Few relationships in human history are as romantic as that of a lone human soul (most often male) with their horse. Man (mostly), hat, rifle, panniers, tobacco, danger, possibilities, freedom. Riding in the blazing sun, riding in the setting sun, riding under moonlight. Riding towards a destination. Riding away from danger. Riding away from the future and towards the past. A caballo vamos pa’ el monte urges Cuba’s long tradition of folk artists in this classic of la musica guajira . . .
No, that’s not the right starting place for this tale.
Let’s try this:
Throughout history humans have evolved in a way not at all representing a straight line – in fact, it is more of a circle. It includes steep ascent, steep drops, and long, level plateaus, often returning, along another steep drop, back to where they started. Harnessing our relationship to the horse, however, represented a steep ascent. This relationship was unique in that it forever gave new views of the landscape and of where human potential potentially lies.
We found the horse.
The horse found us.
We climbed together through rocky Spanish country-sides, traversed Mongolian steppes, pranced through various version of civilization, galloped across massive distances, often in armies, sometimes with wheels, with buggies, with chariots, through increasingly deadly battlefields. We migrated across entire continents. We crossed oceans.
Horses carried us in all of our human ambitions all the way to our discovery of oil and the next great technological revolution, at which time we ditched them for a combustible, filthy prehistoric carbon goop.
Let’s call this an abbreviated equine history of Eurasia and New-world America.
Horses are at least as romantically embedded in Patagonian myth as they are in the Western United States’. Indeed, the famous cowboy thieves Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid’s story would not be complete without a stint in Patagonia – their main hideout being a short trot south from El Bolson in the town of Cholila, in the estepa patagonica.
So it was with all of this romance and history, stuffed with John Wayne’s chaps and Marlboro’s ashes bearing heavily on our imagination that we headed up the Rio Azul just west of El Bolson, Argentina on horseback with a team of imaginative parents and three innocent children. The plan – head to the relatively remote Refugio Retamal, using horses as a bit of a slingshot, getting us a good ways up the trail before putting our legs back under us and hiking. And maybe give our 4 and 6 year old children a good Patagonian gauch@ adventure while we’re at it. Indeed, hiking to Retamal is further than any of our children had previously hiked, at a healthy 12.5 kilometers one-way.
Now, I have never quite understood the romantic vision of HuMan with horse. I actually just don’t understand how Butch Cassidy, Brad Pitt (in Legends of the Fall, of course) or any number of Louis l‘Amour or Cormac Macarthy characters deal with the discomfort. Horseback riding, in fact, is anything but romantic. It is logistically and practically advantageous, but physically and emotionally exhausting.
So, as soon as we met our horse wranglers, any dream of a romantic Patagonian horseback riding was bucked off the saddle. I have spent enough time on the back of a horse to know to be cautious, but not quite enough to know how to be competent. We showed up at un-named Cabalgata operator (for not wanting to be slanderous) on time and as scheduled, but the wranglers were immediately scratching their heads. There were three children. And backpacks. And they had an additional group waiting for them 1 kilometer away. No time for worries, or safety – Jacobo, our chosen wrangler started to evaluate his situation – parents, children, backpacks, and finite steeds. His evaluation seemed swift, and more based in resentment than calculation. He immediately set to the task of putting human(s) on horses, not to be troubled with such details as assessing rider experience or briefing the activity in any way at all. He must have been making calculations, at least on a deep, subconscious, heuristic level, but Jacobo gave no sign of prolonged contemplation. My 190 pound self, an additional 45-pound backpack and a 40 pound boy (Mason) were left to mount on Willow – a hearty steed, but still wildly overburdened. Other arrangements were made on other horses – Eva and Celia on Huracán and Brett and Sequoia on Camello. We mounted and they told us to go to the road and head towards the canyon. That was it. No telling us how to go about encouraging Willow to do so. Just out to the road, turn left towards the Cajon del Azul.
It was time to ride out, y’all. Shoot first, aim later. Dale!
So we jerked, jotted, and swaggered our way along the dusty trail. Mason sat in front of me. I kept my backpack upright and apologized to Willow. It was uncomfortable. It was unromantic. Mason stated that his legs hurt. I empathized. Willow tried to trot. We asked him to stop. We pulled his reigns. He stopped. Jacobo handed Eva a switch to use on Huracán. She did not use it.
We crossed the iconic hamlet of Wharton, down the inappropriately steep and tumbling dirt ramp-road-trail to the confluencia of the Rios Blanco and Azul, horses limping their way across the river’s current, into the coihue forest, up the steep climb to the first mirador, and into the Rio Azul valley proper.
The Rio Azul is the beating heart of the Comarca Andina’s refugio system. In this valley and its minor upper tributaries we find at least 8 refugios, not to mention the others that connect via passes and other trails. Retamal is the last of the 4 that are mostly built around the famous Cajon del Azul, a wild stretch of the river where glacier-blue water slices through granite canyon walls which pinch to less than a meter wide at their most slender, separating Cerros Dedo Gordo from Hielo Azul.
La Playita is the first of the Rio Azul refugios, and where our cabalgata slingshot placed us. From here each human only had two feet and no hooves. The horses lifted us across the steep descent to the confluencia and then steep ascent to the Rio Azul Valley, where the trail mellowed – thus was the plan. The plan actually worked too, and from the horse-drop at La Playita we had an additional 6 kilometers to walk to Retamal. After shaking off the saddle, dipping in the river, and lunching on cheese, avocado, and salami, we headed further up the valley.
The trail from La Playita is marvelous. It rolls swiftly and flatly across the landscape, nestled as it is between the Hielo Azul and Dedo Gordo peaks. It is exceedingly gentle for such a dramatic landscape, with steep walls and thick forests rising on both sides. But the Rio Azul meanders along the nadir between these peaks, and the trail gurgles along its shore, crossing bridges when necessary. Around 4 kilometers from La Playita we find the Cajon del Azul and it’s nearby refugio. This is the most popular hike and lodging in the range, and is built around the improbable Cajon del Azul – a narrow slit in the Rio Azul’s path with it carved through granite walls no more than a meter wide at its narrowest. An astonishing aspect of this canyon is that even as the mild-mannered river cuts through granite, the current is mostly placid. Perhaps this alludes to the violence that it may unleash in a storm, for how else could water cut through such a concrete mix of minerals? Beyond the Cajon del Azul, Retamal climbs another 4 kilometers, placing you below the jagged summit of Dedo Gordo.
Retamal is a classy refugio indeed. Sprinklers water green grass, lianas climb over the intricately carved wooden exterior, and rustic woolen mats sit on the wooden tables and chairs of the interior. Hot water for mate is offered freely, and most folks spend days lounging in beneath the mountain splendor or wandering the nearby garden of painted rocks and fairy forests. Our days were spent similarly.
As with human history, the horse got us started.