Friday, November 25, 2011
Riding Chile South America
Every winter Randy and I like to take off from winter here in British Columbia and head to a warmer climate. Our interest in riding has lead us to folks throughout the world who have invited us to ride/work with them or we book our own treks with world known outfitters that provide us with our adventures.
Our latest adventure began its conception through mutual friends and friends of friends and thankfully one being able to translate language for us. Chile is spanish. We speak english and a little faulting spanish. With our friend and translator Nora, we were able to set up our travel to Rari, Chile to ride and help a local horseman Danilo and family move their herd of horses to the high grazing lands of the Andes. We departed Dec. 8th 2010 and after many hours on airplanes we arrived to Santiago, Chile. We are not big city folks but we do enjoy the sites and sounds and good dining of the city...helps to enjoy people watching too! After time in the city we headed to Rari via bus. Rari is a little country area near the larger city of Talca and Linares. We had great laughs with our lack of language skills but did eventually arrive to the rural home of Danilo, where we were met by Nora and given the keys to La Casa Azul...the blue house that would be ours to use for the week before the trek moving the herd of broodmares and their babies, young horses and of course the stallion.
Danilo is known for his horse breeding and his feat at winning one of the yearly competitions for Chile in Endurance. I see now why!! We were introduced to our horses and the others right away. We had the week to get organized and ready for the trek. First on the list was to round up all the horses from the different pastures around Danilo's area, bring them into the chutes for yearly worming and sorting, then to the corrals for hoof trimming, branding and preparations were made for the camp itself. Mula's...Mules were brought in and readied as they will be our pack critters. Packs are not like our packs...they are rebar with either goat skin or plastic covers. They do not weigh or tie their packs as we do here in Canada but there wasn't a one pack that slipped or gave any sore spots or problems to any of the mules. They are great animals.
Finally we are ready to leave. Off to the high mountains but alas it will be a good 8-10 days to reach the summer grazing area for this herd. Along the way we will encounter other herds, vaca (cattle herds) and huge goat herds...all heading in the same direction. The sounds of greetings from all the gauchos is amazing and wonderful...beautiful sing-song voices and words...we will also encounter the hassle of getting the herd of approx. 45 head of horses around or through a new Dam project. As it turned out the company that is building the dam provides the herdsmen with trucks and drivers to take the livestock across the dam project to waiting corrals at the base of the mountains. We were also amazed to find out we would not encounter any wildlife. Nothing other than a huge spider that looked like a trantula but we were told they are not poisonous...I was taking no chances and made sure I shook out my sleeping bag before I crawled in. Spider phobia me!!
The day we left was an awesome warm pleasant day and filled with anticipation for the days ahead. We had two new foals to deal with which are now added to the mobile herd. One foal about 12 hrs old and the other a day....they were quickly bundled up and put into the back of the farm mini truck atop many layers of sheepskin and blankets, legs and necks tied so they couldn't get up and with plans to meet at the end of the trail on day one, they are then returned to their mothers for the evening, after having a lunch break with mom as well.
The first day to the Andes saw us heading up the small mountain in Rari and crossing over to the other side to wander along country roads and trails. Keeping the horses in line was a bit of fun the first day, which pretty well is a normal event with any herd move anywhere in the world....but all said and done and nobody lost or misplaced, we arrive to the holding pens to await our truck to take us across the Dam. Riding the trails to the holding pens was through forest and trails that had steep slopes with washout river centers though thankfully dry and not having us slip and slide ....keeping the herd together was hard too as there were only 5 of us to do the work. The horses had not been fed much while in the home corrals and therefore were opting to head off in all and every direction in search for graze. Soon though we got into the rhythm and had them in order and on our way to the holding pens.
At the holding pens, which consisted of one muddy large paddock type area with a loading dock, two large closed in paddock type areas set aside for goats and then an approx. 1/2 acre of poor graze with a stream running through was the scenario. As we are awaiting a truck, along comes another gaucho and his herd of horses, then a fellow with a herd of cattle and also a herd of approx. 250 goats. Randy and I were amazed...all these animals and not one intermingled with another herd...not horses, cows or goats and amazingly all worked like clockwork considering the crowded area and the mud and the big trucks. We were loaded into 4 trucks and driven to the other side of the Dam. Riding in these trucks is pretty scary to say the least and the roads steep and not well built at this point. I was one of the first of us to arrive with a load and I was totally impressed with the reception I received while awaiting the others. I was greeted by some gaucho's that insisted I join them for their noon meal....I could not resist. They were interesting and friendly people though once again language...gestures work well sometimes.
