Crossing the Andes on horseback: An adventure between two countries

Crossing the Andes on horseback: An adventure between two countries

Traveling is the best medicine when you are lost. To explore, to dare feel and do things that you have never done before while trying to push forward. I suppose we all get that feeling, the one that shakes your shoulder and shouts: "What are you doing with your life?"

At the onset of this year I was "between"... between jobs, countries, brokenhearted and without options for the future. A friend convinced me that the best thing to do was to cross over the imposing mountain range of the Andes "between" Chile and Argentina on horseback. It turns out that 2017 marks two centuries since Argentine general José de San Martín crossed the Andes to emancipate his people, a feat in which he covered 310 miles in 21 days.

As for me, 93 miles in six days would be enough. Starting out at Puerto Varas, Chile, and ending in Bariloche, Argentina, our epic journey would take us through the Ventisqueros Valley, crossing the Puelo River and the Las Rocas Lake, along a safe, little-traveled trail. The valley is located almost in the middle of the borderline between the two countries as part of a network of secluded paths; it passes through magnificent scenery, which includes more valleys, lakes and glaciers. Cathy Berard, of Open Travel has set out to rediscover those trails and re-open them as tourist routes.

There is only one small inconvenience. I have a paralyzing fear of horses. But my friend was raised in a world of horse wranglers. That gave me new courage, so I signed up thinking ... "What is the worst that can happen?"

Santiago De Chile

We arrived, in civilized style, to the capital of Chile, where we explored everything epicurean in the Bellavista neighborhood. We enjoyed a fabulous tasting menu at the Peumayen Ancestral Food restaurant, where they select native products from all over the country. In the Central Market, known for its seafood, we tried typical Chilean delicacies, and we did not miss out on a visit to Pablo Neruda's home, La Chascona Museum House. Satisfied, we took the short flight to the south, to Puerto Montt, in the beautiful region of the lakes, where our adventure was to begin.

Day 1: Rio Puelo – Las Rosas

This was the crucial day when I had to face off against my equine nemesis. Puelo River has its sources in the lake of the same name, in the eastern part of the border where we would take our final step towards Argentina. It empties into the Pacific Ocean, and our trip would span nearly the river’s entire 75-mile length. We drove three hours by car to get there, dazzled by the views of the huge volcanoes Osorno, Calbuco and Tronador, which silently lined our path. For the final leg, we crossed the Puelo River at Puerto Urrutia on a small toylike boat. The pack horses tagged along, swimming with elegance and grace, as if they were in a spa. On the other bank, I met my mount, a gentle and sensitive mare called Copita. Timidly, I mounted her and held on as tightly as I could.

"Relax Claudia! We’ll take it easy until you and Copita hit it off." Cathy's soft tone calmed my nerves and we started moving. The mixture of intense colors, the majestic mountains and the powerful river seized my senses. Wild animals like the boar looked at us curiously before dashing back into their vast reserve.

It rained, and we rode slowly under a magical rainbow for two hours along the river to our first local farm, Las Rosas, where the owners, a couple of friendly farmers, welcomed us. We spent our first night sharing a delicious homemade broth, and slept soundly on wooden beds carved by local artisans.

Day 2: Ventisqueros Valley

We continued our journey on horseback towards the south, shadowed by giant mountains all around us, which changed colors according to the light under which they were viewed. Because of its prominent position between Chile and Argentina, a little over 560 miles south of the Chilean capital, the Ventisqueros  valley was formerly a most important trade route. Now it is a popular destination for tourists and mountaineering enthusiasts, albeit we ran into only a few people along the way.

We crossed the fast-flowing Ventisqueros River and climbed up 1,600 ft. to the end of the valley to spend the night in front of a glacier at the ranch of another farmer, Bernardita. Nature entertained us to such an extent that we did not even realize we had ridden for six hours.

Day 3: The Glacier

We went on a short excursion to explore the glacier, which included a lunch with succulent meat by the El Toro River. The ride was a great deal more technical and along more rough and narrow terrain, which turned out to be a chance for me to flaunt my newfound skills and self-confidence as a cowboy (an "arriera", as they say in Chile). After four hours of walking we returned to Bernadita's ranch for a swim in the refreshing waters of the Ventisqueros River.

Days 4 and 5: Isla Bandurrias - Paso Del Bolsón 

We moved on under the blessing of an incomparable daybreak. In the course of the seven hours we spent on the southeastern-most trail, we rode by sheer drops, inspiring fertile farmland, and secluded beaches. After the marvel of zig-zagging along the riverbank, we arrived at the sanctuary of the Bandurrias Island, nestled in the crystalline waters of Las Rocas Lake, guarded by the endless mountain ranges of the two southernmost countries of the American continent. The whole island is designed for relaxation, reflection and enjoyment of the fine arts. The private house and the guest cottage are great works of creativity with an exquisite collection of paintings and very rare books.

We spent two days enjoying the peacefulness, exploring paths open to us only because of the sprightliness of our ponies. We reluctantly left this paradise and rode for two hours to the checkpoint at Paso del Bolsón, Chile’s last frontier and one of the southernmost points of Patagonia. The final crossing was by a motorboat, through exciting rapids which grew fiercer until we reached the border at Puelo Lake, in Argentina.

Buenos Aires

From the border we drove on for two hours up to Bariloche, a very popular city for tourists and hikers. Another short domestic flight ferried us to Buenos Aires, where, thanks to our newly-acquired horsemanship skills, we were able to learned how to play rudimentary polo at Puesto Viejo Ranch. Civilization felt strange after six days of total detachment. The city lights and traffic noise bothered me. Plus, my body ached –in a good way—after all those days on the saddle, and my hands felt cramped from squeezing the reins. But my feeling of "between" was gone. Now, I knew I was capable of anything: even crossing the Andes on horseback.

Tips for a long horseback ride

- Pants suitable for riding. Try not to wear jeans as the inseam will rub on the inside of your legs and they can get sore

- Baby oil. Good for dry skin and for massaging legs and shoulders after hours of riding.

- Canteen.

- Waterproof jacket and boots.

- Comfortable walking and riding shoes.

- A good rule of thumb is to wear loose-fitting, breathable layers of clothes that you can add to or remove as the weather changes.

- Peace and quiet. The objective of this trip is to disconnect. Forget about your phone.