Valle de la Esperanza horse trek
Invigorated by one of Ida's famous breakfasts, we prepared the horses. Our team was to be the same as for our Valle de Cochamó trek. Franco with Grano de Oro, Ciro with Morro, Kath with Estrella and last but not least Gringa with all the luggage.
The horses were saddled and Gringa was loaded up; two big sacks with clothing, food and cooking gear and on top the two tents, the gas cooker and a whole lamb carcass wrapped in sacking. As ever, Gringa stood there, patiently suffering the pushing and pulling. One last heave on the girth strap, and this placid animal turned into a demented bucking bronco. She bucked and she reared, she bucked and she reared, spraying camping gear around the field, she bucked and she reared, Ida had disappeared behind the shed, Ciro was still hanging onto the lead rope with all his weight to prevent the horse impaling herself on the fence, and we looked on in awe. She only stopped once the load was off and the carrying frame hung broken from her back. Ciro had placed the rear girth strap just too far back, a spot particularly sensitive.
Gringa - just one last heave
It was threatening to rain as we set off at a brisk trot up Cochamó High Street. We had 15km on the main road to Ralun to look forward to, just over a month since we last rode, surely our buttocks would be up to the job?
On the main road
Franco had Grano under control, trotting at the same rhythm as the chief. Our amazing horses who don't bat so much as an eyelid as they cross raging torrents over rickety slatted bridges weren't as self-assured on the highway. Road markings were given a wide berth and concrete bridge expansion strips were approached with caution. Grano was very nervous of large lorries and didn't like the dust clouds they threw up.
After just a few kilometres, my inner thigh muscles started cramping, they were as taught as bow strings and I wondered whether I would survive the day.
Most local drivers are riders themselves and slowed down to give us space. Others tried to overtake us with oncoming traffic. They seemed incapable of slowing down or stopping, and when they realised there wasn't room, they swerved towards the ditch at the risk of running us over. At last we arrived at Ralun and turned off, up the Reloncavi Valley, onto a local road used for timber and gravel haulage.
Once in the forest, we breathed a sigh of relief. We passed a family on horseback led by a very serious five year old, reins in one hand and horse whip in the other, his legs were too short to reach the stirrups.
We camped for the night in a wildflower meadow near a derelict farm house on the edge of Lake Cayutué. A young man rode past and told us that he was minding the land.
Wildflower meadow and derelict house
Kath by Lago Cayutué
After a leisurely breakfast and Ciro's obligatory 10:30 spaghetti soup, we retraced our steps along the shores of the lake and took a track heading west. The lake gradually turns into a marsh and a difficult boggy crossing for the horses. We were following a wide valley where the vegetation alternates between meadows and forests of giant coigüe (Nothofagus dombeyi) and passed several abandoned holdings. The orchards hadn't seen a pruning saw in years but the small apples they yielded were a welcome addition to our diet of stick-roasted lamb.
We reached the Rio Saquecalzon (River Take-your-pants-off) and crossed it five times in all, which may well be the reason for its name. In winter, the heavy rain makes it impassable, isolating the farms upstream. We stopped in a stand of mañio (Saxe-gothaea conspicua) conifers for lunch and I walked around hoping to relax my groaning thigh muscles but it didn't make much difference.
Franco crossing Rio Quitecalzon
Shortly after five, we stopped for the night by another derelict home. My leg muscles were very painful and I wondered if I would be able to stand another day on horseback. As Ciro prepared the roast, I remembered how the cold river water had helped us relax during our first horse trek. I found a pool and sat in the cold water for twenty minutes. It did the trick, the pain had gone by the morning. In fact Ciro suffered more than we did from bottom pain.
Ciro preparing the stick for the roast
A large house, now derelict
Day 3 Franco's Birthday
A bad smell seemed to be following us, emanating from the half carcass of lamb at the top of Gringa's load and the stench was permeating everything. The heat was stifling, though it was a little cooler in the forests of coigüe and tepa (Laureliopsis philipiana), the leaves of which give off a pleasant aroma as you brush against them. We arrived at a farmstead, known as Las Bandurrias, the first we had passed that was occupied and Ciro went off to speak to the owner. He was hoping to order some bread and cheese for our return journey.
