Chile to Argentina
This trail ride explores the Chilean Lake District following drovers’ trails and old smugglers’ routes that criss-cross rivers, skirt around lakes and lead through temperate forests. We ride way beyond any roads and although the pace is steady, the wilderness experience is second to none: Patagonia as few people (apart from the gauchos) ever experience.
[“gaucho” = cowboy of the Argentine pampas. “Vaquero” is the Spanish word for cowboy. In Chile they say “Huaso” and “baquero” or “baquianos” pl.]
The flight departs from Heathrow at 18:40 and goes via Madrid and onwards, overnight, to Santiago, capital of Chile.
On arrival in Santiago we change planes for the two hour flight directly south to Puerto Montt in Patagonia. You have to reclaim your baggage in Santiago (despite the fact that it will be checked through to Puerto Montt). You also need to complete immigration formalities in Santiago.
In Puerto Montt we meet our driver and transfer the short distance to Puerto Varas hotel (30 mins) called “The Guesthouse”. Puerto Montt was founded as a German colony, first settled in the 19th Century. Today it’s an important port city with bustling fish markets and is the centre of Chile’s salmon fishing industry. Puerto Varas is much smaller and sits of the shore of Lake Llanquihue. It has a real holiday atmosphere and is a centre for Chileans who visit this beautiful area for water sports, fishing and a healthy dose of fresh air.
Overnight at “The Guest House” owned and managed by Josefina and her husband. For supper we’ll walk down to one of the lakeside restaurants for a first encounter with the very excellent Chilean cuisine.
The first task this morning is to divide your gear: dress in riding clothes and pack only what you need in the all-weather roll-top bags (provided). The rest of your gear goes by jeep and you’ll meet it again on day 6 (Riding day 4).
Breakfast is served in the front room which is heated by a whopping-great log-burner. We should be on the road by 08:30 and to reach the trail head we “handrail” the lake before swinging south to Cochamo. The drive is through wooded mountains to the shores of the Reloncavi Fjord. If the weather is clear we should get wonderful views of the surrounding volcanoes including the huge Osorno (2,600m) and Calbuco (2,100m) which are snow-capped. We head inland from the fjord through a landscape of forest, rivers, a huge waterfall and very steep mountains: we are now nearing the heart of the Andes. When the road reaches Lake Tagua-Tagua we pause for a picnic lunch. This is a great opportunity for a round-robin, and each rider in turn tells the group (and Cathy) about their riding experience, the BHS rides they have done before and the type of horse they like to ride. The ferry can take about half-a-dozen cars and takes about 45 mins to an hour to reach Puerto Arena. The towns are getting smaller and the roads dustier; we pause for a coffee and reach the roadhead around mid-afternoon. The baquianos and Criollo horses are waiting for us.
Bags and people go into the boat to make the river crossing. The horses are lassoed and swim the deep and fast-flowing river in pairs.
We have time here to organize ourselves and match the horses to riders, pack the saddle bags and set off along the trail for our first ride, leaving the road and entering the wilderness of Patagonia. Our destination for the first night is a local farm, which is Tito’s home (one of our baquianos). Here we overnight with the family in double, triple and quad rooms.
Having dropped off the baggage we set off on a loop trail for about an hour (including a river crossing) to ensure everyone is comfortable on their horse.
Timing: 5 hrs by car, 45 minutes by ferry and approximately 2 ½ hrs saddle-time.
Early homemade breakfast, while the baquianos tack-up the saddle horses and packhorses. We skirt around the barn and head into the Ventisqueros valley. This area is heavily wooded with isolated, self-sufficient farmsteads that have no vehicular access! This is the land of the horse. You will recognise many of the trees from Europe, but some of the forest monsters are indigenous to Patagonia (e.g. The Patagonia Sequoya @ 60m tall). We are riding at an altitude of just a few hundred metres above sea level, but because we are so far south the tree-line is at about 1,500m and many of the surrounding peaks have glaciers on their tops but are a modest 2,000m.
We cross the broad Ventisqueros River for the first time; it’s rocky underfoot, more than 100m wide and flowing at a good lick. It’s deep enough to lap the horses’ bellies and there’s every chance of getting a bootfull of river! Stop for lunch and relax. In the afternoon, cross the Ventisqueros River once again and the trail leads to a remote farm, on the floor of a flat valley surrounded on all sides by snow-capped peaks. It’s hard to describe the utter silence, the absence of wheeled vehicles and the fact that the three blights of western civilisation are simply not present: no litter, no graffiti and no vandalism. It’s another world, with fresh clear air and an entirely different set of daily challenges! Our hostess tonight is Bernada who farms the land independently of her seven children. She is ably assisted by her rather charming black lab! We spend the next 2 nights here.
