Out and About Horse Riding Adventures in Patagonia, Argentina

by Hidden Trails 02/08/2007

Patagonia Wilderness Ride
We all have our dreams – one of mine had been for many years to go horse riding in Patagonia – in fact I told everybody in New Zealand that I would do just that – a trek for at least a week in some remote area. But as so often I couldn’t decide in advance where – after all half of the adventure is about making it up as you go and I wanted to get a better feel for Patagonia, the landscape, the people, the horses, and, and , and.

So I did a day’s ride with a grandmother and her seven year old grandson (a tiny but very determined rider on top of the fattest horse ever) near Torres del Paine National Park in Chile. The ride was great. However, I was utterly embarrassed as I had to hang on to the saddle in beginners fashion every time we took off in a fast canter or gallop. The staccato like movements of the relatively small horse combined with a Chilean stock saddle provided a kind of rollercoaster sensation when compared to the relative armchair comforts of my own horse Maguire, a 17 hand hunter. But I got to try the berries of the Calafate bush – and eating these berries means one will return one day.

Another ride in El Chalten was far less demanding. We ambled up through the mountains to a look out with breath taking views of Mount Fitzroy. The most exciting moment of the ride occurred when we ran into a group of German hikers who were determined to get scores of photos for their respective family albums.

Neither El Chalten nor Torres del Paine were practical choices for the real trekking adventure. But I quite liked the area around Bariloche. Just as time was starting to run out on me and as I was starting to wonder whether the ride was meant to be, I was given the Hidden Trails website. Here I found a ride in Northern Patagonia with Carol Jones. What clinched it was the fact that Carol’s grandfather used to know Sundance Kid and Butch Cassidy. Oh, and it did help that there was a nine day ride on offer which finished the day before I had to fly back to Europe.

Bang on time at 9.00am on 13 February Carol arrived in Bariloche to collect her riders. Roman and Edi from Germany (who didn’t know each other prior to the trip but happened to know the same Frenchman who told them they just had to book a ride with Carol), Robyn from a real dude ranch in the States and Bruno, a Spaniard who lives in the UK. Saddles and gear, two dogs and Carol’s friendly helper Paisa were already piled into one of the station wagons. Out at a friend’s ranch eleven horses were expecting us and things to come.

First of all we had to pack our personal saddlebags – only what we could stow in here was to go on the ride. Tents and sleeping bags were to be carried by the pack horses together with loads of food, cooking utensils, etc. Next came the match of riders, horses and saddles. Saddles turned out to be quite different from anything I had ever used – simple metal frames with wooden slats and cinches that had me puzzled for the first day or two. A good old sheepskin on top of it all provided more comfort than one would have thought possible.

My horse is a mare called "Mura’ or ‘Mud’ thanks to her unusual colour. We have one spare horse, La Pampa and three very important pack horses. As we can’t pronounce their real names reliably, we default to calling them "Lunch", "Dinner" and "Hotel" depending on their load.

Well, and off we go into the red and dusty landscape. Our first lunch break takes place in a shady green meadow with a little stream with lots of grass for the horses. Grass and water will be the main selection criteria for our camps as we don’t carry any feed for the horses. For the humans however, we appear to have an endless supply of delicacies. Breakfast starts with bacon and eggs – and just don’t ask me how the pack horses manage to only break two out of 54 eggs, carried in their standard six pack configuration, despite the fact that they ever so often take off in a canter or decide to have a good old roll while still fully loaded! There is plenty of fresh fruit, salads, cold meats and cheeses, mountains of steaks and sausages, biscuits and even red wine for dinner.

It doesn’t take long to get into the daily routine. Breakfast from 7.30am onwards, packing up, loading and saddling horses, making sure that the camp fire has been extinguished and off we go, riding for about three hours before we take a lunch break and a siesta (what a wonderful opportunity to day dream, nap or simply sky gaze). Around 4.00pm we are ready to saddle up again and set off for another two – three hours riding into the cooler air of the evening. Final destination for the day is our comfortable ‘bush hotel’ Kitchen over here, horses over there and hotel wherever you can find a spot to pitch your tent.

Horses come first, they deserve a good wash after a long day’s work, then we collect some wood, start a fire, have a cup of tea or coffee followed by the search for a nice comfy tent site. Some days we strike it lucky and have a nice cold river to dip into before dinner. Carol is a fabulous cook – every night we seem to work our way through mountains of food. One becomes wonderfully weary sitting around the camp fire telling stories.

Every day the landscape is completely different. Barren and dusty hillsides morph into lush green forests with an abundance of yellow flowers. We spend a whole day riding through an area that was devastated by fires more than 10 years ago. Black tree stumps are still standing tall amongst the fresh greenery that is slowly covering the scars of fire. Every now and then we meet other riders or gauchos in their summer camps looking after cattle.

Every day we seem to be going up and up and up. The horses don’t mind. They are very willing, well behaved and committed to do the job. They are used to finding a way where there is no way. Some of the passes are breathtaking – looking back we wonder how easily we made it up, looking ahead we wonder how on earth we will get down the other side – or is it just me? I have grown up in a flat country side and the mountains fill me with awe. But these horses just manage, they certainly know what they are doing.

