It was a simple premise for a pack trip: deliver a friend to the bus station. But in the backcountry of Argentine Patagonia, even an everyday errand requires miles – and days – in the saddle.
“The teeth of a storm.” For the first time, I understood what that meant. Molar shaped clouds brewed over the mountain skyline, looking like the gullet of a terrible being about to eat us raw.
“This doesn’t look good,” Eliseo Miciú said.
He stowed his camera in a backpack he wore when shooting from the saddle. Next to him, my fiancée Madeleine rode huddled down in a poncho with the blanket’s fringe draped over her rein hand for warmth. A head wind blew us into a “V” formation, like a gaggle of Canada geese that didn’t get the memo about when to fly south.
Then again, we were already south. South of the equator, in South America, in southwestern Argentina. It’s a quizzical land to a northerner. Everything is reversed. Birds do fly north for the winter. The constellation Orion is flipped upside-down, looking like a skull-and-crossbones. And water swirls in a clock-wise direction when you flush the toilet. Scarry. If the hands on my wristwatch spun backwards, I wouldn’t have been surprised. But that’s the beauty of Argentina. It’s a loophole that allows horsemen to glimpse what life might’ve been like on the American frontier.
We had been visiting Estancia Ranquilco, a 100,000-acre cattle and horse ranch where I’d worked on during a five-year stint in Argentina. Eliseo joined us for the trip, but he needed to leave early for his next photography assignment. Our plan was to pack him out to Copahue (ko-pah-way), a village with a bus station. Then Madeleine and I would return with the horses to Estancia Ranquilco. All told, it would require four days, and sixty five miles in the saddle.
Estancia Ranquilco’s owner, Ashley Carrithers, outfitted us with three saddle horses, one pack horse, and a full set of camping gear for the journey. At dawn on the first day, we’d stood in the corrals eyeing the sky for signs of inclement weather.
“Looks good to me,” Carrithers said. “You better hit the trail if Eliseo hopes to catch this week’s bus.”
I reviewed a map Carrithers had drawn in the dirt. We were to follow the Trocoman River upstream to a valley called Vallé de las Damas, then over a high mountain pass, and descend towards Copahue Volcano. The village was situated at the base of that peak. The adventure felt very Indiana Jones. We bid Carrithers adios and rode out under blue skies, feeling good about the promise of an open trail ahead of us. But April in the Andes is the equivalent of October in the Rocky Mountains, and the weather changed for the worse. It was a meteorological shift my home state of Montana would be proud of.
Che, a donde van, compañeros? – Hey, where are you guys going?
The voice came out of nowhere. To my right appeared a man and a woman on two ridiculously fast walking horses. The gaited Criollos’ hooves were a blur of motion like
the Road Runner cartoon character.
A Copahue, para tomar un collectivo, – To catch a bus in Copahue, I told him.
Te agarró una tormenta, – You’ve been caught by a storm.
The fact was irrefutable, and our conversation stalled. The gauchos paced our speed, causing their horses to pin their ears at our slow-pokes and give threatening looks that said, “Why, I outta…” The trail paralleled the Trocoman River, and the wind whipped its waters into a spray that mixed with snow so that we were being hosed-down with slush. The gaucho looked at our packhorse, then at the oncoming storm, and asked:
Donde hacen noche? – Where are you spending the night?
En campamiento, – Camping.
Mejor que pasan la noche en casa, – It’s best you spend the night in our home.
One hour later we were seated around a cook fire in their adobe hut. A pot simmered with puchero, a brothy concoction of goat meat, onions, potatoes, and rice. Served with torta fritas (fry bread), the meal was an infusion of nutrition and warmth. It did the body good. We chased it with slugs of red wine. It did the body even better. Our hosts were Vincente and Florencia Jara, nomadic gauchos known as puesteros who migrate with their herds between veranadas (summer pastures) in the high country, and invernadas (winter pastures) in the lowlands. The Jara family had summered their animals – horses, cattle, goats – on the upper Trocoman River for several generations. Today, Vincente explained, they’d ridden out to see his father off on a trip to town. They were preparing for their autumn arreo (cattle drive) down to warmer climates.
“My father will buy provisions and setup the invernada ahead of us,” he said. “We go to the Neuquén River, about one hundred kilometers away (60 miles). Traveling alone, my father should make it in two days. But, it’ll take us over a week driving with the herd.”
