Chile to Argentina on horseback. My High Andes Adventure
Nothing can compare with riding across the highest pass in The Andes, the Espinacito Slope at 4,500m, en-route from Chile to Argentina on horseback
Chile to Argentina on horseback – my High Andes Adventure
by David LO Smith
My ultimate adventure of a lifetime will always be a horseback crossing of a wild mountain range. Thanks to Unicorn Trails I have had several ‘adventures of a lifetime’, but none can compare with that of riding across the highest pass in The Andes, the Espinacito Slope at 4,500m, en-route from Chile to Argentina on horseback. Welcome to my High Andes adventure!
From my history lessons at school, I vaguely recall the liberation of Chile by Don José de San Martín, who crossed over the High Andes from Argentina with an army of horses in 1817. But the sheer scale of the task truly came alive when we retraced his steps on horseback. Today, logistics and disease prevention make it more practical to travel the route in reverse, not that this detracted from the pure excitement of the adventure and thrill at contemplating the trip.
If the prospect of seven days in the High Andes, riding sure-footed, honest horses over steep wild terrain, or camping for six nights under clear black skies cloaked with bright stars doesn’t set your spine tingling with anticipation, just read a little more…
Some of my horsey friends insist that one needs home comforts at the end of a riding day, and I do understand their preference. Here I hope to convey the ambience and camaraderie, the sense of achievement, the lasting memories, and not to mention the ‘bragging rights’ in a few words and pictures; a tough job, but I’ll give it a go.
An Average Day:
An average day, if ever there is such a thing on this trail, starts still warm inside a snug sleeping bag in your tent, but on the sloping ground! You emerge into the ‘fresh’ morning of cold stones and soggy vegetation to retrieve stiff boots, but any misgivings about being here are overshadowed by the magnificent scenery bathed in soft golden light, the contented munching of the horses and mules, the wood fire aroma and the distant call of a wild animal on real fresh morning air.
After ablutions and before breakfast I enjoy pitching in with camp chores, like fetching water or cleaning up any debris. This isn’t expected but adds to the adventure. Our Gauchos stow our bags on the pack mules along with the tents and provisions. We tack our horses at a leisurely pace and eventually we are off!
To travel from Chile to Argentina on horseback calls for the right horse, and our mountain trail horses proved perfect. Sure-footed, with no need to micro-manage as they picked their way across the most rugged ground, sometimes across steep scree slopes, or along narrow ledges. These fit and responsive Criollo horses are on average 15hh and are ridden in the traditional style, which is similar to Western riding with neck reining and long stirrups. They were perfectly suited for our climb further (and higher) into the High Andes.
The terrain dictates the pace of the ride, but the majority of the time we walk. This makes the ride suitable for novice and experienced riders alike. Time flies by as the vistas unfold and soon there is a stop for a rest and lazy picnic lunch in some shade by a cool mountain stream or waterfall. We set off again in the early afternoon. As the sun comes around behind us, the colours slowly turn to gold as the next campsite comes into view.
The day’s ride over, horses are untacked and released to drink and graze in the oasis of a water-meadow. The campsite is soon buzzing with people building a campfire for cooking, putting up tents, assembling tables and chairs and preparing food. In no time at all, it’s time to eat and drink – and to talk long into the night around the fire about the adventures of the day before settling down for a deep sleep and to dream of what tomorrow will bring.
I hope that set the scene and whet your appetites. Now let’s follow my adventure day by day.
Chile to Argentina on horseback: Day 1 – the adventure begins!
It was a raw January morning with thick snow on the ground when I set off by train to Heathrow. Wearing my mountain riding boots and coat, I must have looked out of place amongst my fellow travellers in their office-bound attire. However, I did feel more appropriately dressed for the weather than them!
Chile is 7,400 miles from London which allowed for a good overnight snooze on the plane. We arrived in Santiago mid-morning to be greeted by dazzling sunlight and a deep azure sky, a welcome change from the grey skies and raw winds of home.
A pleasant journey north to the small town of Los Andes brought us to our traditional hotel and a welcome siesta before dinner to meet the rest of the group. We were all enthusiastic about our adventure into the High Andes and chatted excitedly about what to expect over the next days.
As I turned in for the night the words of Don José de San Martin whispered in my mind “…what does not allow me to sleep well is, not the strength of our enemy army, but crossing these immense mountains.”
