Horseback Riding to La Junta
Craig and Steph's Horseback Ride in the Andes
We met our horses. Craig's was named Negro and mine was named Temucano. We were given rain ponchos, but we didn't wear them as the rain wasn't too bad. We just suited up in our rain pants and fleeces. The ponchos and the dry bags were strapped onto the horses. Saddlebags full of food and supplies were also loaded up. Two of the dogs wanted to accompany us on the journey. They had to tie the golden retriever up so that he wouldn't follow us. He apparently bothers the sheep along the trail. But the black and white dog named Corbata (which means "necktie", because he has a band of white fur around his neck) was allowed to go with us. He had accompanied Margot, Hannah, and Eva on their journey as well. We were assured that he would be a welcome guest and a great companion.
We mounted our horses and left the lodge at around 11 o'clock. The first 6 or 8 kilometers of the ride were along a gravel road. In this section the road runs along the Cochomo river. It was a nice peaceful ride despite still being a roadway with a rare car going by. At first Temucano was very slow on the road. He didn't really seem to want to be heading out. Scott had to ride behind me for a while to get him to go at a decent pace. Scott made kissing noises to try to coax him along. The overcast skies had the unexpected benefit of keeping the tabanos at bay. They are mainly a problem on sunny days. We passed some sheep and cows (including some little calves) on the road. The calves seemed scared by Corbata, but they tried to act tough. Once we had passed by, they acted as if they had somehow chased him away. It was very funny since Corbata wasn't even interested in them at all. Once off the road, we were on the Gaucho Trail, a horse path which is 300 years old. We were more or less following the valley of the Rio Cochamo, and we had to cross the river in several places. It was a very nice trail and the horses sure knew the trail well. It was a very enjoyable ride as we darted through the trees and rocks along the trail. We stopped along a rocky riverbank for a lunch of muffins and pizza quiche that Olivia had packed for us. It was delicious. Craig and I kept eating them. We finally told Scott he'd better grab a quiche if he wanted one. They were going fast. We sat on a large log and enjoyed an apple before finally heading off. Scott fixed the cinches on the horses and we set out again at around 2:00.
Scott told us we had about three more hours to go to reach La Junta, the Campo Aventura mountain lodge. The sun came out and we were riding through a very lush forest. Temucano and I were much more in a groove after lunch. He was going along at a good pace. I was leaning forward on the uphills, backward on the downhills: we were a well-oiled machine. The trail was well-worn. In spots, you would be going through a little ravine, the walls of which were higher that your head. It was fun to watch Corbata negotiate the terrain. He often took the high road, avoiding mud, while the horses took the low road. It was remarkable to see how the horses negotiated the terrain as well. Although this trip was billed as "no experience necessary," I personally think I might have been rather uncomfortable if this had been my first time on a horse. My previous horseback rides had been on fairly even terrain. This, however, involved much going up and down hills, walking across felled logs, and walking across loose stones. A basic comfort level on a horse definitely made this more enjoyable. There were still times when I felt a little bit vulnerable, but it made for an exciting ride. Craig was feeling very comfortable on Negro. He kept a light hold on the reigns and moved with the horse. I tended to be a bit more tentative, often holding onto the saddle horn.
Part of the trail was an old log road from the 1800's, which was used by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid when they drove their cattle through the Andes. There were still remnants of some of the original road through the area but most of the trail was long ground down below the surface. There were many places along the trail where the constant wear and tear of travellers has caused a lot of the dirt to be worn and washed away. The resultant erosion created places where the bottom of a trail was actually about 4 feet below the surrounding earth. Occasionally that would leave us riding a horse yet still having our heads aligned with the ground. It felt very strange from this perpective but also got you thinking about all of the horses through the years that have taken this historic path between Chile and Argentina.
We ran into a Chilean guide and some kayaking clients of his. Scott knew the guide, and he was affiliated with Campo Aventura. He had several horses laden with kayaks, and the clients were running on the trail alongside the horses. One horse in particular had two kayaks strapped to its back, and they kept slipping off. Scott tried to assist his colleague, helping to tie the kayaks back onto the horse, and even leading one of the horses on a rope behind his own. The kayaks kept falling off the horse. Then there were times where the kayaks made the horse too wide to fit through the path and it got stuck. We got to a point where our horses would take ten steps and we would have to stop for Scott to help try to tie the kayaks back on, get the horse unstuck, etc. It really broke our rhythm and the horses got impatient. Each time we started up riding after such a break, the horses didn't respond well. All told, we spent about an hour and a half helping this other expedition. Eventually, the horse that Scott was helping had had enough, and laid down under the strain of a kayak and a bunch of bags. It was making crying noises and it was very unsettling to us. Scott helped to unladen the horse and get it back on its feet, but then we were done. This was taking too much time and didn't seem to be getting any better. Scott clearly was not happy with his colleague. He was trying to be as helpful as he could without simply taking charge. So we went on ahead. They were finally going to alter the loads of all the horses and we were free to go. We crossed some open grassy areas, and Temucano always rubbed up against the scrub bushes. He had enough room to get his body through, but he either wasn't taking into account that I was riding him, or he just didn't care. I was dragged through some branches at times and felt a bit scared when it seemed I might get brushed right off Temucano. We had one final river crossing. The horses walked through the deep water, and it was funny seeing Corbata swim on his little legs. The water was deep enough that he had to swim. The current was pretty strong in the area so Corbata worked hard but made it excitedly.
