The Andes Mountain Range……one of the Earth’s greatest natural features. It is the longest mountain chain in the world boasting some of its highest peaks. A formidable, rugged and often desolate place, but one of extreme natural beauty, the opportunity to challenge myself to cross this undulating craggy mountain range on horse-back was an adventure I could not deny.
Gazing out the window of the LATAM flight from Buenos Aires to Bariloche gave me just a small taster of the immense landscape I’d be travelling through over the next 10 days. Vast stretches of never ending mountain peaks plunged dramatically to cavernous valleys and gorges below. Snow-capped summits, a brilliant flash of dazzling white against clear blue skies, faded gradually to greys and browns as the eye tracked down the mountains to the open plains below. The 200kms car journey north east from Bariloche to Estancia Huechahue was just as appealing. Despite having travelled for the past 24 hours or so, my eyes could not rest, I could not draw them away from the abundance of visual activity surrounding me, I drank in every last detail…….the crystal clear streams meandering through grassy pampas, the tortuous route of the road flanked by a continuous carpet of mountain ranges, majestic volcanic peaks capped in snow, Mother Nature boastfully displaying her talents.
Nestled in the foothills of the Andes Mountains, hugging close to the Argentinian/Chilean border of the Neuquén Province we finally arrived at Estancia Huechahue, a working cattle ranch of 15,000 acres of Patagonian Steppe where horses and cattle roam freely, and self- sustainability is not only a choice, but a necessary way of life. The estancia has been run by the Wood family for four generations, Jane Wood Williams currently at the helm. Horses and the running of an estancia is very much seen as a man’s job in Argentina, the gaucho way of life is incredibly macho and Jane Williams was no shrinking violet, a tough lady, but in this environment it is the only way to survive.
Horses meandered throughout the home stead grounds and guest accommodation, heads low grazing and foraging as they passed, a picturesque scene of idyllic proportions that left me and my eleven fellow riders awe-struck and eager to sample more of these Andean delights. Our first dinner displayed the fine array of foods produced here at the Estancia, home grown vegetables just plucked from the garden, beef from the ranch’s own herd and fresh fruits from the abundant orchards all washed down with a sample of Argentina’s world famous red wines. The taste buds were definitely tantalised and appetites whetted for the adventure that lay ahead!
The high pitched and unrelenting cock crow heralded the arrival of a new day. After another delicious sample of Estancia Huechahue’s natural offerings, the smell of freshly baked bread mingling through the air, it was time to meet the horses and our team. Our team of gauchos looked splendid in traditional bombachas (loose fitting trousers) and alpargatas (boots), topped off with a beret slung casually over their heads, Siggy the head gaucho standing proudly amongst the horses.
Our horses were even more impressive………. it is said that a Gaucho without a horse was the same as a man without legs, these Criollo crosses were built for the harsh environment we would face, strong and muscular with incredible endurance and a fearless nature. The horses were ridden using neck reining in a style very similar to Western; saddles were akin to old cavalry style with sheepskins on the top which were comfortable for long hours over varying terrain. The first days riding was around a small portion of the Estancia, mainly just to get a taste for our mounts, the style of riding and the type of terrain we would likely encounter. Illumine was my partner for the Argentinean portion of this trip and she valiantly carried me across rock strewn fields, displayed her great power and strength in scaling mountains, crossed through sparkling glacial streams and enjoyed galloping in the great wide open spaces of the Estancia, all under the cover of a clear blue sky. It felt like riding through a postcard, perfect in every way.
The next four days as we left the wide open plains of Argentine Patagonia and climbed the wild and rugged Argentinean Andes with our sure footed steeds and bulging saddle bags, we were challenged by Mother Nature at every turn. The mountains we traversed were steep, climbing almost vertically in some parts, the power engine of Illumine’s hindquarters devouring each step hungrily. The descents were so sheer in some parts it was as if the ground had just been swallowed up beneath us, one false move would see you crashing to the bottom. Clinging to the side of a craggy mountain face is where complete trust between horse and rider came into play, a connection that merges you both into one entity, moving as one being. After the arduous clamber of the mountains we enjoyed gallops along sandy tracks nestled between the majestic peaks, cows and llamas watching curiously, we wandered through forests of monkey puzzle trees and crashed through crystal clear streams beneath a changing array of weather systems……..wind and rain gave way to sunshine and stillness, cold and damp gave way to warmth and dry, the monumental snow capped peak of Mount Lanin Volcano ever watchful, ever present, growing more impressive with every hoof beat.
