Volunteering in Argentina

Caramor - sailing around the world
Franco Ferrero / Kath Mcnulty
Fri 18 Aug 2017 13:53
25:06.17S 65:32.04W

Franco was back in the UK and I had been accepted as a volunteer on a tourist ranch in Argentina.

Enrique, the owner of Sayta Cabalgatas, greeted me to his home with the customary kiss on the right cheek.

"You can stay longer than we agreed if you like," were the first words he said to me.


At that point I was considered staying forever, the thought of another 44 hour bus odyssey back to Valdivia ...

Taxis were arriving, ferrying tourists keen to go horse-riding, so Enrique briefly explained that my main role was to keep the guests entertained and to translate for him. We all sat down for breakfast, then the riders, kitted out with chaps, set off for the morning.

Ramona, the cook, had been AWOL since Thursday so I was recruited to the kitchen to help Luciana, who usually does the cleaning, and Andrés, Enrique's right hand man.

Lunch was a huge and delicious 'asado' (BBQ) expertly prepared by Andrés, and washed down with gallons of Enrique's wine.

Andrés preparing the asado

The story goes that it is church wine, made by the monks of a monastery 150km south of Cayafate. One day a friend of Enrique's came to visit and brought a bottle. Enrique at first wondered what kind of rubbish his friend was bringing him but when he tasted it, he liked it. Now he buys 7,000 litres per year. It is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Malbec with a fairly low alcohol content and makes a good table wine. Enrique always keeps the wine flowing and, much to my surprise, nobody ever seems the worse for it. I came to think of it as 'happy juice' as the guests always left delighted. What's more, it doesn't seem to cause a hangover.

Enrique suggested I join the ride in the afternoon. I was ecstatic. Walter, the younger gaucho (Argentinian cowboy) helped me onto the horse called Ileche. 

I chatted with Scott from South Africa and his German travel companion as our horses wandered down country lanes. Imperceptibly, my horse seemed to be limping. I dropped back and asked Sergio, the head gaucho, if he could watch my horse because I thought it might be lame.

"It's fine," he replied abruptly, only to call after me a few seconds later.

"Stop your horse ... what's wrong with you? Can't you stop your horse?"

Ignoring his rudeness, I pulled over and dismounted. I admired the ease with which he got my horse to lift its leg. A large pebble had lodged in the central groove of the frog (heel). Sergio knocked it out using a stone and Ileche and I went galloping after the other horses.

Chicoana is surrounded by mountains

Ramona returned the next day so Lucy went back to the cleaning and Andrés to tending the fire for the asado. I helped prepare the breakfasts and the salads for lunch. Ramona didn't talk much but we had a few good laughs.

My quarters were at one end of a long mobile home on wheels. Mario had the other end and we shared a bathroom in between. The first morning I thought I was experiencing an earthquake as everything was shaking, it was Mario getting up early to fetch the horses from the field. Although we never talked much, we got along just fine. Whenever we met, Mario would simply say "Katy" and I would answer "Mario”.

Kath and Mario

Apart from Ramona and Lucy, there were no other women. I found this puzzling, I had sent my application letter to Enrique and his wife Maria Teresa. The reply had come from a lady called Soledad. Where were these two ladies? Later I learnt that Maria Teresa was away in Europe and that Soledad is the company secretary based in Salta, the main town, an hour's drive away.

In addition to my tourist entertaining and assistant cook roles, I had picked up a few gardening jobs. This was a good way to stay out of Ramona's hair. (I know how it feels to have your kitchen invaded by another woman). The air was very dry and my regular watering of the strawberry plants had already yielded a few fruit and more were on the way.

On Wednesday a large group of twenty-somethings came for a morning ride and lunch. They were good fun and drank wine well into the afternoon. When they left, as all the work was done, I went for a short walk up the lane towards the village of Chicoana. I got back to find Walter sat on a horse with just a blanket, no saddle. 

"If only I could ride bareback ..." I thought.

"Is it difficult?" I asked.

