After a fantastic couple days in the valley and vineyards around and south of Mendoza, Argentina, Carol and I enjoyed our last hot shower for the next 5 days. A quick breakfast downstairs before we packed up in a van and began the long ascent to the trailhead, located about 20 miles up a canyon into the Andes. The ride up the winding road took about an hour and led through a small camping village full of Argentinean families escaping the heat of Buenos Aires. It was a bucolic setting with a rushing stream and lots of trees called Camping Manzano.
We moved past the village and onto a dirt road, which quickly became smaller and bumpier. Along the way, we passed the gauchos driving our horses for the next 5 days and several pack mules, unburdened as yet, for the last few miles until reaching our meeting point.
Interestingly, the trailhead also serves as the customs exit for Argentina. Even though it’s still another four days to the Chilean border, there are no more roads and only a few mountain passes through which people generally will travel. If you are headed out there, then this is the portal through which you must pass.
A question I asked myself as we reached the trailhead was, “What do you do when you get to the end of the road?” Keep going, I guess. The real fun often begins where the road ends, doesn’t it? We’d certainly find out soon enough.
After completing the passport process to exit the country, we enjoyed the first of many fine meals prepared by chef Janni (short for Jannika), an Argentinian of Swedish descent. Janni is a trained nutritionist who traveled with us for the journey and kept our spirits up and bellies full with some of the finest food you can imagine being cooked on the trail. Steve provided the wine for the group and God provided the water out of the clear mountain springs.
After lunch we met our gauchos Edgardo, Cristian, and Johnny. I had no idea how all the stuff we had lying around was going to make it over the mountains. But these guys are pros and so are the mules they use to pack everything. The gauchos helped us get saddled up and onto our horses. Mine was Tostado and Carol rode Ginger.
The saddles are nothing like a U.S. western saddle. First of all, there’s no horn. Second of all, it is really only a frame. Third of all, and best of all, they layer sheepskin wool across the frame to make a very padded seat. Carol and I were still not convinced about the “no butt pain” mantra Steve and Eric had been chanting, but thank goodness they were right. The saddle type and sheep wool did its job. As you can see from the sign as we entered the ride for the first 2 days, it looked to be long and bumpy.
So off we rode up the mountain to our first camp. The first day is a three-hour ride to acclimatize us to the altitude. Maybe to acclimatize us to the saddles too. As we enter a switchback, a last look toward Mendoza.
Then a look forward to the day to come.
The trailhead is 1931 meters, or 6335 feet above sea level, and our first camp was at 3516 meters, or 11,535 feet in the sky. The ride took us across several creeks and up a steep trail to a broad plateau where the water for a major creek literally springs forth right out of the base of a glacial moraine.
Within 30 minutes of arriving, the crew had quickly set up the camp, built a fire, and set out high tea. Yes, high tea in the mountains. Yerba mate, too. Yerba mate is a new drink for me, and I love it. It’s bitter like coffee, but green like a tea. Traditionally, the gauchos of Argentina have a diet centered around meat, and the yerba mate helps to supplement their nutrition. Not only is the yerba mate a rich part of Argentina’s heritage, it is also essential to the traditional lifestyle of its gauchos.
After tea, cookies, and jam, we wandered the plateau and I took a chance panning for some gold in the stream. The water was frigid. Not surprising since it was ice only a few minutes upstream. No luck on the gold or Lapis Lazuli, but fun nonetheless.
Dinner the first night was excellent, and Janni earned her keep for sure. Putting aside our unfounded concerns about butt pain after so much riding, Carol and I enjoyed a great meal with happy bottoms. The shadows lengthened and night approached. Then it was off to bed in the tent.
In the middle of the night, Carol woke up roasting. This was not something either of us could have imagined actually. It was downright cold at dinner. Probably in the low 30s with the wind chill dropping it by another 20 degrees. But the sleeping bag she chose was rated for negative numbers, so she did indeed roast.
The sky was spectacular. No clouds and thin atmosphere. “When you see the Southern Cross for the first time, You understand now why you came this way.”
Those are the words of Crosby, Stills, and Nash, but they played in my head as we found the cross and looked at Orion upside down. Weird to see Orion upside down, but very cool. Cold actually. And so was the midnight trip to the great outdoor outhouse. Brrrrr.