On horseback from Argentina to Chile

by Hidden Trails 09/24/2009

Crossing the Andes

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Across the Andes by Horse by Jasper Winn

“The first thing we’ve got to do is bring in the horses,” Jane told us over early morning coffee on the veranda. That sounded straightforward. Grab a few headcollars, nip out to the field, rattle a feed-bucket and we’d have them in and saddled up in twenty minutes or so. No?

Well, no, not in Argentina’s northern Patagonia. Not when the ‘field’ was the hundreds of acres of rough country behind us, where the estancia’s horses were turned out to graze. In fact we’d have to take other horses just to be able to go out and round up the mounts we actually wanted to use for the coming days.

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Four of us – Ed, Helen, Isabelle and I – downed a last swig of coffee. Ed had worked, in a past life, as a ranch manager in Venezuela and rode well. Isabelle travelled for work across South America and was an enthusiastic convert to horse travel. Helen played polo in the north of England and hunted through the winter, making her a natural when it came to horsing around in Argentina. We were preparing to leave on a 360-kms ride, led by Jane Williams, across the Andes. Starting from the wide plains of Argentina we’d climb through forests of monkey puzzle trees to cross the world’s longest mountain range under the cones of snow-dusted volcanoes before riding into steep valleys and switchback tracks on the Chilean side.

Jane owns the 6,000 hectares of the estancia in Patagonia’s remote Lake District. Originally from London, she married an Argentine and, after her husband’s death in an accident, continues to run the family estate. It’s a hard, frontier life, dependent on gauchos - mounted on horses and expert with lassos - to work the estancia’s 700-head of cattle. It’s a land where the comforts of the ‘big house,’ with its china tea-sets and bustling kitchens and carefully tended gardens are overshadowed by the vastness of the surrounding steppe country and the extremes of weather. Behind the farm condors roost on the towering cliffs. Wild boars root up the lawns at night. A puma, one of the Mapuche Indian cowboys reported as I ate breakfast, had been seen earlier in the herbaceous border.

Jane’s rides are a by-word for good horses, plenty of fast riding and lots of fun. Especially fun. In Europe – in Ireland – it’s becoming more and more difficult to have good, rip-roaring fun on horses; there’s too much traffic on our roads, and too little access to off-road riding land. And there are too many concerns about safety and insurance and vets’ bills to get in the way of plain in the saddle ‘fun’ fun. But in Argentina, and particularly on this estancia, experienced riders can still get a kick out of taking their own line at speed across country, or helping out on the day-to-day work of rounding up cattle and horses. There’s often the chance of putting up a wild boar and - if the dogs are on the ball – getting a two or three kilometre run in its wake. Or you can ride across the Andes.

Early the next morning we saddled up the horses we’d rounded-up the previous day. We filled our saddle-bags and tied them behind the Argentine-style saddles with their two cinch-girths, leather panels and thick cushioning of sheepskins. “There’s a poncho – they’re wool, rainproof – for each of you, and, also…” Jane eyed us sternly, “…a tin mug. Look after it, because you’ll need if for coffee, wine, water, and there are no spares.”

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We left the estancia along a sand track shaded by trees mature enough to measure the time back to when the Bariloche region was first settled by Europeans in the late 19th century. The trees were certainly older than the peace treaty signed with the local Mapuche Indians in the early 20th century. Jane’s head horseman, Juan, who rode with us, and the other gauchos working on the estancia, were all Mapuche.

The land opened up before us. A stiff Patagonian wind blew up the dust from under our horses’ hooves. I’d been given Huilipan, a 15.3 or so, bay, Criollo-cross gelding. “He’s named after the Indian I bought him off,” Jane had told me, “he’s 23 years old, but nobody’s told him that.” She was right. Under me, Huilipan had the feel of a good eventer in the prime of life. Active walk, a good sharp trot, and – when Jane, as was her wont, suddenly broke into a canter and we accelerated to keep up – a fast pace across the broken ground with a handy fifth leg to skip him over holes and sudden drops and anything else the landscape threw up.

Our first day started us on exactly the fun, whooping and hollering kind of riding that Argentina does so well. But made even crazier by the increasing strength of the wind the higher we climbed. As we crested the highest hills and looked west to the distant Andes the wind snapped and banged at our hat brims, and tugged our horses’ manes and tails straight out to the side. Galloping into the gale’s teeth made it seem as if one was riding at twice one’s actual speed.

We got to our first campsite late in the afternoon. Horses were unsaddled and loosed to graze. A tarpaulin was stretched between two stunted trees as a windbreak. A fire lit, and steaks put to cook. The camp-master, Domingo, had set up tents and stools. We drank wine – from our tin mugs – as we warmed ourselves by the fire. Sasha, Jane’s Great Dane, who had quartered the ground ahead of us for the whole 40kms of riding lay exhausted at our feet. Tired, too, we slept that night in sleeping bags lain on top of the sheepskins from our saddles.