"No, it's easy," answered Walter, with his easy smile.

Enrique saw me watching.

"Do you want to try?" he asked. "Ask Andrés to give you a horse."

I couldn't believe my luck. I went to look for Andrés who was leading a white horse by the halter. 

"You'll have to ask Sergio," he said.

My heart sank. Sergio was the head gaucho, aloof and cutting.

"Take the white one," he said simply.

Andrés helped me mount. I was trotting nicely at the front of the herd, Walter close behind me. Thirty-six horses followed us with Andrés and Sergio taking up the rear. All was going well. When we got to the entrance to the maize field where the horses would spend the night grazing, they broke into a canter. I wasn't sure I was quite ready for bareback speed and a strangled "Nooooo" escaped from my throat. Walter understood my predicament but it was too late for him to stop the excited horses. I clung to my mare's mane as we dashed through the field, corn stover catching my legs. I could just about control the direction with the halter but I couldn't slow her down. At the bottom of the field, I leaned forward and grabbed hold of her around the neck and she came to a stop. Andrés galloped over and we tied the white mare to a tree. On previous nights she had breached the fence and lead the other horses onto the road.

I asked Andrés where he had learnt to ride. Although he had grown up in Buenos Aires, his father had owned horses and he had learnt as a child.

As we walked back to Sayta, I thanked Sergio for letting me have a go. 

"That was the first time I ever rode bareback," I told him.

His eyebrows shot up and his eyes glinted. 

"You'll have another go soon," he promised. I had made an impression.

Corn stover harvested and bailed for animal feed

"Only one guest today, a gentleman from Taiwan." Enrique told me as I entered the kitchen.

As I ushered Peter, a handsome thirty-something Taiwanese towards the breakfast table, he announced:

"I'm looking for a wife, do you have a partner?"

Having got the awkward bit out of the way we sat down for coffee and a chat. I would be riding with him to keep him company and to translate for the gaucho.

As I was fitting Peter out with canvas chaps, Sergio sidled up.

"What are you doing? I've been waiting for you for two hours."

It was true that Peter was in no hurry to get riding, but if we were late, it was by ten minutes at the most.

"Sergio, Peter is a little scared," I explained, hoping for some compassion.

"Yeah, I'm frightened too," replied my difficult gaucho.

Peter is a secondary school geography teacher in Taiwan. His main hobby is ping pong but he is a little bored with it. He loves travelling and inspires his pupils with his tales of adventure. This trip to Argentina was to tick off Iguazu Falls, the seventh and last on his list of wonders of the world. Previous trips have taken him to the great wall of China, the Mayan pyramids, Macchu Pichu in Peru, Rio de Janeiro, the Taj Mahal and Petru in Jordan. 

He is intelligent and knowledgeable and he asked about BREXIT. He had a message for Teresa May:

"You are a crazy lady, nobody in Asia wants to deal with tiny UK but if you are going to get out of Europe, just do it."

Peter was not a natural born horseman and it was hard work getting him to even hold his reins. At the end of the day it didn't really matter, the essential was achieved: lots of good shots of him riding through the Salta countryside to show his students. 

Sergio left us to it, riding way ahead and then later, taking up the rear.

"Turn left after the irrigation channel sluice gate," Sergio told me. 

Left was over the metal grating across the ditch, the kind of obstacle that we tackled daily with Ciro's horses in Patagonia so, confidently, I rode my horse across. When Sergio caught up and saw me on the opposite side, his eyes twinkled, he was amused.

Back at the ranch I cornered him in the tack room.

"Sergio, some advice please. When I was in front and couldn't get my horse to speed up, what should I have done differently?"

"You should have caught a taxi instead," he joked. 

I was not amused.

