• Alice Whaley

When it Rains, it Pours

Updated: Apr 15

We’ve moved from Caviahue to El Bolsón: 700 kilometers in 9 hours. That’s half the length of Spain, but it’s peanuts in Argentina. Moving to a new town means hunting for a new ‘gaucho’ to ride with, and anyone you’ll find on the internet is the opposite of what we’re looking for.

A friend of a friend of a friend led us to Guayito. Our neighbour was going to visit Guayito at his house on Saturday night (said he had to drop off an old oil drum – bizarre), and offered to show us the way. We were eager, but - 20km up the mountain track – our rented Renault Cleo certainly wasn’t. The road to Guayito’s house is well signposted and surprisingly busy, but it isn’t tarmacked and at least half of the signs are made of wood. I closed my eyes and prayed to The Man Upstairs as little Cleo heaved and sighed, and stones clunked noisily under the car. Then I prayed to the man upstairs in the offices of Budget Car Rentals, just to be safe.

Even forty minutes off the main road, where most of the traffic seemed to be bovine, we were still passing hand-carved signs advertising empanadas and dulces caseras (home-made jams). Occasionally we passed haphazard cottages with full washing lines and dustbins ready for collection: universal signs of life. Other houses had had their windows smashed in by the wind and the snow. There was a wooden shack that lacked half its tin roof standing alone in one of the scrubby fields. It's a public loo, of all things, with two doors labelled Ladies and Gentlemen. Evidently, propriety is maintained at all costs – even out here in the sticks. The shack is keeling over, threatening to collapse into the gents' cubicle at the slightest breath of wind.

Arriving at Guayito’s house, it was another story. Fat, fluffy sheep trailed around a white house with a pretty porch and a giant wooden latch on the gate. Guayito introduced himself with a kiss on the cheek. That is; one kiss on the cheek, and one only. I’ve been here a week and I still can’t drum that into my head. Every Argentinian I meet tries (and fails) to mask their surprise as I accidently ambush them with a second kiss. There have been a couple of near-embarrassing near misses. Thankfully Guayito just laughed, “Ah of course, Españoles.”

Guayito’s partner arrived and bustled us all into the house. “Holaaah”, she cooed, in a dulcet mix of Argentinian Spanish and Italian. Here the double L sound, pronounced like an English ‘Y’ for us Europeans, is pronounced ‘jsh’. Caballo (horse) isn’t cab-bye-yoh, but more like cab-baj-sho. The woman’s long earrings jangled as she spoke. She drifted around the kitchen with ease, then placed a cup of Argentinian maté tea into my hands. “Holaaah, me jshamo Carol.”

Really? I blinked at the scene. Guayito’s beret lay on the wooden table next to the wood-burning stove. There were tall, undulating beams holding up a high roof. Various teenagers were strewn around the living room, one of whom was playing a guitar. And there, amongst Guayito, Josefina, and Bruno, was Carol, totally at home, and beaming. She smiled and explained. She’s German (I didn’t see that coming from the name or the accent), but trained at Art School in Italy, then came to Argentina many years ago, fell in love with it, and stayed. I can see why. I’m already planning my next visit.

I take a sip of the bitter maté, then pass it along to Bruno, who’s on my left. He looks aghast.

“You don’t like maté!”

“What! No! Yes! I do!”

He relaxes.

I continue – careful, in the knowledge that maté is the heart and soul of Argentina, “I just, I’ve always seen people pass around the bowl?”

I defensively thought back to Caviahue, where I know we shared a maté while we talked over the day’s riding in José the Cowboy’s cabin.

“No,” replied Bruno. “One each.”

I silently sipped at the metal straw, mortified. The conversation starts to sound interesting on my other side, so I tactically absent myself from Bruno’s gaze. Turns out Carol’s a set designer for Operas. What a woman, what a story. She still works in Europe, flying back and forth all year round.

With the teapot finally empty, we trundle home more carefully than ever. We wake up in the freezing cold to an absolute downpour. I found myself nostalgic for Caviahue yet again. Luckily my granny’s old cowboy hat serves as a wide-brimmed umbrella too. Guayito meets us up the mountain at a place called Wharton, which the Argentinians manage to rhyme with ‘Spartan’. I waxed lyrical about the Caviahue saddles. Guayito laughs off my description, “Those aren’t any good for distance.” His saddles are covered with thick sheepskin too, but he pulls off the top to show me a wooden base with a curved metal frame at the front and back. He proudly pats the base, announcing, “These are proper saddles.” So the rivalry continues.

