The river is cold, the current quick, but my pony, Ferrari, doesn’t falter, even with the water licking at her stomach. Jote birds sing, a vulture soars above and in the distance the 12,388ft Lanín volcano glistens, its icy conical summit piercing Patagonia’s vast blue skies. It towers over the surrounding peaks of the Lanín National Park as we trek around the family-run, 50-acre working estancia of Caballadas, set in this wild and secluded area of the Patagonia Lake District, near the Chilean border.
Today, we’re attempting to traverse one of the Lanín’s smaller volcanic siblings on horseback with the help of our guide, a gaucho called Eladio. We’re aiming to picnic at Lake Quillen, riding around 15 miles from our eight-bed lodge, which can be rented by groups keen to explore this wilderness frontier.
A sawmill was once the main source of employment here but when the creation of the national park forced its closure most people left, leaving only a handful of estancias dotted around its forests, rivers and valleys. Now, the handful of locals who remain mainly tend to the farm’s 1,000-odd cattle, using a team of 60 Criollo horses.
Eladio and his fellow gauchos have been up early, selecting a handful of steeds suitable for our group’s mix of abilities. While some of us are experienced, others haven’t ridden since childhood, but this doesn’t prove a problem — the Criollo breed is known for its gentle, dependable disposition as much as its strength and endurance. We sit on comfy Chilean saddles, covered with sheepskin rugs and pads handcrafted by local Mapuche Indian women. Bridles are handmade from rawhide leather and we ride with intricately woven reins in one hand, Western style, tying them to trees for breaks when necessary. The ponies are short and stocky, a melange of colours and markings, all with hogged (shaven) manes and short tails (so nothing is likely to get tangled).
Fast and responsive, Ferrari lives up to her sobriquet. While happy to jog or gallop, she also treads surefootedly over rocks, boulders, and the steepest terrain — zigzagging through the foliage, often leaping over fallen logs without a moment’s hesitation.
It’s November, springtime, and there’s not a cloud in the vast Patagonia sky. While many gauchos wear a boina (beret), Eladio favours a sombrero, which shields him from the intense sun. Nonetheless, his face is etched with lines — clearly lines of wisdom, as, without map or compass he effortlessly navigates us through a labyrinth of hidden valleys and enchanting forests, where coihue trees are draped in clematis, and past notro bushes, whose flowers are a blazing shade of scarlet. Like many gauchos, Eladio is a man of few words, although he finds his voice after spotting the paw prints of a puma.
Throughout the excursion, a fellow traveller, Diana, plays translator. Having grown up on a farm on the Pampas not far from Buenos Aires, she’s able to explain why Argentina has such a long tradition of horsemanship. Its fertile soil made many landowners wealthy, through the export of wheat and meat. They used their money to build fine estancias, relying upon the gauchos — many the descendants of Indians — to look after the horses and cattle.
The interminable hours the gauchos spent in the saddle made them great horsemen, and excellent trackers. Many also became skilled cavalrymen, who defended the frontiers against European invaders, their indomitable spirit playing a decisive role in several battles, most notably during the Argentine War of Independence (1810-1818). Revered and romanticised, they became an emblem of independence and nationalism in the 19th century, and while still held in high regard, few are wealthy — a gaucho’s most prized possession is generally his horse.
I’m unsure of Eladio’s past but I can see he’s an adept rider and like many other gauchos he looks the part in his bombachas (baggy breeches) with his facón (a long knife) tucked into his belt behind him. It’s said a gaucho values this almost as much as his horse, and I watch as Eladio clears our path, deftly using the facón to cut back the undergrowth.
After several hours we make a steep descent, the lake glistening, a silent expanse that reaches as far as the eye can see. We scoop clear, icy water into our camping mugs to quench our thirst, while Agustina, our host, takes a bracing dip. Her sister, Isabel and staff prepare lunch — an asado (barbecue) with generous portions of beef and freshly caught trout perfectly paired with Argentine Malbec and Chardonnay. Isabel’s husband, Santiago, has a speed boat at the ready to give us a tour of the lake, surrounded by dense virgin forest. The Lanín volcano reappears on the horizon — its enormity is entrancing.
For all its beauty, Santiago swears the next valley is better still. Like an excitable child, he gushes about his plans to build an outpost there in April. It would enable guests to travel here from the lodge and sleep out under Patagonia’s night skies, where vividly bright constellations are easily discernible, thanks to the absence of any light pollution.