I hadn’t seen any livestock when we rode in, but then again, it was snowing in my face. Vincente pointed in the direction of the mountains where he said 400 goats and 50 cattle grazed. The Jaras lived according to a barter economy. The cattle were raised for trade, the goats were just food. Vincente explained that he would drop off one steer in town to pay for the provisions his father bought on credit.
“This snow is a good omen,” he said. “It replenishes the water sources for the livestock to drink, plus it keeps the trail dust down. We will launch the arreo soon.”
The fire died down, as did the conversation, and Florencia invited us to make camp in the kitchen. They bid us buenas noches, and adjourned to their bedroom in an adjacent hut. We spread saddle blankets and ponchos on the dirt floor and unrolled our sleeping bags. I fell asleep enveloped by the smell of damp wool and wood smoke, confused about what decade we were in.
Somewhere in the night, the storm quit. Three inches of snow were on the ground when we rode out the next morning. The trail departed the Jara Puesto and ascended a high plateau. We sat the horses at the pinnacle and took in the view of snaggletooth peaks. My inner geology nerd kicked in.
The jagged Andes Mountains look like a busted-off piece of peanut brittle. Exchange continental plates for candy, and that’s essentially what they are. During the late Jurassic period, 150 million years ago, the Nazca Plate (under the Pacific ocean) crashed into and below the South American Plate, thrusting up the new-born Andes. But it wasn’t just a hit-and-run accident. Today, the plates continue to collide at a velocity of 3.5 inches per year. That’s break-neck speed, geologically speaking. Near-daily earthquakes and volcanic eruptions rumble up and down the 4,300-mile range.
We could see Copahue Volcano in the distance ten miles away – we were halfway to the bus stop. Vincente Jara had told us that the volcano recently erupted in July 2000. Ash fell from the sky and area rivers turned milk-white with soot. It was a reminder that the Andes are on the eastern rim of the Pacific Ring of Fire, a chain of volcanoes that encircle the ocean. That makes Copahue kin to Mount St. Helens in Washington and Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines. I hummed Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” as we rode. It was an involuntary reflex.
Interestingly, the Andes played a key role in the creation of the Criollo horse breed. Equus cabullus isn’t native to the Western Hemisphere. In Argentina, horses were introduced by the Spanish explorer Don Pedro de Mendoza, who landed in 1535 and disembarked with seventy two horses, of mostly Andalusian descent. Shortly thereafter, he was forced to evacuate the settlement under force of Indian attack, and the horses were abandoned to roam free. They mixed with similar refuges from Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, Peru, and Chile so that fifty years later, when the next explorers landed in 1585, they encountered 80,000 wild horses on the pampas grasslands of Argentina.
Fast forward to 1919. A horse breeder in Buenos Aires, Dr. Emilio Solanet, sought to establish a Criollo breed association. Problem was, the local genetic pool had been muddied by everything from Thoroughbred to Trakehner bloodlines. Dr. Solanet traveled to the Andes, where the remote mountain terrain harbored unadultered Criollos, descended from the horses of Mendoza. He gathered thirty brood mares and several stud colts, and he drove them overland one thousand miles back to Buenos Aires. The Criollo Breed Association was formalized in 1923, and the progeny of those Andean horses were the breed’s first-ever grand champions.
We rode our non-grand champion Criollos across the plateau to where it dropped off into the sublimely named Vallé de las Damas – Valley of the Ladies. The Trocoman skittered across it like a rivulet of water on a windshield. We noticed a plume of smoke rising from a campfire on the river bank. A gaucho squatted beside it, using a foot-long knife to arrange coals around an asado de chivito, a lamb-like delicacy of roasted goat kid. The scene looked benign on the surface, but a complex code of conduct came into play as we approached.
It’s customary in the Andes to introduce yourself to anyone you cross on the trail, so it would be rude not to ride up and say hola. But it would also be rude to come across like we expected to share the gaucho’s meal. On the other hand, it would be rude of him not to invite us to lunch. In short, the situation was ripe for rudeness, which I preferred avoided since the gaucho was clearly packing heat.
“I’ll handle this,” Eliseo said, holding out a hand to check the direction of the wind. “We should approach from downwind so our horses don’t kick dirt on the meat.”
Only a full-blooded Argentine could have such wisdom; they’re born with a sixth sense for barbeque. We circled around, and Eliseo greeted the gaucho buenas tardes from a polite distance.
“Good afternoon,” he replied. The gaucho wiped his knife clean on a pant leg, sheathed it and came forward. “I’m Juilo Cuevas,” he said, shaking each of our hands in turn. “Please, dismount. Join me for lunch.”
