Updated: Apr 15, 2020
Up early doors this morning to meet our chubby Argentinian cowboy for the famed ‘proper ride’. Today, a man of indeterminable age joined the party. Pedro’s eyes have the twinkle of a young man, and his cheeks are smooth, but the wrinkles on his forehead are deep set and the top row of his teeth have all fallen out except one. He’s wearing a grey flatcap and leather slip-on shoes. When we arrive, Pedro’s attempting to get on a fluffy chestnut. The horse has other ideas. Pedro’s holding the reins, while the horse avoids him in quick circles, trampling the corrugated iron as it goes. José sees me looking.
“That one’s a young’un. Needs breaking in. Today will be good for it.”
We set off over the bridge and out of town. Four dogs follow us. Two labs, one golden retriever with a limp, and one Lassie-type thing – all strays. They’re handsome and fat. It’s sunny and the sky’s a clear blue, except for a thick column of smoke chugging of out the volcano, spreading as it rises. This time we tramp out straight ahead, instead of turning left and heading up the mountain behind the little town. The ground begins to rise, and soon we’re clambering up the knobbly grass again. I can’t tell if we keep crossing the same river in different places, or if it’s dozens of little tributaries to the lake below. Either way, the dogs are having a blast – especially the Labradors – sloshing about at every opportunity.
Looking back across valley you can see the mountains encircling the lake and the little town. The yellowish scrub turns greener and smoother as we climb, and soon enough patches of snow appear around us. The cowboy’s spurs have fallen off his espadrilles, so we stop and give the horses a break while he sorts himself out. It gives Lentejas and the Old Lady a chance to catch up, at least. Pedro takes the opportunity to adjust his bridle. The youngster’s cavorting about with his ears back – making faces as close to frowning as a horse can. Pedro lifts off the bridle and shakes his head. José sighs.
“Ugh. The horse has chewed through the bit.” Belinda and I looked and each other in disbelief. The ‘bit’ is a metal bar that sits in the horse’s mouth. José catches on, “No, no, we ran out of bridles. You see? So we had to make a new one. We made it out of leather, so it didn’t hurt his soft little mouth.”
At this point, Pedro is holding his whip by the long leather cord, and smacking his horse with the wooden handle. So much for its soft mouth. It’s still springing up and down, and tangling itself around him in its reins. He gives up on the whip altogether and slaps its cheek with his hand. It glares at him, but finally stops. Newly fashioned leather bridle now on, Pedro swings aboard. Off we go again. The steeper the mountain gets, the louder José calls “Vamos, vamOS” (let’s go!) … Chshchsh … Hoi … Hyah!” I can’t tell if it’s us that he’s urging on, or his horse.
We cross through a shallow valley to the other side of the mountain. It’s deep green, with a dark stream weaving through the dandelions. We’re close-cradled between the rising mountain slopes, and there isn’t a sound except the trickling water and the low rumble of chatter over the horses’ feet. Over the ridge, an expanse of valley suddenly opens out below us. Patagonia is famous dinosaur country. Fossilised bones of the largest ever dinosaur - the Patagotitan - were discovered here. It’s the hugeness of sights like this, totally unspoilt, that brings those prehistoric giants to mind. The green prairie seems long gone. The mountain is dry as a bone again, but you can see a forest of monkey-puzzles way down on the right, and a blue-green delta on the left where the river splits into dozens of curling streams. The dogs think this is great, and go hurtling down the lumpy slope as fast as they can, practically falling over their own feet. They return when José starts handing out sweeties – hopeful, but disappointed.
Down, down, down. The day’s getting hot now, and we’ve got to lean back and put our feet forwards to stop our horses slipping on the loose earth. My hips bob individually, left and right, with the clunk of the horse’s shoulders. José leads the pack in a sensible zig-zag so it’s less steep, but my Palomo’s got other ideas. He can’t be bothered with this zig-zag nonsense, and just heads straight for José way below us, clambering over any rock, scrub, or ditch in his path without batting an eyelid. I tried to pull him out of the way of the bigger holes but he was having none of it, and fell into them clumsily and most uncomfortably. He didn’t care. He just scrambled out again and carried on in his mission.
Out of nowhere, a huge great soot-stained patch of snow appeared on the dusty mountainside. The Lassie dog leapt onto it, slipped, and slid all the way down. The other three dogs lolloped over to have a go. Tails wagging, they rolled and skidded down the ice, then ran up the dusty hillside just to hurl themselves down again. The golden retriever enjoyed lying on its tummy and dragging itself along with its front paws, looking at us over its shoulder as it went.
