Drive a thousand head of Angus cattle from the sheltered plains of the pre-cordillera Pampas to their summer pastures in the Andes of Patagonia. Take a soak in remote mountain streams where the hot springs emerge. Try freshly grilled mountain stream trout prepared the Patagonian way. Camp beside your horse and listen to the peaceful rhythm of his breathing and hear the night-time sounds of the herd at rest. At dawn join the gaucho energy, dust and thrill of easing the herd into the morning mist of a day on the trail.The history of the Mapuche Indians is every bit as vivid and vibrant as that of the Apache or Sioux in North America, but just about unheard of in the UK. That’s probably because Brits have traditionally been focussed on events in the USA and Canada, the emergence and independence of “our colony” and the development of our “Special Relationship”. There was no time to consider or participate in matters South American – all that was the business of the Catholic Church and Spanish conquistadors.
Wikipedia has an excellent write-up about the Mapuche: in a nutshell, they were a group of indigenous people who resisted the Inca Empire expansion into Chile, but couldn’t withstand the onslaught from Spanish conquistadors and their attendant diseases. The write-up about “The Conquest of the Desert” is also worth reading if you’re interested in ethnic history, though it’s a harrowing story.
The Mapuche today are pursuing their land rights claims, with mixed success; they are the best gauchos and cattlemen in South America and have succeeded in preserving their customs and culture in isolated pockets. The gauchos and camp chef on this ride are all Mapuche people.
Arrive Neuquen. 4 Hs transfer to Caviahue which is a small town on the Chile/Argentina border a few hundred kilometres south of Santiago, in Patagonia (but on the Argentina side) and within sight of snow-capped Andes. Accommodation: Grand hotel Caviahue.
We’ll meet you at The Grand Hotel (Caviahue) is not far away and as soon as breakfast is over, have a short transfer to where the horses are being saddled and meet your horses.
The task today is to gather the cattle and corral them for an accurate head-count. There’s a knack to it: rule 1 is everyone counting has to count silently! And rule 2 is count in two’s – you’ll be amazed at the difference it makes.
This evening we camp beside the stockyard. The tents are two-man and well up to the job. This is an authentic cattle drive, so luxuries are left behind, waiting for you at trail’s end. Dinner in camp.
The day begins early on the estancia and as soon as the riders are ready we set off on the cattle drive. The Rio Agrio rises in the Andes and begins its long journey to the Pacific; not the most famous of rivers but an absolutely beautiful valley. This is an ancient volcanic area and mid-way through its descent from the Andes the Agrio flows over a caldera (giant hole left by an extinct volcano) forming a majestic waterfall. Today we’re downstream of the waterfall and the herd needs to ford the river before heading on to their summer pasture. The herd moves for between 5 and 7 hours depending on the natural obstacles such as rivers, and the terrain we cross. You need to be riding fit and intermediate or better in the saddle.
During hole day the herd is nudged onwards: the idea is to keep things steady and calm. Some individual cattle will inevitably stray, and need to be brought back to the herd. Riders spread out around the herd and encourage the cattle forwards.The surrounding countryside is timeless and beautiful. The only trails here are those cut by generations of Angus cattle: no-one else comes this way.
Once the cattle reach the fresh mountain pasture and they are left to fan out and browse the grasses, herbs and shrubs that thrive in this remote, untouched environment.
Overnight in camp.
We ride up to the Salto De Agrio where the river freefalls over a basalt lip into the lagoon below; a stunning site. Have lunch dawn in the caldera. You will be amazed at the rumble of the water as it falls. Swimming there is something you´ll never forget.
The dominant tree is this area is the Araucarias, better known as the Monkey-puzzle Tree, which tops out at a staggering 80 m. The trees are dioecious (male or female) and the females produce cones containing little edible nuts, not dissimilar to the pine nuts you can buy in supermarkets. But watch out for the needle-sharp leaves, which take no prisoners.
Late in the afternoon you´ll ride back to the camp where a Lamb on a stick is going to be waiting for you to enjoy. Local grass-fed Patagonian lamb is a typical gaucho meal.
Ride up to another valley where another herd of estancia el Morado is grazing the fresh natural pastures it offers during summer. In winter this valley is completely covered with snow. It´s five hours ride away, and only accessible on horseback. You will camp on a real paradise with a private hotspring and have a bath in it.
It’s hard to get any closer to nature than this. Each night you feel as if you’re the first person ever to set foot there.
Ride up to “laguna del cuero”. Chile is only about 3 kilometres away. You could ride a couple of hours more and complete “el cruce de los andes”; as a liberator José de San Martin did in 1817. This is the best day to find some condores andinos. This majestic bird in danger of extinction, can measure up to 3 meters long with its wings open. Its also probable to come across Guanacos, a local camelid whose wool was used by Mapuches for weaving and leather clothing.
Camp beside the hotspring again.
