Argentina: Horseback Riding and Kayaking in Patagonia
A Patagonian Multi-Sport Adventure
by Lauryn Axelrod
Ever since I was a child, Patagonia held an allure… a faraway place of gauchos and glaciers, wild, open spaces and mountains that seemed to hang from the clouds. Like Bruce Chatwin’s land of dinosaurs, it beckoned me through its mythologies.
But unlike Chatwin, whose journey to the dusty south was filled with quirky settlers and literary allusions, my Patagonia –- the Araucanía Region or Lake District — was an outdoor adventure wonderland; a place where I could ride horses across empty plains, climb tall granite peaks, kayak crystal lakes, eat the best steaks in the world cooked over open fires, drink fine wines, sleep beneath the southern stars, and then get up and do it all again the next day.
Ride Like a Gaucho
South of Junín de los Andes, Estancia Huechahue (hwe-cha-hwe) sprawls over 6000 hectares of scrub-covered mountains, condor-filled mesas, and fertile poplar-lined groves beside a wide, clear river.
Entirely self-sufficient, the estancia is hydro-powered and grows all its own food, including delicious, grass-fed beef from the cattle raised. I began my Patagonian adventure here with five days of horseback riding, gaucho-training and pack camping.
Jane Williams, who owns Huechahue, keeps more than 50 criollo horses, all bred and broken to this wild landscape, and a stable full of expert guides.
The estancia has been in her family for generations and for the last 20 years, she has run it as both a working ranch and destination for seasoned riders from around the world. She offers custom tailored packages from 2-8 days, short pack trips, longer trips across the Andes, trips from estancia to estancia, and even a transcontinental trip from Pacific to Atlantic.
When I arrived, there were nine riders in residence – two from Holland, four from England, one from France, one Irish sheep farmer, and myself – all here for the horses and the experience of classic Patagonian estancia life.
On our first day, we learned about the gaucho tack – the sheepskin-covered wooden saddles tied to the horse with leather straps – and the particular way of riding these horses. Our trial ride was up to the Condor Mesa.
We rode for an hour through the dry hills to the base of the mesa, and then got off the horses to scramble up the steep cliff to the summit. There, with glasses of Argentine Malbec wine in hand, we waited for the big birds to arrive.
And when they did, soaring directly over our heads on the thermals, their six-foot wingspans parting the silence with a loud roar and casting dramatic shadows against the red rocks, we knew that we had come to the right place: this was the wild Patagonia we all had dreamt of.
For the next three days, we rode like the wind through high desert plateaus, deep mountain canyons, alongside and through rivers, over rocky mountains. Each day’s ride was different. The size of the estancia allows for a multitude of varied landscapes and we were continually surprised. Deep, basalt-lined canyons gave way to high mesas; cool rivers led to fertile fields; hidden Mapuché burial grounds appeared on mountain tops, and always the perfect, snow-capped cone of Lanín volcano towered in the background.
Our final day on the estancia was gaucho training; herding more than 100 head of year-old cattle from one pasture to another several miles away, then into a corral and chute for vaccinating. Herding is hard work, but exhilarating…and seriously fun!
Galloping alongside the cows, keeping them in line with shouts and lassos, I couldn’t help but feel like I had missed my calling as a gaucha. I also felt like I earned my last lunch: a traditional asado of BBQ ribs and sausage, served with thick slices of homemade bread and eaten with a knife only.
Reluctantly, I said my goodbyes to Jane, our guides, and my trusty steed – Otra Amiga (‘Other Friend”) – as the bus picked me up outside the gates of the Huechahue. Within two hours I was in Bariloche, trading in my riding boots for hiking boots.
Trading Boots in Bariloche
There is a reason that Argentines themselves flock to Bariloche for vacation. Nestled within the mammoth Nahuel Huapi National Park, with more than 10 pristine lakes ringed by snowcapped Andes peaks, Bariloche is a four-season adventure lover’s paradise. It would be easy to keep yourself occupied for weeks hiking, kayaking, mountain biking, rock climbing, rafting, swimming, skiing (in season), eating local venison, trout, boar, and chocolates, birdwatching, or just lounging on the beaches in the warm high altitude sun.
I only had five days, but each day was as packed as the next. On the first day, I rented a mountain bike to ride the famous Circuito Chico, which passes up and down through spectacular scenery, hidden lakes, secluded beaches and, at the end, microbreweries. Usually, this 40 km drive is seen from the comfort and boredom of a bus tour, but on a mountain bike, you are free to stop and admire the views, hike to the beach for lunch or a swim, climb a mountain, or linger as long as you like over a much-needed cold beer. It’s a great introduction to the region, offering a variety of views and experiences.
The next day, I rested my muscles with a trip to nearby Pampa Linda and the Black Glacier (Ventisquero Negro), which hangs ominously off the side of Cerro Tronador, the highest peak in the region at over 3500 meters and a mecca for mountaineering. En route, we stopped to hike to several huge waterfalls, and ate lunch beside the glacial melt river. Tronador (“The Thunderer”) is so named because of the sound the ice makes when it breaks off the eight glaciers that grace it. Four of these glaciers are in Argentina and four are in Chile.
The Black Glacier is the only one of its kind, and it is black from the sediment it carries down the mountain. After a 30-minute hike to the moraine lake at the foot of the glacier, I gazed in wonder as huge chunks of ice broke from the glacier, crashing into the water below with a thunderous roar.