Saddle-time: 6 to 7 hrs riding.
Today is a loop ride: one of the most impressive loops you’ll ever experience! The terrain in this isolated corner of Patagonia is rough but the horses are sure-footed and reliable. We cross the Ventisqueros River once more and approach some ancient forest. There is evidence of the massive forest fire that swept in from Argentina and destroyed most of the vegetation in the 1970’s. But fire is part of a natural sequence of ebb and flow; nutrients such as potash and potassium are released by the flames, forest litter is burned away and the regrowth begins afresh. There are many skeletal spires of giant Sequoias that must have towered 75m to form a majestic canopy for the C18th and C19th settlers that nowadays is nearer 40m. This is the Torro Valley with the mountain and glacier of the same name beyond us to the West.
The valley turns wilder and becomes even more remote; with an incredible flora, devoid of human inhabitants. We approach the Alerce (Larch) Forest where we pause for a picnic lunch before completing the circuit back to the ranch house. We are unable to reach the glacier (too high!) but we do get great views of it.
Saddle-time: 4 hrs.
Day 6 is a long day: we set off, retracing our steps for the first 45 mins, and re-cross the Ventisqueros, before turning the horses’ heads Southeast towards Lago Las Rocas. The last time we did this ride the horses found some particularly good grazing and were reluctant to be caught in the morning – so we left an hour late! No worries, that’s life in Patagonia!
Gradually the land becomes more populated and shock-and-horror! We reach a dirt road. We might even see a pick-up truck, the first for four days. We cross a deep gorge with the “La Pasarela del Rio Puelo”, a suspension bridge that was the original means of communication between the local inhabitants and the outside world; it has now been replaced with a modern steel, Bailey bridge and the sound of the hooves as you ride across has to be heard to be believed! And the horses have heard it all before and don’t even blink!
The trail leads on to the shore of Las Rocas where we rendez-vous with the boatman. The horses are corralled on the lakeshore and a 10 minute boat trip takes us to Las Bandurrias Island and our hostess, Francesca. Imagine a private island, I guess about 10 Ha, with the owner’s log cabin plus a guest log cabin and a small jetty, and you have it. There are no near neighbours (none at all share the island) which redefines “secluded living”! It’s so cosy and warm and welcoming; and the meals are outstanding. And Chile has a secret gastronomic weapon, the Carmenere grape: just before the Napoleonic Wars, when Europe was focussed on Boney, France had a botrytis outbreak which was believed to have made the Carmenere grape variety extinct, which was certainly the case in France. Unbeknown to the viniculture world, a few Carmenere plants had made their way to Chile where they had thrived in amongst the more famous and widespread Malbec vines. They were rediscovered in the 1990’s and Chile has so far declined France’s request for specimens to be returned. At the moment, this is a uniquely Chilean wine – and very good it is too!
Accommodation and a great dinner at this enchanting, homely cottage. 2 nights.
Saddle-time: 6 to 7 hrs.
Another fantastic loop-ride adventure awaits. The day begins with a 2 hrs ride to Blue Lake “Lago Azul” with its crystal clear, turquoise-tinged water and abundant fish life. Glacier-topped peaks and stunning forest-scapes all around! Picnic and relax on the shore of the lake. There is the chance to swim which is a tad bracing, but nothing like as cold as the Serpentine Christmas swim! After lunch the trail leads through dense forests and along mountain ridges to the southern tip of the lake where the horses are corralled and we take the launch back to Las Bandurrias. There is time this afternoon to hike around the perimeter of the island which is a 30 min walk.
Saddle time: 5 to 6 hrs.
After breakfast, bid farewell to our hostess and sail back to the lakeside corral where the horses spent the night. Today we ride just half the day. Having passports at hand we will reach the Mountain Police Station, “Retén de Carabineros” which must be one of the remotest border posts in the world; it is without doubt one of the most beautiful, set a couple of hundred metres above the lake in mature forest surrounded by mountains. We ride down to the lakeshore and board the launch (max 6 persons at a time) so it’s a good idea to have a book and shorts handy because there will be some waiting today.
