On our second day of crossing the Andes by packhorse, we came over a small ridge and into an Eden: a wide green valley of cypress and beech forests topped by towering glacial peaks that stretched to the distant horizon.
Tucked into the valley was our day’s destination. Pastures alive with grazing horses and scattered mobs of sheep surrounded the rough-hewn wooden ranch house where we would sleep. Down to our left, toward a river, men hauled hand-cut hay in a wooden cart pulled by oxen.
After two days virtually by ourselves, on horseback up and down rough, rocky mountain trails, we were now deep into Chile’s Espolon Valley, at a distant place of another time. We had found, in fact, the other Patagonia — the rugged 300,000-square-mile ranges that straddle the Andes at the very bottom of South America.
This is not the world’s picture of Patagonia. That’s to the south, and the otherworldly grandeur of Torres del Paine National Park’s 6,500-foot spires of glaciated granite. That park is more than 6,000 miles of flights from the central U.S., and more than 8,000 miles from London, but southern Patagonia still attracts a quarter-million people a year. And they’re beginning to bump into each other. It is apparently possible to hike for five days in southern Patagonia and never pitch a tent without a dozen neighbors.
In northern Patagonia, at so-called high season, our group of eight rode our horses about 50 miles over five days across largely roadless mountains, and we did not see anyone other than ranch families until Day 4, when two annoyed German hikers stepped aside so we could pass. Rather than eco-resorts and campgrounds in the south, we stayed with those families in rooms usually occupied by seasonal hired hands.
We were there purely by luck, since some of us knew Jill Lucas of Afton, Minn. She’d taught English in northern Patagonia in 2005, made fast Chilean friends, and later guided horse-packing and trekking trips there before returning home. She’d long wanted to help her friends in Chile create guided trips in Patagonia, and this year she organized two trips through the Espolon Valley to test routes and logistics, renew contacts with ranchers along the way, and generally get her previous trips cranked up again.
All Jill needed was a test group of six or eight seasoned riders; people used to long days in the saddle on steep, daunting, mountain trails. What she got was us — a willing group, certainly, but also pathetically, even comically, short on horse-riding skills — ages 55 to 70, by the way.
But we were all fascinated by the prospects of such a back-of-beyond trip; inspired by Jill’s resolute and charming belief in us; and reassured by Jill’s promise that boxed Chilean wine, in quantity, would fit in our saddlebags. So in January we found ourselves in a series of four flights from the U.S. on successively smaller aircraft that ended with a swirling, corkscrew approach to an airstrip near the tiny mountain town of Futaleufu, 700 miles south of the capital, Santiago.
Futaleufu (Foo-too-lay-foo), a ranching town, has some B&Bs and homestays largely because of its proximity to the mighty Futaleufu River. It roars out of the Andes, as-yet undammed, to create what is generally regarded as one of the world’s craziest white-water runs (No. 6 on Outside Magazine’s global crazy Top 10). For this, too, people flock from around the world.
Learning to ride
Here, we were greeted by Jill and her young local partner, Fabian, who would be our stolid, resourceful and playful guide, and horse wrangler-in-chief. Our transitions to gringo gaucho began immediately as we were issued our jaunty, knee-high chaps, intended to protect our legs from the saddles’ leather and cinch straps, and dense trees and shrubbery along the way.
Then we walked across town to a natural amphitheater in the side of a mountain, where scores of horsemen in striped serapes and black, flat-brimmed gaucho hats milled around a wooden corral. The air was filled with the scents of grilled skewers of lamb, beer — and anticipation. This was Futaleufu’s annual Gran Rodeo, where we joined the crowds to watch the local hombres, in pairs, nimbly herd calves on horses with a grace that seemed closer to dancing than work in the field.
This was our rousing preparation for the next morning, when we would meet our horses, saddle up and head into the Andes. The horses were beautiful — a mix of powerful bays, blacks, duns, dark chestnuts and mine, a prideful sorrel named Naronjo.
Despite our chaps and the rodeo’s vibe, the scene at the trailhead had the feel of the first day of kindergarten when everyone is learning to tie their shoes. Jill and Fabian, with sweet patience, went from horse to horse, checking cinches, adjusting stirrups, reassuring riders and sharing the advantage of grabbing a clump of mane and throwing your leg over the saddle from the uphill side.
We had been thoroughly briefed: Lean into the horse going uphill. Lean back going down. Choose your own pace. Trust the horse. The first day, we were told, would be a bit rough as we headed into the high country; then we’d have two days at that ranch atop the valley before cruising through a flatter section on Day 4.