Day three was a full-day kayak on Lago Gutierrez, another of the beautiful lakes around Bariloche. Often the lakes are smooth as glass, reflecting the snow-capped peaks like mirrors. And our morning started that way, but soon, the unpredictable and fierce Patagonian winds picked up and we were paddling hard through whitecaps to the beach on the far side.
After drying our clothes in the sun, we lunched on steak sandwiches, and then paddled back along the quieter shore, watching for the famous wild trout in the clear waters. Dinner that night was at a local parrilla, where a delicious grilled double filet mignon, potatoes, salad and nice bottle of wine cost less than $15.
The following day, I hiked up to Refugio Frey perched beneath the granite spires of Cerro Catedral. World-renowned as a rock climbing destination and the largest ski resort in South America, Catedral is a towering piece of sheer rock. The refugio – a 4-hour hike through forest and rock– is one of many rustic hiking huts scattered around the peaks of the region. The network is clearly marked and maintained by the Club Andino, and the refugios offer food, drink, and beds for hikers and climbers.
If you want to, you can easily hike from refugio to refugio over several days. But I only had one day, so Frey was my choice both for its drama and its accessibility. In the summer, climbers come from around the globe to tackle these faces and base themselves at Frey for weeks at a time. Looking up to the immense rock faces, dotted with climbing lines and spikes, I wished I had progressed beyond bouldering at the rock gym. But the hike and the views were worth it, even if I couldn’t get on the rocks themselves.
The final day in Bariloche included a much-needed rest on the quiet beach in Villa Tacul and a climb up Cerro Campanario to see the sunset. Named one of the “Top 10 Views in the World” by National Geographic, the 360-degree panorama from Campanario is unquestionably stunning. During the day, a cable car takes passengers up to the top, but if you want to go for sunset, you have to hike up the steep 40-minute path. It’s worth the work. Resting on the summit with a bottle of Malbec and watching the fading Patagonian sun paint the mountains and lakes in a palette of pinks and purples was easily one of the highlights of my journey.
That night, I splurged for dinner at the Restaurant Familia Weiss, known throughout the country for its preparations of wild meats. Beginning with platter of smoked venison, boar, trout and other delicacies, I followed it with grilled Patagonian lamb topped with a ragout of local mushrooms. And of course, all was complimented by a bottle of the famous Argentine wine. Still, the meal came to less than $30.
Hanging out in Hip El Bolson
I could have stayed longer in Bariloche, but El Bolsón, a small town two hours south, had been on my itinerary since I first thought about coming to Patagonia. Known for it’s weekly Feria Artisanal selling the wares of local artisans, great hiking, organic farms and berry orchards, the best ice cream in the country, and many microbreweries, El Bolsón has been a counter-culture enclave since the 1970’s.
Nestled in a wide fertile valley, guarded by snow-capped peaks and the mysterious, jagged Cerro Piltriquitrón (called “Piltri” by the locals and supposedly home to special magnetic forces and/or aliens!), El Bolsón is often overlooked by travelers headed quickly down Ruta 40 for the glaciers at El Calafate. But I knew it was a place I could linger for days.
First stop off the bus was Jauja, the local café/chocolate shop/ice cream store renowned throughout Argentina. A few scoops of homemade dulce de leche ice cream with fresh raspberries convinced me that this would be a daily stop while in El Bolsón.
My home was a hidden hostel, El Pueblito, 3 km out of town in a rural area surrounded by farms. With a lovely hammock-filled garden and a refreshing river out back, the hostel is run by Julián and Marcel, who make sure that you have everything you need from endless bottles of home-brewed beer to a full asado dinner! That night, I slept soundly, knowing I had full, active days ahead.
The next day, I hiked up to the Refugio Piltriquitrón. From the parking area used as a launch base for hangliders, it’s a steep two-hour hike, passing first through El Bosque Tallado, a sculpture forest in which local artists have carved fantastical creatures and shapes into the dead tree trunks.
Just below the jagged, rocky summit, the wooden refugio and caretaker’s cabin appear in a field of dandelions like an image from “The Sound of Music.” It’s a breathtaking sight after the hot hike. And from the deck of the refugio, which serves homemade pizza and beer, the view is amazing: the entire valley spreads out below and you can see all the way to Cerro Tronador two hours north.
My last day in El Bolsón, I hiked up to the Refugio Cajon del Azul. A six-hour roundtrip trek, it’s one of the most stunning in the area. The track winds past secluded farms and follows the Rio Azul, a rushing, glacial melt river that is truly the color of bright turquoise. After crossing swing bridges, meandering through quiet forests and then scrambling over ledges and rocks and ladders, you reach the refugio, a self-sufficient farm tucked improbably between a deep gorge and a high peak.
Like other refugios, it serves meals and homebrewed beer, as well as offering a comfortable place to sleep. From here, you could carry on to several other refugios, making a multi-day trek. But I could only visit for the afternoon and take a short nap beneath a red-flowering tree, listening the spring lambs mew in the field.
My journey to Patagonia was ending with a final night of wine, good food and a much needed rest. Though I only covered about 400 km of a vast and varied region, the combination of wide open spaces and endless outdoor adventure made me wish I could stay longer, ride longer, hike longer, and eat more!
IF YOU GO
El Pueblito Hostel
Maps for trekking in the Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi and El Bolsón area can be obtained from Club Andino in Bariloche, which also has loads of information, or at the Tourist Office in El Bolsón. Get the Carta de Refugios, Sendas y Picadas.
Lauryn Axelrod is the founder of GoNOMAD.com.