Argentina Patagonia Riding

Horsepacking Across Patagonia

By Peter Heller

Horsepacking in the mountains of Patagonia - photos by Peter Heller
Horsepacking in the mountains of Patagonia – photos by Peter Heller

Ciro Vivas stepped his horse and loaded mule out of the trees into a scrim of wind driven rain. He tipped his head so the brim of his hat shielded his face and urged the big gelding down the slick rocks to the river.

The river had no name and was full and fast and green; just downstream it emptied into a narrow black lake.

Nieve,” he murmurred. Snow. I reined up beside him and followed his eyes. All around us the wooded slopes climbed steeply into a ring of mountains. Heavy clouds clung to the slopes, and where the wind tore them away we could see the new snow rhiming the trees and the rock peaks.

Mid-October, early spring in Chilean Patagonia.

Across the river was a house and field where califate bushes bloomed a startling yellow and thin cows lay on the bogged grass. We could smell the smoke from the chimney and hear the dogs barking.

I smiled at Ciro. The way he hunched in the saddle. The way he pulled a cigarette from beneath his thick wool poncho and lit it and studied the notch of the pass.

In his full-fur goatskin chaps, he was a satyr on horseback. The black hat, black moustache, black three day beard; the unremitting bitterness in his muddy black eyes. He looked like he’d just robbed the payroll train.

Vamos al paso manana?” I said, lifting my chin to the mountains.

Ciro shook his head. He wouldn’t want to go through the high pass tomorrow. He would refuse. Anybody who was not a fool could see it was too early in the year. You could kill your horses.

Tiene miedo?” I asked. You are afraid?

Now he turned his head. He looked at me. He touched a fleck of tobacco off his lip with his toungue and spat dry. And then he smiled. It transformed his face.

Splashing across a mountain creek
Splashing across a mountain creek

Si, Pedro. Tengo miedo.” He clucked the gelding into the swift current and I followed, listening to the rocks roll under the scrabbling hooves and lifting my feet in the stirrups when the water floated the mule’s tail and rose to the horses’ bellies.

Brooklyn Roots

I am such a sucker for this stuff. I grew up in Brooklyn reading Louis L’Amour Westerns. Shooting hoops above the Brooklyn docks, all I wanted to do was build a smokeless fire under the aspens and drift the High Lonesome on horseback. After college I moved to a small town on the Western Slope of Colorado.

One day I picked up a Louis L’Amour novel with a cowboy on the cover splashing across a mountain creek on a roan stallion. He led a packhorse and looked over his shoulder. There was snow on the rocks. You could tell he was being pursued and night was falling, and cold, and he’d have to make some decisions that would affect the rest of his life.

I was so stirred I bought two horses, had my ranch neighbors show me how to put on a saddle and a bridle and tie a barrel hitch on a pack horse, and that summer I rode from Paonia to Wyoming. It took a month, and even though I hadn’t broken any laws, it was one of the finest trips I’ve ever taken.

So when I heard about an October horsepack trip through a roadless section of northern Patagonia — from the Argentinian border, out of the Andes and down a pristine river called the Manso, I jumped.

A mountain and kayak guide named Zach Cowan, who helps run a Patagonian outfitting company named Adventure Tours Argentina Chile, organized the trip. He said, “We usually do these in summer, in January and February. We’ll try and go over the pass to the Cochamo Valley, but nobody’s really done it this early.”

When I flew into Bariloche, Argentina, I realized how early it was. The town, with its German architecture and ski area, looked like Bavaria in winter. There was heavy snow on the peaks and everybody was wearing full coats and wool hats. The first thing Zach said was, “Do you want to kayak across the border tomorrow and meet the horses? It’s a little Class III-IV gorge on the Manso. Really fun.” Brrr. Okay.

Patagonian meadow
A meadow in the Manso River Canyon

We did. We drove for three hours down into a green country of lush cypress and coihue trees, the big broadleaf evergreen that blankets the forests of southern Chile. Orange michai flowered along the road in the sun and all of this was seeming like a better idea.

We put our boats in on an opal river that ran through a narrow moss-rock canyon, and pulled out for a few minutes to get our passports stamped by an Argentinian soldier in a shack up in the woods.

We stood dripping on the planks while he asked us why we were leaving the country. I wanted to say, “Because the river flows downhill.” Because, por supuesto, the horses are waiting. I was starting to feel like I was in a dream.

