I am on a ride at Caballadas and momentarily stunned. I find myself on rocky ground tangled in sparse grass, sprawled out between the stones, under thorny scrub trees. But let’s back up. Experienced trail riders know that if you have to go under a thicket of low trees, you should keep your head lower than your horse’s. When I saw the inevitable coming, I tried to flatten to my mount’s neck, but my riding helmet prevented me from doing so. This created a gap at the neck of my jacket, which was immediately speared by a branch. I figured the best bet was to release the stirrups and roll off.
“Are you O.K.?” Santiago cries as he races towards me on his young polo- pony-in-training. He looks concerned, while I manage an embarrassed smile and answer “Yes.” After a short appraisal, Santiago asks “Can you ride ?”
But he knows the answer before I do. I have come to Argentina, all the way from the Pacific Northwest, to his wife’s family estate in North Patagonia, to ride. And damn-it-all, I will ride. But likely due to the determined look on my dusty face, and the thorns and dirt sticking out of my blasted helmet and coat, we both break out in rib-shaking laughter. At least they aren’t broken.his private estancia in Patagonia is over 2 hours from the airport of San Martin de Los Andes by bumpy, dusty, mostly unpaved road. The planes come and go from here and Bariloche Airport (5 hours away) only on certain days of the week. So planning your visit is centered around the air travel schedule. But there is little worry here on this bright spring day in early December; the family has thought of everything for their guests including horseback rides, three meals a day, lovely Argentine and Chilean wines and comfortable rooms in the family’s summer home known as “the lodge”.
The beautiful lodge was made from logs cut on the property and is a study in the elegance of natural materials. This belies the fact that everything has to be brought in here. We are indeed in the middle of nowhere and that is the exact reason most want to come. Stone floors anchor the main level containing entry way, open-plan dining and living rooms, covered patio, modern kitchen and steps to a system using the natural spring and wood fire to heat the home and water. Comfortable, tasteful furnishings complement the natural environment surrounding the lodge, the center and heart of ranch life. From this prominent spot on a hill overlooking thousands of acres, the lodge’s main living spaces have large windows to stupendous views of the mountains and valley below. Sunrise is a quiet time to wander out on the deck and watch the mountains and far-away valley lighten, as the deep violet shadows of night awaken and are chased away by the sun.
Rooms have baths (private and shared), and provide spaces for singles, couples or families. After all, this home was built for a large multi-generational family that still comes together to share each summer. You can almost hear laughter in the halls and the ghosts of a thousand memories.
Bouncing along in Mr. Uriburu’s truck to prepare the boat for a ride on the lake, he passionately describes the estancia and natural environment shaping much of his family’s identity and lifestyle. He tells me with unwavering conviction that the current generation is very committed to preserving the estancia and the legacy here, “It is simple and very clear, we have to preserve and care for this place so the next generation and their children can enjoy it as we have.”
To accomplish this the estancia opened the property to a multi-night stay horseback riding program they call Caballadas. Part of the forward-thinking present generation caring for this magical place are two sisters, Agustina and Isabel Lagos Mármol who do world-wide promotions, bookings and lodge management. Isabel’s husband, Santiago Uriburu, is the polo playing horseman who runs the incredible riding program. For serious riders desiring this bespoke adventure, you must be experienced, skilled on outdoor terrain, possess a great sense of adventure and be willing to ride steep mountain trails. The reason for being this specific was explained to me, as we gathered with other guests in front of the stone fireplace and shared a bottle of wine. As Santiago says, “We ask that (only) people with an adventurous attitude, who can deal with adversity and are athletically fit come and ride. A positive mental attitude is important, as here we are surrounded by an ever-changing wilderness environment. We are in a remote place. So advanced intermediate or expert riders are best; safety is the reason.”
Mr. Uriburu has trained many of the horses. They are beautiful, sure-footed and athletic. His best have a polo pony’s stamina bred with a Criollo’s sure-footed gait and brave heart. An honest assessment of your abilities and temperament is made initially by this expert polo player. The day you arrive you are required to ride. Then he matches you with the perfect mount. The Chilean saddles are very comfortable for long rides through the mountains and made more comfortable by the sheep skin on top of the saddle seat. Tack is meticulously cared for and Mr. Uriburu is an encouraging friendly master horseman sometimes accompanied by a silent, steady gaucho guide. Out here you can’t make mistakes.
I observed his treatment and interaction with his horses. Most of them are beloved companions belonging to a family member. Well-conditioned, they are allowed to graze outside the immaculate barn. Santiago’s irrigation system uses the river and streams on property. His ingenious use of a small trench dug along the pastures ensures there is green pasture for the horses. Water is diverted by blocking off the flow with mud and stone moving water flow to another trench. Simple and effective.
Part of Volcano Lanin National Park with 379,000 hectares of native Patagonia forest, surrounds the 60,000 acre estancia. Chile is many hours ride away. A huge mountain lake laps nearby at one end of the property where they keep their day boat tethered. A ride on the lake, a hike in the park, a swim and even playing or fishing in the river full of rainbow trout can be part of guests’ exploration of this magnificent place.
Meals are prepared by local cooks and breakfasts can include pastries, fruit, meats and eggs. Dinner can surprise as an entree could be an expertly prepared stuffed manicotti or a roasted lamb feast. Your dietary preferences are considered. A traditional Argentine steak barbeque for lunch at the gaucho’s barn down in the valley becomes the reward in the middle of a ride. One highlight was a picnic of traditional meat pies, cheese and sweets spread out beside a stream up in the Araucaria Araucana (Monkey Puzzle tree) forest shading a remote gaucho camp.
Santiago will create bespoke rides for you too. Expect to ride 6 hours or more a day The vistas are all inspiring; snow-topped mountains, pristine lakes, rivers to cross, overnight horse camping, and adrenaline shifting gallops through the grasses. All make coming home to a hot shower and beautiful evening meal that much sweeter. Caballadas can take a maximum of 8 riders at a time on the estancia. Availability is seasonal and runs November to mid-December, and through March and April. Remembering that South American seasons are opposite the northern hemisphere means Caballadas is open during Spring and Fall to those of us arriving from North America.
But now, as I pick myself up and remount for our ride towards a distant mountain, I brush the dust off. But I won’t be able to take the grin off my face all day. The estancia is one of the most magnificent places to ride in the world. This is heaven for horseback riders.
If You Go Details:
American Airlines offers direct flights from DFW to Buenos Aires. Three classes of service to fit your price point includes Coach, Business and First. Remember that Argentina requires a pre-payment fee to enter the country. The government website is cumbersome and best to spend $20. with an agency to do it for you. Entry fee is good for 10 years. It is suggested you stay a couple of nights in Buenos Aires before and after your trip to Patagonia. Excellent choices are the ultra swank Alvear Palace Hotel, the mid-century cool Home in Hollywood section of Palermo, chic Hub Porteno, spacious and lovely Palacio Duhau Park Hyatt or the wonderfully hip Faena.