"Don't fall off – you may never get back on" – Horseriding in the Argentinean Andes can be scary stuff. Adam Baines saddled up to see for himself
Standing in fresh snow beneath an 11,000 ft pass, our guide, Mariano, has some simple advice: “Don’t fall off here – you may never get back on.” The risk is not so much falling from the path – there isn’t one – but tumbling headlong from your horse. Welcome to Day Four of a knee-trembling adventure holiday... a week’s horse trek through the heart of the Argentine Andes.
Staring up at the pass, I rack my memory for any riding school nuggets which might get me through the next half hour. “Shoulders back. Elbows supple and relaxed.” It may have made sense in Surrey, but here it sounds like mediaeval Chinese. The handful of lessons I’d taken on the Downs hadn’t included mountain traverses. Day Four promised to be an epic.
Some holiday destinations are so far off the beaten track that just making the booking becomes an adventure. Andean horse trekking is one of them. Having set my sights on joining a Latin America posse, I’d searched for two fruitless months and was on the point of abandoning the whole project, when a friend-of-a-friend produced a phone number in Buenos Aires. The number was for SB Producciones and the adventure was about to get airborne.
The SB of SB Producciones was none other than Susan Barrantes, mother to the Duchess of York, one time owner of 500 Argentine polo ponies, and now my last hope of saddling up in the southern hemisphere.
Call me a romantic, but the prospect of phoning a member of the extended Royal Family for advice on my autumn break gave me an unearthly thrill. Moments before making the call, I phoned the Press Office at Buckingham Palace to check up on conversational etiquette with Sra Barrantes. Then, taking my life in my hands, I dialled Argentina.
The briefing from the Palace must have been a good one. One month later I was on a plane to Argentina, booked on a week’s Andean trek in Mendoza and with an open invitation to visit Susan Barrantes in Buenos Aires. I was dizzy with gratitude.
The State of Mendoza, due west of Buenos Aires, is the site of some of the steepest scenery in the country. Linking the southern Andes to the 16,000 ft peaks of the northern cordillera, Mendoza is a marvel of jagged skylines. Even 100 km from the peaks in the San Rafael, the town where the group was to meet, the distant zigzag of the Andes gave our first rendezvous a special buzz.
Meeting the other members of a group tour is, of course, one of the more anxious moments of the trip. Having flown thousands of miles in cramped conditions (9,000 miles in this instance) there’s the dread fear you’ll find yourself teamed up with the trainspotters from hell. But in San Rafael, the experience was a happy one. The dating-machine of classified ads had thrown me together with four stylish South African women (“we’re here because we want to be”), a Chilean vintner, and an American indie-rock fan. And not a single anorak in sight.
Following a night in a ski hotel in Los Molles at 6,000 ft, we drove the final 10 km to the edge of civilisation. There, corralled in a wicker enclosure, the horses were saddled up and waiting for their 180 km trek through the mountains. Time to ride out.
Progress on the first day was slow. Few of us had ever ridden with a gaucho saddle, and just as the new tack was starting to make sense, the mule bolted on a vicious slope, scattering food and supplies as it disappeared over the horizon.
By nightfall, we’d only trekked 12 km into the mountains, and made camp some way short of the really big scenery. The next day, the Andes were to hit us full on the chin.
Maybe it’s the way the high and low cordillera mingle in the region, or maybe it’s the strange cocktail of volcanic and glacial geology, whatever the reason, the landscape in Mendoza is a magical mystery tour of permanently unfolding vistas. Just as you’re getting used to a flowering Alpine water meadow, a sudden peak will transform the next valley into dry Mexican shrub. Minutes later, higher still, red volcanic ash spills over the slopes to form a strange perpendicular desert. And just a kilometre further on you’re face to face with granite rock and wind-sculpted snow.
Two special ingredients help to make this Andean drama even more intoxicating. The first is the quality of the light – so low at sunrise that water meadows dazzle the eye like polished chrome, so low at sunset that pebbles throw a nine inch shadow.
The second ingredient is the sheer freshness of the whole landscape. With the local towns built less than 100 years ago, huge chunks of the Andes are still waiting to be discovered. The proof? During five days in the mountains, we didn’t see a single human footprint let alone a rusting Coke can. Mankind is invisible up there, and will be for decades to come.