Kath in the tack room

Enrique and I were getting on well. If guests were staying the night, we would cook the evening meal together. He is an excellent and efficient chef and working with him was always fun. Night time discussions would usually stray onto politics, a topic guaranteed to raise his blood pressure. I never met anyone in Salta with a kind word for Cristina Kirchner, the former president of Argentina, who has defrauded millions from the public purse and is standing for office in the October elections. If she is elected, she will become immune from prosecution. I was forever amazed by Enrique's in depth knowledge of European history and his ability to turn any conversation to sex. If most men think about sex every seven seconds, Enrique must be somewhere around the three seconds mark.

Daytime owls in a field of maize

It was Friday evening and all the tourists had gone. Sergio told me to grab a bridle and to join the men in the paddock.

"Rein up Ileche and take the horses to the maize field," he instructed.

With the bit, bareback riding was great fun. I had found my balance and my confidence. I rode to the bottom the field and watched the moon rising. 

"Could life ever get any better?" I meditated. 

I dismounted, removed the head gear and walked back to the gate where Andrés was waiting for me.

"What have you been doing? You should have dismounted at the gate," he said grumpily. "The gauchos were waiting for you, when they should have been heading home."

I bit my tongue. It is the South American way of teaching, nothing is ever said, you second guess or learn by making mistakes.

Back in the tack room, the gauchos were giggling, they didn't seem too upset.

"¿Que te pasó Katy?" (What happened to you?) Sergio teased.

"Nada me pasó," (Nothing happened to me) I replied, and walked out haughtily.

Sayta Ranch

The sweet little toilet block

The kitchen vegetable garden

The next day, we had no bookings. 

"So what happens?" I asked Enrique.

"We tidy up and do maintenance. The horses have been getting out so the men are going to repair the fence. Go with them. It isn't work but it will keep you entertained," he replied.

I reckoned I could still make myself useful, even if it was only holding the box of nails. I found Andrés and told him I was to go with him. He didn't seem too pleased at having a girl tagging along.

Mario, Andrés and Walter - looking very serious

We drove a couple of kilometres up the road to a corral where some of the horses had been penned. Sergio arrived on horseback. He handed me a blanket and bridle and told me to get into the corral and pick a horse.

The horses in the corral

"Choose Ileche," Andrés called out, sounding concerned.

Ileche didn't want to know but a pretty chestnut came over and presented its face to the bit I was holding. 

"Not that one," they all shouted, "it will have you off."

Ileche let me catch her at last. Walter and I galloped the horses back to Sayta and he seemed as pleased as I was.

For lunch we ate the delicious stew Ramona had prepared. Enrique mentioned that Sergio's brother was a famous tango dancer in Buenos Aires. Making polite conversation, I asked Sergio if he too could dance. (Without thinking I used the Spanish formal 'Usted', rarely used in Argentina).

"No. And Yourself?" (Using and stressing 'Usted'), came his cutting reply, as sharp as a guillotine.

Sergio may not know how to dance but when he rides, the horses certainly do.

Fencing was no longer on the cards so I offered to clean Enrique's extensive cacti collection, buried under dead leaves and dust. One pot had fallen behind the stand so I crawled under to retrieve it. As I turned to get out I brushed against the cactus hedge which released a thousand prickly hairs into my buttocks and thighs. When I told Ramona she shook with mirth. I tried to recruit help to extract the spines but nobody was willing.

Enrique's cacti collection

Later on, after a well needed shower, I stepped out of my room to make myself a cup of tea in the kitchen. A small voice in the dark asked:

"Please will you come with me to see the horses, I'm frightened of the dogs that are fighting in the night."

The small boy was Rafa and we instantly became great friends. He was convinced we had met before. His Spanish was very clear and he accepted that mine wasn't always perfect. His little brother Santi, however, wasn't so kind and every now and then would burst out laughing:

"She can't speak Spanish!”

Rafa, Kath, Gabi and Santi

Their Mum, Gabriela is a good friend of Enrique's and they were visiting for the week-end. Gabi and I prepared dinner together, listening to Pink Floyd. She asked where we had sailed to and when I mentioned The Falklands, she took a sharp intake of breath and giggled nervously. Nobody I met in Argentina ever asked me anything about these islands. Andrés was the only one who showed some interest, he had been 18 at the time the war broke out, doing his military service and narrowly escaped being deployed there.

