Horse riding safari through Patagonia, Argentina: This must be what it's like to live inside a fairytale

Horse riding safari through Patagonia, Argentina: This must be what it's like to live inside a fairytale



No one's ever used the word cowboy to describe me I have never had a horse riding lesson nor owned a pair of Levis in my life and yet here I am in Patagonia in chaps. They would arrived by post from Horseland the week before.

Anxious to test the fit  I would pulled them on over board shorts donned my new black felt cowboy hat You Tubed The Eagles' Desperado "Desperado why don't you come to your senses you have been out riding fences for so long now" and posed bow legged in front of the mirror


I feel only slightly less ridiculous here at San Martin de los Andes Airport my chaps have been in place since I left my hotel room in Buenos Aires this morning but time is of the essence; the moment our driver outside drops us off my eight day/seven night horse safari across Patagonia begins.

I'll be in the saddle for up to eight hours a day chaps will ease the leg chafing; but nothing I'm warned, will save my backside. We make our way south by road through the heart of Argentina's pretty Lake District the Andes on my right, the huge glacial lakes of Argentina's oldest national park  Nahuel Huapi to my left.

This safari by horseback will take us through 12,000 hectares of privately-owned land bordering Nahuel Huapi and the 400,000 hectare Lanin National Park. We're deposited beside an almighty lake under this big, blue Patagonian sky and without a hint of breeze the lake's surface reflects the forests and snow flecked mountains fringing it then we were loaded aboard a speedboat.

As we ease onto a pebbled beach flanked by ancient beech forest I see horses saddled ready to ride. These Criollo are the native horse of the Argentinian pampas, renowned for their sure-footedness and stamina one was once ridden from here to New York a three year saga of 22,000 kilometers across the Andes the world's driest desert and the Amazon.

I imagine mine will have a fetching Spanish name, one which suggests courage, strength … or perhaps an element of unpredictability and danger. No, I get Pork Chop.

LESSONS FROM A GAUCHO PIN-UP


Jakob von Plessen is a modern-day gaucho (traditional Argentinian cowboy) with Argentinian, French and Austrian heritage, and Johnny Depp's cheekbones. When I paraded in the mirror the morning my chaps arrived, it was von Plessen I saw staring back. He wears the loose trousers –bombachas – favoured by gauchos and has a dagger facon tucked into his belt. His beret is pushed to the side; while it casts scarcely a hint of shade onto his face, it looks damn cool. He arrives so gracefully on horseback it's as if he's levitating. His ride – I imagine – is called Diablo (Devil). If it isn't, it ought to be.


We are surrounded on all sides by 1000 meter high volcanic ridgelines which filter the afternoon sun. This region was discovered by Spanish conquistadors who rode across the Andes looking for the mythical City of the Caesars Trapalanda said to be full of gold silver and diamonds.

Anyone that discovered it would ride away rich. Herds of red deer and wild horses feed on the rich green grass of the plain, and when the sun finds a gap in the escarpments everything looks so golden that this might indeed be Trapalanda. When van Plessen's sure we're ready, he leads us into a canter.

And while I hardly float through the air as he does indeed it's all I can do just to hold on this is my cowboy movie playing out in real time and guess who's starring in it?. My heart beats so fast it's all I can hear and the frantic drum beat that is my horse's hooves.

I can't fathom this high I feel like screaming out loud I know when I analyse this moment later I won't be able to recreate it in my mind so I go with it now for all it's worth because right now I'm not sure anything will ever feel quite so good again.

"We travel to become young fools again to slow down time and get taken in Pico Iyer writes in his essay the reason we travel. Or maybe cowboy film star Will Rogers puts it more succinctly: "A man that don't love a horse there is something the matter with him."

A PLACE TO LAY YOUR HEAD


It doesn't get dark till 10PM this deep into summer, so when we make camp I still have hours of dusk in which to stare open mouthed at the setting. Home is a set of rustic timber cabins van Plessen built beside a bend in a slow flowing river.

This is all part of a privately owned estancia cattle ranch owned by three brothers passed down through generations. Gauchos tend to cattle that feed across the property. Some of my riding companions head straight to the water's edge with fishing rods there's no better fly fishing anywhere on earth but I find it takes all my concentration just to look at my surroundings.

Our chef Oscar has spent an entire afternoon preparing an obscene amount of beef to be cooked on a grill he balances on coals in an open air firepit. It's as good a place as any to sit in these last moments of daylight. When it fades out the night sky is impossibly clear beaming planets shine down auroras of tiny star grains sparkle and pint-sized blinking stars shoot across the sky.

When it's too brisk we go inside a hut where lamb's wool covers seats set beside an open log fire and bottles of local malbec adorn the walls, beside stag skulls. I wonder if Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid had it so good when they built their ranch 200 kilometers or so south of here after fleeing the US by ship. They raised 300 cattle 1500 sheep and 28 horses. Cassidy wrote to a friend back home: "I like this part of the world so much I think I have settled down for good."