We carried the kayaks out of the canyon to a farm where three Chilean cowboys were saddling and packing thirteen horses. Ciro, the old man; Rene Montero, in his mid-thirties; and Julian Montero, his nephew, only seventeen. Three huasos, five gringoes, five pack horses.

Zach and I stripped off our drytops and changed into jeans and boots. I snugged on my old, black, triple X beaver Stetson, and walked up to a big black mare and tied my rolled oilskin duster to the back of the saddle. As soon as I swung up and reined around she wanted to run.

“What’s your name?” I said. Her ears swiveled back. She was already prancing in place, swinging her butt around, loading herself like a spring.

“Okay, let’s go.” She understood English. Her ears twitched forward. She tossed her head against the bit and arched her neck and stepped out jauntily onto the worn trail that threaded a field that fell to the river.

Men Belong on Horseback

Men, people, belong on horseback. There is something deep inside that sings as soon you are in the saddle. The vantage from that height; the shifting and moving of the living animal beneath; the dance of wills. Every man on horseback takes on a certain nobility that he may or may not deserve. Sometimes I think that’s why people love SUV’s: they set the driver at horse height and jingle something in the DNA.

Men belong on horseback
Men belong on horseback

Chile has had a strong horse culture for more than three hundred years, born when Pisarro landed on the continent’s breast, with men and horses, and subdued an Inca nation of over a million battle hardened warriors. I was curious about the working tack used by the huasos. Instead of a leather saddle with attached cinch, they used a spare frame of wood saddle bars which they covered with three folded blankets and two pads of sheepskin.

The cinch went around the whole outfit and the horse and snugged tight, and you sat on it. The advantage was a very lightweight rig that was comfortable as a good chair. Instead of stirrups, I slid my feet into tapaderos — enclosed wood clogs that kept sticks and brush from getting caught. I noticed that Ciro and the boys wore black rubber boots and spurs. I guess that in Patagonia, one of the rainiest countries on earth, that made sense.

I hadn’t ridden in ten years, and as soon as I was loping down the trail I felt at home. Something in the smell, too, of horsesweat: grass-sweet and musty and ancient. I always think it smells like history.

We strung out in a long line and crossed a cable and plank bridge over the river. One horse at a time, the loud drum of hooves above the rush of the water. We climbed steeply into dense woods, and down into another side canyon, and splashed across a spring creek. Ciro led, driving two loaded mules ahead of him, smoking the Marlboros Zach brought him.

Little Energy Expended

You can tell a lot about a person in the way they sit a horse. Ciro, 53, sat loose, hunched, head tilted forward, like a man riding through a bitter rain. What was beautiful was how little energy he expended. When he jumped his horse out of the trail and cut through the trees to round up a wayward mule, he seemed to barely move, an effortless extension of the tilting and swerving black.

You got the sense, watching him, that he was both disreputable and dependable. Rene rode erect and graceful. He wore his fawn, flat brimmed hat tilted forward and he had the features of a movie idol — strong Roman nose, high cheeks, slow dark eyes.

Patagonian farmers all plant poplars -- called alamo.
Patagonian farmers all plant poplars — called alamo.

Everything he did, he accomplished easily and simply. You knew he would be that way in the rest of his life. His red dog Gaucho followed loyally at his mare’s heels. In Chile, cowboys call themselves huasos, in Argentina, gauchos. I thought maybe the name was a dis, like calling your dog Lou Dobbs.

We contoured high above the Rio Manso on our left. Looking back upstream we could see the river running blue in its wooded canyon and the snow mountains in the V.

All the farms in Patagonia are marked by the tall spindles of the poplar trees they call alamo. It’s the first thing homesteaders plant, a flag that can be seen from a distance. At dusk we spied the first trees, and came on two farms, one on each side of a fast, clear tributary stream called the Torrentoso.

We skirted the corrals and sheep, the barking dogs and horses and climbed to a broad grass bench with a plank cabin in the middle of it. It was an empty community house for the families of the valley where we would spend the night. We stripped the horses and Ciro and Rene and Julian cut them loose on the grass where they rolled and grazed in the thickening dark.

Yerba Mate Tea

We built a fire outside and passed around a small enamel cup of yerba mate, the strong mountain tea that every Chilean horseman carries in his saddle bag and that has a kick somewhere weirdly between a triple latte and a joint.