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The routine of a long distance ride comes quickly, so natural does it feel. I woke to the smell of coffee brewing in a billy-can on the fire. The wind had died and it was dead calm. I pulled on some clothes and splashed cold water into my face. We all stood around the fire, with plates full of bacon and eggs. Tin mugs were filled with coffee. We stuffed our kit into the saddle-bags. Tacked up. And, whilst the morning was still cool, rode on.

On that second day we rode across flat land, fording wide, tumbling rivers, taking long canters, and jogging along through scrub. It was a social way to travel, with time to talk, or just ride in companionable silence. Jane pointed out caracaras foraging the grasslands and condors high above us. She dived off her horse at one point to pluck up a hairy armadillo from the bushes and show it to us before letting it free again. Midmorning we were joined by Manuel, a local policeman and horse-breaker. Much of his tack was hand-braided and decorated, as was his belt. His horse was a well-broken Criollo. Law-keeping in the hinterland of San Martin de Los Andes could, apparently, look after itself for a few days whilst he chose to ride along with us.

Jane’s trump card in running long distance rides lay in her good relations with the neighboring estancia owners, the Mapuche Indian villagers and numerous working gauchos for hundreds of kilometers around. Not only were we able to cross private estancia land, but our progress – important on this path-finding route across the Andes - was aided by locals who saddled up to guide our band across the land.

At this height nights were cold and mornings frosty. Shots of whiskey were added to our tin mugs’ contents. But days were blue-skied and warm. For the actual climb over the Tres Picos pass that marked our highest point, in crossing the Andes we were led by an Indian cacique – chief – on a small tough Criollo pony. He threaded us through a dark forest of lofty monkey puzzle trees - where Manuel gathered up pocketfuls of their piñon nuts to cook for supper - and then out onto a high ridge. Ahead of us lay Lanin volcano and the Chilean border, seemingly close, but still a long ride away. We arrived at the Chilean border at a canter, with volcanoes – one streaming smoke like a distant factory chimney - to both sides of us.

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Even in South America taking horses back and forth across borders is difficult and time-consuming. So, at the frontier Jane’s horses turned back to Huechahue, driven as tight herd in front of Juan and Manuel, whilst we had our passports stamped before crossing over into Chile. Local horseman, and Jane’s friend, Rodolpho Coombs was waiting with a mob of Chileno horses for us. The change in the landscape was spectacular. Where the Argentina had been mainly flat and empty with long, open slopes to the Andes, on the Chilean side the landscape was steeper, and thickly wooded with narrow tracks threading between the trees and through cane breaks. The horses matched the landscape; smaller and closer-coupled, with saddles with high pommels and cantles. We were given big-rowelled spurs in Chilean style. The reins to the curb bits were thick ropes, ending in a wide strip of leather to be used as a crop.

With slower riding over the first few days, there was even more time for talking. Rodolpho and his horseman, Joel, both rode blacks with Andaluse-type heads. “Conquistadore’s horses,” Rodolpho pointed out, “because here in Chile our horses and our horsemanship are different from across the border in Argentina. There they have all the space of the pampas to breed horses, so a gaucho might have ten or twenty or a hundred horses. But here we have less land, so a huaso – a Chilean cowboy – will have only a few horses, and so we must work harder with what we have.” His horses were well-schooled, working off the leg, and on the bit. And this schooling, perhaps, not only because of his Chilean background. Because in the 1970s Rodolpho was an international showjumper and then chef d’equipe to the Spanish showjumping team. “I was in Ireland many times buying horses, and off course we came to Dublin horse show often. Tiempos Buenos - good times.”

Here, on the Chilean side, the villages of the Mapuche Indians were more frequent and busier. We rode past small fields cleared from amongst the trees. There were orchards. And the sound of hewing of wood into planks and beams for corrals and barns and water troughs. There were more rivers to cross, too, and being deeper and faster we rode the horses across swaying, narrow suspension bridges, one at a time. But in the valley bottoms amongst the trees there were long flats, like parkland, where we could give the Chileno horses their heads. Helen regularly wore her poncho, the thick, water- and wind-proof, black manta castilla. The rest of us took to calling her la furtiva – the outlaw. La Furtiva was a wild starter of races, and much given to riding-off in polo fashion to liven the same races up. Fun! Good horse fun.

Here in Chile our nights were spent in tents around the remote farm-houses where we dined by candle light. There were long swims in clear alpine lakes in the heat of the day. There was birdsong and stands of the native fuschia. And a sudden end to the ride. Just as we had ridden out of Huechahue eight days before and into the wilderness, so we rode back down a track, through a field of horses, and out in front of Rodolpho's house. We dismounted at the stables and unsaddled. Under a tree there was a jug of pisco sour, Chile’s potent national drink, waiting. “I hope,” said Jane, “you’ve all got your tin mugs still.”

This trip can be booked with Hidden Trails, a specialist in equestrian vacations all over the world.  You can call toll free at  1-888-9-TRAILS or contact them on Skype at skype:hiddentrails . 
You can also see details on this trip including rates and trip date on their website at:  http://www.hiddentrails.com/tour/argentina_andes_crossing.aspx

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