“We shouldn’t, it’s best we keep riding,” Eliseo said, surprising Madeleine and me. We were hungry, and goat BBQ sounded scrumptious. But Eliseo was giving the gaucho an out. Cuevas recited a verse from a popular gaucho folk song.
“In the town where I’m from, an asado is the property of no man, it belongs to all. Please, rest your horses.”
“You quote Jorge Cafrune. How can we refuse?” Eliseo said.
We hobbled our horses and joined Cuevas at the campfire. He passed around a box of vino. Red wine is to a gaucho what Gatorade is to an athlete. Argentina is renowned for bottling fine wines, but gauchos opt for the low-grade, boxed variety. It’s cheaper, safer to pack in a saddle bag, and the box incinerates in a campfire. The only catch is that it looks, tastes, and has the viscosity of brake fluid.
“Here comes the arreo,” Julio Cuevas said, pointing to the distance where a cloud of dust was building. “I rode ahead of them to prepare lunch so it’s ready when they arrive.”
Like I said, Argentines take barbeque seriously. While we waited, I asked him about the route their cattle drive followed.
“The fastest trail cuts over the east side of the valley,” he said. “But the landowner up there locked the gate a few years ago. Now we have to go around to a dirt road ten kilometers away.”
Locked gates threaten the puestero way of life. Oddly, the culprit behind the closures is Argentina’s agriculture department, Servicio Nacional de Sanidad y Calidad Agroalimentaria (SENASA). They accuse puesteros of spreading disease and unsound breeding practices with their nomadic herds. During my gaucho years on Estancia Ranquilco, I once sat in on a meeting between the foreman, Hugo Manterola, and a SENASA official.
“Puestero cattle are dirty,” the official said. “Ranquilco must close its gates to protect your livestock.”
SENASA would breath down the estancia’s neck if Manterola didn’t do something. So he closed the center of the ranch, where the majority of the cattle are located. As a compromise, he opened a corridor around the perimeter for puesteros to use. The detour added one day to their drives, but at least they could still pass through the ranch. Most estancias weren’t so accommodating, and they locked their gates entirely, cutting puesteros off from their ancestral routes.
Bawling cattle and bleating goats heralded the arreo’s arrival to lunch. Before long, the animals were drinking at the river, and five more gauchos were drinking boxed vino. We ate the asado buffet style, each person taking a turn at the spit to carve off a piece of meat. The goat was magma hot, and melted fat made it slippery to handle as a doorknob lathered in Crisco. Years of finger-scalding practice had taught me a fool-proof asado strategy; I went straight for the shoulder blade. It required two quick incisions that I made before my hands suffered deep tissue burns.
We reduced the goat to bones in twenty minutes flat. Army ants aren’t so efficient. The gauchos chucked the empty wine boxes into the fire, mounted up, and returned across the river to resume the arreo. Julio invited us to join them and we forded the herd according to breed; goats first. They were fanned out, nibbling green shoots of grass at the river’s edge. We collected them into one bunch, and drove them into the water. The front goats balled-up in a traffic jam mid-river, balking at the swift current. We pushed them with our horses until they gave way, arching into a rainbow of white that floated down river, scattering on the opposite shore.
Next were seventy-five head of cattle, but the Cuevas cow dogs made short work of them. A few remount horses straggled behind that were so herd-bound that they followed of their own accord. We merged the livestock into one mob and marched down the trail.
“Do you know why it’s called ‘Valley of the Ladies?’” I asked Cuevas, making conversation.
“I’m not sure. Maybe because of the hills on the valley floor. They look like ladies seated on the ground,” he guessed.
My inner geologist wanted to explain that those were glacial moraines; mounds of dirt deposited by a glacier. But we’d heard enough from that nerd, so instead I pictured the hillocks how Julio saw them. I imagined peasant women from a Diego Rivera painting, seated with their dresses billowed around them. It made Valley of the Ladies feel mythological, which was à propos since we rode alongside nomadic gauchos that were like a time capsule from a bygone era.
One mile down the trail, our paths forked and we bid the Cuevases adios. Eliseo, Madeleine and I sat our horses and watched them drive the herd over a ridgeline and disappear. In their wake was a swath of hoof prints on the ground, a whisper of their passing. We turned our horses towards Copahue Volcano, where Eliseo had a bus to catch.
Learn about horseback vacations on Estancia Ranquilco, visit ranquilco.com.