguay_7Montevideo_Uruguay_8Montevideo_Uruguay_9Montevideo_Uruguay_10Montevideo_Uruguay_11Walk through any market anywhere in the world (not just in Montevideo), and you quickly understand a lot about the country you’re in and its people. It always, always starts with the food. People everywhere need to eat and nothing says more about a culture than the seasonal foodstuffs, preparations, and folks shopping. Since we were heading to the airport later, the frustrated cook in me could only ogle the produce and buy a few portable goodies to take home (like dulce de leche, of course). During our stroll though, I became obsessed with the adorable round zucchini I kept seeing everywhere, the last of the summer season. Uruguayans just love to fill them with ground meat and top them with creamy cheese. It’s the perfect one-dish oven meal. Paired with a robust Tannat, it’s Uruguayan comfort food at its finest.

When we landed back in Santiago, guess what was the first thing I prepared? You guessed it. Here’s the recipe. Good thing we also thought to slip a few extra bottles of Tannat into our suitcase, too.

Montevideo_Uruguay_13Montevideo_Uruguay_14Stuffed Round Zucchini

6-8 medium round zucchini

500grs. Ground beef

½ cup grated (mild) cheese

1 onion, finely chopped

2 cloves of garlic, minced

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons minced parsley

1 egg, beaten

1 egg yolk

1/3 cup fresh bread crumbs

Sea salt and black pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 190°C/375°F.

Montevideo_Uruguay_15Montevideo_Uruguay_16In a frying pan over medium, heat the olive oil. Caramelize the onions and garlic until golden brown. Add with the meat and rest of the ingredients.

Prepare the zucchini. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Blanch the zucchini for 4 minutes. Drain and refresh in cold water. Let cool to handle then scoop out the pulp and reserve the shells and tops.

Fill the zucchini shells with the meat and top them. Place in a deep oven pan and cover with aluminum foil. Bake for 20-25 minutes until meat is cooked through and zucchini is soft.

Remove the tops and sprinkle with the cheese. Turn the oven to broiler mode and gratin for about 5 minutes until golden and bubbling.

Makes 4 portions.

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Four Young Santiago Chefs

by Liz Caskey on March 31, 2016

Restaurant_Europeo_1The food scene in the Chilean capital is sizzling and truly having its moment. The catalysts? A new generation of chefs who have trained abroad, returned to their country and are digging deep roots in Santiago. They have forged restaurant projects focused on Chilean ingredients and indigenous foodstuffs linking foragers, farmers, growers, fisherman, and food artisans to the table. They transform classic recipes with refined European technique. Menus are inspired, and change, by seasonality resulting in hundreds of unique dishes in a year’s time and a reason to return again and again. Each restaurant’s wine list brings  small producers, organic wines, and terroir projects from north to south to the table. This uniquely Chilean style of locavore cuisine is not a trend. These trailblazers are inspiring chefs in training along with Chileans “revisiting” their own gastronomic heritage and they are here to stay. Here are four chefs, four food philosophies, and four obligatory, must-eat stops on your next visit to Santiago.

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Alvaro Romero

Executive chef of the classic Santiago white tablecloth restaurant, El Europeo, Romero first spent time in Europe and then worked under El Europeo’s founder, Carlos Meyer. After a short move to The Singular Santiago, he “came home” to lead the kitchen at El Europeo, breathing fresh air and new life into its continental fare. His philosophy can be summed up as “highly refined homemade”. Alvaro is passionate about the producer-to-table connection and invests considerable time getting to know his producers: farmers, cheese-makers, even duck breeders in Casablanca. He believes this connection is the greatest gift being a chef has bestowed him: you know where your food comes from. On the menu, his love for stellar ingredients is brought together with purity, flawless technique, and clever flavor combinations. The constantly rotating seasonal menus are little melodies like the duck magret with a delicate almond puree and barely sweet quince sauce and then there are constants like the duck filet tartare. The wine at El Europeo makes an aficionado swoon. Alvaro’s strategy is the better the wine, the less the mark-up so top guns like Emiliana Organico’s G or a small terroir project like Pedro Parra’s Clos des Fous are at almost the same price as retail. Chef says, though, that his secret ingredient is love: “Anyone can learn a technique but love gives you that personal touch”.