Once all our herd were assembled, we were back in the saddle and on our way to the mountains. Each day in the saddle was approx. 7-9 hrs. I was on a slab sided QH type who was 17yrs old but I was pretty happy to have this total responsive and sure footed horse as my mount. Randy lucked out with a sturdy Peruvian Paso X that had the wonderful easy sitting gaits...my guy a bit on the choppy side to say the least. We spent this day in the saddle riding back country roads and up and down trails until we arrived to the hacienda of Danilo's friend where we were to overnight in his pastures and to enjoy a meal on the open fire with Danilo's family and his friends. This is the first night for the newborn foals to be with their moms. The dew in Chile was quite heavy and we soon learned that sleeping on the ground, thankfully with a tarp on and below, was not the best way to go. Sleeping under the stars is one thing but not recommended in the low lands in Chile.
The next morning saw us up and settled into the saddles and the trail at dawn. Of course there is always one or two horses that just don't like the agenda and we lost a few that detoured with in the first half hour but Randy and Yito (helper) were quick to the draw and off at the gallop to find the wayward ponies and return them to our moving herd. Our day was pretty well uphilll all day long, on narrow super rocky, boulder trails that took us up and up and up....the stamina of the herd and the riding horses was amazing and yes the first day or two gave us a few sore achy moments even though we were seasoned riders. Saddles were traditional Chilian with wood tree and layered with blankets above and under, there was an Argentinian saddle...flexible leather strung tree which is adjustable and layered too with blankets and sheepskin and layers of leather for stirrups and girth. I must say too these guachos are amazing ropers and they don't use horns to hold their roped critters...all on a small ring on the side....I rode the first half of the ride in an aussie type saddle while Randy opted for the traditional western saddle. The trail was steep and hard footing and narrow pass ways...barely room to have the horse go through....up and up we climbed through sparcely treed old forests. At times we would meet another group coming or going and the trail is totally not wide enough for both herds at once. As I said earlier too...amazingly the critters don't intermingle enroute. Go figure...my own would be upsetting the apple cart in a heart beat!! If we came to another group it seemed there was a trail etiquette wherein everyone knew who had the right of way and those that didn't stood their herds off to the sides...sometimes barely room to pass...and let the one with the right of way go first. We were at the top...finally after what seemed hours and I suppose it was hours, in the saddle.
Lunch breaks....they are always at the heat of the day and siesta is a prerequisite...lunch might be a white bun and maybe a shared can of tuna...or cheese and of course the stead fast matte'...a herb in a cup that has hot water added to it and a silver straw with spoon type holey end on it and sugar added. I found this not to my liking but many do and most of the mountain men for sure. Its a social way to share matte with those you meet along the way. I am not an afternoon napper but soon found that the heat of the day...normally high 30's Celsius...made it pretty easy to quickly fall asleep under a big old apple tree or shade tree of any sort...even a shade rock!! 20 minutes for the nap and off we go again. Horses all rested and watered.
We are now decending but we have a huge rock walled mountain ledge about 400 meters from the river below. The nice thing about riding here is you can drink the water from the rivers and streams and have no ill effects. The ledges were narrow and barely wide enough for horse with rider and in some spots we actually had to dismount and hike the ledges, and for someone like me with height issues it was a challenge. At one point one of the newborn foals, which was now on his own to trek with us, tettered on the edge of the ledge on big boulders...me with eyes shut closed comtemplating the outcome of a wrong step but I was amazed and reassured that not many were lost. Gawd these animals are sooooo sure footed its crazy! Along the legde we encountered a lone rider returning from the mountains...he was as tight as he and his horse could be against the face of the mountain and here we are with herd of 45, mules and 5 riders and we have to get by him....ok...close my eyes again....how we got past him and didn't fall off the ledge still amazes me to no ends! Once again we hit a height peak and started to decend. Tonight we are to camp at the river's edge and just around the corner will be our first 'check point' where Danilo must get his papers stamped in the morning to allow him the access to the Andes and the grazing areas alloted to him. He must also show our passports (we carry copies in waterproof plastic) as we too must register to be in the mountains. Our night was under the stars and early to bed after the same meal as our lunch was...this being the longest day in the saddle so far and it took its toll on us and we were tired. At least the dew wasn't that bad. We were given a tent after this night and it was appreciated. Horses were housed in an old stone corral for the night. There is no overnight grazing; they will graze what they can on the move during the days.