They were however soon back at what they did best: robbing banks travelling back and forth across these treacherous mountain passes for their next payday. They made a full return to banditry then died for it in Bolivia in 1908. If only they would found contentment out here in this dreamy landscape they might have lived to be old men, fat on barbecue and local lager.

THE PASS OF TEARS


You don't have to be an experienced rider here just don't be scared of heights. While my dreams of cowboy grandeur are fulfilled on jaunty sprints across the steppe the reality is almost all the work on this safari is done by your horse.

"Think of Pork Chop as a big woolly armchair" co-host Daisy Soames tells me. "Just sit back and enjoy the ride."

What the Criollo horse can do better than any other is balance on mountain tops. Don't even think about steering it. Van Plessen built the trails we will ride today. He looked out from the valley below and plotted a course across the mountain which he dubbed The Pass of Tears after discovering it brought some guests undone. It's almost impossibly steep just getting to it through the conifers but Pork Chop finds a low gear and powers up slopes no horse ought to.

We pass the tree line and trudge across a ridgeline of volcanic ash that's as crumbly underfoot as sand. Up here I can see out to enormous blue lakes and mountain passes which continue on to the Andes. There's not another person nor homestead in sight.

Here cows scramble beyond the steppe to freedom with $1000 bounties on their heads. An Andean Condor circles above me in the thermals it's the largest flying bird in the world with a wing span of 3½ metres. Charles Darwin wrote that he had watched one flying for 30 minutes without seeing it once flap its wings. As I stand on top of a rocky outcrop high in the mountains the condor flies 20 meters above. "I've never seen one this close," said van Plessen.

As we journey further along the pass my horse steps blindly into thin air trusting its strength to stop us sliding hundreds of meters. It's as if I'm riding through ski-fields on horseback double black diamond slopes fall away below us on both sides. The wind's building now whistling along the ridgeline.

"Some people need whiskey to get them through" van Plessen tells me. "But all you need is trust these horses won't fall."

DON'T TOUCH HIS HORSE


There are rest days when we ease our hindquarters with strolls and lethargic yoga sessions did John Wayne know half-pigeon is a great hip-opener? and long sessions on the verandah of the cabin where the bar is. But we can't stay long for Filipe Chandia one of Argentina's most authentic gauchos awaits.

No one is romanticized in Argentina quite like the gaucho though today there are few genuine gauchos left. These cowboys of the Pampas flourished in the 18th century when their outlaw tendencies and superior animal handling skills made them rich mustering livestock across Patagonia. By the late 19th century however livestock were mostly fenced into huge estancias, and gauchos became mere farmhands. The industrial revolution reduced their purpose even more and many left for cities. The gaucho became an almost mythical figure and today most gauchos work in tourism.

Yesterday von Plessen sniffed at the air and warned that rain maybe even snow was coming. So we start our ascent to the heavens in ponchos. This trail takes us through knee deep snow among Jurassic beech forest and along ridgelines where Pork Chop clings onto mountains with nothing but good genetics holding him there.

Chandia has no phone but though we are forced to change our path because of inclement weather he has a gaucho's 6th sense of navigation. He's waiting for us where we must plot a course through snow. Surrounded by his three mangy dogs he rides a stout pony which looks as tough as a mule. We stop for lunch and I pat his ride. "Don't ever touch a gaucho's horse" von Plessen warns me.

Chandia's orange beret makes him look quite dandy; but don't let appearances fool you: In Cowboys of the Americas Richard A Slattery declares gauchos: "strong silent types proud and capable of violence when provoked". Chandia's facon is tucked into his bombachas and his rebenque leather whip protrudes from his saddlebag.

Chandia lives on a homestead 2 hours' ride from the nearest estancia. Many gauchos have embraced modernity, but Chandia is still living in 1850. We will be staying with him there in his lonely world just a 5 hour ride from here through the wilderness on trails etched onto the sides of mountains.

A FAIRYTALE


'When castrating a horse do it on a full moon they bleed less. When castrating a cat don't worry about the moon. When cooking a lamb on a crucifix do it on an angle so its fat melts onto everything."

These are life lessons I learn from Chandia that lives in a fairytale. On arrival at his homestead we're joined by 2 lambs Dolly and Enzo that follow us wherever we go. There's no electricity nor Wi-Fi but showers are hot courtesy of burning logs.

Light at night comes with thanks to the modern wonder of kerosene and candles as well while water is pumped throughout the property only if Chandia's wife Marta rides a generator with a bike pedal for 40 minutes each day.

Here, foals are the target of hungry jaguars, horses are broken in in a single day, and generations of gauchos were born under trees Chandia shows me where his mother was born at the back of the property.

