Updated: Apr 15, 2020
Everything in Argentina is wide and flat: the towns, the houses, the prairies, and the mountains. Either side of the long, straight road, all the way from Neuquen to Caviahue, open plains stretch out, unbroken, as far as the eye can see. The earth is reddy-brown and the grass grows in bulbous tufts between the rocks. All the land belongs to someone, but you wouldn’t know it. For the first two hours of the drive, the land is completely uniform, and almost completely empty - except for a few nodding donkeys, lonesomely pumping oil in the silence. It’s practically desert here, so raising a small number of cattle takes an enormous amount of land. We pass a proper cowboy, lasso and all, driving his herd across the plain. An old family friend, José Moreno, is driving. He’s taking me, Belinda, her partner Rodrigo, and our good friend Isabel to see his town.
Eventually some blue-grey mountains appear up ahead. As they come into focus, you can see patches of snow around their flat tops. The grass on either side of the road gets greener, and the ground begins to rise and fall. More and more cows appear on either side. These aren’t like the black toros bravos of Andalusia. They’re rusty brown all over, or they’ve got white patches. Live cattle graze on the wet marshland, while the skins of their predecessors hang to dry over the fences nearby. The mountains begin to gather around us. They ascend gently, except for a rim of vertical rocks that jut out halfway up their grassy slopes. There’s only one peak, and it’s smoking.
“That’s Copahue. It’s an active volcano,” says José. We all ooh and aah. I’ve never seen a volcano before. “That’s where we’re headed.”
We pull into Caviahue, a ski-resort in the foothills of the volcano. It’s the summer here, so it’s green and quiet. José says he prefers the summer. Understandable; he runs a hotel for skiers. Looking at the wildflowers out of my bedroom window, it’s hard to imagine the Hotel Nevado in its titular ‘Snowy’ winter coat.
In the morning, we stroll out to see the lake while José takes care of the hotel. The water’s like a mirror in the morning sun, and – right on cue – a bird swoops over it. A stray dog jumps into a flock of birds on the grassy bank and sets them all off squawking. José comes to find us in his silver pick-up truck, and takes us – unexpectedly – to a military base. A fat man in a gilet and a red neckerchief introduced himself as a trainer. This unassuming one-and-a-half storey building is where explorers and scientists prepare for expeditions to the Antarctic. Here in Patagonia, the Antarctic’s not so far away. Up to a hundred and twenty people live here in the winter, and this empty room covered in rubber matting is the dormitory. A wooden shelf hugs the sloping ceiling all the way around. That’s it, in terms of furniture. There are three showers and one sad-looking urinal. The trainees are only allowed heating for two hours at night. I shivered just thinking about it.
The pick-up rumbled further up the mountain, towards the column of smoke puffing out of Copahue. The grass turned into rock, and the rock turned into snow, and the eggy smell of sulphur filled the air. There’s no sign of life except a line of wooden telegraph poles strung alongside the track. Patches of snow have slipped and cracked, revealing a crisp, white layer underneath the sooty cap. Higher up, the wind-blown snow looks like an ocean. The volcanic ash catches on the peaks of the frozen waves. We get as high as the car will take us, to a little settlement called Copahue. The corrugated iron roofs are steep and rusty. The whole place centres around five square pools. A solitary man in a red speedo sits on the edge of one, dangling his legs in the warm volcanic water. It’s cloudy and bubbling.
The colours change dramatically on the drive downhill. The greys, browns, and whites transform into the electric green of the mallín grass. Every single tree is a monkey-puzzle tree. They’re huge and strange. Their lower branches fall off when they get too heavy so some of the trees are left with perfect hemispheres on top of naked trunks, while others still carry their lower branches, sloping towards the earth as they fall ever so slowly. These alien trees are carpeted with a far more familiar sight: dandelions, hundreds of thousands of dandelions, all along every river and roadside. The river widens. We cross a bridge where turquoise water meets iron-rich red earth, and pass by a little farm beside the river, before reaching an enormous waterfall.
After lunch, the real fun began. We headed out of the back door of the hotel, to find another fat man - this time in a cowboy hat. He looked very stressed.
“Come back at 4:30! One of the horses escaped!”
When we came back, the man had found the horse and had safely tied it to a cement mixer. Another horse’s rope was tied to a log pile, and another was just slipped under a piece of corrugated iron. No wonder they go walkabout.
I sort of expected the horses to get bigger as we got closer, but they didn’t. The Spaniard’s I’ve been working with love to have tall, beautiful horses, but the truth is that little ones are far better at trekking. These horses are strong and stout. Their stocky legs are hairy with the remnants of their winter coats. The saddles are like nothing I’ve ever seen. There’s some hard leather under there somewhere, but all you can see from the outside is layer upon layer of sheepskin, tied on with a wide woven girth.
I was led to the grey beside the corrugated iron. Given that his back was only about level with my chest, you’d think it would be easy to get on. Trouble is, the saddle is so wide that by the time the stirrup’s disappeared under the horse’s tummy, there’s no way of getting your hips over it. When my bum did eventually hit the mound of sheepskin, I realised the saddle’s merit. Like the stone steps in cathedrals, or wooden banisters in old houses, the saddle has been moulded by use alone. There’s a little hollow in the middle of all the fluff where years of riders’ bottoms have pressed it down. It’s the comfiest thing I’ve ever sat on in my life. The cowboy’s horse didn’t look so comfortable. It visibly bent its knees before he got on, steeling itself for the weight of his empanada-filled tummy.
We hiked up the mountain, between the towering monkey-puzzle trees, to the aptly named Path of Seven Waterfalls. I was at the front, just behind our cowboy, also called José (of course). He set the pace with serious spurs tied over flimsy espadrilles. I thought back to Sanlúcar, where riding boots are a cult of their own – so much so that I had to buy new ones on my second day. As we got higher, the grass gave way to loose stones. The horses didn’t seem to mind. Their little legs carried us along at great speed, their feet picking their way between the stones with determination and ease.
Belinda was on a dark grey with piggy eyes and barely any tail at all. It was naughty as hell. Isabel’s brown old lady struggled to keep up with Piggy Eyes, but it was still streaks ahead of Rodrigo’s Lentejas (lentils; named for being slow, lento). José-the-Host’s horse had a strong, shiny bottom. It would have been beautiful except for its enormous ears. I was happy on Palomo (dove), a fly-spotted grey with pretty eyes, who very much enjoyed being at the front of the group, just behind our cowboy.
After riding up past all seven waterfalls – none quite as astounding as the cavernous drop we had seen in the morning – we crossed down into a vast, bleak valley. The wind picked up and the trees fell away behind us. There wasn’t a soul in sight. Not a house, not a car, not even a shack. The wind blew stronger as we climbed out of the valley. My hat blew off. José-the-Cowboy’s hat has a sensible chin-strap. He shook his head and promised to make me one, too.
Over the top, and down the other side past a wooden shack either vacated for the winter or abandoned forever. Belinda’s horse insisted on racing ahead, tripping over its own feet and the lumpy grass as it spooked and spluttered to the front of the group. My eyes began to water in the wind. I was glad to see the lake appear again, and then the town, and finally the dilapidated cement mixer where it all began.
José the fat cowboy offered me his hand as I got off my horse.
“Tomorrow, a proper ride.”
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