Up early and into the saddle the next morning...The herd of horses use two routes...one to go to the mountains in the early spring/summer and another route to return due to the water level of the river. On this occasion they were to take the longer spring route. But someone forgot to tell the horses and before anyone could react...off they took at a gallop to cross the raging river. Galloping anywhere along here was a feat in itself as you are basically on what seems to be rip rap for road building. At any rate this did not stop the horses and off we went in pursuit...Yito ahead of us all...the horses started to cross...scary or what....rapids and depth made the river seem impossible. At one point as I sat on my horse helpless to the situation both of the new born foals entered the waters only to be swept into the fast moving current and all I saw was legs and heads and more legs tumbling and tumbling through the currents and waterfalls...Yito was the man of the moment. He is a good strong hand and an excellent roper! With little regard for his own life, he galloped his horse into the river and just as the youngest of the foals was going over a big waterfall he managed to rope it by the neck....but the other one was soon behind the first and Yito was able to reach down and grab it by the ears and tow it up onto his horse...the other he was able to tow in to shallow ground with his rope. I don't know how long I sat there with my mouth dropped open and wondering to myself if I just witnessed a miracle! The rest of the herd all being older made the crossing in tact and without washing off to sea. Dilema now was us riders....Yito with the herd and us on the other side of the river. Danilo decided we could try to swim across on our horses but he found out soon enough that this was not an option. He and his sturdy horse got about half way and then the current and the amount of blankets on the poor horse as well him were not condusive to a safe crossing. Randy and I were prepared to cross if all had gone well with Danilo's crossing but thankfully we didn't have to take that option. Instead we now had a long route around to catch up to Yito and the herd...the herd also including our pack mules and all our gear!!
Catching up to the herd was another extreme experience for us. We took off at a gallop and our only route was across the base hillside of an old road that was about 300 meters above us. The whole side hill was rip rap and huge boulders and here we were galloping across like it was a sand arena!! Basically shut your eyes, hang on and hope the horse doesn't falter and fall into one of the many many holes between the rocks. You have to remember too these horses are flat shod in a one size fits all type scenario....nothing like our spoiled horses over here. When I say these animals are sure footed...they are the best!! We soon met up with Yito who was moving the herd in tact towards our location. Siesta on the beach under a full apple tree, next to my horse was a welcome event compared to the morning we had. After lunch break and siesta, we were heading to the location of the home of Llaten and his brother and his mom. LLatin is to join us on the rest of the trek as we are now going to be picking up 4 German young gals and guys to continue with us to the grazing valleys. They are all students of tourism and Danilo is putting together a ride trek which will be offered to the public.
Getting to Llatins' was a pretty mild affair and very enjoyable with herd behaving and moving at a nice rate, on the banks of the river or on the rural road, it was easy compared to the morning. Along the route you have no need to worry about food...everywhere there are trees laden with apples and plums and cherries and other fruits ..some we've never had before but were soooo nice and juicy and welcoming. We arrived to LLatin's just before dark and set our tents in the pasture. Danilo and Yito continued up the road further to house the herd in the corrals at the next check point we had to go through to get into the mountains. Here the feds will count the herd and make sure passports and papers are all in order. In the mountains you don't know where the border is between Chile and Argentina. Llatin and his brother and mom are the local 'store', pub and bootleggers though Llatin makes his living helping move herds as well doing fine and beautiful leather work for horse gear. His brother works now for the dam company and his mom feeds and keeps the place in order. The river meanders past their acreage and was a great spot to hit the hot rocks and have a somewhat but much needed bath. Dinner was served out on the patio which like the rest of the house is with dirt floor and old wooden table and chairs. This is also the pub! Very quaint. But very hospitable and we loved our hosts and their stories.
The next morning saw the arrival of our 'greenhorns' that were to trek to the high mountains with us. Some were somewhat riders and a few not so much. Our day started off with trying to figure out how to pack the many changes of clothes and over packed bundles these people wished to take along. It worked but I for one saw no need for what they thought they needed for a few days. When with the natives you do as the natives and basically even one change of clothes is too many...LOL! We travelled along the road to begin with until we reached the hacienda of a weathly couple from Santiago, who I must say were wonderful people and welcomed us to cross their properties with open arms as well picked us cherries that were soooo delicious. Once across the valley area from their hacienda we once again started our climbing...we are now into the base of the Andes and our destination is two valleys beyond the volcano San Pedro...whom by the way was steaming and giving us a show now and then. Remember too this is the same time as the earthquakes were hitting Chile in 2010. Actually they did quite a bit of damage to certain areas. At any rate...yeah to seeing San Pedro up close and personal.