It´s time to head civilisation, but don’t think it’s the end of this adventure because it´s a long way. Even a 4 hours ride is only going to take you half way. You have lunch and rest some minutes beside Maloñehue. This incredible mountain had his name given by Mapuches meaning “malon viene” a strategic place where this pre-Columbian inhabitants used to keep an eye on groups of horses coming from the north during the invasion of Spanish conquistadors. You can guess that the view is astonishing. Everything seems so quiet and peaceful from up there.
In the afternoon we continue the way down with a spectacular view all around. Notice the horses having a renewed enthusiasm as they begin to understand they are going back home. On the way you will come across some ruins of a settlement of the “conquest of the desert” and a monolith remembering those days placed 100 years ago. Stone arrowheads, bullets, copper uniform buttons and many other traces of the invasion are still found every now and then.
Return to town for a refreshing rest in the main hotel.
– Optional (Late check out)
Rest and recover energy at the Gran Hotel. Even the hotel keeps a swimming pool and spa; there’s even a massage centre, if you wish, and healing mud-pack straight from the Copahue volcano – perfect!
There´s an excellent Trekking plan to visit the crater of the Copahue volcano.
4 hs transfer drive to Neuquén Airport.
Neuquen airport (We can assist with flights and transfers)
Min 4 and max 8 riders
hotel (2 nights); camping (5 nights)
Transfers and road travel in private vehicle
Meals as described and dinner on the first night.
Bi-lingual guides (Spanish and English)
Assistance from the team of gauchos
Full board form dinner on day 1 to lunch on day 7.
Trails through the foothills of the Andes are very varied: in places they are flat and easy, in other places the gradient is steep and the trail can be rocky and care is required. The days can be quite long, remember that we are a long way south and daylight can last about 17 hrs out of 24. It’s possible that Spring or Autumn weather can turn against us and snow in not unknown (though unlikely). A great deal of the time we will be walking to make the trail as easy as possible for the cattle, but there are inevitably times when faster paces, including canter and gallop, will be required. The horses are very well-mannered and responsive. They also have incredible stamina.
We carry a VHF radio phone and can communicate via a satellite phone if/when required. The guides are “Wilderness First Responder” trained.
This is a beef cattle enterprise in northern Patagonia. The grass-fed Angus are moved to higher summer pasture in the Spring (December – because this is southern hemisphere). These meadows form a ski resort in the winter months (May through to Sept). During the colder months (March) the cattle return to the sheltered plains of the pre-cordillera. This means that the herd has to be moved twice every year, and the only way to do this is on horseback. Herds of up to 1,000 head are driven. This is a time-honoured custom and the gathering together of people in such a sparsely populated area as the Patagonia is always a joyful occasion.
Aberdeen Angus originate from Scotland and first came to this part of Patagonia in 1879. Due to their native environment the cattle are very hardy and can survive the harsh winters, snowfall and storms of Patagonia.
Q: What type of accommodations can I expect?
A: Your accommodations will vary from 4 star hotel on the last night to camping with the only stars being the ones overhead. The camp sites are only accessible on horseback.
Q: How far in advance do I need to book?
A: The drive is limited to 8 riders; when it’s full, it’s full. As soon as you decide that this unique experience is for you, then get your name down.
Q: How do I handle airline reservations?
A: We are happy to book your flights. If you prefer DIY, don’t confirm your flights until you have received a written ride confirmation from us.
How will my family contact me while I am on the tour?
A: A cell phone number of you guide will be given so you can be reachable in case you need to be contacted by your family.
Q: Are these rides dangerous?
A: Vacation horseback riding always carries an element of danger whether you are riding in your backyard or a foreign country. Every measure has been taken to ensure your safety during your trip.
Q: Should I prepare for the ride?
A: Absolutely! The fitter you are the more you will enjoy the riding vacation. Prior to your trip, we suggest you ride regularly for several days per week for 3 or 4 weeks before setting off from home.
Q: What is so special about these tours?
A: You have the opportunity to connect with the local people and the land in a special way. Many places you will visit are accessible only by horse, so you will be experiencing more like a local person rather than tourist will see. As the guides are native to the region you will have an opportunity to experience their unique culture.
Q: What clothes will I need to bring?
A: A detailed list of the clothing will be sent to you in our Field Manual. A hard hat, jodhpurs, half-chaps and riding boots are recommended. As your luggage will be transported on your horse you’ll need to pack light.
Q: How is my luggage transferred during the drive?
A: Each rider carries their own drybag which attaches just behind the saddle, above the saddlebags. Your luggage will be transported from inn to inn on your own saddlebags.
Q: What level of rider do I need to be?
A: Intermediate and advanced riders only: the fitter you are the more you and your horse will enjoy the ride.
Q: How long will I be riding each day?
A: From 4 - 7 hours, sometimes a little more depending on what the day throws up!