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Rodolfo Guzman

This pioneer in the Chilean food scene, the chef behind Boragó is often credited for leading the culinary awakening in Santiago (and Chile). There’s a reason this restaurant warrants being on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants List, the first Chilean restaurant to ever land there. Rodolfo, besides being a chef, is a scientist. He’s literally cataloging many indigenous species of foodstuffs, plants, fungi, and flowers as he figures out how to transform them into taste sensations in his restaurant. This type of curious mind and experimentation translates into hundreds of different dishes that appear on a constantly rotating, uber seasonal menu. First things first, go to Boragó knowing it’s a “dining event”, similar to going to the theater. The combination of flavors, textures, presentations, and tempo is a show that with the long tasting menu (called “Endemica”), can easily last 4 hours.  There’s no printed menu, either, for the 10+ courses–the cooks and servers will explain each course as you travel up and down Chile’s latitudes at the table. On our visit during the Chilean spring, the most memorable dish was tender morels aromatized with fresh eucalyptus leaf steam that were tender, earthy, and succulent. Other dishes (for my taste) fell on the unusual side of the spectrum with texture/flavor and came served in nature-like presentations. That’s part of the allure. The wine list is focused on top Chilean wines, big and small projects, and here there was a major aha moment. Tara Chardonnay from the Atacama Desert (a single vineyard project of Felipe Tosso, winemaker of Ventisquero). Mindblowing wine. Apparently it’s only served in the world’s top five restaurants and Boragó so I guess we’ll have to just go again. Reservations with considerable advance notice essential.

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Carolina Bazán

For over a decade, Carolina and her parents ran the successful Ambrosía in the historical Casa Colorada in downtown Santiago, a lunch venue. She then took off on a series of stints around the world from Peru to France to further hone her culinary skills and food repertoire. Once she landed back in Chile, she joined forces with her family and partner Rosario Onetto a top Chilean sommelier, to relaunch Ambrosía on the other side of town in a spacious, converted Las Condes home. New menu. New concept. New “home”. Ambrosía has a homey vibe, perhaps because it’s in an unlikely setting for a restaurant with a blooming garden and series of wood-floored dining rooms displaying large-paned windows. The cuisine took us back to Paris with its bistro style (perhaps a nod to her time spent at Frenchie). While laid back, there’s a clear preoccupation with the use of noble ingredients and maximizing “deliciousness” in each dish. I still dream about their “Caprese” salad made with tomato water infused with basil oil and the freshest of fresh mozarella. A very Chilean delicacy, sea urchins al matico (with onions and herbs), are transformed here into a delicate tart which Carolina compares to “eating a plate of butter.” Everything is tasty and satisfying. Rosario, an encyclopedia of Chilean wine, leans heavily towards terroir-driven small producers like El Principal which are the perfect complement for this kind of local place you can go again (and again)for real food made with care and primo ingredients.

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Kurt Schmidt

Along with his partner chef, Gustavo Saez (overseeing pastry), Kurt is part of this creative duo and impetus behind the cool 99 Restaurante, a petit restaurant tucked off a shady side street in bustling Providencia. Kurt cut his teeth in many kitchens from Boragó in Santiago to Noma in Copenhagen and Azurmendi in Spain. Here, the approach is a refined yet simplistic market-to-table menu, that changes so often (a lunch menu daily), that it’s written on a simple chalkboard. The kitchen is open, the tables made with recycled wood and there’s a slight hipster vibe among the servers. At lunch, there are only two options with a set menu and at night, a 5 or 9-course tasting menu that changes seasonally. There’s a heavy focus on vegetables (hallelujah!). Kurt’s team of cooks gently coaxes out the maximum possible flavor out from seasonal veggies ranging from wild mushroom-infused butter to maybe a spring pea puree or delicate beet risotto.  The wine list is fun and all organic. We found favorite hits like Montsecano Pinot Noir, Garage Wine Co. Cabernet Franc and a good selection of pipeño, Chile’s young, low-alcohol, grapey tasting wine that’s become a trend in the wine scene. Great price/quality ratio, service, and once again, loads of veggies, makes this a fabulous addition to the Santiago food scene.

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