Our siesta this day was on the side of a mountain in scrub type brush no higher than ones knees but the ground itself was now starting to not only be steep but very slippery with shale, gravel and sand. Before our lunch break we hit a super steep mountain to climb...herd is basically in single file now and we are winding our way up and up and up....we do have one problem though as one of the yearlings was not fairing well and was in need of rest and water. Basically as the morning went along it was harder and harder to keep this yearling up with the herd and I know this horse was thinking of leaving and dying. At one point he decided to head to the downside which looming was a huge cliff dropoff and he would have slid over. Randy was above me on the trail and I decided I could not let this horse die and went after him....I managed to turn him back to the herd but not without taking my own breath away! I could only 'feel' it and I saw the look on Randy's face....I was sideways on the downslope and the ground was sliding out from under my horse and we were going to slide down and over this cliff....quietly Randy said...turn your horse....I asked my horse and he responded right now...he was too not about to let us go over the cliff and when I felt the solid ground once again underfoot I thanked the beings that will and let out a huge sigh of relief. Too close for comfort on that one!!!
We rested the horses and ourselves for a bit....our next camp was to be closer to San Pedro. Basically we camped on the side of the mountain. During the evening hours while we slept the herd of horses split into two and one half with the stallion took off on their own to 'greener' pastures...they have 3 grazing areas that they move between during the grazing season and for some reason the stallion decided to take half the herd to the farthest area. Yito was up early and on their trail and was to meet us at the abandoned hacienda which would be our next camping spot. But alas half the herd was still with us abet on the wrong mountain which separated them from us by a rock slide. One of the mares in this group was ready to give birth at any time or day so was not moving fast and with her were young mares and foals and a few yearlings. Danilo yelled to Randy and I to 'cowboy' up and we had to go with him to gather these mares and get them back on track to the right mountain and up it. Quietly picking our way over the massive rock slide to reach the herd we had left, I wondered once again if my sure footed mount would miss all the gaping holes that appeared between the rocks. Each hole big enough to snag a foot and break a leg let alone any rider falling off on this stuff. YIKES!!! As it turned out the herd decided to go into gallop as we were trying to gather them....so off we go...at a mad gallop as well so we can contain them and corral them to the right direction. I can't believe I did what I did, nor can Randy...we basically took the task at hand and didn't think about what we were to do ...if we had of we'd have probably not done what we did and that was to gallop not only across this massive rock slide but up the steep side of the mountain...no trails here till you reach the top and galloping herd that wants to spread in all directions....WE DID IT! We had them back on track and on to the right mountain and the right trail. Danilo stopped at this point to tell Randy and I that we were real 'cowboys' in his eyes and at that point I realized that fear is all that will hold me back and I can overcome that in any way in my life from now on.
Camp that evening was an abandoned hacienda in much disrepair but it had a good water system running through it as well good shade trees and some grazing for the herd. There were other herds grazing nearby but no worries...no intermingling. Yito showed up before dark and had found the rest of the herd but decided to leave them at their grazing area as they would join up later on in the summer. At this place we were able to explore a bit as our new riders were worn out and were not ready to go on to any other location that day. We climbed up a mountain...and lo and behold there was a huge waterfall cascading down 100's of meters to a huge gorge below. It was like standing on top of the world or at least what I imagine it might be like. Absolutely gorgeous scenery!! Dinner this evening was a mutual affair with everyone chipping in, sharing and cooking and cleaning. Not much to clean...one pot and a kettle basically. Actually our one pot had double duty originally as it was the pot the dogs at Danilo's were fed from but they (not the dogs!! LOL!) cleaned it well. :-))) Everyone had a good sleep as the next day was going to be crossing the snow fields at the base of San Pedro Volcano. Yahoooooo! Us from BC are used to riding in snow so we were not apprehensive.
