A Horseback Trek in the Andes with the Argentine Men of the Mountains
Story and photos by Madelaine Triebe

Five days of horseback riding in the Andes Mountains with no cleaning up and no set itinerary is a daunting travel test with the gauchos of few words.

Argentina travel story

I watch the slabs of meat dangling from the ceiling in the stone hut at the foot of the Andes, as gauchos Dani, Alvaro, Manuel and Roke—the Argentine cowboys—unload the pack mules on our first night in the South American mountains.

I'm standing in the rustic hut with no heating, no electricity, or any kind of furniture except for the squeaky metal bunk beds in the adjacent room. While looking at the beef casually thrown up over a cord and which is going to be our dinner tonight, I understand that this is not going to be an ordinary pack trip for tourists in the world's second highest mountain range.

crossing the riverI'm in Argentina and earlier that day, I have taken the bus from Mendoza—the wine capital of the country—to the mellow and sleepy town of Tunuyán, 52 miles south of Mendoza. From Tunuyán's small bus station, and without any kind of pick up arrangement or information of what time the pack trip will depart that same day, I manage to get myself a remis, a pre booked taxi to El Manzano Histórico, a tiny little village with 26 inhabitants at the foot of the Andes and the starting point of the horse pack trip into the mountains.

I arrive midday to El Manzano Histórico and to the family home of Manuel Rodriquez, the young head of the expedition I'm joining. I get a warm welcome from his parents and sister who's there when I arrive. They offer me mate and ask how my trip was. Manuel is nowhere to be seen and no one seems to have been worried about my arrival or if I even would show up at all.

When I look around the house I can see a few boxes that I assume are being brought on the trip, but except for that there's no indications that we are hitting the road anytime soon or even more so that we are going on a five day expedition into the mountains.

After a few hours sitting at the dining table in the kitchen watching people come and go, conversing in Spanish with each other and without any idea of the itinerary, I understand that there are no fixed hours on this trip. There is no pre-printed itinerary, I don't have a dedicated guide giving me updates, and there is not a set departure time; I just have to patiently wait until someone tells me that we are going.

After having waited for four hours, Manuel's father Yagua lets me know that it's time to go and drives me in a white Renault van to the mountain hut where we are staying the night before we set off on horseback the following morning. Together in the van with me are Manuel, Dani, Roke and Alvaro, all locals to the area and between 20 to 25 years old. They are the young gauchos on duty and responsible for bringing 40 mules with gear across the mountains to the border of Chile for an Argentine group of hikers.

argentina mid-day

And then there's me.

Brought to This Place by Happenstance

I've managed to get on this trip through contacts, timing and a deep passion for any kind of horseback riding in nature. A year before on a road trip through Argentina with my friend Max from Buenos Aires, I find myself in El Manzano Histórico, invited to dinner at Manuel's father Yagua's place. This is where I hear that Manuel does a few expeditions on horseback into the Andes every summer and there's no doubt in my mind; I'm going on one of those trips.

Taking care and keeping track of forty pack mules and all the gear is a time consuming job. After my first night in the mountains, when I get up at 7am the following morning and step outside—I don't get dressed as I've been sleeping in the same clothes as I've been wearing yesterday—the gauchos are already in full swing. The gear of tents, food, clothing, tables, plastic chairs, wine, water, cups, plates, and cutlery is already packed. There are 50-60 bags and plastic boxes packed and organized on the dirt ground in front of the mountain hut.

Still there's plenty to do. More than four hours later, after the boys have rounded up and saddled the pack mules and horses and arranged all the equipment on the pack animals, we are ready to set off. An hour before a condor has hovered above us in the light blue crisp sky. I feel it's a good omen.

argentine mules

Riding the Horse Trail of Liberation

We ride off into the mountains. There is a trail leading the way through the Andes but in contrary to most trail rides I have been on there's no one telling me to keep a straight line, keep my distance between the horses and stick to the path. I feel free to express my own inner cowgirl riding up and down the rocky slopes of the mountain and I find many opportunities to get off the beaten track trying to herd a wandering mule or just play with the experience of riding in the mountains.

We ride for hours, following the same path to Chile as General San Martín when he in 1817 brought an army of Argentine soldiers and Chilean exiles over the mountains to Chile to liberate the neighboring country from Spanish rule. The first few hours we ride mainly in silence because of the howling wind overpowering our voices in the arid landscape, and Manuel who's the one running the operation always seem to be somewhere in the front where we can't see him.

After seven hours in the saddle we arrive to an Argentine military base 9,691 feet above sea level where we'll set up our camp for the night. There's a wooden sign reading "Jurisdicción Militar Prohibido Pasar" clearly informing visitors that it's prohibited to enter as we ride past it.

military base

The cowboys tell me Manuel knows the people at the base.