Chile to Argentina on horseback: Day 2 – Hitting the trail
After breakfast we were taken 35km by private bus through the Aconcagua and Putaendo Valleys to the small town of Los Patos. This was our last chance to buy souvenirs in Chile, not that we had much room for them. A few miles further on we had our papers processed in preparation to cross the unmanned border post into Argentina in a few days time.
The Gauchos had already started to tack-up the pack animals (mainly mules and a few Criollo horses), and our bags joined the mountain of camping supplies to be loaded.
In very little time we had mounted our horses and were following the Rocin River. It was an easy day’s ride and easily got the feel of our Criollos before arriving at our first campsite, Las Tejas, in the early evening.
I am always impressed how riders seem to know exactly what needs be done on arrival at a campsite. Although there were no expectations or orders, one group began setting up tables and chairs while another laid out tableware. Tents were being pitched and the camp took shape in no time. I went to fetch water from the river, which soon became ‘my job’ for the rest of the journey.
Chile to Argentina on horseback: Day 3 – Sharing Company
They say a picture paints a thousand words, but even a thousand pictures would struggle to convey the magnificent beauty that is the High Andes. We passed through the Pacific Ocean watersheds and followed the Rocin river canyon for hours. We drank in the breathtaking vistas as we climbed higher and further. After a fairly long days riding we reached the El Cienego camp and chose a dry, flat spot to pitch our tents for the night.
We had met three soldiers from a nearby army outpost earlier in the day and invited to join us for dinner. We were the first company that they had had in nearly six weeks and were grateful for the break in their routine and made good company. To me, horseback riding is about meeting different people and seeing the world from horseback, and I would be surprised if it came any better than this. But it did, and I was…
Chile to Argentina on horseback: Day 4 – Our 3,500m Border Crossing
We packed up and left quite early on a bright and sunny morning to work our way slowly up the steep-sided valley to the Chile-Argentina border crossing at 3,500 m (11,700ft). We met a goat-herding family on the high plateau who sold us some of their cheeses while we acclimatized to the rarer mountain air and pondered the magnificent views.
The baggage was offloaded a short distance from the border and we dropped off our saddlebags before riding our horses a little distance to hand them over to the Chilean Gauchos. Here we had to say a sad goodbye to our trusty Criollo friends. Because of the bureaucratic difficulties of bringing the horses back into Chile, they were not allowed into Argentina.
Walking past the mountain of bags we passed over a small ridge and there, waiting patiently for us, were the Argentinean gauchos with our fresh mounts and pack animals. We enjoyed a long and lavish picnic, and short siesta, in an old stone-built Inca shelter. It was strange to think that we were using this space for the same purpose as travellers had done for hundreds of years.
We soon had our first view of the jewel of the High Andes, the snow-veiled Mount Aconcagua. Standing at 6,962m (22,307ft), it is the highest mountain peak outside the Himalayas. I have been very lucky to see many stunning views in my travels, but never before had I been able to look at a breathtaking view in one direction, turn my horse around through 180 degrees, and then see another that was just as inspiring. All we could do is stop and stare, take pictures, turn our horses around and stare again, and again.
We eventually moved into a wide lush valley, Valle Hermoso (beautiful valley), that was a camping haven with rushing fresh water, grass for the animals, wood for the fire, level area to set up tents, and a slow river teeming with trout. You couldn’t ask more of a campsite!
Chile to Argentina on horseback: Day 5 – Exploring
We awoke rested. Our campsite in the Valle Hermoso was perfect and we stayed there for the rest of the day acclimatising to the altitude. This was a rest day and we made the most of every moment.
The weather was tropically sunny and I was glad of the shade offered by rocks and overhanging ledges. We bathed and swam in the meandering river, and explored a cool stream rushing from one of the gorges. Later that afternoon some of us saddled up for a few hours of lazy riding along the river valley to gain a better view of Mount Aconcagua, which looked regal in the evening sun.
As normal, that night we partied alfresco, laughing and talking happily as the stars emerged, sparkling like gems in the blackness of the Argentinean sky.
Chile to Argentina on horseback: Day 6 – Reaching Rancho de Lata
We struck camp early the next morning and left our idyllic spot to climb the next ridge. This brought us to the dry Valle Los Patos (Valley of the Ducks), which also lends its name to the next mountain pass we travelled, Paso de Los Patos, (Passage of the Ducks). There are over a dozen species of duck in Argentina, and this is a known migration route, hence the derivation of the name. Later we rode along an ancient ocean floor with its exposed marine fossils, evidence that this whole region was once submerged under water. Following an ancient volcanic riverbed was a sharp reminder of the geological upheavals that created these majestic surroundings.
