A horseback journey through Patagonia
Story & Photography: Stevie Anna Plummer
Written By: Emily Hopcian
A chaos of emotions – everything from joy to an extreme sense of loneliness – parades us out of town. Tears fill my eyes as fear shivers inside me. Fear of the unknown, of injury to my animals or to me, and of the freak accidents that are seemingly part of journeys through remote wilderness.
On a Friday morning in early November, spring in the Southern Hemisphere, I ride south from Bariloche, Argentina, with my dog, Darcie, and Sundance and Bandido, my two horses. Together, our small team crosses over the earthy browns and dry greens of northern Patagonia’s estepa. For a short while, I breathe in the familiar mountain peaks and rolling hills; my sentimental goodbye. I’m leaving behind a world I know intimately to cross into entirely new territory. ‘Please just let us get to the first town,’ I whisper to the universe. ‘Just let us get through the first ten days.’
A chaos of emotions – everything from joy to an extreme sense of loneliness – parades us out of town. Tears fill my eyes as fear shivers inside me. Fear of the unknown, of injury to my animals or to me, and of the freak accidents that are seemingly part of journeys through remote wilderness. But perhaps more so, somewhere deep in my subconscious, there is a fear of failure – an earlier-than-anticipated return to Bariloche, of folks not taking us seriously. I cannot help but settle on thoughts of the months of build-up on social media and on everyone supporting us on this journey. I fear letting them down, becoming a disappointment.
I still myself inside and shift my focus to the movement of our team. My thoughts fall into rhythm with the pace of my horses, and my heart settles into the wilds that surround me. A condor, a sign of good luck out here on the estepa, soars above us. I let go of the things I cannot control and hold on to the things I can – which, to be honest, are precious few when it comes to Patagonia and her immense, unpredictable wilderness. Unending waves of snowy peaks rise to the west. Limitless estepa stretches to the east. All around me, Darcie weaves in and out of tall grass that sways in the gathering wind, to the front of our pack and behind, keeping an eye on what’s hers: myself and the horses. This is our element. This is where we thrive. I sigh. ‘We’ve got this,’ I say, to no-one but myself.
Soon after I moved to Bariloche, I met Carol Jones of Estancia Nahuel Huapi and began working with her, her horses, local gauchos, and her clients. Carol is as tough, honest, and hardworking as anyone I know. She leads a relatively simple life and has given me just about everything. Seeing her out in the countryside and mountains handling everything on her own and knowing she was one of the first women – if not the first woman – here in Bariloche to be riding horses out in the wild, guiding pack trips, and opening up new routes really planted the seed for doing a long traverse on horseback. When I told her what I was thinking of doing, she said: ‘Nice. Good. You should.’ It felt later as though it was expected of me. No fluff, no big deal. Just do it. I appreciate those honest expectations.
The days pass and we put more miles behind us. Although small outposts and ranches are not an everyday occurrence out here, with each puesto or estancia we encounter I begin to recognise that, like Carol, Patagonia’s residents are a defining feature of this journey. It’s all about community and I realise why this region has come to mean so much to me. There’s a sense of home here that I haven’t found anywhere else, and I now believe it has everything to do with the people, culture, and pace of life. Yet Patagonia’s weather is another story. Its savage wind sweeps and swirls, clawing at everything it can grab hold of, pressing down on us with such brutal force that some days we can barely move. It funnels from west to east, rapid and unstinting, carrying rain that stings and soaks. And then, as quickly as it came, it disappears. Sometimes, all we can do is take whatever shelter we can find and wait. Sundance and Bandido are forced to stand with their backs to the onslaught, their eyes swollen shut by its violence. If my biggest concern is that we all complete this journey safely, Patagonia’s capricious weather will play a pivotal role in that.
Since we left Bariloche in late spring, we barely encounter another soul. This is what I came to find – vast solitude and wilderness. Snow-capped mountains drain into rushing rivers, making water crossings all the more challenging this early in the season. The snow hugs me with its muffled silence. Yet in the same breath, I have a knot in my stomach. If I slip up, if my horses get injured, or if we lose our way, it’s on us and us alone. We bear the load of our mistakes. Out here, only we can save ourselves. I’m fully prepared to make the entire journey alone, with only my own resources. I don’t want to rely on someone else, nor do I want someone to feel that the only reason I’m interested in them is to get something out of our contact, be it food, shelter, or whatever. And really, what I’ve discovered is that we only need three things each night: a water source, grass for the horses, and a place to lay out my sleeping bag. Life is simple out here. I’ve come to love the pace of our days and nights together.
This is what I came to find – vast solitude and wilderness. Snow-capped mountains drain into rushing rivers, making water crossings all the more challenging this early in the season.
There’s something about the rhythm of life in Patagonia, reflected by the region’s gauchos: while hard working, they know how to slow down and enjoy life in the simplest ways; how to be tranquilo.
Although the days that we pass estancias are few and far between, on the days we do see one blooming on the horizon, I ride up to it and introduce myself to whoever might be there. I enquire how they are, tell them where I’m going and, inevitably, they invite me in for yerba mate tea and conversation. This is, without a doubt, my favourite Argentine tradition. There’s something about the rhythm of life in Patagonia, reflected by the region’s gauchos: while hard working, they know how to slow down and enjoy life in the simplest ways; how to be tranquilo. They have a deep connection with the animals – horses, sheep, dogs – and the land they work. They’re in tune with the living environments that surround them. Breaking through their tough, quiet exterior – which, for me, is always through my journey and an understanding of the culture, the animals, and the land – is a meaningful and magical moment. As a petite, blonde-haired, blue-eyed gringa, my appearance stands in contrast to that of the gauchos. Often, at the estancias, I feel them eyeing me as I unpack my horses and get situated. They watch studiously, careful to not let me see that they’re doing so. They size me up, check out my shoes, how I tie my singe to my knots. It’s always the same: once they see me unpack my horses on my own, they seem to take me a little more seriously. Still, on the mornings of my departures, I know they’re watching me again. They stand just outside the door, drinking yerba mate, looking to see if I can haul up and tie on a pack saddle by myself. Once I do, without fail, they’ll ask, ‘Do you want some help?’