The weather is kind to us. Day after day we have clear skies and sunshine. In the evening of the third day (with nine hours our longest day in the saddle) we get some rain. But we are lucky as we are allowed to cook dinner in Don Gustavo’s brother’s little house. It is nice and warm in here, while the rain is drumming on the roof. The rain has the added bonus that it will settle the red dust for us.

On day four we are saying farewell to Robyn and Bruno and hello to Graciella from Buenos Aires. We have gathered a lot of dust over the last days and Graciella looks conspicuously fresh and clean amongst us. It will take her a couple of days to get used to the idea of catching her own horse and erecting her tent.

On day four we also forget to pack the nice juicy steaks that Victoria and Roberto brought to the meeting point. This of course is quite a catastrophe. We have hardly any meat for the next days – only two very large chickens, a huge chunk of bacon and countless sausages. This is deemed to be a crisis and the only way out is to buy a goat.

In the afternoon of day five we ride into a small farmstead and Carol starts negotiations with the wife and oldest son of the owner. They can’t make a decision, but promise to pass on our request. We camp down by the river and wait for things to come. First come a herd of goats from the opposite direction of the farm, their little bells making friendly noises. A little while later, one goat returns minus hide, head and hooves. Our survival has now been fairly and squarely secured. The goat is hanging above our heads in the tree out of reach for dogs and other possible predators. Early in the morning the farmer himself comes to collect the money. He rides a beautiful horse and looks the gaucho act.

We are still going higher up into the mountains until we reach the heights where the condors fly. Up to four and five birds cruise overhead, black against the blue sky, casting their large shadows while their youngsters reside in large nest perched on top of steep cliffs and rocks. Up here there are no discernible paths, our horses pick their way through loose stones and rocks.

Carol herself hasn’t been up here for 15 years. In her memory some of the distances have shrunken – she remembers the large peaks but not all of the little humps between them. We don’t have a map, GPS or radio but full confidence in Carol. Edi and Roman keep getting their bearings – where is North, where is South and what is the general direction of Bariloche?

On day seven we are hoping to meet Don Juan. He is an 85 year old gaucho who should be somewhere around here and could tell us which pass to take. We have a choice and Carol knows that one of them is better than the other. Just before lunch time we see a small cloud of dust moving at speed down a steep mountain side. Don Juan appears just as we have to make a decision.

He jumps of his horse in a way that belies his 85 years. With a big smile he accepts a cigarette and tells stories. Apparently his father had to give up riding at the ripe age of 110 and died a couple of years later of boredom. Don Juan doesn’t own any land. He distributes his 140 horses in groups of four to six around state owned land and in remote and unused parts of the privately owned ranches. His horses are deemed to be amongst the best in the area and he only sells one when he is in need of supplies. Unfortunately, Carol is out of luck – he is not selling today.

We follow his directions and reach a plateau high up. Breathtaking views capture us and nobody notices that the lead of Carol’s pack horse is getting wrapped around her horse’s hind legs. Before we know it Carol’s horse is bucking furiously and Carol is flying through the air. We gasp in horror, but she lands beautifully on her feet amongst the rocks and assures us that this is a very rare sight.

A few minutes later Mura ends up in the rusty old wire of the border fence that has been down for the last 25 years. Another moment of suspension, but with Paisa’s help we get out of the wire and back onto the main track. We start to realise just how remote and lonely it is up here and we are wondering what drove the original settlers up here, fences and all.

On day eight we are to meet the two ladies in the yellow summer camp. Carol has asked them to weave some cinches for her over winter. Nobody appears to be home, so we ride on. Twenty minutes later we meet the two ladies on horseback on their way back from the Sunday races in town, supermarket bags cradled in their arms. How do they manage to look so clean? I am very aware of the fact that I am covered in dust produced by a little mini tornado a few hours earlier which almost blew one of the packhorses off his feet.

We are invited to camp at their place and cook in their nice and spacious kitchen. Once again we are missing the rain having dinner in some style and comfort. Our last day has arrived before we are really ready to come to the end of our ride. A relatively short ride takes us to Carol’s summer camp and a huge final BBQ. Victoria and Roberto have come to pick us up. Edi and Roman can’t believe their luck when they spot a nice, cold beer.

All around us horses are rolling happily in the dust. They behave like a bunch of school kids on their last day of school – they know perfectly well that they are home and will head out to a nice big meadow full of juicy grass to recover from the long ride. They have been absolutely fabulous doing their job without hesitation day in and out and we don’t begrudge them their break as they disappear in a full gallop across the river.

For a last time we sit around the fire – sharing our moments on the ride with Roberto and Victoria – the moment when Roman ended up in a tree because Victor got spooked by wasps and took off. We talk about Graciella sleeping in despite Edi’s endeavours to wake her up singing chorals in German. We relate the story of German engineering skills that saved Graciella’s tent from total collapse. And there are endless stories about pack horses deciding to go their own ways, horses not wanting to cross chasms or tress lashing out at unsuspecting rider (I have got a nice big hole in my favourite sweater) Stories, stories and more stories. What a wonderful ride and no matter how many words we use, they just can’t describe just how special this ride was.

Heike Schiele    February 2006

for more information on this trip, check out the Hidden Trails website at: 
Rio Negro Las Mellizas Ride


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