Our next camp, Rancho de Lata, lay at 3,500m (11,700 feet) which was good preparation for the next day’s high altitude challenge. Because of our impending climb and our need for clear heads, there was no wine served with dinner that night which made our gathering more subdued than normal.
This was, however, made up for by the sheer beauty of the surroundings. The subtly changing colours of the sunset at this lakeside camp could never be caught by a camera.
We turned in early, wanting to prepare ourselves, body and mind, for the challenges of the next day.
Chile to Argentina on horseback: Day 7 – The Perfect Day
Were it possible to choose just one day to join this journey, this would be it!
After a hearty breakfast we set off toward the highest point of this adventure, the Espinacito Slope at 4,500m (15,000 ft). We set off at a reasonable pace but, as we gained the final slope late in the morning, we took the climb much more gently. There was no hurrying this part of the trip. Each horse took its turn to advance a few paces and then pause for breath. Our line of horses seemed to me like a caterpillar making its way along a branch. There was plenty of time to gaze in awe at the landscape and splendour of the surroundings. Mighty condors would pass occasionally, checking that none of us were a possible meal.
My thoughts drifted to the struggles, determination and achievement of Don José de San Martin and his cavalry, crossing these same demanding peaks. To celebrate our own personal achievement, to have crossed the High Andes on horseback, we had our last open-air party at our last campsite, Peñón Colorado.
Our adventure was coming to an end and we toasted our guides, the always-willing Gauchos, our trusty, sure-footed Criollo horses, and ourselves. After making up for the wise sobriety of the previous night, we settled down to the night sounds of the High Andes for the last time.
Chile to Argentina on horseback: Day 8 – The End of the Adventure
We all felt a little downhearted on the last morning of our adventure. The main challenge and goal of the journey had been met, and all that remained was the ride to the estancia (ranch) to hand over our Argentinean horses.
We rode down the slopes of the steep valley to collect water before returning to pass our camp where the Gauchos were packing up the last of the camping supplies. It was sad to think that we would not need them again and we rode on in silence.
Along the route we passed historic markers that designated the points where Don José de San Martin and his men had set up their camps. Now that we had travelled the same route, the enormity of their journey awed me even more.
Around midday we met three Chilean soldiers who were preparing to make the same crossing on foot. They carried packs nearly twice their size and had been training intensively for six months. The trio expected the trip to take them 21 days. Knowing how taxing it had been on horseback, I admired their courage and level of fitness.
Late in the afternoon with a thunderstorm threatening, we arrived at the estancia in Hornillas where we said a fond farewell to the Argentinean horses that we had become so attached to. A minibus took us to the elegant 1940’s-style Gran Hotel in the small town of Uspallata. Here we enjoyed a farewell dinner and gratefully received our ‘medals’ of stylishly embroidered golf shirts. We toasted each other and swapped contact details before saying our tearful goodbyes. These were not just ‘holiday goodbyes’ – we had shared and achieved so much more than any normal holiday could offer: we had crossed the mighty High Andes on horseback!
Day 9: Homeward Bound?
We all went out different ways that morning. Due to previous commitments I didn’t join the rest of the group for the scheduled tour of Lujan de Cuyo, Argentina’s world-famous wine lands. This private tour included a visit to the famous Club Tapiz boutique winery where one can taste premium wines straight from the casks. After lunch at the winery, the group was transferred to Mendoza City Airport for their flight home, taking memories with them that none would forget.
As for me, I took an international bus back over another beautiful Andean pass back to Chile. It definitely wasn’t the same as being on horseback, but well worth the trip. I eventually reached Santiago airport, but I wasn’t homeward bound. I was lucky enough to be off to check out an adventure of another kind – A luxury ride in Patagonia. But that’s a story for another day!
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Adapted by Andrew Knapp from David Smith’s account of his Chile to Argentina horseback adventure for Unicorn Trails. This article was initially published on the Naturally Horses website, www.naturallyhorses.org.uk/AcrossHighAndes.htm, and Horse & Country Magazine.
Photo credits: David Smith, Unicorn Trails.