July 29, 2011
Today there are a number of horseback adventure tour operators in Chile. Twenty years ago it was only me trying to make a living by riding in this magnificent part of the world..
The Chilean Andes Mountains are largely uninhabited and offer spectacular vistas and a great variety of terrain. Most of the range is accessible only on foot or horseback.
In London, an equestrian travel agent liked my proposed tour, organized a group of twelve adventurous ladies and arrived in Santiago for what was to be the adventure of a lifetime.
My previous tours had been at the most with four clients. As anyone can imagine, the arrival of this large group sent me scrambling for horses, saddles and camping gear. My headman, an excellent horseman, was in charge of rounding up the necessary pack and riding animals while I was meeting, greeting, showing the wonders of Santiago.
While doing this urban part of the tour, everything was going fine. Like clockwork. We visited the nearly five hundred year old cathedral and other architectural masterpieces, saw Santiago from the top of San Cristobal mountain, ate seafood in good restaurants. Cell phones were still in their infancy, so I had no idea what was going on three hundred miles away. To spend ten days traveling away from civilization requires some serious menu planning. camp set up, accommodating for customer luggage and sanitary facilities. I had a ten page typed plan, the execution of which, I entrusted to some country bumpkins.
The agent told me that everyone was a good, experienced rider, but that she had ridden only a bit before. Would it be possible to assign her a really gentle horse?
"Of course," I replied, "all our horses are well behaved, but I will put you on a specially gentle one."
The bus arrived at the railway station exactly 11:40. The baggage handler was waiting as agreed. A steward led the group to the assigned seats. The train left at noon and a steak lunch was served at 12:30. So far, the plan was working with military precision as the train raced along the fertile Central Valley with the snow capped Andean peaks visible to the east- The massive Descabezado (Headless) Volcano came into sight, an accent on the list of over 2200 volcanoes in Chile. In the Curico Railway Station, I bought Alfajores, Chilean sweet cakes to go with our tea.
In the late afteroon, excitement in the group grew as the chartered bus took us east, toward the snowy peaks of Chillan volcano. My stomach tensed, Would everything be ready, what would be the bad news? I reassured myself that we could handle anything. The next two nights we would spend at a cozy hotel and tomorrow was just a day of local riding and familiarization with the horses. Another brilliant idea that gave me a day to set things right before vanishing into the heart of the Cordillera. .
On arrival at the hotel that Resembled a small Alpine village, Lucho, the headman, briefed me. We were short three horses, but I had planned for two horses as spares, so this loss would hardly be noticed. The other news was a horse Lucho had bought at a very low price and showed great promise.
An excellent dinner, a festive atmosphere and a couple of glasses of wine gave me a most pleasant buzz.
In the morning, fifteen horses were tied against a fence .and being saddled by Lucho and his helpers. I looked for Lucero, an almost black mare with a star on her forehead. "Make sure the señora jefa rides her" I told Lucho.
After breakfast I introduced the agent to Lucero.
"Are you sure she won´t bite?" The agent asked, obviously trying to hide her nervousness.
"The only problem you may have is keeping her awake." I mounted my horse, Gonzo and moved to the front of the column.
Impatient to get going, Gonzo pranced about while the crew adjusted stirrup lengths for our clients.
There was a stomping of hooves- "Ooh, ooh, whoa," the agent yelled as her horse shot forward.
"Ease the reins," I shouted while blocking Lucero.
"Are you sure?"
"Yeah, she'll calm down in a couple of seconds.
The agent did as I told her.
Lucero shot forward as if out of a starting gate..
Lucho bolted forward, grabbed Lucero's reins and stopped the runaway.
Mystified, I told Lucho to switch horses with the agent.
On Lucho's horse the agent was fine. While Lucho had trouble controlling Lucero.
"I don't know what's with her, but she'll calm down in a few minutes."
We trotted, and cantered up a hill. In the forest, we jumped over some fallen trees. From the edge of a cliff we admired the valley below. Lucero kept Lucho busy.
Nearing lunch time we approached the hotel.
Inside a fenced pasture an almost black horse with a star on its forehead stood with its head drooping.
Lucho and I exchanged glances. There was nothing more to say. I never told the agent she had ridden an unbroken horse.
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