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Across the High Andes from Chile to Argentina on Horseback
(A longer write up, by request, of my captioned pictures of ride from Chile to Argentina)

 

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High Andes mountain horizon
Horses drinking at a mountain pool, High Andes, Argentina

For me, an adventure of a lifetime would always be crossing a wild mountain range on horseback. Now, thanks to Unicorn Trails, I have been so fortunate to have had several journeys of a lifetime but none would compare with the adventure of riding across the highest pass in The Andes from Chile to Argentina.

From my history lessons at school, mostly spent day-dreaming about more boyish things, I vaguely recalled 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 make the passage in reverse but that detracted not one bit from the pure excitement of the adventure or from the thrill at having completed the traverse.

Now, if the prospect of seven days of riding sure-footed, honest horses up and up over wild terrain and camping for six nights under a clear black sky of bright stars does not set your spine tingling with anticipation, then please, before you decide this is not for you, read just a little more.  Perhaps, as most of my horsey friends would agree, you need your home comforts at the end of a riding day but I cannot really convey the ambiance, the camaraderie, the sense of achievement, the lasting memories (not to mention the ‘bragging rights’) in a few words and pictures – but I’ll give it a go.  I will write this as a diary but perhaps before you do decide to turn away let me describe a typical day on the trail (as if there was such a thing!). 

High Andes mountains azure sky horizon

A day may start with the waking dreams of a luxury en suite whilst still snuggled into a warm sleeping bag but on sloping, undulating ground and preparing to reverse the gymnastics of the previous night to emerge from a tent into the 'fresh' morning of cold stones and soggy vegetation to retrieve damp, stiff boots .... oh but such magnificent scenery in the soft golden light, horses and mules contentedly munching away, the aroma of a wood fire, the distant call of a wild animal and real fresh morning air.  After a wash and dress, there’s breakfast to be had but I like to pitch in with the jobs if I can and so I might fetch water from a stream, or collect up the debris from the fire-side party of the night before, but it’s never expected of me.  Bags are then packed and left for the gauchos to stow on the pack animals along with the tents and all the other provisions. There’s really no rush as horses are tacked up and riders mount but eventually we are off, leaving the gauchos to finish the domestic tasks and follow on later.

Mountain trail horses are sure-footed and there is no need to micro-manage as they pick their way across the most rugged ground, sometimes across steep scree slopes or along narrow ledges, but there’s no need to fear as you climb higher and higher.  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.  Early afternoon will see the riders on their way again as the sun comes round behind them, colours slowly turn to gold and 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.  With many hands, 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 going off to a deep sleep and to dream some more. 

Horses and mules climb a ridge in the High Andes, Chile
High Andes mountain horizon, Argentina

Flag of Chile

Flag of Argentina

Travel Day
It was not a dark and stormy night; in fact, it was a raw January morning when I set off by train and there was deep snow on the ground that had shut Heathrow Airport only two days before.  To keep down the weight of my luggage, which would have to be transported by pack animal, I was wearing my trusty mountain riding boots and coat but I felt more suitably dressed than my fellow travellers in their office-bound attire.

Day 1
Now, it’s worth looking at a globe again: Chile is a long way a way but a good overnight snooze on the plane, and only five hours time difference, a mid morning arrival is ideal.  Gone is the grey sky, raw wind and wet snow to be replaced by dazzling sunlight in an azure sky; the bright and summer colours of Santiago seem ‘just right’ for this city of Spanish origin.  A pleasant journey north to Los Andes is followed by a siesta at a traditional hotel and a welcome evening meal, where the novice and experienced Andean riders meet.  We all know that this is going to be a great adventure and, recalling the words of Don José de San Martín “…what does not allow me to sleep well is, not the strength of our enemy army, but crossing these immense mountains ” it is the excitement that might keep us all awake. 

Evening in the High Andes

Day 2
An ample breakfast is followed by an ordered departure by private bus to the small town of Los Patos, the last chance to purchase souvenirs in Chile, and then a few miles further on where our papers are processed in preparation for crossing the unattended border in a few days time, and where our horses are waiting for us.  The Gauchos have already started to tack up the pack animals (mostly mules but also a few criollo horses) and our personal bags soon join the small mountain of camping supplies to be loaded.  In very little time at all, the riders set off to climb gently through a lightly wooded valley, following the rushing Rocin River which is little more than a large stream when we reach our first campsite in the evening. I am always impressed that adventurous riders just seem to ‘know what to do’ on arrival at a campsite and, although there is no real expectation, one group is setting up table and chairs, one is laying out the tableware, another is putting up tents; I go and fetch the water from the river, which then seems to be ‘my’ job for the week.

Day 3
They say a picture is worth a thousand words but even a thousand pictures would struggle to convey the magnificent unfolding scenery that is the High Andes.  After a fairly long day riding, we choose a likely spot to pitch our tents - somewhere dry and flat and not too far away from the campfire or the water.  We invite three soldiers attending the nearby army outpost to join us and they are so grateful as we are the first real company they have had in nearly six weeks. And, although horse riding means different things to different people, to me, horse riding is about seeing the world from horseback – and I’d be surprised if it comes any better than this. But it does …

Campsite on the High Andes crossing, Chile

Horses Crossing The High Andes Argentina

High Andes horses traverse screeslope

Day 4
We pack up and leave quite early this bright and sunny morning and work our way slowly up the steep-sided valley to the Chile-Argentina border crossing at 11,700ft (3500m).  On the high plateau, we meet a goat-herding family who sell us some of their cheese while we take in the rarer mountain air and ponder on the magnificent views.  A hundred yards or so from the border, the gauchos unload all the baggage and we drop off our saddlebags; we then ride our Chilean horses back down a little distance and hand them over to the Chilean gauchos because here we must say a sad good-bye to them all as they are not allowed into Argentina (there would be great bureaucratic difficulty bringing them back into Chile).  Walking past the mountain of bags, we pass over a small ridge and there, waiting patiently for us, are the Argentinean gauchos with our fresh mounts and pack animals.  In an old stone-built Inca shelter, we enjoy a long and lavish picnic, and then a siesta; I found it wonderfully strange to think that we were using this space for the same purpose as travellers had done for hundreds of years.