As the days ambled by, the adventure found a comfortable daily pace. We’d wake shortly after dawn, and move slowly from sleeping bags to the camp fire. Most of us slept fully clothed, so all that was missing to start the day was a pair of boots and a mug of maté (a high-caffeine cowboy brew sucked through a steel straw). Sipping from tin mugs, and nibbling fresh scones from the fire, we’d gently come to after a night under a star-drenched Andean sky.
While the late risers packed their bags, Ruben, the gaucho, would run across the slopes, covering a mile or more to drive the horses back to the valley. Saddles and saddle-bags would take another half hour to fix, and we’d hit the trail between nine and ten.
Lunch followed three or four hours later... Sometimes a brief water stop, but other times a major feed and siesta. Mariano, the guide, seemed to enjoy confusing us by serving amazing meals in the middle of nowhere. On Day Four, the sight of wiener schnitzel served with a wedge of fresh lemon was enough to make me want to embrace him.
The campsite was usually a grassy spot near fast-flowing water, and the first task was always to gather firewood, but with a little cunning you could peel off fatigues early in time for a swim before dusk. Not everyone, of course, wants to swim in Andean ponds at a few degrees above freezing, but for me, one of the unforgettable moments was an evening dip in the company of swallows, watching wing-tips ripple the water just inches from my nose.
Gathering round the fire at sunset, we’d rest on saddle blankets, and settle in for the evening meal. Always a big event, the week’s cowboy cuisine just kept on getting better, culminating in a barbecue of whole roast goat – served steaming hot on the back of a knife. The bottles of Scotch and pisco would circulate until the fire wood ran out, and then we’d creep into our sleeping bags. No canvas – just a duvet of horse blankets as we slept side by side for warmth, like puppies.
As on any big expedition, we had our share of heroes. First mention has to go to Ruben, and his extraordinary skills as a gaucho. With cheek bones hewn from tanned leather, Ruben was the dignified, distant cowboy designed by Central Casting. To watch him gallop a 30 degree slope after a lost horse, or blaze a trail over virgin snow was a lesson in humility.
Next in line are the horses themselves, indestructible animals combining the skills of tight-rope walker and circus strong man. Descending slopes so steep the animal would literally disappear beneath you, the horses would pick their way to the valley as if on tip-toe, and still have the strength to jump the stream at the bottom. Never groomed, watered or fed, and left to fend for themselves at night, these Andean heroes make the most rugged British working horse look like a cossetted museum exhibit.
From the moment I’d christened my horse (‘Clint’), the bonding process became irreversible. On the occasional flat meadow we’d show the group a classic rising trot, and sometimes even a canter. It never failed to raise a laugh.
And as on every real adventure, the week built towards a single climax: our date with the 11,000 ft pass. Mountain trips in early spring are often full of surprises, and on this occasion a late thaw left us with 4 km of drift snow to cover. The horses plunged up to their knees with every other step. A delicious crunching sound.
True, parts of the crossing felt significantly dangerous, but gaucho legend has it that every rider owns the land where you fall off, and so it was that our Chilean vintner almost became the owner of some remote skiing country at 10,500 ft. As the best horseman in the group, however, he knew how to calm the horse and remount.
And when the last of us had cleared the snow field, we took hits from a bottle of rum, yodelled, and gave thanks.
The final ride back into civilisation was a bit of a wrench. Cantering towards the hotel we whipped the horses on with our reins in best High Chaparral fashion. But each of us knew the good life was back in the hills. There was a splash-down for this posse of Andean space travellers – the hotel’s very own suite of natural sulphur baths. But they wouldn’t let me bring Clint in for a soak and there were no darting swallows. I’ve never been sadder to be home.
Having realised that he needs at least one trip a year to keep mentally and physically fit, Adam Baines has driven huskies through the Arctic, ridden a bike through Vietnam, and paddled a canoe in Amazonia.
What to take: Items which need highlighting are: broad-brimmed sun hat; jodhpurs; walking boots; riding gloves; water flask and Sudocrem (nappy-rash cream).
What to leave behind : Riding boots (utterly useless in the Andes); riding hat (nobody wears them); gymkhana rosettes.