Fast riding on wide open grasslands without a road or house in sight just cattle, deer, guanocos and the occasional rhea on the skyline. So far after 30 rides, this is maybe my favourite one. Patagonia is a vast area partly in Argentina and partly in Chile bounded by the Andes on the west and a desert on the east. Settlement started in the early 1900’s with Europeans buying vast estancias of thousands of acres and there is still a self sufficient frontier like feel.
After two days at Huechahue, you ride to two other estancias staying two nights at each and then one night in the town of Junin. The two estancias are quite special and both have the feel of private homes. The first Estancia Cerro de los Pinos a 20 kilometre ride from Huechahue has been recently redone and it is very elegant. It felt like an 8 star hotel. Rooms are enormous – more like suites – and the managers create a house party atmosphere. Meals are elegant and the cuisine is sophisticated European style starting with tea when you arrive, through cocktails and appetizers to dinner. Lunch is often a picnic.
On our first trip there, my husband Ben and I were the only two riding one day and we rode into a grassy clearing ringed with apple trees in bloom to find a small wooden table set with china and crystal and a chef waiting to cook our steaks. It felt a little odd to have four people waiting to serve the two of us but we decided just to go with the flow and enjoy the luxury. The second estancia is Estancia Collon Co which is a refurbished estancia home and was equally luxurious and the food was wonderful. For these two places, the effort to make people truly feel like a guest in their home works amazingly well.
The horses are strong and sensible, selected for performance rather than appearance, and they have amazing endurance. Many are locally bred Criollo or part Criollo. One day you ride the horses from Cerro de los Pinos to give the Huechahue horses a day off. The saddles are either English at Cerro de los Pinos or Huechahue uses a McLellan style army tree with sheepskin on top. These are a bit like a western saddle without the horn. The double layers of sheepskin make a very comfortable but quite high seat. It makes a 14 HH horse feel like 16HH when you are swinging your leg over the saddle. Huechahue tack is rough rawhide not the polished leather you might be used to at home but it works. The style of riding is western neck reining. Tacking and untacking is done for you.
The style of riding is long days broken by a long lunch stop. The horses are unsaddled at lunch time and often allowed to graze so they have a good roll and a rest while their riders enjoy lunch and a siesta. Lunch is carried in your saddlebags some days or you are met by a van and a more elaborate lunch is cooked for you. At Collon Co. I ate the best steak I have ever had and a wonderful venison stew. That day lunch was at a spacious old cabin, a place where the workers would stay if they were working cattle or sheep.
One of the highlights at Huechahue is a ride in the early evening to see the condors fly. You ride out to a cliff, but must walk the last mile or so to sit at the edge of the cliff and watch the birds returning for the night. The cliff side runs for several miles so you can watch birds a long way off. The condors flew quite low over us and it is quite exciting to have an enormous eagle like bird hovering over you checking you out. As we sat there, Jane the owner of Huechahue reached into a crevice in the rocks and pulled out wine and home grown walnuts. We sat having drinks and watching for the birds.
There were several birds flying and we sat for such a long time watching that we rode back in the dark. I had never ridden when it was pitch dark but horses see well in the dark and you just have to trust them. The greys were more visible and it was reassuring to see their rear ends gleaming in the night. That is one ride that I will never forget.
Every day seemed to have something unique. On a day ride at Huechahue we went to a burial cave in the hills. At Collon Co we saw herds of hundreds of red deer pouring over a hillside. The red deer are an introduced species and over populating and becoming pests. Venison is often on the menu. Returning to Huechahue from Junin, we crossed the River Chimehuin just outside Junin. It is a very wide deep river with several channels. A special guide came to show us the way across. Everyone wearing a traditional wool poncho took it off because the weight of the wool could drag you down if you went into the water. Our instructions were to keep your horse’s head slightly upstream and do not watch the water right in front of you, look far ahead. I thought that I was doing that but when people started shouting at me I realized that I was drifting downstream. I had been looking a little way ahead but you need to look at something on the far bank – really far ahead. No one fell in but the water was sometimes well up over our boots.
This is a ride for people who love to go fast. The open moorlike land is perfect for lots of cantering. There are tracks and a few unpaved roads but these are soft going for the horses and perfect for canters and gallops. We galloped so long one day that I actually did want to stop and for me that is unusual. When Jane turned and said “Shall we have a little canter?” we got ready for a full blast gallop. We arrived cantering up the driveway of one of the estancias. What happened to walking the last mile rule?
Huechahue offers other rides, one camping ride into the Lanin park, and across the Andes ride and just staying at the estancia. The estancia itself offers quite varied riding with lots of open grassland, canyons, stream and valleys. On our last morning we had a short ride and saw totally different landscape from any of the other days. Next time I would like to stay at the estancia for a few extra days to see more of it. And play poloball.
Who should go on this ride? I think you need to be fit enough for long days and OK with going fast and managing a horse in open country. The horses are very sensible and not at all difficult to manage but this is not a ride for your first time in open country. Huechahue does accept inexperienced riders but the Estancia to Estancia ride is not the best choice for them. Staying at the estancia gives inexperienced riders the option to ride shorter times and at a slower pace. Two guides are with the ride at all times and the groups can be split with the slower riders following one guide. Non riders can join you by vehicle at many of the lunch stops. Fly fishing is a feature especially at Cerro de los Pinos as well as Huechahue, so if you travel with someone who likes to fish, it is good choice. A word of warning about the wind. Patagonia feels like the windiest place in the world.
What would I change about this ride? Nothing except staying longer at each of the estancias. One of my dream vacations is to stay at Huechahue, ride on to Cerro de los Pinos, then on to Collon Co. turn around and come back again, spending two days at each place each way and missing out on Junin and the river crossing. Deep water may be exciting but it is not my cup of tea. You can book this ride directly at www.huechahue.com. I know that Ride World Wide and Equitours also book this ride and I am sure other riding trip agents do as well.