Riding on Horses and Highways in Argentina’s Patagonia

February 8, 2013

Our last week has been a mixture of types of travel, including a day on horseback and two long days on a famous South American highway, portions of which are not paved. In the process, we viewed the remote and rugged beauty and learned about the fascinating cultural history of the Patagonia region of Argentina.

The eighth bus trip of our overland South American journey took us to the city of Bariloche. It is located in an idyllic setting, within the foothills of the Andes Mountains and on the southern shores of Lake Nahuel Huapi. The Nahuel Huapi National Park surrounds the city and Bariloche is known as a mecca for outdoor activities in the summer and as a ski resort in the winter. Originally settled by European immigrants in the 1890’s, the city felt like some of the towns we had visited in Europe. In fact, there are numerous chocolate shops which were an irresistible temptation after a day of outdoor activities!

This area is home to vast estancias (or ranches), which contain herds of cattle or sheep. Similar to an American cowboy, a ‘gaucho’ is a person who has an occupation of working on an estancia with herds. We had the opportunity to visit an estancia for a day of horseback riding in a traditional way.

Carol Jones, who runs the horseback riding trips on her estancia, is the granddaughter of a Texan who settled in the area, becoming one of the first non-native people to do so. In 1905 a group of American travelers visited her grandfather’s trading post in Bariloche for some food and drink. It was not until a few days later that he realized that they were a famous band of bank robbers: George Parker, (Butch Cassidy), Harry Longbaugh (The Sundance Kid), and Ethel Place, their companion!

We were picked up in Bariloche with six others (two Brits, two French and two Dutch) and driven about 30 minutes out of town to Carol’s 5,400 acre (2,200 hectare) estancia, where she grew up. It is a working ranch with hundreds of cattle and sheep. We mounted our horses, saddled up with traditional gaucho gear, and began a two hour morning ride. After crossing a stream and riding through one valley and into another, we stopped for lunch.

Carol and her assistant Martha prepared a traditional asado barbecue for the group. This consists of different types of meat cooked on a grill, called a parrilla, over an open wood fire. We ate beef and sausage direct from Carol’s estancia, accompanied by salad and fruit for dessert.

Our two hour afternoon ride took us in a different direction through the valley, up and over a ridge and back down to the horse corrals where we started. It was a beautiful setting and we had a peaceful time riding through the wide open spaces.

Continuing our travels south through Argentina’s Patagonia region, we boarded a bus a couple of days later to take us about 900 miles (or the distance between Los Angeles and Portland or London and Vienna) over two days. We traveled down Ruta (Route) 40, which is Argentina’s longest highway at more than 3,100 miles (5,000 kilometers) in length. Similar to Route 66 in the United States, Ruta 40 has a near mythical quality to it and people come from all over the world to travel on it.

Ruta 40 map (in red) with our travels highlighted in blue

The first day of bus travel took us to the small city of Perito Moreno. This journey was about 13 hours, with breaks every three to four hours to stretch our legs. Towards the end of the day we saw rheas (ostrich-like) and guanacas (similar to llamas) from our bus window. Perito Moreno is best known for its proximity to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Cueva de las Manos or Cave of the Hands. We rose early the next morning to take a tour of this site, which is about 100 miles (160 kilometers) away, the last 17 miles (28 kilometers) on a dirt road.

The cave contains rock art dating from about 9,000 years ago. Most of the paintings consists of hands, but there are also depictions of animals, hunting scenes, mountains and streams. It is believed that the art was created by spraying naturally formed pigments through bone pipes.

After touring the cave, the second day of our bus journey continued through the most remote portion of Ruta 40. Over the two days we traveled on just under 200 miles of unpaved road. On this second day we drove for five hours on a dirt road without seeing another town or settlement and passing very few cars. It was during this time that the bus’s air conditioning broke, and unable to open the windows, we got a taste of how it feels to be in the harsh environment of the Patagonian Desert, which is the seventh largest in the world.

The bus continued down the dirt road, with desert terrain all around us. As we drove over a hill we were surprised to see a large lake before us. We got out at Lake Cardiel for a short break to stretch our legs and received our first blast of the famous Patagonian winds. In this case, it felt so good after being in the hot closed quarters of the bus.

Just as the sun was setting we turned off Ruta 40 and drove west toward the village of El Chaltén. In the distance we could make out Mount Fitz Roy, one of the symbols of the Los Glaciares National Park. It is here, in the second largest national park in Argentina, that we plan to spend the next few days to trek close to the base of Fitz Roy and other mountains and glaciers.

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