Patagonia on horseback

Monday morning, my son and I flew from Buenos Aires to Bariloche, a mountain resort close to the Chilean border. Bariloche sits on the shores of the intensely blue Lake Nahuel Huapi, with the jagged, snowy Andes peaks of the national park with the same name and of Chile huddled around. (It’s formal name is San Carlos de Bariloche.)


A friend recommended Carol’s horse treks. This was in December of 2005; in later years she was listed in Lonely Planet. Carol picked us up early Tuesday to begin a three-day exploration on horseback into the Patagonian hills. We threw the bags we brought for our two weeks of travel into the back of her Land Rover and drove to the ranch.

Carol, our trek leader

“Just put in it what you need to take and we’ll leave the rest. Try to balance the weight,” she called to us, tossing us each a pair of saddlebags. We looked at her and then at our stuffed duffel bags and backpacks. “What do you really need? A change of socks and something warmer to wear at night.” she added. So we packed light and left our proverbial, and actual, baggage behind.

We hit the trail: seven horses, five people and two dogs. Two gauchos, Argentina’s term for cowboys, led the packhorses laden with tent, food, and gear. Across swampy fields, the dogs scared up white and black birds that raucously circled over our group calling “vivir, vivir,” or so I imagined, “to live”. We made our way through three gates delineating private lands, passing in and out of Nauel Huapi National Park. Nauel Huapi, which means tiger island in an indigenous language (Mapuche, I believe), describes a peninsula that juts out into the lake. Carol commented it should more appropriately be called puma island. She pointed out puma tracks along the way. The gauchos rode ahead in a cloud of dust. My son’s mount, Victor, was so tall that, as I rode behind them, he had to duck to avoid being whacked by low branches.

On the trail

Adam meets Victor
Gaucho at the first fence

Sitting around the fire at night, we heard the high-pitched laugh of a wild creature. We all looked at each other and I wondered: Was it fear or excitement? Is this something that could attack us? Or an animal we might have for dinner? The guides exchanged a few words in Spanish. “Wild boar!” Carol shouted as the gauchos jumped up to track the source of the call; Adam and I followed. As we approached a clearing, Shisha, the black dog, came bolting out. We saw only a spotted fawn, the gauchos described him as Bambi, but they confirmed there was a wild boar in the forest stalking the fawn.

For every meal, a grate was pushed into the ground over the fire, and we had an authentic Argentine grill: lamb, beef, sausage, thick bacon. (Fortunately, I was not yet a vegetarian at that point in my life.) At camp, all the meat was unpacked and hung from trees, out of reach of animals. Once dinner was cooking on the parilla, the gauchos started mate, a communal tea drink with a flavor similar to green tea. A gourd is filled with uncrushed yerba leaves packed in tightly and hot water is poured in. The tea is sipped through a silver straw with a strainer at bottom until dry. Then it is passed back to the maker, who fills it and passes it to the next person. When you wish to stop drinking mate, you say gracias.

Yerba mate

The second morning, we headed up to a high ridge overlooking the lake above treeline. We made numerous attempts to head down in different directions, but there had been late snows in November and now there were still snowfields and very muddy areas. We kept climbing higher and higher skirting the snow patches for hours in the bitter frigid wind, looking for a passage or camping spot. Scrambling down a steep slope with slippery rocks, walking the horses, we finally descended into a stand of lenga trees at dusk, around 9pm, with a soft forest floor for the tent. Our crew slept out in the open on sheepskin saddle blankets. Between the trees we could see the lights of Bariloche winking across the lake. In the clearing where the horses were tied for the night, we marveled at the stars in clear night sky: Tres Marias, as Orion’s Belt is called in the southern sky, and the Southern Cross.

Packing up the gear, the guides pointed out their facha, woven waistbands the gauchos tucked their knife into at back. “We will go up again,” Carol proclaimed, and travel across to where we can come down easier. Adam smiled. “Up is down,” he remarked. Carol’s horse dropped into a mudhole at one point, his rear end almost disappeared beneath the mucky surface. At her insistence, it kicked itself free and struggled out. In another spot, the back legs of Adam’s horse, Victor, submerged. Carol called to him to stay on the horse and hold on while Esteban pulled him out. I was too worried to take a photo! We headed up over the ridge again and this time found the trail that headed back to the barn, for one more asado, Argentine grill.

Raoul, gaucho in training

Horse studies

On our last night in Bariloche we happened on a Christmas concert in the town square. Children sang, carrying torches that were made from tin cans mounted on sticks, a live lamb was part of their nativity scene.

More to come…
Argentina: Vivid Buenos Aires, Patagonia on horseback, Ushuaia: End of the World, Buenos Aires holiday (with Recoleta, San Telmo)

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Published by rkrontheroad

Writer, photographer, traveler

29 thoughts on “Patagonia on horseback

  1. Just wow, what an incredible and special experience. I also looked at the photo of Esteban for ages as it just looks like such a perfect capture of a person in a moment. What a wonderful way of living, and I’m sure these few days are some amazing memories 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much, Hannah! i don’t usually do portraits, so these were unusual for me and quite special. These days one would think of cowboys and gauchos as in the past, but he is very skilled and proud of his work.


  2. I’m wondering how I would feel after three days on a horse. The part of the trek where you were exploring the ridge line looking for passage might’ve pushed the limits of my adventuring, but it still sounds like the perfect way to see the country. “Tres Marias” – so much better than “Orion’s Belt”. Also, I like the style of the building in the early photo, the light wood framing and shutters over rough stone. Almost an Alpine look to it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Not inured to horseback riding often, I must admit I took a couple of ibuprofens at the start and end of the day, and it worked like a charm. I had total confidence in our guides to find the trail! That attractive building was our inn in Bariloche. Thanks for reading and sharing your comments, Dave.


  3. What a fabulous way to see this stunning landscape! I always look for Orion in the night sky but I never knew the belt was called Tres Marias in the southern hemisphere. Do they still refer to the constellation as a whole as Orion, do you know?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Orion is upside down in the southern hemisphere, and I didn’t hear it referred to. The most interesting constellation I learned about (not on this trip, but in the Galapagos) was a llama that is formed by the absence of stars except for two gleaming eyes. 😊

      Liked by 1 person

  4. What an absolute adventure, Ruth. I’d love to do a similar trip one day. Great photos, especially the one of Esteban. And the close up of Carol’s face, which is so beautiful and feels to me like a face that hides a million narratives.

    Liked by 1 person

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