We’ve been out on the trail for over two weeks and we are finally very near, if not exactly in, Cholila. As we expected, we’ve developed a rhythm. We ride for two or three days. They are usually long and dusty, and amazingly hard work. People say that riding a horse is harder than you might expect. I didn’t think about that much in my teenage-riding days, but “they” are right. It’s not as physically demanding as riding a bicycle – something I’ve done a lot of for quite long distances, but there is the added element of the horses. You can’t just put them away at night like a bicycle or a pair of hiking boots for that matter. You have to feed them; find a place to keep them; make sure they have water and are out of harm’s way. The mental stress involved takes an extra toll that is partly physical. I suppose it’s a form of stress. The outcome, at any rate, is that I’ve been losing weight – which is a good thing. But Alex has been losing weight too, which is not such a good thing.
When we ride, we seem to end up covering 30 kilometres or more, which is about the maximum we’ve been told we should ride per day. Any more and the horses will start to break down. But, of course, we don’t really ride day after day. We stay put for a number of days between journeys. If we have access to the Internet, I write my blog and complete my notes, while Alex does some Lodge work. I catch up with emails as well, which seems a bit out of place, but is fun to do. We’ve also done a bit of the touristy things too.
We spent two days (February 1st and 2nd) at La Fiesta del Asado del Cholila. It’s hard for Canadians, even Albertans, to imagine an asado (barbecue) of this magnitude. I lived in Calgary for 16 years, so am quite familiar with the barbecue tradition associated with the “Greatest Rodeo on Earth.” But nothing prepares you for this amount of beef and lamb. Entire carcasses are attached to iron crosses that lean over the fires. Smoke bellows from the infernos making it appear as if it is some devilish crucifixion. For 80 pesos, about $16, you receive an enormous portion of meat and some white bread. The tradition is that you bring your own utensils and, for a lot of Argentineans, your own small round wooden platters as well. Salads are extra and so is the beer and excellent wine, which can only be purchased by the bottle.
During our first day at the fiesta, we were shown around by Mauro, the manager of the Club Hipo outside of El Maiten, where we had set up camp for a few days. He gave Alex, Beto and me a lift, something we ended up paying 500 pesos ($100) for. But it was okay and otherwise he was very generous and helpful, driving us around, storing our gear for us, allowing us to camp and selling us alfalfa for the horses. While at the fiesta, Alex bought another pair of bombatchas, the sturdy, baggy riding pants favoured by gauchos. He also picked up one of the “gorra de Vasco” hats that are similar to French berets – his is even black, the favoured colour of the gauchos, but by no means the only colour. They come in different fabrics and sizes, some are woven in a combination of coloured wool. The nattiest gauchos seem to like bright red Gorras de Vascos. Alex bought a pair of alfagatas too. These are the canvas rope-soled slippers worn when boots are not needed. Alex’s however, are made of soft suede. He’d also purchased a pair of the fine leather gaucho riding boots in El Maiten since the cowboy-style ones he picked up in Buenos Aires had disintegrated. Needless today, he looks very much the part of a gaucho, really more of a “Don,” as in Don Strachan, with his patrician features. But when wearing his black beret and with his ever-present camera in tow, he can also pass himself off as a handsome French film director.
There was also a large “jineada” or gaucho rodeo at the Fiesta. It made me better understand why Roberto hadn’t seemed too concerned by Judy’s upset a few days earlier. The first two classes, the only ones I watched, were the equivalent of our bronco riding, the first event involved staying aboard a bucking horse with a saddle consisting of little more than a hand hold. The second was more difficult because they rode bareback. They don’t use a bucking strap as is the practice in our rodeos. The horses, instead, are pretty wild. Rather than set them up in a shoot, they tie them to a post and the gaucho climbs aboard. Once the horse is released from the post, the gaucho uses his revelenke, or whip, and great long spurs to get the biggest buck out of his eight-second ride.
What upset me the most was that the horses when tied to the post would often rear over backwards or sideways, so great was their fear. If the gaucho happened to be on board at the time and could stay with the horse, he would encourage his mount to get up onto all fours so the show could go on.
It was while watching this display and feeling sick at the brutality of it that I better understood how they treat their horses and what they expect of them. What had seemed a horrendous accident to us when Judy and Mosquito both went down in a great melee of horse flesh was nothing outside of the norm for gauchos like Roberto. Clearly, the horse whisperer has not arrived in Patagonia.
While I couldn’t watch much of the jineada, I was all eyes for the gauchos, young and old. They paraded around the jineada grounds, decked out in their finest. Some displayed their names in silver lettering across the back of their hand-tooled leather belts that were worn over colourful sashes that always featured a “focon,” a large knife, slipped inside. They wore small scarves around their necks, the ends often passing through silver or rawhide rings. I couldn’t get enough of their outfits. Interestingly, I saw only one “gaucha,” or woman decked out, though they did sell clothing for women and it wasn’t uncommon for women to wear one of the beret-like caps.
It was great fun following the tourist track although we were almost the only non-Argentinean tourists at the show. The other regional tourist attraction that we did not take advantage of was the little narrow-gauge steam training that goes for a short trip starting in El Maiten. But we’ll have another chance to ride on the train made famous many years ago by travel-writer Paul Theroux in his book “The Old Patagonian Express” when we arrive in Esquel.