This land has been in Chandia's family for four generations and barely a thing has changed except for the presence of visitors like us. Van Plessen used to bring his guests here for lunch when they kept telling him that being here was the best part of the ride van Plessen worked with Chandia to build 2 communal bathrooms and to erect thick canvas tents beside the barn where Marta prepares meals.

Sheep dog puppies play on thick green grass beside where I lie attempting to stretch life back into my hips and an enormous glacial lake is a short stroll away on the other side of the lake and in a different universe Alejandro Inarritu and Leonardo DiCaprio filmed some of The Revenant.

After 22 hours of horse riding in four days I'm grateful for this break an entire afternoon spent eating barbecued lamb on blankets in Chandia's backyard among the wildflowers beneath the mountain ranges. In the evening when the temperature drops dramatically we sit inside an ancient barn heated by wood fire eating home-made gnocchi with wild mushrooms fresh picked from the mountainside.

Filipe Marta and daughter Miriam spend entire winters in this barn, shut off from the world. Filipe uses the time to finesse his facon skills making reins bridles and saddles to use once winter breaks.

BACK TO 2019

It's only now with the end in sight that I realize I haven't seen another person in a week. Yesterday Chandia led us up a trail behind his home. We rode up through beech forest and with the light fading fought our way out of the trees onto a flat rock platform high in the sky.

From there we could see in every direction: back to the mountains we would crossed forward to the Andes we hadn't and below our feet the 300 meter deep Lake Traful. We stayed till sunset stained the mountains mauve. "Chandia says only about Twenty people have ever seen this" Daisy Soames tells me.

This morning we are leaving by boat and we have no words. Across Lake Traful the tiny settlement of Villa Traful feels like a mega city with its street lights and bitumen roads there's actually little more here than a campground and a fuel station.

In a modern world colonized by travelers and accessible by airline this journey allows us to disappear at least for a little while into the nooks and the crannies that nobody knows where nobody goes.

TRIP NOTES


Craig Tansley travelled as guest of The Classic Safari Company.

FLY

Fly to Buenos Aires with LATAM Airlines via Santiago then fly to San Martin with Aerolineas Argentinas and back from Bariloche

RIDE

The seven night Jakotango Patagonian Trail starts from $7800 per person twin share excluding air fares and operates from late November to March maximum of eight in a group. Most riders fly into and out of Buenos Aires for a few days of food and culture. It's recommended that participants are at least beginner intermediate riders though all riding levels are catered for.

FIVE MORE ADVENTURES IN PATAGONIA WORTH TRYING


THE W HIKE, TORRES DEL PAINE NATIONAL PARK


One of the world's most famous hikes between mountains and deep blue glaciers within Patagonia's most famous park. Keep your eyes open for the elusive puma, and to the skies for the Andean Condor.

FLY FISHING


New Zealand may argue but there's no better place on earth for fly fishing than Patagonia especially Argentina's Lake District where anglers must catch and release to ensure rivers and lakes teem with rainbow and brown trout.

WHALE WATCHING

Watch Southern Right whales and their calves play Ten meters from where you stand on the shoreline at one of the world's premier whale watching destinations Puerto Madryn. Its enclosed waters provide prime breeding zones between June and December.

DIVING

 You will want a thick wetsuit but Argentina's diving capital Peninsula Valdes, is worth the brain freeze. Its World Heritage listing protects the animals who come here. Dive with Southern Right whales, elephant seals who calve in October, sea lions, penguins and orca.

ROCK CLIMBING

El Chalten is the epicenter of Patagonian climbing not just because it's every climber's dream with routes to suit novices and multi day climbing routes for crazies but because the village of hostels and bars is completely rock climbing crazy.

FIVE MORE HORSE RIDE SAFARIS WORTH TAKING


NAMIBIA


Take an 11 day ride through the Namib Desert in Namibia across the region's ochre colored dunes eerie moonscape and desolate beaches of the Atlantic Coast dodging wildlife along the way. Keen riders should consider the 31 day Namibian Epic Safari ride.

SPAIN


Want your riding to come with plenty of wine cheese and long lunches? Take a ride through southern Spain's Andalusia region with one of Australia's highest rated polo players Andrew Williams. Canter into provincial towns in time for tapas.

BOTSWANA


Ride with wild game through one of southern Africa's densest wildlife population zones, the Okavango Delta. You will ride between four and 6 hours a day crossing plains and riding through rivers to sleep in treehouses and safari tents within your own private concession of the Delta. 

KENYA


Ride across the famed savannahs and acacia woodlands of Kenya's Masai Mara region on a 6, 7 or 8 night riding safari. You will ride among lions, leopards, hippos and elephants , and traditional Masai herders.

INDIA


Traverse some of the remotest regions in all of India while bringing help to children on a relief ride. Accompanying you on the ride will be dentists eye specialists and pediatric doctors. Start from Delhi and take one of two area options Pushkar or Khimsar.


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