On Sundays, the staff and horses have the day off so I decided to have a lie in ... until Rafa came knocking. Some of the horses had got out of the enclosure much to Rafa and Santi's concern, who kept chasing after them. We had a discussion about rounding up animals but they didn't really understand. Nonetheless they took my word for it, our manoeuvre worked and the horses returned to the homestead.

Enrique's two daughters and their families were coming for lunch so we needed to light the fire and prepare the asado. Enrique decided Rafa was old enough to learn and took him under his wing which left Santi to play with me. We went in search of the invisible white horse which had escaped to the mountains. We followed hoof prints and horse droppings across the fields. Our route involved crossing the irrigation channel a number of times. Santi is a very heavy five year old and I was beginning to tire. 

"Once more," he insisted.

The ditch was wider and deeper and the banks steeper. As I transferred Santi from one side to the other, instead of scrambling up, he fell back on top of me and we both ended up in the water. His shoes and trousers were wet and I was completely soaking. 

"I'm wet, I'm wet, my mummy is going to be furious," he whinged. 

"Will she really?" I enquired.

"No." Thoughtfully he added: "Enrique will sack you! We need to agree a story."

When we got back to Sayta, Enrique couldn't quite believe what he was seeing. 

"You crazy woman," he said.

Santi explained, straight faced, that we had gone looking for the white horse and when we caught up with it, we jumped on its back and it chucked us in the irrigation channel. Much to my surprise Enrique was prepared to believe him!

Enrique's family started arriving and lunch was a boisterous affair. Both his daughters are as strong willed and opinionated as he is. The word 'boludo' popped up in every sentence and I thought it must be somebody's name, maybe a friend of the family's, until I realised it means 'idiot' and can be used as a term of endearment.

Salta is located in the far north-west of Argentina, close to the border with Bolivia. It is in the Andean foothills, at an altitude of approximately 1,100 metres. The weather is warm and dry, with an annual rainfall of 756mm. The main crops are tobacco and maize, irrigated by mountain run-off. Salta was the southernmost region of the Inca empire until the Spanish conquest and the city retains a few stunning buildings from the Spanish era.

Tobacco plantation

The Franciscan church in Salta

On Monday morning, a family of four, David, Lin, Oscar and Juliette, arrived for a three day horse trek to the mountain. Their guide would be Sergio and I felt sorry for them, alone up there with Mr Aloof.

At lunchtime, Vera and Lina, from Austria, arrived. Vera had been attending a scientific conference in Brazil and Lina had flown out to join her for a holiday. They had intended to go for a walk in the afternoon but after Enrique wined and dined them for several hours, they opted for a stagger around the fields instead. In the morning they would ride up to the mountain where they would spend for next three days. Enrique and I cooked tea and we enjoyed a fun evening. Enrique strayed onto politics once more and was speaking his mind about Cristina Kirchner. I interpreted freely:

"As you can see, Enrique is an avid supporter."

"Oh no I'm not" the man protested.

"Irony, Enrique!" I explained.

He understood. Curiously the irony thing caught me out the following morning when, yet again, I turned the kitchen tap on while Enrique was showering. All the piping is connected so this means Enrique ends up without water.

When he came out of the shower he thanked me for the water. I thought he was being ironic. He wasn't. Luckily my mistake hadn't affected his shower.

Three additional tourists arrived and we set off on horseback towards the mountain. Walter, our gaucho, prefers to lead from the rear so he told me to go ahead. It was the first time I was leading a group and I was very aware that my horse was in slow mode. Half way, I cut a bamboo crop and its mere presence worked a treat as my horse revved up a couple of gears. 

Quebrada de Tilian - where Enrique’s mountain camp is located

Riding along the road

The mountain campsite

The Quebrada de Tilian is very pretty with thousands of parakeets and other birds. Oscar was waiting for us on the track. He told me about the lambs that had been born the night before that he and Juliette had cuddled.

