Cattle Drive & Mapuche Encounter, Argentina
8 days / 7 nights / 6 days riding
Drive a thousand head of Angus cattle from the sheltered plains of the pre-cordillera Pampas to their summer pastures high in the Andes of Patagonia. Take a soak in a remote mountain stream where the hot springs emerge. Try freshly grilled mountain stream trout prepared the Mapuche way. Camp beside your horse and listen to the peaceful rhythm of his breathing and the night-time sounds of the herd at rest. At dawn join the gauchos and ease the herd into the morning mist of another day on the trail.
Introducing the Mapuche
The Mapuche, in a nutshell, were a group of indigenous people who successfully resisted the expansion of the Inca Empire into Chile, but couldn’t withstand the onslaught from Spanish conquistadors and their attendant diseases. The shameful “Conquest of the Desert” was a chapter in Argentinian history when state-sponsored genocide was the harrowing national policy; times change. The Mapuche today are pursuing their land rights claims, in both Chile and Argentina, 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.
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. This may be because Brits have traditionally been focussed on events in the USA and Canada, the emergence and independence of “our colonies” and more recently 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.
There are two seasons for this drive: taking the herd to mountain meadows (Oct and Nov) and return them to the pampas (March)
Cattle drive Argentina
Welcome to Patagonia! We’ll meet you upon arrival at Neuquen airport and drive you 4 hrs to reach the estancia near Caviahue, a small town on the Chile/Argentina border on the Argentina side and within sight of snow-capped Andes.
Accommodation: Grand hotel Caviahue where we’ll also spend the last night.
We’ll collect you from the hotel after breakfast and drive (10 mins) to meet the horses which will be saddled and there’s plenty of time for a trial ride to make sure you’re settle on your new horse. 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 an intermediate rider or better.
During the 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 forward. The surrounding countryside is timeless and beautiful and 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 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 Salto De Agrio where the river freefalls over a basalt lip into the lagoon below; a stunning site. Have lunch dawn inside the caldera. You will be amazed at the rumble of the water as it falls and swimming here is something you´ll never forget.
The dominant tree in 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 ride back to camp where a lamb asado will be waiting for you. An ‘asado’ is a bbq but much more than that, it’s a sociable event. Local grass-fed Patagonian lamb is a typical gaucho meal prepared in the traditional Mapuche way.
Ride on to the adjacent valley where another herd of the Estancia’s Angus will be grazing the fresh natural pasture: check them over with the gauchos. It´s a five hour ride away and only accessible on horseback, so you really do feel like the first person ever to come this way. It’s hard to imagine but in winter this valley is completely covered with snow. Camp in a real paradise complete with private hot spring for your personal soak!
Ride on up to Laguna del Cuero “Leather Lake” which is very close to the Chilean border (3 kilometres away). Just a little further above is a pass where the Liberator José de San Martin led a group of Argentinian and Chilean soldiers (1817) in a surprise attack against the Spanish colonial rulers which eventually led to the independence of Chile. The pass is known as “El Cruce de Los Andes”
At this altitude, and in this remote country, you’re nearly guaranteed to see the mighty Giant Condor with its 3m wingspan. This majestic bird is in danger of extinction, due to poisoning and habitat loss; also resident in these highlands are guanacos (one of the llama family) whose wool is used by the Mapuches for clothing, blankets and the colourful mantas (similar to a poncho).
Camp beside the hot spring.
The “Sapucai” is the name of the call the gauchos give when they’re heading home.
It´s time to head back to 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; stop for a picnic lunch beside Mount Maloñehue. This incredible mountain was named by the Mapuche and means “melon vine”. Traditionally it was a strategic watching place: Mapuche used to monitor the progress of mounted Spanish groups as they worked their way through the mountains. The view is astonishing and this is a natural vantage point. These days everything is quiet and peaceful.
In the afternoon continue descending with spectacular views on all sides: you literally ride into the scenery! Notice the horses gain a renewed enthusiasm as they begin to scent home. On the final approaches we pass a ruined settlement dating from the “Conquest of the Desert” and a monolith remembering those dark days, erected over 100 years ago. Stone arrowheads, bullets, copper uniform buttons and many other traces of the invasion can still be found. The horses are turned loose at the estancia and we return to town for a refreshing rest in the main hotel.
Rest and recover at the hotel, complete with pool and spa; there’s even a massage, if you wish, and healing mud-pack straight from the Copahue volcano – perfect! The ride ends with the return transfer to Neuquen airport, to dovetail with your flight (4 hrs drive).
End of services
This is an authentic cattle drive; the estancia’s cattle herd is divided into lots of 1,000 head which means there are several drives a year during the Spring and Autumn.
Start and end point Neuquen airport (Venture Co can assist with flights and transfers)
Group Size: min 4 and max 8 riders
Horses: Caballo Criollo
Accommodation summary: hotel (2 nights); camping (5 nights)
Included in the price
Airport 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 breakfast on day 8.
How difficult is this ride?
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.
The cattle operation
This is a beef cattle enterprise in northern Patagonia. The grass-fed Angus are moved to higher summer pasture in the Spring (Nov or Dec – 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 accommodation can I expect?
A: Your accommodations will vary from 4 star hotel on the first and 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: We have space for 8 riders max; 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: We carry a VHF radio phone and can communicate via a satellite phone if/when required. The guides are trained “Wilderness First Responders”.
Q: Are these rides dangerous?
A: Riding always carries an element of danger whether you’re riding in your backyard or a foreign country; we take care to mimimise risk.
Q: Should I prepare for the ride?
A: Absolutely! The fitter you are the more you will enjoy it. 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 this ride?
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 than conventional tourist. 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: Our in-house booklet “The Field Manual” contains a detailed list of the clothing; we recommend a hard hat, jodhpurs, half-chaps and riding boots. You need to pack the minimum possible.
Q: During the ride, how is my luggage transferred?
A: Each rider carries their own drybag which attaches just behind the saddle, above the saddlebags. You carry your own luggage.
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 maybe little more depending on what the day throws up!