The mare grabs a bite to eat.
The mare grabs a bite to eat.

I loved this. It could have been Montana or Colorado, except there was plenty of rain and no roads, just horse trails linking the remote farms. And when we emerged next week, we would be only a few kilometers from the sea. We were in the thinnest of countries.

I thought about one of my favorite poets, Pablo Neruda, Chilean and a Nobel Prize winner, how he wrote: Night, snow, and sand make up the form/of my thin country,/all silence lies in its long line,/all foam flows from its marine beard,/all coal covers it with mysterious kisses… And here, on the Manso, we were back to a simpler time.

No electricity or phones, and messages traveled down the valley saddle to saddle, homestead to homestead. Zach told me that night that when he needed horses for a trip he’d go to the radio station in Bariloche and put a message out on the daily bulletin board, Ciro, so many horses at such and such a date at such and such a place, for so many days.

Everybody had a battery powered radio. Somebody in the Manso valley would hear it. They happened to be riding up the Rio Los Morros. They would tell a Montero whose brother-in-law was going over the pass to Cochamo the next day, who would tell Ciro’s neighbor. Zach said the horses would always be there.

That night I slipped out of my bag and stepped out on the cold dew-wet grass to take a leak. I heard a horse blow in the dark and saw their shapes scattered over the bench. I looked up at a deep river of stars, and down valley I saw the Southern Cross hanging in the notch of the canyon. The world of horses and men turned in silence.

Fishing in Chile

Trout in butter
Trout in butter

I was up in the first grey light. I’d heard about the fishing in Chile. I found my saddle on the ground and untied the tube of my pack rod and grabbed my vest and trotted past Ciro asleep under a piece of canvas tarp beneath a tepaTK tree. I jogged down the trail past the first farm to the swinging bridge over the Torrentoso, and up to a gravel beach.

I put on a Bitch Creek with little rubber legs, which is what I always use when I don’t know what’s going on in the water, and threw it into the azure current at the edge of a big eddy. I think the orange and black fly is ugly enough to excite animosity in a trout. It looks like how I felt when I used to deliver pizza in a Dominoes outfit.

It drifted down and I snapped it back and cast again and the moment it hit the rod jumped and flexed. Jesus. Whatever it was, it was gigante. After ten minutes of fighting I pulled in the biggest brown trout I’d ever caught. I didn’t have a net and unlike the catch-and-release zealots, I love the taste of trout in butter, so I dragged it up onto the stones to eat for breakfast and clubbed it on a rock, and turned and saw Zach sitting on a boulder grinning. I’m not a very good fisherman, and the only thing as good as catching a fish like that is to realize you have a witness.

We rode in warm sun north up the Torrentoso on a forest trail with the creek on our right and tall black cliffs looming on the left. Unlike other temperate forests, most of the hardwoods here keep their leaves all winter, so the woods were lush and green. In a few hours we broke out into a roll of green pasture that fell to a lake and one of the prettiest farms I’ve ever seen.

The shingled house sat in its grove of alamos and flowering cherries at the head of the dark water, and the high snow ridges looked down. Stormy clouds were gathering up there. Wide green fields flowed around it, criss-crossed with split rail fence. Bunches of sheep with new lambs, and turkeys by the trough, and horses head down on the slopes.

Four herd dogs tore up from the house, barking crazily. Rene’s dog Gaucho went out to meet them, tail high, and got his ass kicked, but fought his way into an uneasy truce. We cantered off the hill and through the gate into the rail-fenced yard and swung down.

Francisco 'Pancho' Soto and his wife
Francisco ‘Pancho’ Soto and his wife

Pancho’s House

This was Francisco “Pancho” Soto’s house. He was 88. He and his young 68-year-old wife came out to meet us. He was round faced and droll, with bright red cheeks and whisps of grey hair, and a resonant cackling laugh. They had been here for 50 years. The house, like all these farms, was built with hand-hewn lumber, by a German homesteader.

They ushered us in for mate and bread in the little kitchen where the cast-iron and chrome cookstove was covered with simmering black pots. Pancho passed his mate cup with the little silver straw called a bombilla, and hustled me into the dining room to show me his family pictures on the wall.

“Is that Pinochet?” I asked aghast, pointing to a big glossy photo tacked above the dining table. “Si, si!” Pancho said proudly. He was our Presidente! “Ahora viejo.” Very old now.