This is where we say farewell to the horses and baquianos.
Exiting Chile is straight forward and during the next couple of hours we hop across a couple of large lakes, portage around some rapids, trek along a well-concealed forest path and “boulder” across a small river! Surely one of the most beautiful no-man’s lands in the world. Welcome to Argentina! The border post here is less impressive (portacabin!) but formalities are just as straight forward.
A minibus will be waiting for us and will take us to El Bolsón. We’ll have a late lunch at a great local restaurant (outstanding ice cream!) and on we go to the town of San Carlos de Bariloche on the shore of Lake Nahuel Huapi. This is the undisputed capital of adventure sports in the Andes and the town has a lovely atmosphere; if you have to come back to civilisation, this is as good a way as any to do so!
We will walk a couple of blocks to a local restaurant and this dinner may well be the best steak you ever taste (vegetarian options are available).
(Breakfast and lunch on the trail. Dinner in Bariloche.)
Timing: 3 ½hrs in the saddle; 45 minutes motorboat. Private bus transfer to the town of El Bolsón, 20 minutes, and 2 ½ hours more to the town of San Carlos de Bariloche. Night in hotel.
The morning is free to potter around town, pick up some souvenirs and get ready for the Big City. The drive out to the airport passes a great local tack shop, and there may well be time for a visit (depends of flight schedules). Fly from Bariloche to Buenos Aires [BA] and arrive mid-afternoon.
BA is past its prime; the “belle epoch” was 1880 to around WW1 and since then a combination of weak political leadership, embezzlement on a grand scale and poor national management has taken this once-glorious country from one of the world’s top ten economies to “also ran” status. It’s hard to believe as you wander around and look at the magnificent façades in San Telmo. It’s still a great place to visit and the city has a throb and edge to it. An illustration of its remarkable fall is Harrods! The store in Knightsbridge; it turns out that back in the day, Harrods opened a second store …. in Buenos Aires. It’s huge and occupies almost an entire city block, and is sadly empty, redundant and vacant. I can’t see Harrods II re-opening any time soon.
This evening we’ll walk down to a local restaurant for a little local tapas and maybe another glass of the wonderful Carmenere, or a taste of the local beer.
Settle into the unique and utterly charming Art Deco hotel which is home for the next two nights.
You simply can’t pass through Buenos Aires without taking a brief look around town; our guide will point out the hot spots and highlife during a leisurely tour of the city. Lunch isn’t included because there are so many options and it’s fun to divide into smaller groups an explore independently for an hour or two.
Dinner is a real treat: we’ll arrange somewhere suitable and round off the evening with a Tango Show. You should be aware that this is being written by someone who is positively allergic to BBC’s “Strictly” but this Tango Show is mesmerising; so fast, footwork so precise and tempo so up-beat that it’s guaranteed to hold your full attention for a couple of hours!
Dinner and breakfast included.
Depart from BA and fly back to London.
All In/out private transfers, transportation by minibus & motor jet boats, ferry crossing, full board (including ½ bottle of wine per person at dinner during the ride) saddle horses, pack horses, all accommodation including 2 nights at a fabulous retreat on Bandurrias island, local guides, “Huasos” and tour leader (English-speaking), VHF radio communication equipment. Night in Bariloche (full board), two nights in Buenos Aires in a special Art Deco hotel; tango lesson for those who wish. City tour of Buenos Aires.
Visas (not required for Brits)
Travel insurance (mandatory)
Tips for guide and team.
Lunch on day 10.
10 riders + guide.
Hotel in Puerto Varas
Nights 2, 3 & 4
We are invited into the home of local people for a unique opportunity to experience their way of life. The extremely charming but often rustic houses offer basic accommodation mostly in twin, triple or dorm rooms with shared bathroom and hot shower (one for the all group) Sometimes one large room is provided, with mattresses on the floor. Food is organically grown and sourced from local gardens; Dishes are cooked deliciously on open fire stoves as well as the Chilean asado (BBQ).
Night 5 and 6
Private island: Island Las Bandurrias has a woodland path circumnavigating the island, small private beaches and two charming cottages. Guests will stay in a comfortable and well-equipped 2-story cottage heated by firewood; the same system heats water for showers.