Moving on, we soon have our first great view of snow-veiled Mount Aconcagua (22, 307ft, 6962m), the highest mountain peak outside the Himalayas.  I have been very lucky to have seen many truly stunning views in my travels but never, before this day, have I been able to look at a stunning view in one direction, turn my horse around through 180 degrees, and then see another that is just as inspiring.  We just have to stop and stare, take pictures, turn our horse around and stare again, and again, before we move on to camp in a wide lush valley that is a camping haven: rushing fresh water, grass for the animals, wood for the fire, level area to set up tents, a slow river to fish in.

Mount Aconcagua High Andes Argentina
High Andes skyline Chile to Argentina on horseback

Day 5
This valley of Valle Hermoso a such a haven that we stay here for the rest day. It is tropically sunny and quite hot so my English complexion is glad of the shade offered by the rocks and overhanging ledges.  There is a chance to swim and bathe in the main meandering river in the valley, whilst a cool stream rushing from a gorge invites exploration.  Later in the afternoon, those of us who chose to, saddle up without our bags and ride for a couple of lazy hours up the river valley to gain an even better view of Mount Aconcagua in the early evening sun.  As always, there is an alfresco party in the evening and laughing and talking goes on into the blackest, yet brightest star-filled, sky I have ever seen.

Ideal valley for camping in the High Andes

 
Mount Aconcagua
 

Gypsum outcrop

Pack animals rest whilst crossing the High Andes

Horses drink at lake in High Andes Day 6
In the morning, we leave our haven and climb over a ridge to enter the dry Los Patos Valley, which gives the name to the next pass.  After a while, we ride along an ancient ocean floor that exposes marine fossils, and the we pass along the ephemeral Volcán riverbed.  Our next camp, Rancho de Lata, is at 11,700ft (3500m), which is a good preparation for high altitude challenge of the next day.  The subtly changing colours of the sunset at this upland lake-side location more than make up for the relatively subdued party – there’s no wine tonight as we must be fit and healthy for the final climb tomorrow!

Lakeside camp in the High Andes

View from horseback on the Espinacito Slope in the High Andes

Horses ascending the the Espinacito Slope at 4500 m - 13,500 ft

Day 7
If it were possible to join just one day of this trek, this would be the day!  However, you physically cannot ride just this one day, so it is all the more memorable and special for that. 

After a hearty breakfast, we set off for the highest point of our journey as we ascend and cross the Espinacito Slope at 15,000ft (4500m).  We set off at a reasonable pace but, as we gained the final slope late in the morning, we took the steep climb much more gently. There was to be no hurrying on this part of the trip and patience was truly a virtue as each horse took its turn to advance a few paces and then pause for breath; the long line seemed to me like a caterpillar making its way along a branch. As we paused, there was plenty of time to daydream in awe at the landscape and then the mighty condor would soar over us until they had decided that nothing was dying - and then they would go away again until the next day.  Of all the trail, this must have been the most demanding for Don José de San Martín and his cavalry. To celebrate our memorable and great achievement – to have crossed the High Andes – we have our last open-air party at Peñón where we make up for the wise sobriety of the night before.

Ascending thethe Espinacito Slope at 4500 m , 13 500 ft

Riders, horses and mules in the High Andes

I am happy near the rear with two pack mules – because the wooden boxes contain the wine!

Horses and riders rest while crossing the High Andes

The final ascent of the High Andes with horses

Horses and camping party in the High Andes

Nearring end of the High Andes crossing

Best dressed Andean rider?  Perhaps not.

Day 8
The start to this day is mixed with sadness because the real challenge has been met but we are not back at our destination estancia yet.  First, we ride down the slopes of the steep valley to collect water before returning to pass our camp where the gauchos are packing up the last of the camping supplies, which we shall not be needing again.  Along the route, we have occasionally passed historic markers that designate points where Don José de San Martín and his cavalry set up their camps and, tarrying at one today the sheer enormity of their journey begins to sink in. 

In the middle of the day, we met three young Chilean soldiers who were making the historic crossing on foot.  They were carrying pack nearly twice their size, had been intensively training for six months and were expecting their crossing to take them 21 days; they must have been incredibly fit. 

Late in the afternoon with a thunderstorm threatening, we arrived at the estancia in Hornillas where we had now to say good-bye to our Argentinean horses before a minibus took us to the elegant 1940s style Gran Hotel in the small town of Uspallata.  Here we enjoyed the farewell dinner, gratefully received our ‘medals’ (stylish embroidered polo shirts), swapped contact details and said our tearful good-byes; these were not just normal ‘holiday good-byes’ – we had shared and achieved so much more than that together: we had crossed the mighty High Andes on horseback!!

Horse drinking meltwater in High Andes
Estancia in Mendoza Region, Argentina - at the end of the High Andes Crossing

Chilean stirrup

Day 9
We all went our different ways this morning.  Some went on a tour of a local winery, most then finished up on a minibus bound for Mendoza to catch planes home but, for me, it was an international bus back over another Andean pass to Santiago (a trip worth doing in its own right) and then on a plane to check out another new luxury ride in Patagonia – and didn’t I just deserve it?  But that’s another story altogether!

   Argentinean stirrup

Dinner in the High Andes

See also my my captioned pictures of the ride across The High Andes from Chile to Argentina and my ride at the Luxury Patagonia Lodge Retreat