We Are All Afraid of Something...

My second night in the Argentinian Andes I'm sitting at a long table in the dining hall of the military base having dinner. The brown wooden round plates in front of us have leftover grilled meat and white breadcrumbs are spread all over the table. I never thought I would find myself at an Argentine military base in the middle of the mountains, but here I am drinking red wine from an aluminium cup with four Argentine cowboys and around us, going about their own business, are young Argentine military men dressed in green pants and woolen thick sweaters.

Outside the sky is clear and filled with stars and I don't know if it's the physical tiredness from seven hours in the saddle, the Malbec, or the sense of freedom in the mountains that have us override the small talk and deepening the dinner conversation by taking on the subject of fear.

"What are you afraid of?" This is what Manuel, a 25-year old man of very few words, asks me, looking straight at me with his blue eyes and slightly red cheeks.

I'm surprised by the question. Manuel is not a big talker. I would actually go as far as saying he's a man that doesn't talk. Or at least to me.

"Are you not afraid of the mountains?," asks Manuel and the other gauchos also want to know.

"Are you not afraid of the dark?"

Dani, Roke and Manuel are now all looking at me waiting for an answer.

"No," I say.

"I'm not afraid of the dark. And I'm not afraid of the mountains."

I keep silent for a few seconds before I carry on.

"But I'm afraid of heights. And I was afraid earlier today when we were riding down the part after the narrow passage where the road ends," I say referring to the pass called Portillo Argentino, 14,215 feet above sea level; the steepest part of the whole ride, There I spent 40 minutes pushing my stirrups forward and leaning as far back in the saddle as I could, looking over the edge and hoping my horse would not trip and I would not fall.

argentine gaucho high pass

"What are you afraid of," I ask them.

Manuel is the first one to reply.

"I'm afraid of blood and I was afraid when my wife was giving birth to our daughter."

There is a vulnerability in his voice that I have not heard before. A softness that was completely absent this morning when he was screaming from the core of his soul while bashing a 13-pound rock on a mule when she tried to kick him.

"But men can be afraid too, right?" he asks me and I wonder again where this sudden openness is coming from, but I don't ask. I just say looking at him;

"Of course they can. Of course men can be afraid too."

Later when all of us are going to bed the gauchos tell me there's a room upstairs where I can sleep, but that they are sleeping outside underneath the starry sky. That sounds like something I want to do and I tell them I want to sleep underneath the stars too.

sleeping under the stars in Argentina

They look surprisingly at me. Almost shocked.

"Do you really want to sleep outside?"

"Yes." I nod with not even an inch of doubt.

"I'm not afraid of the mountains. I'm not afraid of the dark."

The Stowaway in the Dessert

We've come to the fourth day of our trip and it's our last night in the Andes. We are on our way back home from the Chilean border. We reach our camp spot for the night, although it won't make for the most comfortable sleep as there's a slight slope and the ground is rocky. It's rainy and windy and we are cold and tired after days riding with an average of six or seven hours a day in the saddle. No one is sleeping outside tonight.

argentine mountain refuge

Cold and wet Dani makes coffee and Manuel brings out the bag of the standard Argentine assortment of chocolate and vanilla cookies. As he opens the bag a little gray mouse escapes its sugary hiding place. It runs across the plastic table we have set up, swiftly escapes down one of the metal legs towards the ground and then disappears into the dark.

I think of all the reviews from upset guests on TripAdvisor, complaining about a hair on the hotel bed, poor shower pressure, and a half full toilet roll that was not replaced by the cleaner as part of the daily housekeeping.

I have not showered and slept in a bed for days and now there is a mouse escaping the bag of cookies I'm about to have with my hot drink. I'm sure my experience wouldn't go down very well with raging TripAdvisor reviewers, but I with my dusty clothes, greasy hair and our newly discovered tiny rodent travel companion, I could not be happier about my trip.

Madelaine TriebeWhile dividing her time between Latin America (mainly Argentina, Brazil and Mexico) and Sweden, Madelaine Triebe works as a freelance travel journalist. She has a passion for horses, South America and wild places. She is a contributing author to The Rough Guide to South America on a Budget (2019) and The Rough Guide to Argentina . She is also the author of The Rough Guide to Brazil. Follow her on Twitter (@mymaddytravel) or read more on her blog: mymaddytravel.com.

Related Features:
Wining, Dining, and Cattle Driving in Uruguay - Claudia B. Flisi
Isolation and Empanadas in the Desert of Northern Argentina - Tim Leffel
A Digital Detox While Connecting With Nature: Four Weeks Unplugged in Remote Canada - Julia Hubbel
A Cowboy at the End of the World - Shelley Seale

See other South America travel stories in the archives

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