The next farm was abandoned but had a resident pair of 'clangers' (as we call black faced ibis). One of the apple trees had fruit which were ripe, if a little tart. Horses make good improvised ladders and we happily munched our way along the next few kilometres.
We reached the Tronador River, swollen by melt water and too high for the horses to ford. We thought we might have to wait until the next morning to cross when the level before the snow starts melting in the heat of the day, but we found a new bridge a short way upstream.
Crossing the bridge over the river Tronador
The path meandered through copses of arrayán (Luma apiculata) and arrived at a neat looking house in a meadow. This used to be the home of Ciro's friends Leticia Alvarado and Enrique Velasquez but life in the Andes became too difficult for them as they grew older and unwell. Ciro told us that the land has been bought by a doctor from Santiago but that he doesn't come often. There was a beautiful horse in the field, a bag of lemons hanging in the window and a padlock on the door so someone must be visiting from time to time.
A couple of guys were camping nearby. They had enough wine for a week and told us they had been dropped off by helicopter. One was wearing a Ministry of Agriculture t-shirt and Ciro instantly took a dislike to him. We lit our fire a short distance away and cooked the meat that was left. It took ages and the tasted very gamy. The hot springs nearby were the most pleasant we have been to, with a view over the Esperanza river.
Kath enjoying the hot springs
It wasn't long before we caught our first glimpse of El Tronador, an impressive volcano with glaciers flowing down its flanks, then came Witches Rock, rock climbing for horses above a vertiginous drop into the gorge below.
First view of Tronador
Rock climbing for horses at Witches Rock
Franco leading Grano at Witches Rock
We arrived early afternoon at Carmelo's holding and were met by the two campers from the night before. One of them was lying down, his lower leg very swollen. He had been bitten or stung by something, possibly a spider. We had antihistamine and Ibuprufen, unfortunately the first aid bag was in one of the sacks so Gringa was unloaded. Carmelo, a sad looking gentleman who lives on his own shuffled over in his slippers. "Do you have anything for high blood pressure?" Franco suggested he should see a doctor. As we were leaving Ciro asked him if he had really run out of pills. "No, I still have some but I'm trying to make them last." Not surprising when you live three days by horseback from the nearest road and a further two hours by bus to the closest pharmacy.
Carmelo’s 1 month old foal
Carmelo warned us that the bridges were in a bad state of maintenance. The first one was passable but the next had collapsed. The timber supports cut from local coigüe trees had rotted.
Ciro inspecting the first bridge
The second bridge had collapsed
Lunch was eaten at the edge of the forest, overlooking the valley below. The pungent meat was hard to enjoy and to Ciro's exhortations to eat more I replied that he was welcome to have as much of it as he pleased. "I think it might make me ill" he replied.
If even Ciro thought it was too far gone, then I certainly wasn't going to eat anymore. He tried to convince us that some of it was still ok but the truth is he was quite relieved we refused to eat it. The bread had run out so we were reduced to Ciro's other staple; spaghetti soup, for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
We climbed through woodlands where the bamboo has been shaded out by coigüe and then through more bamboo groves and spent the night at a refuge with a fabulous view of Tronador.
The bamboo has been shaded out by coigüe
Franco weaving a way through the bamboo
Franco and Ciro tucking into spaghetti soup
The next day was likely to be a long one. We would arrive at the Chilean border after a couple of hours but had no idea how far it was to the Argentinian customs post. We hoped the Chilean police would let us out and back in without us having to go into Argentina, and it was unlikely they would let us take the horses through. Ciro declared we would get up at 5am, start packing the horses at 7:30 and leave at 9. Franco glowered (and when he does, people take heed) so we compromised. We would get up at 5 and leave as soon as possible (Ciro would have to go without his soup).