When you think of a horseback riding vacation in Argentina, many horse lovers imagine watching polo ponies gallop across grassy fields. But this is a horseback riding vacation of a different color on a different breed of horse; a Criollo horse. This isn’t your ordinary horse riding holiday. Some might call it a working ranch vacation, because this was a horseback adventure into the remote wilderness of Patagonia.
An overnight coach journey followed by a three-hour taxi ride probably wasn’t the ideal prefix to a three-hour ‘shuttle service’ on horseback into an Argentine Estancia, but I’d already said yes before I’d even considered how tired I might be. In retrospect however, I can honestly say this was the only way to begin my horseback riding vacation at Estancia Ranquilco.
Estancia Ranquilco guest ranch vacation
It was with bleary eyes that I handed my bags to the wrangler leading my pack mule, and climbed aboard my traditional Criollo horse for the last leg of my journey into the Carrithers family’s Estancia Ranquilco. As my horse turned his nose and set off for home, my energy picked up with the excitement of the unknown, fatigue melting away into the open pastures and every rocky mound we negotiated bringing us closer to home.
Finally, a quarter of a mile from our final destination, the hidden world of Estancia Ranquilco finally came into sight. As my horse splashed his way across the river, the trees above bended in the wind to reveal the main house in the distance, emitting a beautiful orange glow in the dusk light.
I had never been more ready for bed. Luckily there was one waiting for me in Ranquilco’s wooden accommodations, which rest out on a ledge with the Rio Trocoman river flowing below. The fire in my room had been lit and the water heated for a shower – my own private bit of luxury and the perfect end to a long day.
The Patagonia horse trek begins
Morning soon arrived at Estancia Ranquilco and a full home-cooked breakfast set us up for the start of our five-day horse trek in Patagonia. Our group of five all ate together out on the terrace of the main house in the morning sun which, against the backdrop of the Andean Cordillera, could not have been beaten.
Now hungry only for the adventure ahead, it was time for me to meet my horse – a grey Arab saddled with traditional Argentine saddle complete with rawhide stirrups. Our trip leader, T.A, informed me that the sheepskin saddle blanket, or pellón, was to form part of my bedding for the next few days. Being a trained outdoor survivalist, pack trips really are T.A’s forte, so I felt confident that we were in the hands of a true outdoors man.
Over the course of the next five days, T.A led us to some of the most breathtaking views I have ever seen on any horse riding holiday – traversing ridges, plateaus, rivers, meadows, lakes and hot springs. Every now and then we would pass a wooden hut, home to the Gauchos looking after the goats, sheep and cows grazing the summer pastures. When thirst struck, we would stop at natural springs to drink the Ranquilco water – something that gave me a real sense of connection to the land.
The riding was often challenging thanks to steep, narrow paths where riding in a line was essential. Both riders and horses were always grateful to reach the freedom of open space and vast wilderness and, although we trotted on occasion, first priority was to conserve our horses’ energy in order to make it to the next camp before dark.
Estancia Ranquilco’s horses are built for this kind of riding, the majority of the working ranch horses are dependable, hardy and sure-footed Criollo horses. My Arab was an exception and had a little more forward energy, keeping me up at the front of the ride and easily catching up to the group when I’d stopped to take photographs.
Sleeping under stars on horseback riding holiday
Some days were longer than others; if there was ground to cover, we would set off early and ride hard for eight hours or so in order to make it to camp before dark. On more leisurely days, a later start gave us around four hours in the saddle, allowing us to soak up the surroundings and relax in the peace and tranquility of Estancia Ranquilco.
However long the day, dinner time was always welcome. T.A acted as head chef, cooking up a different meal each night according to our tastes. That meant anything from chili to ranch-bred steaks – all accompanied by copious amounts of red wine, of course.
Camp at Estancia Ranquilco might have been a million miles from the luxury of the cozy room I’d been treated to on my first night, but it was every bit as charming. Basic is the best word to describe the facilities; lakes and rivers act as bathtubs, and the toilet is a bush of your choice. Although tents had been packed for us in case the weather turned, we managed to escape any rain and each night slept out under the stars. Thanks to a thin ozone layer, the days are hot and the sun is strong in this part of the world, so I was grateful for my diligent packing of sunscreen and long-sleeved shirts.
Every night before bed we’d check on our horses, each person’s horse being their own responsibility. I made sure to double-check I’d tied the knot in my long rope correctly to ensure I’d still have a ride the next morning.
Swimming with horses in Patagonia, Argentina horse pack trip
After several days’ riding, that seemed to go by as fast as the condors circling overhead, the Chilean border soon came into sight amidst views of snow-capped volcanoes. A long meander down into a wide valley brought us to a lake, providing both a peaceful fishing spot and the ultimate cool-down in the form of a refreshing swim with the horses. Mind and body thoroughly refreshed, we set up final camp of the trip – the perfect end to an incredible journey.
The five days drew to an end all too soon for me, just as I was getting into my nomadic stride. I suddenly felt like I could keep on going – that was until I hit my bed back at the Estancia, where I could have slept for a lifetime.
Horseback riding holiday in Patagonia, Argentina
Riding back out of Estancia Ranquilco the next day, I reflected on what had been a truly once-in-a-lifetime horseback riding vacation. I had fallen in love with the wild, the open spaces, the dramatic scenery; that along with a great guide made this riding holiday all I hoped it would be.
Have you been or a horseback riding vacation or watched a polo tournament in Argentina? What are your favorite things to do in Patagonia, Argentina?
This is a guest post by Kate Matheson of Top 50 Ranches.
If You Go:
Province of Neuquen, Patagonia