Day 5? This was when the phrase “kind of a challenging section” creeped vaguely into the conversation. But we were innocents. We had no notion yet of what “challenging” actually meant. It was a beautiful day. We knew how to get on our horses! We had chaps, and saddlebags full of wine!
We quickly learned that the defining quality of traveling on horseback across the Chilean Andes is: the trails. They were cut over hundreds of years, free-form, by a million hooves, and are the only way anyone gets from ranch to ranch, from ranch to town. Indeed, our route was part of an ancient overland trade route — La Ruta Antigua — from the Pacific Ocean to Argentina.
Some ascents were so steep that we had our noses virtually in the horse’s mane; some descents were so steep we had our boots down near the horse’s ears. Some of these maneuvers were on canted slabs of solid rock or near drop-offs. As we approached one abrupt descent, a riding mate said, “Really?”
Really. So for a time that first day, there was murmuring in the ranks. Even the two members of our group with riding experience were impressed, in a dumbfounded kind of way, by the ruggedness of our route. But after the fourth or fifth time we and our horses — mainly our horses — elegantly climbed or descended a 2- or 3-foot step in a trail, or chugged through a stirrup-deep stream, we began to relax and, as instructed, trust our magnificent horses.
Naranjo and I, in fact, established something akin to a working relationship, and the group settled into our routine. We rode much of the mornings, sometimes spread out on the trail, bunching up at watering streams and rougher spots. At midday we stopped at ranch houses for lunches of soup and pasta. By mid- or late afternoon we trotted up to our stop for the night — the first, a mountainside ranch overlooking a five-mile-long lake; the second, that ranch high atop that huge valley; and third, a ranch tucked into a broad river valley.
Our second day at the Espolon Valley ranch was supposed to be for day-trip explorations, hiking or on horseback. But dark storms, one after another, thundered down the valley all day. Ranch-bound, we caught a glimpse of life in an off-the-grid Patagonian ranch. It was a day that started at first light with the urgent bleating of the ranch’s orphan lamb outside the kitchen door, for which Anna, the lady of house, had a ready bottle of milk. Then came a steady, unhurried and apparently endless series of chores of men in berets feeding animals, cutting wood, fixing fences, curing hides, repairing equipment, sharpening tools, all under the quiet supervision of the rancher, Sergio.
Early in the afternoon, a bustle by the barn, and word went out: The men were going to catch a lamb.
In Chile, one of the traditional ranch banquets is called an asado. Ours began, of course, with the lamb, which was carried to the barn, butchered, and then, with Sergio (and his dogs) looking on, essentially butterflied, flat, on a metal frame with slats and skewers. With the lamb salted and oiled, the men stuck the frame into the ground, leaning it into a fire, and then over the course of hours rotated it until Sergio said it was done.
That night, with a huge platter of grilled lamb in the middle of the table, the whole ranch, maybe 15 of us, passed a bowl of herbal chimichurri sauce, significantly reduced our cache of boxed wine, and exchanged stories about all of our very different lives.
Trusting the horses
In the morning, around the barn, as we more independently packed our horses for the day’s ride, the questions about Day 5 resumed. It became clear that, when Jill and Fabian spoke of that “challenging” section, they were talking about the last five minutes of the ride, when we would face some notably formidable, as-yet-unseen plunge down a mountainside that would deliver us to the trailhead below.
We encouraged ourselves with the pale confidence of shallow experience: If we could over five days achieve a comfortably exhilarating ride on horseback across the Patagonian Andes, we could handle five minutes of just about anything. And that largely delusional tactic worked, for me, until we actually reached the final descent, which appeared to be a drop-off into a rutted spiral staircase of rock, ending somewhere out of sight.
Ahead of me, in the lead, was my friend Frank. And his horse kept pulling away, refusing to take the first step off the edge. This I took as not a good sign.
But then he went. And I did. And we trusted the horses. And we all went slow. And just as we were all congratulating ourselves in the pasture at the bottom, Jill came to us with a question. Seems there was an opening with one of the outfitters. If we wanted, she said, we could … raft the Futaleufu.
To be honest, we did not leap at the opportunity right away. But we signed up. At least it would get the trail dust off us, fast.
Tony Brown of Minneapolis travels off the beaten path. His last story for the Star Tribune was about his adventures in Sri Lanka. He can be reached at email@example.com.