“Meet Diablo,” Enrique boomed as he approached, leading a moody-looking black stallion by the reins. Great, I thought, first time on a horse and it’s the devil. Enrique noted my concern, but made only a half-hearted effort to dispel my worries. “Just keep him away from Tono’s horse, they fight.” As I made a tentative attempt to make friends with my mount by patting its nose, Diablo snorted and fixed me with a menacing stare.
Mounting a horse for the first time is tricky, but once I was in the saddle and had got used to the height, some of my initial apprehension faded. This was partly because I found myself carried away by the bravado of Tono. Our quiet co-guide with the broad grin was a working gaucho and had the easy manner and charm of a man completely at home on horseback.
Enrique was equally proficient, and he too looked the part with his wide-brimmed hat and bushy moustache. He and Tono differed in that our exuberant guide hadn’t always been a gaucho. Enrique was an ex-oil engineer who’d worked for George W. Bush in Texas as a younger man, before returning to his Patagonian roots.
Despite the fact that we were only to spend two days there, Enrique insisted that we learn how to act the part of the noble gaucho. He and Tono had no intention of a clip-clopping around tobacco and chili fields, along paths and through sleepy villages. If we rode with gauchos, we would ride the gaucho way.
Machismo, we were told, is the heart of the gaucho life. This blend of chivalry, confidence and chauvinism dictates how a gaucho conducts himself. With measured gravity, Enrique laid down the rules: The rein is held in one hand only; the other is supposed to be free to swing a lasso, although in many cases it rests on the top of the thigh. The gaucho pose, chin up, back straight, chest puffed out and hand on thigh, is topped off with a sombrero and a poncho. I had a floppy canvas hat, but no poncho. Fortunately it was a hot day.
Riding is uncomfortable for the first-timer, clenching your legs around your horse’s bulk to maintain a vertical position in the saddle and twisting your ankles so your feet remain the stirrups. Mercifully, our first ride lasted less than two hours and ended back at the estancia, with us waddling bowlegged to our seats for an asado—a huge barbeque of chorizo, chicken and beef.
Lunch with gauchos is a pretty raucous affair. Enrique’s young wife Jemina brought bottle after bottle of red wine, and constantly replenished any half-full glass. When double vision set in, I concluded that riding must surely be out for the rest of the day. I figured we’d sleep off our banquet, maybe explore the estancia, and with luck recover in time for a full day’s ride tomorrow. I was wrong. As the last drop of wine dripped from the final standing bottle, Enrique rose to his feet and ordered us to prepare for a long ride.
The purpose of getting us sloshed was made clear a couple of miles down a eucalyptus tree-lined bridleway. Enrique explained that we had been tense in the morning, and that the horses had picked up on our nerves. We had to relax, especially if we were to gallop. Even through the haze of sunshine and wine I reckoned that galloping drunk was not a good idea. I was overruled.
Fortunately, no one fell off their steed, and, having completed a mad dash along the bridleway, we settled into a steady trot. Early on, our progress was broken by the odd crafty attempt on the part of my partner Sarah’s horse, Bueno Mosa, to chomp its way through any edible greenery at the side of the route, but eventually Sarah pulled rank and Bueno Mosa gave up.
As we traveled towards dusk, I asked Enrique to explain the significance of the small shrines that were daubed in red paint and ribbons and dotted around the countryside. I suspected that they were in honor of a saint, but Enrique informed us that these are a nod to Gaucho Gil, an infamous Robin Hood<
| Travel notes|
||All prices are in US$. No visa is required to visit Argentina for up to a 90-day period. The best time to travel is between November and May.
Flights go from Buenos Aires to Salta daily. The town center is a $5 taxi ride away. Salta is a small city. Taxis are readily available from hotel lobbies and numerous stands.
Where To Stay
Estancia Sayta, Chicoana, Salta
Tel: 054 387 156836565
$100 per couple including food, wine, accommodation, transport to and from the estancia and horse riding
Finca Quisto, east of Salta
Tel: +054 424 3607
$100 per couple, inclusive
Where To Eat
El Corredor de las Empanadas, Caseros 117, Tasty local dishes at very reasonable prices.
Gauchos de Guemes, Uruguay 750
Food and local music blend in a more exclusive eatery.
MORE INFORMATION: www.argentinaturistica.com