Across the Andes – Argentina to Chile

From the rolling open grasslands of Argentina, up through Andean steppes, fording rivers, through great forests, over a wind-swept pass and down into lush green Chile – it is a unique experience. The ride is run by Jane Williams of Estancia Huechahue and starts out from Huechahue near San Martin de los Andes in Argentina’s Patagonia and ends up near Puente Barras in Chile. It is nine days of riding long hours.

We went a few days early to have some time to ride at Huechahue. Days on the estancia are dependent on the guests’ wishes and whatever work is going on. We chose to accompany the gauchos’ rounding up cows and calves and helping to vaccinate the calves, or at least chase them into the pens. We passed on the castrating part. It is a wonderful landscape to ride through looking for cattle in wide open grasslands punctuated by stony cliffs and canyons. We carried traditional cattle slapping implements – I have no idea what they are called. They have a wooden handle and a short leather blade or strap and you use them to hit the cattle, slap your boot or saddle to make a loud noise or even on occasion to encourage your horse. Day two I abandoned mine. Cattle work is often not fast riding but we made up for that after we left the cattle and had lots of good canters on the way home. One day we spotted a wild boar family with parents and 10 or 12 tiny babies. The babies are very cute with their little tails straight up in the air but their parents are not nearly so appealing. Another day we saw a group of Guanacos with tiny wooly babies.

There are several cliffs that have caves. One day’s ride took us to see caves that were first used for native burials and then Christian burials. It is surprising to see the crosses in the caves marking Christian burials. Another older burial cave system has no remains left at all. It is reached by some very careful crawling through narrow tunnels. Our guide went ahead and lit candles. It was an amazing site with the flaring candles illuminating the rock walls.

When the rest of the group arrived, we spent the first two days at Huechahue and tried out several horses to decide which equine companion we wanted to ride across the Andes. It was difficult to choose. The horses are Argentian Criollos or crosses and are incredibly fit. I hated choosing but was told firmly that I could only take one. Day three we started on our adventure riding out across the grasslands towards the white cone of the Lanin volcano.

Lanin volcano

The tack is functional rawhide rather than polished leather. The saddles are based on a McClellan tree and covered in sheepskin, very comfortable. The horses are very well looked after. They are unsaddled at lunch time, their backs rinsed with a bucket of water and they are usually turned out or tied where they can graze. The lunch breaks are long so humans and equines get a chance to have a siesta. Sometimes the lunches come by van and on other days they are carried in your saddlebags. On saddlebag picnic days, I usually tried to avoid carrying the wine or the horse food and grabbed the bread and the plastic cups. I am sure my horse appreciated that. The lunches are delicious but they do emphasize meat. This is not a ride that caters for vegetarians.

horse riding

Camping is not for me but I knew that I would love the riding so I decided to brave the six nights of camping. Not only did I survive, I thrived on it but I must admit that the camping was pretty comfortable. Our first night out on the camping part, we rode into camp to see a white linen covered table of drinks beside a roaring fire. The tents were comfortable and the sleeping bags warm. Our camp sites were beside rivers and the hardy swam and the timid bathed timidly using our washing up bowls to pour water over ourselves. The turn down service was a plastic wash up bowl, a small towel, a packet of Kleenex and of course a wrapped chocolate.

Argentina is very dry and we rode enveloped in red dust. Galloping through clouds of dust is quite tricky. We had a memorable gallop at the end of one day where I saw nothing at all but I had complete faith in my horse. Our setting up camp ritual included the dirtiest face competition and once our helmets came off, we had gleaming white foreheads to set off the shades of brown.

Every day was different. One of the most memorable days was a day spent riding through the forest of ancient Monkey Puzzle trees. I had never seen so many Monkey Puzzles or any of that size. They are a very primitive tree unchanged since prehistoric times.

primitive tree

We could always look up and see the white cone of the Lanin volcano and I kept wondering if we were actually going to right up and over it but we went to one side of the volcano. This was the first trip through the route this year and we spent some time finding the right paths over the wind scoured rocks and through patches of deep snow. A few times we had to dismount and send our horses through the snow up to their bellies while we followed doing our versions of skiing in our riding boots.

horses through the snow

On day seven, we said goodbye to our Argentian horses as they cheerfully got on the horse trailer heading home and we went through customs at the border crossing to meet our Chilean guides. We had a long sumptuous lunch and met our new Chilean horses for a long afternoon ride through forests of Southern Beeches or Lengue trees. And surprise – no tents. We stayed at a heritage house in the park. This antique green clapboard building is a maze of wooden walled rooms and best of all bathrooms with showers.

Our last day of riding in Chile, we rode through bamboo and Lenge forests. Chile has many species of native bamboo. The path was narrow and very overgrown. The landscape in Chile was greener and obviously got more rain. The trails were steep and narrow through tall thick bamboo. We saw a parent vulture and a baby watching us from a tall dead tree.

Our last night in Chile, we spent at the home of our Chilean guides near Puente Barras where the guide’s family have farmed for generations. Tents yes but a main building with a living room area, dining room and showers with piles of thick towels. This kind of camping is OK. When we rode in, we were welcomed with pitchers of mango sours and hot puff pastries. Next day, a van ride back to Huechahue for a late lunch and our last ride.

I did this ride in December 2009. Would I do this ride again? Yes for sure but now that I have crossed the Andes, I might try the ‘across the continent ride’ from one coast of Chile into Argentina and straight across to the other coast, 21 days but just 10 camping days. I could do that.

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