We came out of the forest and out onto pasture. The scene was beautiful. The compound was nestled in a gorgeous valley with tall peaks looming overhead. It was really a stunning location. There was a small corral big enough to hold a few horses. Behind that was a small house. Up on the small hill to the left of this area we saw a nicely constructed wood beam guesthouse. It was made using wood from the local area so it was all very comfortable and appropriate with the surroundings. There was a nice porch built around two sides of the structure and there was smoke rising from a small chimney in the roof. We knew we had arrived at La Junta. The idea of spending two nights here suddenly struck us. We were really looking forward to just relaxing and enjoying the remote location.
One of the caretakers, Joracio, met us and took the horses to be fed. We continued up to the guest house and met his wife, Tatiana, and their five year old son Andres. They had ridden to La Junta on horses from their home in Frontier Pass, Argentina, several months before. They are currently living on this land and working for room, board and other benefits. It is not an easy life but it does seem to revolve around more natural pursuits. They have to work hard to live in such a location but it seems they have embraced the challenge and appreciate visitors coming to visit their grounds.
We could tell that they had been worried. It was now 6:30, and we had been expected at around 5:00. Tatiana had been waiting for some of the supplies that Scott delivered. We went into the little guest house. The main room was a kitchen centered around a large old-fashioned wood stove. There was beautifully carved woodwork with scenes of gauchos and horses. There was a sink with nice wood cabinets making the whole thing feel very well equipped. It seemed they only had the basics but somehow we felt like nothing more was needed. We truly felt comfortable here and had visions of living in a place like this. Sure we know there are harsh realities to this life but right now it just felt ideal.
We sat on sheepskins on benches around the table and Tatiana served us coffee, fresh cake, and fresh rolls with butter, jelly, and manjar (a delicious spread of carmelized milk). It really hit the spot after our long afternoon of riding. We were shown to our room which had two twin-sized beds pushed together. There was a bathroom with a flush toilet and a shower heated by a wood burning water heater. The water gets so hot that you need to turn on the cold first to avoid scalding yourself. This would be a welcome relief after the chilly showers we had had in Puerto Varas. But we had no time for showering now, as it was almost dinnertime. The bathroom sink was located out on the porch, so we headed out there to wash our hands. We sat at the table by candlelight while Tatiana cooked dinner.
Scott found out through talking to Joracio that the guide with the kayakers had not in fact been working for Campo Aventura. He had been doing a little business on the side, and Scott felt that the guy had taken advantage of him. He was angry that he had spent so much time and effort trying to help the guy under false prestenses, and he apologized profusely to us. Although it had been somewhat of a drag at the time, we understood what had happened. We were really more concerned with the way the horses were being treated. We really felt that Scott had the best interests of all of the horses at heart, while the other guide seemed to be mistreating his horses. So in the end we were glad that Scott had helped out.
While we were having dinner and talking at the table, Andres kept peeking in the windows at us. He was still being shy and wouldn't come in. He was so cute. Clearly not letting curiousity get the best of him he kept his distance. Tatiana served us pork with salsa, cabbage with onion, cold beets, and boiled potatoes, all cooked on the wood stove. Craig had a Moosehead beer with dinner (according to Scott, only U.S. and Canadian beer cans can withstand the trek up to the lodge by horseback) and I had a small bottle of Santa Emiliana Sauvignon Blanc. We ate at the small wooden table with Scott. Tatiana sat and watched us, attending to our every need. We were surprised that she, Joracio, and Andres didn't eat with us. We were hoping to have some time getting to know them.
Scott explained to us that Christiane and Lex own this lodge as well. Joracio, Tatiana, and Andres are employees who look after the place and take care of the guests. They have their own house next door where they cook their own food once they are finished with the guests. After dinner, Tatiana did the dishes while we ate baked apples with sugar. When Tatiana was finished cleaning up, she said goodnight and headed over to her house to serve dinner to Joracio and Andres. We sat at the table and chatted with Scott until around 10:00. There is no electricity in the guest house, and everything is lit by candlelight. Scott went to bed in a bunkroom adjacent to ours. Craig and I continued sitting at the table talking and writing in the journal for another half hour. Then we blew out all the candles, and using our headlamp we went into our room and went to sleep.