‘No, I’ve got it,’ I say with a smile. ‘Thank you, though.’
Roughly a month in to our journey, we pass through a steep canyon. Fallen rocks are scattered across the terrain, making it difficult to navigate. Concerned for not only my horses’ safety but also my own, I get off and walk alongside our team. There’s no trail or route here. We bushwhack to find our way, and I continuously readjust the pack saddle to keep it from falling off. We ultimately pass through safely – a long, tiring day on the trail – and carry on through spots of pure estepa speckled with coirón, grasses typical to the region. We weave through lush forest to a brutally steep-sided mesa striated by windswept lagoons where we find barren rock thick with snow – in the middle of the summer, mind you. Such is Patagonia’s harsh climate. We trek down off the mesa, right along the Chilean border, and approach Estancia Numancia, owned and operated by Pablo Perez, his brother, and his family. It is here I come to know Florencia.
I walk up with Darcie, Sundance, and Bandido. Pablo welcomes us, takes the reins from my hands and starts walking the horses to unsaddle them. ‘You’re staying with us,’ he says. No questions are asked. He shows me the kitchen and my room. I feel like part of the family, a fourth addition to his three daughters. Florencia, Pablo’s eldest, is living and working at the estancia with him.
In her early 20s, Florencia is kind and generous, and as tough as any gaucho I have ever known. We talk for hours – as we saddle the horses in the early morning moonlight, while we work together, and in the evenings afterwards, before tiredness overcomes us, on the porch as the stars begin to gleam in an indigo sky. She studies agronomy in Córdoba, where her family lives most of the year, and in the future she’ll likely run Estancia Numancia, in the same way her father does now. Gauchas, female gauchos, are still rare. Closer to the cities, people are slowly becoming more open minded, but out in the backcountry, there are women who may not see anyone outside their family for months at a time. It’s a welcome surprise not only to meet Florencia but to share time with her.
We wake long before dawn to saddle the horses and move the estancia’s sheep a quarter of a mile or so. It takes around six hours to travel a short distance because we have to keep the ewes and their lambs together. Such slow work allows me and Florencia to pass time together, sharing stories and experiences. After showing me what to look for in the sheep and their lambs, Florencia tells me about her dream to finish her studies in Córdoba and run the ranch here in the south some day. Her passion for the estancia, the animals and nature pours out of her so richly it’s contagious. The way she lives her life reminds me of the importance of pursuing a life you love. Florencia teaches me the value of living with purpose, working hard to achieve what matters to you. As Florencia and I finish moving the sheep, we see that one of the ewes has fallen into the creek down below. In the freezing-cold water and heavy mud, we know she could die within hours if she’s in too long. We act quickly, taking the halters from our horses and lowering them into the creek to tie around the sheep. Once she’s secure, we band together with all our strength to pull out the heavy, sopping-wet sheep. It reaffirms a lesson I’ll rarely forget: to always be aware of my surroundings.
In the days leading up to my departure from Estancia Numancia, I study the wind report, knowing I have to cross another mesa the day I leave. Patagonia’s winds are out in full force, funnelling through at roughly 75mph, accelerated over the smooth, flat terrain of the mesa. I’ll be leaving the sanctuary of the estancia soon, heading back into Patagonia’s tumultuous unknowns, and while my doubts and fears from the day I left Bariloche still simmer, I’ve learned to dance with them. Time, experience, and moments shared with others out here have taught me to trust the rational fears that keep me safe, and to challenge the ones I know are only backed by ego. On the day of my departure, Pablo, Florencia, and I wake up before sunrise to move more sheep. Then we ride for an hour together. As we bid each other farewell, a rainbow blooms in the distance. It’s poignant, yet fitting.
Her passion for the estancia, the animals and nature pours out of her so richly it’s contagious. The way she lives her life reminds me of the importance of pursuing a life you love.
As I ride away, the skies open up. Rain darkens the world around me, sheets that pummel me harder with every step. By the time Darcie, Sundance, Bandido, and I reach the top of the mesa, the winds are ripping. I can see nothing; we’re engulfed by cloud the colour of shadow. We lose the trail repeatedly and are forced to backtrack. Then it starts to snow. I can barely believe it’s still summer. If it’s one of the most challenging, and coldest, parts of our journey, it’s also one of the most beautiful. Patagonia’s extreme weather makes everything a little more worthwhile – as do the warmth and kindness of her people. That day, while I face some of the toughest weather of my journey, my heart is full of love, inspired by the family I’ve just spent time with, in particular Florencia. I will ultimately travel 1,200 miles from Bariloche to El Chaltén solo, and meet remarkable Argentines along the way. I will learn just how important people and the communities they form are in my life, be they communities of strong women in the backcountry or people who share values and lifestyles. The importance of these communities, and what they do for us as individuals, cannot be understated, especially in the most remote regions of the world.
This story was first published in Sidetracked Magazine Volume 13