Travel

A wild ride through northern Patagonia, Argentina

A packing trip on horseback brings an international group of women together at the top of the world

  • Feb 19, 2020
  • 2,599 words
  • 11 minutes
Riding through the high, dry Patagonian steppe. (Photo: Liz Beatty)
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About 300 kilometres northwest of Argentina’s Neuquén regional airport, somewhere past the town of Loncopué, the paved road turns to dirt. Another hour beyond that, the car I’m riding in rattles and heaves over what has clearly devolved into a track. A couple of nasty bumps scrape the undercarriage. Finally, beyond a MacGyvered wire gate, my vehicle and the one following cross a grassy expanse surrounding the tiny gaucho outpost known as Buta Mallin. This stream-side puesto in far northern Patagonia is the end of the road for the drivers, but for their five women passengers, it’s where the real journey begins.

With dark locks flowing from beneath her hat brim, 26-year-old Lara Du Chaudron, who hails from Germany, greets us with a broad smile and a sing-songy “Helloooo.” In contrast, the piercing gaze of head wrangler Alyssa Young evokes 1970s Clint Eastwood — if Eastwood were a 5’5″ 24-year-old woman with long auburn hair. A veteran horsewoman and wilderness search-and-rescue pro in America’s Sierra Nevada, Young is Zen, a bit fierce and completely in charge. Her welcome talk is all business: horse care, trail rules, staying hydrated and such. She then washes up in the stream before laying out a cold snack. Despite the scrubbing, it’s clear her hard-working hands will take weeks back in civilization before they’ll actually look clean. Suddenly, my white shirt feels conspicuously laundered.

It’s time to mount up. Du Chaudron double-checks cinches (the strap that holds the saddle on). “We have just enough daylight,” says Young, swinging her leg over the sheepskin-covered saddle. She leads off the three-hour trail ride to the start point of our Patagonia pack trip. It’s the final leg of a long day that’s drawn five women from four countries on three continents to this remote trailhead. One more will arrive tomorrow. We range in age from 30 to 60-something. Most of us feel at home in the saddle, but our comfort ends there.

Our guides, on the other hand, so clearly belong here, with their worn gaucha hats, their veneer of well-earned grime and bone-handled knives belted to their back hips. They are creatures wholly adapted to this mash-up of arid sweeping valleys, free-running horses and springs popping out of the ground with surprising regularity. Du Chaudron trots up beside me. She pulls a dirty black scarf over her face as thick dust kicks up from the horses ahead. I grab for my still pristine bandana and marvel. She is so loose in the saddle, so at ease in her skin. I’ll have what she’s having, I think to myself. And really, that is why I’m here.

Wild Women Expeditions guides like Lara du Chaudron are completely at home on these high plains.
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Wild Women Expeditions brought us to this little-travelled reach of northern Patagonia. The Canadian company started more than two decades ago, immersing women in the transformative powers of Canadian wilderness. Now they explore the globe. They’re one of the world’s largest all-women tour companies. It’s a market that’s grown 230 per cent in just six years and has a demographic in the adventure realm that might surprise. The average woman adventure traveller isn’t a 28-year-old triathlete, but more likely a 47-year-old single mom or a baby boomer who wears a size 12 dress. In short, someone like me. Many crave adventure that may be hard to tackle solo. They’re drawn to an ethos of environmental stewardship and personal growth. Some see all-women groups as liberating, for all kinds of reasons. I like all this about the Wild Women approach. Truthfully, I have never been one for a group girls’ getaway and all the clichés of chardonnay-fuelled over-sharing that suggests. But this, I can see, is not at all that.

Truthfully, I have never been one for a group girls’ getaway and all the clichés of chardonnay-fuelled over-sharing that suggests. But this, I can see, is not at all that.

Down the final ridge, the setting sun illuminates our dust trail, without a doubt visible for miles. We begin hearing hoots and cheers at the final river crossing, 60 metres beneath the main house on the valley’s far edge. Snaking up to the grounds of Ranquilco, as it’s known, feels a bit like finding Argentine Oz. “Enjoy the Creation” reads the hand-carved message across the ranch gate. A welcome party emerges from nearby outbuildings, porches and forest paths. Among them, Lulu Waks and Sylvana Manterola. Waks will lead our pack trip. She’s fit, 30-something and, even at a glance, entirely self-possessed. Diminutive Manterola is the daughter of a local gaucho, a bull-strong gaucha in her own right. This woman makes her own knives.

Our home for the next 36 hours is this community unto itself — off the grid and a bit off the wall, a higgledy-piggle of stone and wooden architecture extending out from the Casa Grande. It’s kind of Hogwarts meets the Ponderosa, each room with a wood-fired hot water heater and a worthy view.