I know, I murmurred. I was going to say something about over 200,000 tortured, missing, murdered, but then I looked at Pancho, who took my elbow and led me to another photo of the smiling dictator in his white uniform and medals meeting with some local functionaries.

Here, here,

he said. El Presidente in Cochamo. I looked at old Pancho, beaming, jolly, and I realized that way out here, at the end of the trail, the news that came by horseback was basic and un-nuanced, and that the news on official government radio was what you’d expect.

I loved my oilskin duster.
I loved my oilskin duster.

I smiled warmly at my host and nodded. “Si,” I said, “Su presidente. Si.” That night Rene slaughtered a lamb — without getting a speck of blood on his jeans — and we ate and drank wine by lantern light until the hard wind off the lake drove in a wintery downpour and we scattered to our tents. Before I left the table, Pancho leaned into me whoozily and confided, “We are all Americans. Claro!

Riding in a Hard Rain

For the next week we rode. We rode in a hard rain around the lake on a trail of broken slab rock awash with spilling creeks. I was amazed, incredulous, at what the horses could negotiate — slick log water bars and steep, stepping rock, sharp stumps and roots and mud wallows. Nothing seemed to phase them.

I loved my oilskin duster then. In the long coat that snapped around the legs, and the broad felt Stetson, I was dry as Ciro’s humor, which I was just beginning to detect. One cold hand on the reins, the knock of hoof on stone, jingle of bitrings, the constant concentration and shifting of weight: a tautening and forward lean when the mare humped up over a shelf or steep; the weight back, lengthening the body, pressure in the feet, when she bunched and half slid down a mud sluice.

Riding rough country is anything but passive: I was more sore and hungry and tired after five hours in the saddle than paddling whitewater. We stayed with Rene’s sister, Maragarita, and her young family of six at the other end of the lake. Her husband, Caloncho, was steadily building barns and outbuildings, milling all the planks and lumber by eye with a chainsaw.

Over their farm loomed the kind of jagged rock spires you conjure when you think of Patagonia. We tried to climb the 3000’ pass over into the spectacular Cochamo valley, but it blizzarded on us the day we scouted it on foot.

We trekked into virgin alerce and coihue forest with giant evergreen trees eight feet across, and through four feet of snow to a gem-like lake shrouded in storm. Ciro surprised me: he came along gamely, even though he had drunk a good portion of our wine jug the night before, and he already knew he would never allow his horses up here.

Off at a gallop
Off at a gallop

And he was a goat, scampering up ahead of everybody; we’d come around a turn in the trail and he’d be leaning against a giant tree, water dripping off the brim of his black hat and beading on his poncho, smoking a cigarette and watching us, one eyebrow slightly cocked, as cool as any Butch Cassidy. Who had ridden all through this country with the Sundance Kid.

So we backed off, and rode back to the glorious Manso, and turned south, and the sun came out again, and we rode the big canyon for another four days. Sometimes the trail was so rough and eroded it became a ten foot deep gully that pressed our shoulders.

Man with a Machete

One evening we came on a little, wiry, toothless old man carrying a machete and foraging for mushrooms. It was Milo, a lifelong hermit everybody knew. We camped on his sloping pasture high above the river, and one of us handed him a little Martin backpacker guitar.

He took it in his hard, wooden fingers and his face dissolved with gladness. All night by a wind whipped fire he serenaded us with crackly Mexican ranchera songs. Early in the morning I saw him asleep on the ground, packed tight as a sardine between Julian and the dog Gaucho.

On the last afternoon we emerged into rolling ranchland bright with red flowering phosporito trees and yellow califate. My mare wanted to run. I let her. And then I heard a rebel yell behind me. It was Zach, spurring his gelding, trying to pass, to win. A sheer, pure, animal joy swept through me. Okay, if that’s what you want.

Yah! I jumped the mare out of the trail and spurred her and leaned forward over her neck. She surged on the hard turf. We ran. In and out of small trees, launching off swells and over shallow draws.

I could see Zach off to my right, on the trail, in a dead run. We ran under the white Patagonian sun. We ran until a tall gate pulled us up short and we sat the lathered horses and all we could do was catch our breath and laugh.

Peter Heller

Peter Heller is an acclaimed writer who lives in Denver. He wrote this story on assignment for Men’s Journal magazine. Visit his website for updates about his novels and writing at 

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