As we trek up a rocky path we pass a few intrepid hikers, and a painted sign reading ONLY 4x4. I’m surprised even 4x4s are allowed up here. There’s a little drawing under the sign. It’s a pick-up balanced on top of a peak, without any of its wheels touching the ground. The path becomes less and less drivable, until we reach a wooden bridge, impassable for horses. The Rio Azul (Blue River) gushes past. It’s blue indeed. In the eternal words of We’re Going on a Bear Hunt; ‘We can’t go over it, we can’t go under it, we’ll have to go through it.’ The trickling streams of Caviahue pale in comparison to this. Isabel decides she’d rather keep her feet dry, and opts for the bridge on foot. The white bull-mastiff follows her. Guayito leads Isabel’s horse into the water behind him, and Chipo the border collie duly follows. I’m on a tall grey called Valentina. She wakes up a little as her legs hit the cold water, then her tummy, and finally her chest. We’re completely exposed to the wind and the rain in the middle of the river. My head’s bowed against the weather as we cross. It’s wide and the current’s strong, but the horses can deal with it well enough. It’s a different story for poor Chipo, the border collie. He gets out of the river significantly further downstream than he got in.

Soon we’re sheltered from the rain as we enter the pine forest. Here, there isn’t a monkey-puzzle tree to be seen. The whole area around here, between Angostura and Bariloche, looks as if it belongs in the Alps. Onwards and upwards, until the trees become too close and the horses can go no further. We stop for a quick maté at a refugio, then walk the rest of the way to the Cajon Azul (The Blue Box). Gauyito’s spurs catch the light as he climbs, and I begin to regret bringing so many empanadas in my backpack. The Box is named for the steep canyon through which the Rio Azul runs: 1 metre wide and 40 metres deep. It’s astounding. A little wooden bridge crosses over the drop. The spaces between the wet planks are disconcertingly wide.

“Want to have a look?” asks Guayito.

I glance at the sign. NO PASAR. DON’T WALK.

“Oh don’t worry about that,” he says, “That’s just left over from last year, when one of the planks broke. They’ve fixed it now. I’m sure it’s fine.”

The sky clears on the way back, and the Rio Azul looks bluer than ever. Guayito tells me that the pairing of the minerals in the spring water with this particular type of rock makes for tricks with the light. With the Academic in me unsatisfied by the half-explanation, I allow my Naturalist side to take over, and content myself with enjoying the magic as we cross the river twice more on the way home. The level’s even higher now. I feel like something out of a film as Valentina and I slosh across in the afternoon sun.

Guayito's come out of his shell over a few hours' riding. 'Chatty' would be a stretch, but he's jovial and smiling. He offers a little gallop when we get back to the field where we started. Absolutely, I thought. I left the picadero in Sanlúcar nearly three weeks ago, and I haven’t even trotted since. I urge my horse on. She starts to fizz, jerking up and down with her neck bolt upright, then sets off at a fast and uneven canter across the lumpy ground. She’s got the shortest paces I’ve ever seen in my life. They're uncomfortable as hell, and it's impossible to get her going properly. I try again. No luck. I can see Guayito watching over his horse’s back as he untacks, frowning at the spectacle. Determined to prove myself, I try again. This time Valentina leaps into a hole and drops her shoulder intentionally as she lands, damn nearly throwing me off. I growl at Valentina. She looks quite pleased with herself. Riding is about mutual respect, and if there was one thing I knew about horsemanship before I began my journey, it’s this: never ever let the horse think it has beaten you. I set off with Valentina one more time. She reluctantly obliges with a moderately fast and moderately jerky canter, ready to spook at the first opportunity. Fine. I get off and lead her over to Guayito. As he takes her reins he says, “Yeah this one’s good at a walk, but she always gets skittish when I try to do other exercises.“ I wish he’d told me that before.

With all of us safely on foot, Guayito starts making preparations for the lonely journey back to the ranch. Out of five horses, he ties two pairs of them together, and gets on the remaining one. He attaches a long leather rein to each of the pairs. The four riderless horses organise themselves neatly behind him on the wide, muddy path, and he waves goodbye over his shoulder as he sets off home.

Previous blog: The Four Seasons

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