Established in 1978, this more than 40,000-hectare estancia reimagines the founding family’s communal-living roots back in California. Since then, individualists from around the globe have found their way here — horticulturists and veterinarians, deep-tissue masseuses, master masons and chefs who redefine farm-to-table. All, for a time, bring their creative vision and contributions to the ranch’s circle of sustainability. Drinking glasses, someone realized, could be cut from the bottom of empty wine bottles (of which there are many). Horseshoes could be reshaped as hinges or to secure support beams cut in their own mill. Virtually all their food — rivaling some of the best tables around the world — is grown or raised on the property.

And for the most part it’s eaten alfresco on a stone terrace with a long harvest table and yet another impossible view. In the distance, high arid grasslands, valleys, meadows and jagged peaks extend deep into the heart of the Argentine Andes. No roads, no fence lines. “This place could not exist without so many hardworking, creative hands on deck,” says Waks, sipping morning coffee and surveying the horizon. Her reverence for the community here is palpable, but what she loves most is riding out into this magnificent vista. Tomorrow, we go with her. 

Dining at Estancia Ranquilco is mostly done al fresco, on a stone terrace overlooking the high arid grasslands, valleys, meadows and peaks that stretch deep into the Argentine Andes.
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Virtually all the food served at Ranquilco is grown onsite.
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Rolo the mule stands compliantly, at least for now, under the towering poplars shading Ranquilco’s main courtyard. Du Chaudron, Waks, Manterola and Young are expert packers. They balance the load, level how it rests, then secure the cinches. In all-black riding garb, Manterola leverages another inch of tightening, leaning on the cinch with one foot braced up against Rolo’s right side bag. Next Ragnar, Ruby, then Roberta take their loads, too. Finally, four women guides, six women guests, four mules and 10 horses head off down Ranquilco’s treed lane. The mules and an extra horse walk free. There are more hoots and cheers from the men and women left behind. They know that what lies ahead is a genuine adventure.

Jen Billock, from Wisconsin, is the only novice rider and a little nervous about what’s coming — the first major descent. It’s a narrow scree and boulder-filled slope dropping about 120 metres. A line snakes down the middle. It doesn’t look like a trail. Navigating this is all about trust — letting these hardy native Criollo horses do what they do. Waks and Young talk her off the edge, so to speak, with calm, spare instructions: “Lean back. Give him his head.” That means loosen the reins; let him see where he’s going. There’s no time for pondering. Billock is already near the bottom by the time I reach the top edge. Even though I’ve ridden all my life, I had no idea horses could do what we’re doing. All I can think is, “way to go, Jen.”

By mid-afternoon, persistent winds blow in cloud cover and eventually thunderheads. We stop short of a puesto as fork lighting grounds out with a shuddering bang one valley over. Waks looks back, takes her time assessing the situation. No quick assurances. “It looks far enough away and moving in the other direction,” she says finally. “Let’s keep going.” And she’s right. Later, we muddle through our first evening setting up camp then peel off hot, dirty riding gear. At last, looking up at clear skies, we lie flat, immersed and luxuriating in the sound of the warm river’s flow.

I’m pleased to find my horse, Angus, the next morning where I left him, still tethered. Such a handsome black gelding, energetic or “forward” as horse speak goes. I enjoy his flashy gaits, but the deeper into this landscape we ride, the deeper my affection for the mules often following behind. Their labour makes all this possible, but also, they are fascinating characters. 

“Heads up — Ragnar coming through!” Young bellows from above. I spin Angus around as Ragnar’s wide load blows by down the hill. At the bottom, the mule stops and falls in line near the front. She won’t let anyone pass. “It’s just what they do sometimes,” explains Young. “Horses and mules have a clear social hierarchy with horses at the top,” she says. “But it’s a love-hate thing for mules. They want to be part of the group. But every once in a while, they have to assert themselves with a not-so-gentle reminder, ‘Don’t take me for granted.’” I love that, and I wonder if I perhaps was a mule in a previous life.

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Mules and horses, it turns out, have a social hierarchy with horses at the top — but the mules know their importance.
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We follow a canyon trail that opens to a wide plateau. There are duelling peaks to each side and expanses so enormous the hundreds of angora goats along the river below seem like bleating white ants. In what might be my favourite stretch of the ride, Waks asks if I want to take the lead. And for a moment, gaze fixed straight on, I pretend I’m all alone in this crazy panorama.