Our leisurely lunch stops gave us time to recoup; Pedro always welcomed us with a smile and a feast to silence the hunger pangs. The rich velvety tones of Argentina’s famous vino tinto lulled us into a restful siesta beneath the warm caress of the midday sun; our horses munching happily close by.
By night we camped in the wilderness, tents pitched by luminous mountain lakes or cascading streams, the icy cold water a shock to the system but a blessing for the sore muscles!! We experienced a night as true gauchos when we reached Lorenzo’s sheep farm, wild and remote with no vehicular access, we slept on our sheepskins and rode with a caravan of pack horses. Pedro cooked fine feasts over the fire, great big chunks of Argentinean beef and racks of ribs to satisfy our growling stomachs and fuel us for the next day’s adventures.
I remember waking up on our last day in Argentina, frost crystals glistened on my tent beneath the early morning sun, the world was silent and calm………..amongst the serenity, the realisation hit, I had just crossed the Mighty Andes, I had accomplished the titanic challenge, at times I felt I would falter and quit, but here I was one hour’s ride from the border with Chile, Mount Lanin firmly at my back and not looming ahead of me!
Leaving Illumine behind (we would meet again for a final ride at Estancia Huechahue), we crossed the border on foot, innocently declaring that we had not been in contact with any animals in Argentina despite our very obvious equine attire and the eau de horse that permeated the air! Loth and Pamela Kutler welcomed us with warm smiles and our first experience of Chile was that of a beautifully decorated table laden with Chilean cuisine and wine bedecked with delph, silverware, wine glasses and vases of flowers, hidden beneath the shade of a forest of larch and beech, Mount Lanin a stunning backdrop.
After lunch we had a brief introduction to the Chilean Criollo, an extremely hardy breed with the sure footedness of a mountain goat, who despite their small stature can easily carry an adult rider up and down the most demanding of inclinations. Abundant of mane and tail, these small horses strut instead of walk, always on a mission. Simsona, named after a Chilean alcoholic beverage became my new little partner in crime……..stereotyping the Irish girl per chance?!!!
The landscape on the Chilean side of the Andes was much different to that of Argentine Patagonia, as contrasting as day and night. Here we rode through a canvas of lush green temperate rainforest, a blanket of emerald stretched as far as the eye could see. The terrain and riding however was just as challenging, the whirr of Loth’s machete as it sailed through the air, slashing at vegetation, cutting a trail along steep winding tracks became a familiar mountain melody. Upward gradients so precipitous I often lay horizontal across Simsona’s back, grasping at his mane to stay astride, his tough little hooves never missing a beat as he soldiered bravely upward. At times the downhill slope was so sheer we had to dismount and let each human and beast navigate and fend for themselves, reuniting once again on terra firma.
Loth himself was somewhat of an inspirational figure to me, his talent and skill at communicating with his horses was astounding. A firm believer in natural horsemanship, he would whisper and the horses would follow. During our lunch stop on our second day riding in Chile we stopped in a beautiful luscious pasture, and we let the horses free to roam and eat and enjoy this little slice of paradise while we partook in a wonderful siesta basking in the sun. Of course the horses gallivanted far and wide; following their noses to the sweetest most succulent grasses……one shrill whistle from Loth and the little vagabonds came thundering back, a symphony of eager hooves. It was incredible to watch, the little herd standing patiently as he greeted each one individually, true respect and companionship.
After four chilly nights camping, we experienced true luxury in Chile. Our first night was spent at a quaint old farmhouse owned by “Nanna” who kindly let riders stay on this leg of the expedition. Complete with a hot water shower and cosy, soft beds I felt as if all my Christmas’ had come at once, the sheer exhilaration of the feeling of hot water against my skin was pure bliss, a puddle of grime and mud swirled at my feet. Our final night in Chile was spent at Loth and Pamela’s home “Turismo Maichin” located in the Araucania region of Chile, Puente Basas Grande close to the hillside of River Maichin. Sitting in the garden overlooking a vista of the Andes carpeted in ancient forest, the aroma of spit roasted lamb wafting through the air and a cold beer in my hand was the perfect end to the adventure of a lifetime……………………
Crossing the Andes – February 2010.
Author: Janine Whyte (Indiananeeners Globetrotting Cowgirl.)