BIKEPACKING ACROSS THE ATACAMA
beyond trails in the world’s driest desert
Want to know what life as a gaucho is really like? Secret Compass expedition leader Paul Cannon gives his insight to what life will be like for teammates when they join him in Argentina on the Secret Compass Live Like a Gaucho expedition.
Each day at the Estancia, someone will help to round up the horses needed for the day. This means an early start. There’ll be a breakfast of homemade granola and homemade bread and coffee before we assign the day’s tasks. Some teammates might be riding out to work on trails or fences, some working on irrigation for the organic vegetable plot, while others might work with the blacksmith in the forge. It all depends what needs to be done that day. For anyone who’s just learning to horse ride, riding lessons will be available, or those who are already more experienced can try things like riding bareback.
A delicious wholesome lunch made from estancia produce will be served back at the estancia for those in range. A packed lunch will be provided for those working a ride away. The afternoon will then follow a similar pattern to the morning with tasks divided up between teammates. We’ll rotate the tasks so that everyone can experience as much as possible and get all the riding practice they need in.
While you’re camping near the estancia office building there’ll be toilets and showers available. If you’d like a hot shower you’ll first need to chop some wood to fuel the water boiler and then settle down to relax for a while as it heats up. There’s no rushing here! There will be a hearty meal served on the veranda each evening where you can enjoy each other’s company, share your different tales from the day and meet some of the interns and volunteers who are also staying or working at the estancia.
During the pack trip where we all set off together for several days to explore the estancia and to reach the Cerro Negro volcano region, there will be set agenda. You just have to leave all that organisation and desire for specifics behind. We may be repairing fences or trails, or searching for lost cattle. There will be animal and birdlife to be observed as well as work to do. As a team alongside our local team, we’ll all make our way toward Cerro Negro (2700m), close to the border with Chile, and will aim to climb it. Those that want to can hike some of the surrounding peaks as well.
We will also visit the puesto (the gauchos’ summer outpost) and the lake. There will likely be an asado at the puesto – see images above – and a chance to fish in the lake. Evenings will be spent round the fire while the cook prepares our meal. The food will be carried by mules so it will plentiful and high quality. We might even be able to load a guitar onto one of the mules for evening entertainment so brush up on those campfire chords and lyrics! The pack trip, like the rest of the expedition, is a camping trip. Tents will be provided, but the warm summer nights often mean it is possible to sleep out under the canopy of Patagonian stars. When it comes to the ‘conveniences’, it’ll be a case of borrowing the little shovel, and taking yourself off a short distance from camp and getting in with it. Everyone’s in the same boat so don’t worry, this will soon become normal for everyone.
You will need to have a good level of fitness for this culturally immersive expedition. The work can be physical and riding for five to seven hours per day requires stamina, there’s no getting away from that.
That said, I really do want to emphasise that you do not need any previous riding experience to enjoy this trip. Learning to ride the Gaucho way is a large part of the experience: this is a real working horse culture. The saddles are designed for people to work in all day and they are comfortable. The horses too are trained to move at a fast walk. It is a long way from what might be typically associated with riding in the UK. In fact, if you set out on a nice rising trot, the Gauchos will think you are un poco loco! arrive fit, prepared and ready to learn on location from those who have lived in this manner for generations.
Picking out some highlights for you is difficult as there are just so many on this immersive expedition. Learning to ride the Gaucho way; working with the blacksmith to forge a knife for me and one for my son; taking part in the llera; getting up early to help with the horse round-up; finding myself cantering down the valley with half a dozen horses in front of me and no one else around; eating the delicious asado (social Argentinian barbecue) and all the home-grown organic food at the estancia; sitting on the veranda in the evening with a glass of wine listening enjoying the son et lumiere of a distant thunderstorm over the pampas; catching 35 fish in one afternoon in the crystal clear river; learning to ride bareback; riding for three hours blindfolded; taking turns to play the guitar and to sing around the fire with members of the team; meeting unique and interesting people…honestly. I could go on for hours. The toughest part is the long days of riding, but you’ll soon get used to it. Just don’t forget your wide-brimmed hat to protect your eyes from the bright glare of the sunny days.
What I learned from this gaucho expedition was that this horse culture and this off-grid way of life is still not only real and viable but feels really great. There is plenty to do and you can work as hard as you want but the pace of the day is set by horses, not by cars or planes or dozens of emails. It does not feel slow, it feels natural. Time spent here is soul food.
There are many things to learn here, but perhaps it is the un-learning that is the most surprising. We do not need cars and planes and emails.
They are useful when we are in ‘the modern world,’ but all you really need in your life is good food, good people, a good horse and a beautiful place to ride. See you at the estancia!
About Paul: Travel has been at the centre of Paul’s life for a very long time. He’s been to over 60 countries and hiked, rock-climbed or fly-fished in most of them. His personal highlights include sailing across the Atlantic; spending five months in a truck full of rock climbers driving from London to Hong Kong; and living and working in South Africa (partly on a safari ranch and partly in a circus and stunt show in Cape Town). Climbing Kilimanjaro and doing voluntary work for a month in Chile’s Torres Del Paine National Park were other highlights…meet Paul on the Secret Compass Gaucho expedition to Argentina.
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See you on a team soon…