The bathrooms offer a splendid view of a southern coigues (forests) while from the living room, the dining areas and the great sundeck you can see the small beach next to the quay. There are stunning views of Lake Las Rocas and the surrounding peaks. The cottage offers accommodation for up to 6 people and the main house features two further guest rooms with original French country décor up for a further 6 guests. It is cosy and warm and we dine communally with Francoise Dutheil, our island hostess. The main house is surrounded by a flower garden that includes butterfly bushes, fuchsia and camellia and it is adjacent to the main house. This garden is one of Françoise’s prides.
Hotel in Bariloche.
Nights 9 & 10
Hotel in Buenos Aires.
The trip is exciting but not too demanding, although some days will be longer than others when we have to cover a particular distance. Some days there are several river crossings which are great fun and allow riders to experience the local way of doing things. Some steep up-hills and undulating terrain can make the going tougher than you might be used to, particularly if the weather is not good. This adventure ride is an excellent way of combining lots of different terrain and being able to ride one of the toughest horse breeds in the world. Clients may canter on open ground, trot in the forest, or simply enjoy the ride at their own relaxing pace. Max rider weight is 85Kg.
Only experienced guides with extensive local knowledge of the area are employed. They hold a certificate in WFR (wilderness first responder) they are all friendly, great fun and highly passionate about the Puelo Valley. Guides are trained to stay a step ahead and offer all the help and assistance to ensure the trip runs smoothly.
Local “Huaso” guides or “baqueanos” will always be there to help and look after you. They are a great support for the whole group and well attuned to the regional climate. They have an uncanny sense of predicting weather!
A valid passport is required. British and Irish passport holders do not require a visa for either country.
We use a portable radio connected to the local radio networks; in case of emergencies we have access to direct telephone lines through this 2-way radio link. Life jackets are provided for river and lake crossings.
Health and Vaccinations
No special vaccinations are required for this area of South America. Clients with special medication should bring enough for the trip. It is advisable to get your own first aid kit. No pharmacies after day 1!
Are provided but are not waterproof. Please bring plastic bags (or dry bags which are available to buy from camping and sailing shops) to protect your belongings. Sometimes extracting small items from a saddlebag ‘on the go’ can be difficult and it can be useful to have something more easily accessible in which to carry personal items such as sun cream, sunglasses, small cameras etc such as a ‘bum bag’ or money belt. A cotton photographer’s waistcoat (multi-pockets) is an alternative.
In Puerto Varas we will issue you with a waterproof bag: you need to separate your luggage and pack what you need for the next two days into the waterproof bag. The rest of your baggage will go directly to Isla Las Bandurrias.
Please use a soft hold-all or good quality duffel bag with strong zips (waterproof ideally) for the rest of your gear. Hard suitcases cannot be carried by packhorses and rucksacks with frames are not ideal. Your bags will be packed into protecting sacks / bags that make up the pack. There is a weight limit of 15kg. It is possible to do laundry if you are staying in any one place more than one night.
Please remember that the temperatures in the mountains can fluctuate a great deal and it might be cold (down to freezing) in the early mornings and in the evenings, but up to 28 / 32° C at midday. It can also rain at any time! To cope with changing temperatures, it is a good idea to wear layers, which you can gradually take off, remembering that several thin layers are warmer than one thick one. Silk or thin thermal underwear (or a close fitting polo neck jumper / long sleeved T shirt and leggings) is a good idea if you feel the cold; also good for sleeping in. Please also remember to take a good waterproof and that space for luggage on the ride will be strictly limited – please only bring essentials.
In January, horse flies proliferate in the whole southern part of Chile and Argentina. They do not harm you but are a nuisance and are attracted to dark clothing.
Chilean Creole Horse
The horses are of the Chilean Creole breed and are very gentle, strong and well-schooled. They have a sure foot, are in good health and well trained for the Andean terrain. Saddles are the same as the ones traditionally used in the region by locals, complete with a sheepskin cover. They are really comfortable and excellent for long distance riding.
Meals & Trail food
The food is mostly Creole-Chilean cuisine and a traditional wood stove gives a special flavour to the dishes. Depending on the season, it will be possible to taste a delicious rainbow trout or fontinalis. Vegetables and fruit are superb and the variety of the region’s berries is impressive.
Vegetarian dishes are also a delicious option but we do need to know if you prefer this option at the time of making your booking. Drinking water is crystal clear, safe to drink and tastes delicious. The island also has a personal collection of wines that you can buy at a very good price.