Back on the trail after our adventures at the fiesta in Cholila, we received permission to cross the land of “La Compania,” otherwise known as the Bennetton brothers. These Italian owners of the Colours of Bennetton clothing stores, have bought a huge amount of property along the Chubut River. They are not particularly well liked in the region as they have cut off many historic transportation routes forcing gauchos to ride along the highways rather than through the campo following what were often shorter routes. Our trip between El Maiten would have been several hours longer and far less picturesque had we not received permission. All gates leading into and out of the Bennettons’ land are padlocked. The gauchos who work for la compania carry dozens of keys, a new addition to their traditional clothing.
It was tricky getting permission. We first approached Johnny, a very tough young, red-headed man who told us we would have to speak to his boss, Vivian Huis. Johnny was of Welsh extraction as are many people in the area because of the Welsh who populated Patagonia when no one else would. Sr. Huis could see us been 6:30 and 7:00 any morning because that was when he was around. Locals spoke in awe of this man, but we never met him since at the jineada, Beto found the guy who really could, and did, grant us permission.
Though not well loved, the Bennettons or, more correctly, one of their employees, did go to a lot of effort for us. He sent out a gaucho to meet us and unlock a gate that allowed us entry. And the next day, a different guide showed us the route out, which was exceedingly generous. They have also planted great swaths of pine trees and have kept the land in good working condition. Nonetheless, they failed the neighbourliness test in my books, and were reportedly tougher to work for than the British from whom they bought much of their land.
We stayed overnight at the Estancia Burrada, a large place managed by Sr. Toledo who lived there part time and cared for several thousand sheep with the assistance of one part time gaucho. Not long ago their were over 20 gauchos, but with the demand for beef in the cellar due to government policies (The price of beef elsewhere in the world is at at an all time high.) work has dropped off. Toledo seemed to be cut from the same gruff cloth. We could camp for the the night and use one of the bunkhouses to cook in, but that was it. We asked to buy some meat for dinner but he said he had none. He avoided us as best he could, leaving the next morning without a parting word.
The best part of our stay was that we pitched our tent next door to a family of green parrots. They chatted away and seemed quite unperturbed by their new neighbours. But whereas these birds lived with their families, the Bennetton’s barred women from the estancias in what felt like a throwback to older times.
The parrots were great, but made us realize that except for the occasional European hare, we’d seen precious little wildlife except for birds – of which there were lots. Huge comanchas, a carrion-eating eagle, would fly by very close to the ground in pairs and sometimes even in small flocks. There were plenty of chamangos, small, seemingly ever-present hawks. There were doves, Argentinean flickers, chucows, which make a loud and wonderful noise, delicate quails as well as raucous teros. But by this point at least, we’ve not seen any armadillos or warthogs or dreaded pumas – though we’d be unlikely to come across one of these stealthy killers. The young gaucho at the Burrada Estancia told us they lost over 1000 sheep (of 18,000) per year to pumas.
Leaving the estancia on yet another cloudless morning, we followed a once-popular trail that was seriously overgrown with invasive mosqueta (huge rose hips) and other prickly bushes. But the route offered us wonderful scenery. We came ever closer to the Andes. But after two and a half hours, we were back on the road again, the Bennetton lands left behind since they go no further south. Moreover, we hoped to be less than 20 kilometres from Cholila when we hit the highway. Instead, we were over 30 kilometres or more than six hours from our planned destination.
At 2pm, hot and getting cranky, we stopped for a light lunch and a siesta under some dry pine trees. It was hotter than ever and we all – horses and riders – needed a break even if it was getting late. We drank what little water we had. By 5pm, we were back in our saddles. As we descended gradually into a flat valley, the mountains came closer as the sun began to drop lower in the horizon. Hot and tired as we were, and despite having no idea where would find water for ourselves and the horses who had had almost nothing to drink all day, we couldn’t help but be excited by the newer greener and more mountainous area we were entering.
At about 6:30pm, we came to a dirt road that veered off the highway toward a river. We followed it, spying as we did so, a hand-painted sign by a locked gate that read “Butch Cassidy.” Unknown to most of us because it was left out of the movie, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the duo , came to Argentina before going to Bolivia. Though versions of the story abound, they apparently purchased some 2,000 hectares in about 1903 and lived in a lovely spot by the Rio Blanco in a log house for about three years. As the story goes, there was a bank robbery in the area and the “pistoleros,” as they are referred to in Argentina, were immediately suspected and run out of town. It was only then that they fled to Bolivia and were killed by the Pinkertons.
By a bridge over the small, but fast-flowing and sparkling Rio Blanco, we watered ourselves and the horses. We walked further down the road passing by a sign for “Te Gales” or Welsh tea at the Casa Piedras, something not to be missed according to some people we met in El Maiten. Two kilometres later, we arrived at a small barrio on the outskirts of Cholila. Stopping in at a modest farmhouse on the river side of the quiet dirt road, we asked the owner if by chance he had a spot where we could pasture the horses and camp for the night. As you can imagine, asking someone to accommodate five horses and three people is not always straight forward. But Sr. Fuentes was pleased to oblige. He pointed us toward an embankment behind his barn – held up or so it seemed, only by the bales of hay inside. Camp below the barn he said. There is plenty of green grass for your horses. If you need anything else, please ask.
And so we ended up staying for three nights in this fantastic setting on the shores of the beautiful and warm river in a peaceful spot except for a pack of marauding dogs and a herd of galloping horses that visited us each night.