Riding with Gauchos - Cordoba

Trip Start Sep 22, 2006
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Trip End Dec 2006


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Where I stayed
The Ritz

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Sunday, October 15, 2006

We spent a 1.5days in Argentina´s second city Cordoba which is a university town and has a good feel to it. We stayed at the Ritz hotel which wasn´t on a par with its namesake in London but a bed for the night was welcome relief. In the evening we headed out and caught a tango show which has to be done when you are in Argentina. The tango was fantastic and they also had 2 singers although towards the end of the evening it began to feel a bit like an Argentinian Butlins as several cakes came out with renditions of Happy Birthday for each.

After a lot of driving through very flat grassland over the last week or so we caught our first glimpses of the mountains the following day just outside Cordoba. We started to climb into the Sierra Grande and at lunchtime pulled up at the locked gates of Estancia Los Potreros. Unable to get the truck through and with no mobile reception a few of us set of as the advance recce party on the 4km "stroll" up the driveway. When we reached the first property there was no one around so 2 waited whilst the remaining three of us headed off in search of other signs of life.

On reaching the next property we had seen the "Beware Guard Dog" sign but thought the coast was clear so went through the gate. Half way between the refuge of the gateway and the house the afore mentioned guard dog came bounding towards us. I was with two professed cat lovers who were slightly nervous around canine company and who immediately decided that I should be the decoy for the Alsation whilst they scattered in opposite directions. Thankfully, though he was excited and boisterous he was more intent on jumping up at me to try and lick and suck me into submitting to rub his stomach rather than being the slavering, wild eyed Cujo that my companions had imagined.

In the distance we heard a truck so headed back to the first house to be met by Jono who explained that a bush fire the previous week had contaminated all of the water supply so we would be staying at one of the other properties on the Estancia. We climbed into the pickup truck and headed over the mountain back to meet the others who had stayed with our truck, Tortuga. They then followed us sitting on the roof of Tortuga as we made our way to where we were staying.

We set up camp in the grounds of the home of one of the Estancia owners. After a relaxing evening my cook group did a BBQ for everyone and then Jono joined us to spend the evening wine tasting some of the Estancia´s own "2B´s" wine label as well as some other local Argentinian vinos. Jono our gaucho / winemaster had grown up on a vineyard back home in Zimbabwe so was a great guide and thankfully believed in big measures rather than the pathetic sip and spit method of wine tasting. Perhaps a late night and several bottles of wine are not the best preparation for spending a couple of days bouncing around on horse back but no one seemed to suffer too much.

After breakfast the next morning our gauchos brought our horses over the mountains and we packed up our saddle bags and headed off. The Estancia is a working cattle ranch covering 7500 hectares owned by two brothers, Kevin and Robin Begg who are half English and half Argentinian. It was one of the first enclosed estancias and is huge. In 2 days of riding we rarely covered the same ground yet never went beyond the boundaries of the Estancia. There are 140 horses and 9 gauchos who are split between horses and cattle. Aside from the working ranch and the Dragoman truck guests, they run it as an exclusive resort for guests to ride and play polo. Therefore all of the horses are working horses and many are also polo ponies so they are incredibly responsive and fantastic to ride.

I was introduced to my trustee stead who was apparently one of the most intelligent horses on the estancia. I guessed that meant he was more likely to argue with me. I was also warned that he liked to always be up at the front as the first horse behind the gaucho. His name was "Cara de Queso" meaning Cheeseface! Quite undignified and as much a derogatory slur in Spanish as in English, yet he was a perfect gentleman.

Our gauchos were fantastic although they made a slightly incongruous couple. Jono is a 6ft 6" blonde Zimbabwean of Greek descent who had left Exeter university a couple of years ago. Little Jo (Jose) is an Argentinian who had worked on the Estancia for 14 years, spoke no English and was 5ft -perhaps 5ft 1" at a push. They were like Little and Large but seemed to have a great working relationship and looked after all of us brilliantly.

We rode for about 5hrs through spectacular scenery of grass covered mountains, though we could see where huge swathes had been burnt by the fire the week before. Around us hawks and eagles soared aswell as parakeets and humming birds. After lunch we had a shooting competition using targets and .22 callibre rifles. Amazingly I came third even beating one of the gaucho´s though I guess it must have been beginers luck - or chivalry, I´m not sure which.

Cimbing back in the saddles we rode out for another couple of hours and everyone´s backsides were more tender than some of Argentinian steaks we have had. We spent a lovely evening being entertained by a guy on a guitar who sang traditional gaucho folk songs. After dinner he was joined by Little Jose who had donned his traditional gaucho belt along with the rest of his gaucho attire that he had been wearing. Whilst I had been riding behind Jose during the day I had noticed that he spent a lot of time singing quitely to himself or as I thought serenading his horse with neither a tune nor words which I could make out. Every now and again I would see him accompany the words with actions - tracing tears down his cheeks or holding out his hands. My initial conclusion that this was his way of entertaining himself on long boring rides with gringos who couldn´t speak to him, was now proved incorrect and he came into his own, proving that with his singing and on a horse Little Jose was a confident giant of a man. As the music played on we danced the night away under the trees by the light of the tilly lamps.

The following morning having all turned out to watch the stiring sight of our horses being led cantering over the hill towards us, we saddled up and rode out to a beautiful spot for lunch. We idled away a couple of hours beside an idylic waterfall that poured over the mountain into a cold, clear pool beneath it. It was picturesque and swimming in the crisp mountain water was refreshing respite from the intense heat. Lying floating on my back in the cold water, looking up at the white waterfall cascading over the red and green mossy rocks with the blue sky behind it I knew that this was one of those days and moments to pull back from my memory and think of when back home and stressed about the banalities that we get so wound up by in London.

That night the gaucho´s cooked us an amazing BBQ Argentinian style with cuts of meat that you never get at home, washed down with more of the Estancia wine. We heard about the fire the week before which had raged for three days over 30km and had pulled 650 people from miles around to try and fight it. Jono told us about one night during the fire, as he looked up into the darkness he saw a grey horse that he recognised as one of the estancia´s, being ridden full pealt over the treacherous rocky mountain top by a gaucho with long hair flowing behind him. Ricardo, the long haired rodeo gaucho who breaks in the horses at Los Proteros came leaping through the flames, picked up the water packs that Jono was holding up as he rode past,turned his horse and leapt back through the walls of flames to continue dousing. It cunjoured an incredible picture which demonstrated wonderfully the skill and connection that these gauchos and their horses have. A perfect end to a perfect couple of days and some wonderful memories which I will keep with me forever.
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