The Loneliest Cowboy in the World
Plumbing the Isolated Depths of Chilean Patagonia
Photos by Peter Sutherland
Faustino Barrientos has spent the greater part of his 81 years in complete solitude and isolation. Since 1965 he’s worked as a gaucho—the horse-riding ranchers and shepherds of the harsh southern swath of Chile and Argentina known as Patagonia. For most of his life, Faustino’s sole human contact has occurred once every two years, when he herds his cattle to the nearest town to sell.
The gaucho lifestyle, which essentially consists of hunting and herding, has remained constant since the colonial era. To say these guys are lonesome is an understatement—this isn’t like moving to the country and starting a blog about local varieties of heirloom carrots. But Faustino wasn’t always alone. He was raised on the shores of Lake O’Higgins in a place known as Once Hermanos, which is named after his family of 11 brothers and sisters. Over the years, the siblings moved away one by one. Then their parents died, their houses were burned down by vengeful neighbors, and the land was sold. Faustino moved to Argentina, traveling the country and honing the skills that would allow him to eventually return to Lake O’Higgins and live off the land for the next 46 years.
While Argentinean Patagonia can be barren and almost desert-like, Chilean Patagonia is rugged in the classical sense. It’s peppered with craggy, gothic mountains, dense forests, and sparse pockets of civilization. Lake O’Higgins is located in the Aysén region, one of the remotest areas of Patagonia. It’s the least-populated region in Chile, and one of the most sparsely-populated places in the world outside Antarctica. The closet thing to an urban center is a place called Coihaique, in which more than half of the region’s 100,000 residents reside, and the smallest towns are frontier settlements of fewer than 500 people, such as Villa O’Higgins, where Faustino sells his livestock.
Like most of the developing world, Faustino’s land is rapidly changing. The transformation’s roots date to the mid-1970s, when Chile and Argentina became involved in what came to be known as the Beagle Conflict, a territorial dispute over the nearby Picton, Lennox, and Nueva islands. This kerfuffle served as the main reason for Chile’s support of the UK during the Falklands War, another convoluted and somewhat silly conflict over a few chains of islands off the coast of Argentina that the British had long claimed as their own. At the time, Chile’s dapper general-turned-dictator Augusto Pinochet was in command and decided that Chile needed a highway to make its far-flung regions more accessible to the military.