Inside the forest at last, I was glad of the cool air. The trees were tall, and their trunks bare, so there was space to move and breathe. I heard the waterfall before I saw it. José looked back at me just before it came into view. He gets a certain little smile in his eye when you’re about to see something really good. We followed the water across the marshy delta, where the dandelions grew in hundreds around a homespun shack, to a dip on the other side. I saw José’s smile again as he descended through a cluster of trees to our picnic spot.
You could hear the wonder spread across the group as the silence fell. Seven people and seven horses stopped and looked. A carpet of dandelions stretched out between us and a deep blue lake, hugged by the mountains on either side. The horses were left to graze in the sunshine while we stopped in the shade under the monkey-puzzle trees. Isabel brought good jamón, smuggled in from Spain, and Pedro drew a large and well-used knife from a holster hidden in his jeans. He dove into José’s bright, woven saddlebags and took out a tupperware. He handed me a giant hunk of meat, cured by José himself. I was truly happy. The dogs were too; all four of them chasing cormorants and each other up and down the prairie, weaving in and out of the river as they ran. Belinda’s piggy-eyed horse began to roll. It was still wearing its saddle.
“Hey!” shouted José, “Stop that!”
It stopped, and looked momentarily embarrassed, then stood up and occupied itself with trying to escape from its rope instead. It was successful. Extremely proud of itself, Piggy Eyes acted the Pied Piper and trotted off across the prairie, beckoning the others to come too. They duly followed. The Argentinian way of ‘tying up’ is more about weighing the end of the rope down, so when the horses decided to have a jolly by themselves there wasn’t a lot to be done except chase after them.
With secure horses and full tummies, quiet fell over the group again. I fell asleep under my cowboy hat. After an hour, Pedro wiped his blade on the top of his shoe, and began tacking up the horses again. We set off around (sometimes through) the huge lake and over the ridge into the next valley. For the first time, we were on a wide and level path. The whole bandilla grouped together. Lentejas, always the slowest, found a new lease of life and powered his way to the front. Pedro’s youngster chewed through his woollen bit yet again. Isabel’s Old Lady plodded along without incident, reliable as old boots. Somehow the landscape changed again. Now, stringy plants as tall as the horses were springing up amongst beech trees. Beech trees! Suddenly seeing anything other than a monkey-puzzle felt bizarre.
We leave the path and spend hours crashing through a dense and prickly forest. José’s got another waterfall up his sleeve, but we’ve been riding for six hours and we’re starting to flag. Pedro’s horse gives a conclusive chomp, and destroys a third and final bridle. Pedro is now out of fresh leather straps. He shakes his head. José looks positively upset, but turns home nonetheless. Belinda and I switched horses, just to try. I enjoyed speeding along on Piggy Eyes. She belongs to José’s 16-year-old son, who loves to race.
“He keeps feeding her grain. It’s like cocaine for horses. She’s nuts.”
Sound in body but not in mind, she was the only horse who ever slipped uphill – usually because she was scrambling to the front.
As if this country hadn’t already given us grass, dust, snow, and dandelions, it smiled on us again on the way home. We passed a small white cupboard built into the cliff. There were colourful knick-knacks inside, and “Ave Maria” and “Te Damo Gracia” were painted in big white letters on the rock. I saw these by the roadside on the way from Neuquen too. They’re little saints’ houses, to watch over travellers. Maybe it was the saints that sent us our next little miracle. A pair of flamingos flew up out of the green marshland and circled overhead. Their feathers were a deep pink where their black-tipped wings met their bodies. For once, Pedro and the two Josés were more in awe than the rest of us.
“I don’t know what’s going on up north, but I’ve never seen flamingos here before.”
The dogs didn’t care a jot about what is and isn’t native. To them, if it flies, it’s fair game. All four dogs chased the flamingoes until a mutarada started baiting them. Round and round it flew, low at first, then suddenly pulling up and out of reach every time they threatened to catch it.
Over one last ridge, this time sandy and bare, then the rocky descent home. I was struggling to keep my eyes open when we finally pulled into the yard. Even Belinda’s insane horse was – as the Spanish say – frito (fried). Only the dogs had any energy left at all. They followed us out around José’s yard as we dismounted, expecting another outing. I shook José’s big hand, gave my Palomo a tickle, then headed straight for bed. The dogs will have to wait until tomorrow.
Previous blog: Traversing Argentina
Next blog: When it Rains, it Pours
*Subscribe below for email updates about new blogs.*