Crossing the Andes on Horseback, With Wine

The day before, in the Uco Valley outside of Mendoza where this horse trek across the Andes would begin, the sky was clear blue. In the past week, mostly during the nights, Mendoza had seen more rain than was typical for an entire year. Hail bombs went off into the night to protect the vineyards. Yet that day had crystal clear views of the snow capped Andean peaks that divided Argentina and Chile. The particular morning we set off up the mountains on the other hand the rain came down like a thick, insufferable blanket and the clouds were as grey as wolves. The mountains had disappeared and the path before us, the same one through the Portillo Pass traversed by Charles Darwin and General San Martín, was obscured.

There were 13 of us in total, which may have been a sign. We drove up to a military checkpoint to stamp out of Argentina and then loaded up the caravan of mules and saddled the horses. I was admittedly unprepared for the weather. I put on every item of clothing I had, plus a thick yellow rain poncho that would become my most prized possession for the next few days. It took longer than expected to run through immigration and get situated and when we began to move the weather became increasingly intense. The horses trudged slowly up the path as rain poured harder and harder and wind came hurling down at us from above like a locomotive. By the time we reached the first camp, which was supposed to be a short two-hour trek that turned into five, we were down to ten riders. One fell off a spooked horse before we even left, while two others were feeling altitude sickness and returned to lower elevations. I was sold on a gourmet trip in the summer. I don’t know what the hell this was.

The trek over the Andes, on an old arrieros (muleteers) trail, was arranged by the Rosbergs, an Argentine family that I have been fortunate to write about on several occasions. Martín runs the Fierro Hotel in Buenos Aires and the attached Uco Restaurant, Andrés is the president of the Argentine Sommelier Association and an all around expert on Argentine wine, and Esteban, their Dad, has an investment group that includes the vineyard trust and real estate project in Mendoza called La Morada de los Andes. Each year to celebrate the harvest of their vineyard, Los Arbolitos, they organize this horseback riding trip over the Andes, which is guided by the gauchos of Argentina Mountain Services. I would be in Mendoza around the time they were going, so I decided to join. When they invited me they showed me photos of the previous year. The weather had been more fortunate. Everyone was in short sleeves. They slept under the stars and bathed in rivers.

“I am sick, I am dying,” sings one of the gauchos as he corralled the horses into the appropriately named Real la Mula Muerta.

By the time we arrive at the first campsite it is covered in a thin layer of snow. Normally in this time of year you would be more likely to get sunburn than frostbite. This is just a freak storm that we would just have to wait out.

We unload our gear and ran inside the refugio while the gauchos prepared dinner. It is a simple brick structure with a few bunks, a rustic kitchen, and a corral few meters away.

“I am sick, I am dying,” sings one of the gauchos as he corralled the horses into the appropriately named Real la Mula Muerta.

Night had long advanced. Or maybe the day had just disappeared. Cold and wet, everyone huddles by the fire in the gaucho’s kitchen. We’re wet, but have plenty of wine from the Uco Valley. Basically everything we need. There are bottles of Zorzal’s Eggo pinot noir, La Azul’s malbec, and Salentein’s sauvignon blanc, among others. Cheeses and charcuterie came out. Empanadas are made from scratch. We set up a table near the bunks and dine on roasted pork by candlelight and drink well into the night as the world becomes more tumultuous and cut off around us.

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It snowed all night and the decision was made early that we wouldn’t be going anywhere. The sun didn’t rise the next morning, or at least not that I could tell. The green valley below was hidden behind clouds, as were the rocky cliffs around us. Dogs that had followed us up the trail slept in holes they dug out of the snow and looked snug. Most slept in the bunks, but some slept outside in tents. When I run to the outhouse one is completely covered. I ask if they are OK and they unzip and reach a hand out of the snow like a zombie movie. There was no more air in the tent. The dogs knew better.

With binoculars I spot a condor flying above us, only to lose it in the clouds. There are moments of clarity in the afternoon when the grayness would clear for a moment. On a distant mountainside a herd of guanacos stands still, resembling black ants in the snow. There is an hour or two of partially sunny skies in the afternoon. We bring out chairs and drink wine in the snow, sitting around a central fire that double as an asado. Then the gray returns. There is a debate as to whether we can leave the next day. We would have to wait until the morning.

I can feel the warmth of the sun from my bunk. I crawl outside with a few others to watch it come up from the valley and eventually shine its orange glow on the path we will soon be taking. Needing to cover twice as much ground as we would have otherwise, we get our things together quickly and shove off. The sun is bright and clear. It’s so strong that the reflection of the snow makes it difficult to see.

At 4,380 meters high we reach Portillo pass. It’s a steep ascent and we watch as the mules, already ahead of us, climb up the zigzagged path. We continue until the mules near the top of the pass. One mule tumbles down the mountain and loses its cargo. We wait as it is reattached and the horses begin to panic. The wind was screaming. It was cold. The snow reached over the knees of the horses.

My horse, Borracho, who was already difficult, became particularly nervous. I’ve ridden a horse here and there, but I wouldn’t go as far as to say I’m a skilled rider. I did my best to calm him down and keep him from suddenly sprinting down the mountain. He bucks and I fly off on my back, cushioned by the snow. When it happens again I trade horses with one of the gauchos. He tries to settle Borracho down and they go tumbling down the hill. If it weren’t for the snow he wouldn’t have gotten up so easy.

I decide to lead my horse up the mountain and down the other side, as several others were doing. This wasn’t about just making it over the pass anymore. It was making it over without a serious injury.

The worst part was getting up to the pass. On the other side, the way down, was easier. It was steep and the snow was deep, but the horses remained calm. Mine nuzzled his nose on my shoulder at times and waited patiently when I was stuck. When we reached the flatter terrain we took a break and I climbed back on the horse.

After Portillo the snow was less of a concern. The Tunuyan River Valley was drier and rockier. The land was dead at this altitude. As we moved in the following hours lower grasses began to appear. Even the occasional hare, which the dogs would chase and in one instance kill. We camped at another military checkpoint that night and would make it to a second pass, Portezuelo de Piuquenes, at 4,030 meters the following noon. Just below the pass, which marked the international border with Chile, there was a plateau. Here we changed horses and gauchos. Argentinians for Chileans. We shared wine and ate cheese, sausages, and dried fruits and nuts. This pass was less intense, though the descent more rapid and we would make it to the final corral in the early evening. During the final few kilometers toward San Gabriel a condor, as if waiting for us, circles above.


Travel Info
Crossing season: From December 20 to March 30th.
Duration: 3-6 days.
Guides: www.argentinamountain.com

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