The next day was up hill and climbing once again. Our ground changed off and on from the shale and gravel and sand to more rocky and gravel type terrain. The winds were stronger up here at close to 8000ft above sea level and the air much cooler and fresher and more fall like in temperature. Glad we had brought along layers to wear as all layers were in place this day. Finally we reached the snow fields. The snow was clean but punky and one did not know if there was movement under the snow or not. This can be pretty scary as could be ice and water movement. Danilo was the first to go and test the route...all on a downhill slope now crossing the side of San Pedro to the bottom of this volcano. Danilo decided the going was good so next was the herd...and Randy and I too ....the snow was only about knee deep on the horses and one hoped our sure footed mountain horses were just as sure footed in the snow. One of our riders had had a bad experience on this route the past year and opted to use her own legs to travel down the slope as last year she experienced her horse tumbling head over heal down the slope and her tumbling right along with it. We made the decent in fine order and was nice to hit the valley below where the winds were less strong and the temperatures much higher. We rode though areas that were like alpine meadows with wildflowers and streams and new growth starting to appear. The grazing is a very course bunch grass type of vegetation but the horses love it. In this area we also encountered bog but the signs were not the same as here in BC riding boggy areas. Here it looked like emerald grasses but in fact was a very wet mucky bog but at least with a bottom. We spent the rest of the day travelling between mountain ranges and basically went two valleys over from the base of the volcano. Here we had a nice grassy camp for the evening and even had some wine flowing and good stories to share while we watched Danilo and Llatin make us up a batch of dough for making something we'd say was close to bannock...This was where we were leaving our herd for the summer and they would stay here now from Dec. till March when they would be rounded up and returned to Danilo's home place. Danilo also has over 250 goats in the mountains too and they had made the trek a few weeks earlier than us with the horses.
Our return was much faster without the herd and a different faster route was taken....mostly through valleys with some mountain climbing but in one day we were back to Llatin's home and family and giving our goodbyes to our German tourism friends. The next day saw Yito heading off to Llama Lodge, which is owned by the one german girl and her family, where he would be taking out some greenhorns on daily rides. We had a nice evening at Llatin's and I for one was really wanting a shower or bath. I was told I could use the shower house and though Randy could have too, he has no problem to strip down and use the river. Me at this point being the only woman and wanting my privacy opted for the shower house....quite the experience but once again...live the life of the natives!!! My shower house consisted of a mud floor shower with a board...slippery...to stand on and the shower head was a piece of garden hose that was put up through the roof and into a bottom of a 5 gal bucket to gravity feed the water. There was a wood plug in the end so you didn't waste all your shower water!! I felt revived, renewed and happy for another out of the ordinary experience.
The next day was to be a long day for us in the saddle. We took a whole different route and this was mostly old abandoned roads through the mountains. Our ride was at a fast jog/trot for 10 hours....now this is endurance and especially for me on my slab sided sewing machine gaited pony!! My body was rejecting the abuse towards the end of this day. We had to flag down a truck once we arrived to the holding corrals at the dam site and luck was with us as all the trucks for hauling the livestock had quit for the day. Danilo was able to get word to the company though and soon we had the truck to take us and our horses and one mule to the other side of the dam. We will be camping in the holding corrals at that end for the night. This is special though as two of the houses by this camp also doubled as pubs and one could either go there and have a beer or buy takeout. Randy and I decided to take a few for takeout and to set up our tent. We are sleeping in the goat pen tonight. There is a light bulb in the tree above our tent and the switch in the tree....very quaint. Randy and I found some stumps to settle onto and have our much awaited beer when all of a sudden the gate to the goat pen opens and in comes a rolly polly elderly man who doesn't speak a word of english nor regular spanish...he speaks a very old dialect that even Danilo has a hard time to understand...but we had the best time with this fellow for at least an hour or so while he visited us. He laughed and we laughed heartily even though all our communication was by gesture. Bottom line for him was he was telling us to make sure we turned the light in the tree out before we hit the hay as the electrical came from his home...this was his property leased to the dam company. He was a fun, funny and up beat person that made our day!!
The next day we were up bright and early...smelling of course as bad as goats....and on our last leg to Danilo's home again. We rode fast and hard and it definitely was a very welcome sight as we came to the last high point of these valley hills and saw his place. We arrived back to La Casa Azul on Christmas eve. La Casa Azul is just down the road from Danilo. We were very tired and very happy and very much pumped at the reflection of our trip to the Andes on horseback. Danilo and his family are more than wonderful people and all of Chile is a safe place to travel. The scenery we saw via bus travelling from city to city and rural is very much the same as BC but with more flavor. The wine is super!! The people are wonderful and helpful and we'd go back there in a heartbeat. We have much more of South America to still explore and what better way to do it than on the horses and with the working folks. This is their lives, this is our adventures.
I will post more of our rides shortly and hopefully figure out how to add the pictures. Till then...happy trails....next I might take you up the Itcha Mountains in BC. We'll see...or maybe along the Alexander McKenzie Heritage trail with mega history to tell you...or maybe riding the mountains in Spain or in Wales or The Superstition Mountains in Arizona....and of course yes we do have another ride happening this winter...to Mexico and to see the winter habitat of the Monarch Butterflies. There is a whole world of riding out there and I hope reading this might make you want to do this yourself. contact me if you need logistics and information on how to go to certain places to ride. Cheers for today...hope you enjoyed this.