Andrés had driven up earlier and prepared another of his fabulous asados. There is nothing quite like good food to bring people together and the group had gelled nicely.

From left to right: David (UK), Vera, Lina (Austria), Edo (Israel), Vince (Germany), Andrés, Lina (Ger), Juliette, Lina, Oscar (Singapore/UK)

Vera, Lina and the family rode off with Sergio and the rest returned to Sayta with Walter and me.


The next morning Enrique packed me off to the mountain again, with a different group. Walter let me go ahead again but this time I had a lively horse. There is always a trade off, each horse has its own character, likes and fears and this one didn't like motorbikes nor strange objects on the ground.

The small encampment in the mountain was a happy place and the newcomers were greeted warmly. Lina and Vera told me they had enjoyed a really fun evening with Sergio, which surprised me.

Lina and Vera

Jorge looks after the animal in the mountain, he was trying to catch this ewe

Horses in the mountain

Sergio's horse was injured so he would take mine and I would head back with Andrés after we had cleared up.

 I helped Andrés serve the food and went to sit down on a log but the whole thing capsized and I ended up ungracefully sprawled in the dirt.

"¿Que te pasó Katy?" Sergio's familiar taunt, with a twinkle in his eye.

After lunch, guests snoozed under trees and I took some more photos.

"Sergio, I took a nice photo of Walter yesterday, I would like one of you."

Wrapping an arm around my neck, he said "Like this?"

I shrugged him off and took some shots. 


David, Lin, Oscar and Juliette were heading back to Sayta with the day trippers, their holiday was nearly over and they would be returning to Singapore in a few days' time.

Oscar, Lin and Juliette

On the Thursday, no new tourists had booked, so I drove up to the mountain with Andrés to prepare the food for Vera and Lina.

They returned from their ride with Sergio just as we were putting the finishing touch. Sergio came over to me and handed me a bunch of wild flowers he had picked.

"Pour toi, mon amour," he said with a perfect French accent. 

Few men have ever given me flowers, and I cannot think of an occasion that has brought me as much joy. It was a peace offering and I beamed from ear to ear.

Over lunch Sergio was friendly and chatty and I nearly chocked on a lettuce leaf when he explained the reason he had been supercilious was because he had thought I was Enrique's new girl friend!

"In Sayta, you keep away from the boss's girl!" he explained.

I was glad we had cleared that one up.

Sergio with his horse

The hot sunny afternoon was a mellow affair, we tried Fernet (Argentinian liquor made from fermented herbs) with coke which reminded us of cough mixture and coca leaves which didn't taste of anything much.

The three riders set off back to town, and Andrés and I packed up camp. Sergio had forgotten his saddle bag with the water bottles. 

"What class of gaucho is Sergio that he forgets the water, and his clients die of thirst!" we joked.

Time was ticking by, too fast. The first week I spent getting to know people and the second felt like I was already saying goodbye.

The next day we had no clients so I went to Salta to buy my coach ticket home. Sat in the square listening to a guitarist, I reflected on what a fantastic experience it had been and on the contradiction that is Argentina; so proud and yet so dysfunctional, brash on the surface, but generous and caring underneath.

The guitarist playing in support of families seeking justice

Nobody was booked for Saturday either so Enrique suggested I prepare the staff lunch. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Enrique rejected my Glamorgan sausages proposal (the lads like their meat) so I chose a Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall recipe for burgers and fried pears.

Cooking meat in the country of the asado was a mistake. I made crusty buns but the 'live' yeast was moribund and the oven way too fierce so they burned, which Lucy found very funny. 

Lucy and Kath

Walter came into the kitchen at 1pm looking as hungry as a young wolf.

"Burgers? Great. But at what time? 4pm?" he said, eying the still raw mince meat.

It was raining lightly and cold outdoors. Sergio wandered in.

"Why didn't you make stew? We need food to warm us up today."