After a quick siesta, we set off for home, followed by the family’s rather eccentric old dog, Poncho. Back at the lodge — a spacious yet cosy wooden house — we sip G&Ts by an open fire, looking out the windows at a vast expanse of land.
Sisters Isabel and Agustina, whose family have lived here since 1908, regale us with tales of growing up in this bucolic landscape — free to roam alone and dive into rivers, and able to ride without stirrups, often helping the gauchos with the livestock.
Keen to see the horsemen at work, the next day we accompany two new gauchos — again dressed in boinas, bombachas and facóns — as they attempt to move 180 head of Hereford cattle across the plateau and assemble them into a pen.
I’m given the nod to gallop over the plain and open the gate and, feeling like the lead actress in a cowboy film, I excitedly oblige. Ferarri sweats up, excited at the prospect of real work, and jig-jogs along as we join the rest of the group, which is moving slowly to prevent lone cattle darting off in different directions. The gauchos say little, whistling and deftly manoeuvring their horses to push the steeds along, with a little assistance from their dog. The mustering goes pretty much to plan, although a blind calf proves a little more problematic.
With the cattle safely penned, Diana explains the steers will now have their horns removed, to prevent them from injuring each other. Still mounted, Eladio herds them into a corridor made from timber, from where their horns are severed using either facóns or saws. Before long, plumes of blood are spurting through the air. And while the cattle aren’t hurt, it’s not a sight for the faint-hearted, with the dusty ground, and pretty much everything else in the immediate vicinity, tinged in a gruesome shade of scarlet.
Job done, we retire to a nearby barn. Huge hunks of beef are being grilled on a fire pit and the gauchos cut it up and stuff it into their mouths using the same knives that just severed the horns, pausing to sip hot yerba mate tea. Made from holly leaves and stems, this bitter, caffeine-rich infusion is passed around the group, as is customary here. I take a sip but pass it on quickly. Clearly, it’s an acquired taste.
After a long, leisurely lunch, I follow the lead of Santiago and grab my sheepskin saddle cover and pick a shaded spot under a tree. Nearby, someone’s clearly slipped into a deep slumber, their snoring syncopated with the sound of horses’ tails swishing.
We’re soon on the move again, this time traversing a steep-sided ravine where boulders tumble and the dust flies. Some riders are anxious but the Criollo horses are undaunted, faithfully following in the footsteps of the lead gaucho.
As I work with horses at home, I’m keen to discover more about the incredible bond between gauchos and their animals and to see how these modern cowboys are surviving. I visit La Bamba de Areco, one of the oldest estancias in the Pampas, around an hour from Buenos Aires. Recently refurbished, it’s surprisingly glitzy, with a pool, spa, polo fields and horse-drawn carriage rides and, although La Bamba is not longer a working ranch, I’m pleased to discover its location, San Antonio de Areco, is a centre for Argentine gaucho culture, with museums, shops and an annual fair dedicated to these famous horsemen.
La Bamba organises a demonstration by Martin Tata, who’s famed for ‘breaking’ horses using whispering not whips. During his remarkable display, he balances bareback on his horse and even stands and performs handstands on its tummy as it lies upside down, it’s legs protruding into the air.
Later, in San Martín de los Andes, a quirky Patagonian ski town a few hours from Caballadas, I’m able to see the gauchos at work again, this time on the polo fields at El Desafio Mountain Resort. A group of young gauchos hard at work, grooming the players’ horses, warming them up, fetching fresh mounts after each chukka (a period of play in polo). This is a new generation of gauchos living a real life, not trying to live up to a legend; they speak English fluently, having travelled as grooms on the polo circuit to the fields of Surrey. Some may progress to become polo professionals themselves, bankrolled by wealthy patrons. While some of their traditions may have been lost, their skill with horses remains, and it’s incredible to watch.
I’m given the opportunity to have a short lesson and within 15 minutes I’m cantering and hitting the ball, largely thanks to the quality of my instruction. Like the others in my group, I’m amazed at what I’ve accomplished in just one week. But the real heroes are our horses, of course — and the gauchos who’ve bred and trained them.
How to do it
British Airways flies direct to Buenos Aires from Heathrow.
Onward connections are offered by Aerolineas Argentinas and LAN Argentina to San Martín de los Andes, a two-hour drive from Caballadas.
Dolomite Mountains offers ‘Beyond the Dolomites: Argentina – Caballadas in Northern Patagonia’ horse-riding experiences in Argentina from November to mid-December, and March to mid-April. From $600 (£495) per person a night, with optional add-ons via Argentinian agency Mai 10.
Published in the May 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)