As the valley narrows, a gaucho appears, seemingly out of nowhere. With pleated bombacha trousers, a magnificent grey stallion and a thick moustache under a flat-brimmed hat, Tano Trancoso looks straight out of central casting. At first, the encounter, his warmth and familiarity feel surprising in a landscape we thought we had to ourselves. But then I’m reminded of what someone said back at Ranquilco. Even with the grey fox, armadillo and puma here, this is no wilderness. It’s one gigantic far-flung neighbourhood. This meet-up is the Northern Cordillera equivalent of chatting over the backyard fence. And like good neighbours, they help each other. Trancoso describes a bad fall from his horse. He needs Tylenol. Waks gives him all she has. In return, he escorts us through a dense thicket and on to where the lightning strike the day before sparked a brush fire. A large swath of hillside is charred and still smoulders, pretty close to where we’ll camp for the night. Still, he and Waks agree — we’re probably safe. 

Navigating these steep scree slopes is all about trust — letting the hardy native Criollo horses do what they do.
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Guide Lara du Chaudron watches from the bank as Helen Douglas and Tracey Polglaze take a dip in the Picunleo River.
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Before 7 a.m. the next morning, Du Chaudron hands me coffee as I pull out tent pegs. Each day, these rituals get faster, more second-nature. Homemade bread carried from Ranquilco is toasting over an open fire — a piece of which I’ll soon smother in a caramel spread called dulce de leche. Soon we’re climbing the valley bowl beyond the vegetation line toward the next pass. At the top, Manterola stands on her horse’s back, arms crossed, as together we soak in what’s next. 

Single file, the descent begins down the massive scree slope to the Desecho Valley floor. It’s mesmerizing, like driving in a snowstorm. My brain struggles to make sense of the perfectly smooth and precipitous drop to my left. Imagine cutting down and across a 450-metre-tall pile of gravel, but with bigger rock pieces. Eventually, I look only straight out and up.

At the bottom, we untack the animals and for the first time, let them go, no tethers. Young insists they will be safer and happier to tackle what’s coming the next day. Soon Angus, Brian, Bandero and the others, mules included, trot gleefully a good kilometre down the valley. I’m shocked that my control issues aren’t, well, out of control. Instead, it’s liberating to release these wondrous creatures and trust that we will get them back.

At sunset, we stretch out on saddle blankets draped over logs and rocks around the fire. My darling tent mate, Judith Bratt, teases me in her British lilt about the duct tape Young found to hold on the soles of my beaten old Blundstone boots. Some of us have washed up in the nearby spring, while others still sport the day’s “dustaches” proudly. Manterola carries a blackened kettle of boiled water and passes a dried gourd filled with mate tea. Each of us takes our turn sipping from the metal straw called a bombilla. Then one by one, we ponder the things in our lives that brought us to this campfire deep in the Patagonian Andes — 10 grateful specks under a dazzling starry sky.

The next day, Young rises early to round up the animals, now many kilometres down the valley. From the elevation of our campsite, I watch this show of horsemanship unfold.

When they’re back, we break camp quickly, tack up and ride out. Halfway across the meadow, Waks raises her hand. We halt and gather round her.

“This is the apex of our journey,” she says. “Over the next two hours, we will climb to almost 8,000 feet [more than 2,400 metres], the highest point on the trail. And we’ll start turning back toward the estancia. It is our tradition to ride this section in silence,” she continues solemnly. “We want you to absorb this moment and to be fully present for a trail that will command your full attention.” Her meaning is soon clear.

Two hours later, past the massive scree slope and over the spine of another higher pass, across a trail half the width of Rolo’s load and dropping off to one side farther down than I care to imagine, and finally beyond one last brutalizing climb — at the end of all this, we stand on what feels like the top of the universe.

One by one, we ponder the things in our lives that brought us to this campfire deep in Patagonia.

Arriving at Ranquilco at sunset.
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Four days later, our final three-hour ride begins early from Ranquilco’s courtyard. A well-earned veneer of grime covers every inch of my clothes and gear. It will take a week of scrubbing before my hands look anywhere near clean. Billock, who trailed behind tentatively when all this began, has trotted up to the lead. 

Over the final kilometres, a few of us hold back, savouring this last stretch of trail. My now dirt-brown bandana is pulled up over my nose (I’ll forget and leave it around my neck all the way to Toronto). Before the last rise, before the grassy expanse surrounding the outpost Buta Mallin appears, Waks suggests we stragglers hold up. “Just wait here,” she says. A few minutes pass. “How about one final run?” she smiles.

“Yip Yip, Yeeow!” The three of us push on our horses, breaking into the lovely three-beat rhythm of a canter. We sit deeply in our sheepskin-covered saddles, shoulders back, reins in one hand. Our bodies are loose, at ease in our own skin, just three badass gauchas in northern Patagonia.

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