When there are no clients, lunch is always stew at Sayta.

The lunchtime discussion strayed onto the two parakeets that Enrique and Walter had shot a few days before. Enrique loves the many different birds that visit Sayta but a friend had asked him to supply some colourful feathers and he felt justified shooting a couple of the parakeets that fly over every day in their thousands and are considered a serious agricultural pest. Unfortunately he had injured one. When he refused to put it out of its pain, I had wrung its neck. When a bird dies, residual nerves make the wings flap but Enrique told me it was still alive so I pulled its head off just to be sure. I was being teased about this. Whatever I said resulted in everyone around the table sniggering. I learnt at my expense that practically every word in Argentinian is a double entendre. For example a parakeet is 'loro' in Spanish and also means 'ugly nagging woman'.

Happily, the Victoria sponge I baked for afternoon tea was a greater success and went down well.

On Sunday I invited Nala, the short stout golden Labrador to join me for a walk. She was impeccably behaved and good company. We wandered along dried river beds so as to avoid the vicious packs of dogs on every homestead. We met Gaucho Daniel who posed for us in his 'guarda montura'. A contraption that protects the rider's legs from the prickly vegetation and consists of a wooden frame across the front of the saddle to which leather 'wings' are attached. 

Gaucho Daniel with his guarda montura

The pre-hispanic culture is alive and kicking, this a native shrine to the Gauchito Antonio Gill

A dry river bed we wandered along, we climbed up to the bridge ...

… The bridge led to this green lane (with Nala the golden labrador)

I would be leaving Tuesday lunchtime and Enrique, generously, was keen for me to ride as much as possible. Louisa arrived Monday morning, an au pair in Buenos Aires, she has her own polo pony back in Europe. After lunch Sergio, Louisa and I set off at a brisk pace. Sergio's horse was a thoroughbred x Andalusian and Louisa and I were on two large white horses from the same mare; Odin and Toba. 

Kath on Toba

Toba was my favourite horse at Sayta, responsive, energetic, with a comfortable gait, he also did the fast pace called 'tranco' in Chile or 'sobre-paso' in Argentina.

We got to the gallop along the road and took off at top speed, jumping ditches, ducking branches and weaving around obstacles. Later we galloped across the playing fields and up the bank to the village. We slowed down on the lane back to Sayta, then Sergio turned up into one of the fields where beginners are encouraged to try cantering. Louisa wasn't paying attention, she was texting on her phone. Sergio looked back at us, he had that mischievous sparkle in his eye that I had come to recognise so I braced myself. He took off at the gallop around the fallow field followed by Toba, keen not to be outdone. Louisa's Odin came tearing after us and although she had been surprised, her superior riding skills paid off.

That night Enrique told me he had ordered a taxi to take me to the bus station so that I could ride once more in the morning. I gave him a big grateful hug.

We were joined by a friendly couple from Buenos Aires. Although they had ridden before, they lacked confidence. Sergio chose a long straight green lane for the gallop and Louisa and I raced each other up and down it. My horse was considerably faster on the leg that took it closer to home and a little less eager on the return run. 

Sadly it was time to leave. Andrés had prepared me a very delicious sandwich and decanted some wine into a plastic bottle to help me sleep on the bus.

A surprise awaited me at the bus station. Gabriella with her two sons Rafa and Santi had come to see me off. Seven year old Rafa carried my bag and begged me to come back soon and Santi told me:

"I will never forget you, ever," as he hugged me goodbye. 

The poor lad had had to sit quietly for two hours while his trainers dried, not surprising I was etched into his memory!

The Andesmar bus departed on time, but I wasn't destined to leave Salta just yet. We broke down just one hour into our journey.

(For a sense of 'deja-vu' read blog 'The bus to Bariloche' 20 April 2017)

The 18 hour ride to Mendoza turned into 23.5 hours and I made my connection with twenty minutes to spare. 

The next day I met up with Franco in Santiago de Chile and we travelled back to Valdivia together.