Seeing Patagonia from the Saddle

With gauchos along for the ride, a horseback expedition in the rugged mountains of Argentine Patagonia provides just the sort of low-impact, off-grid adventure that we’re all craving right about now. And as Debbie Pappyn discovers, you don’t have to be an experienced equestrian to make the most of it.

Photographs by David De Vleeschauwer

Alberto Russo, Marito Zanoni, and two other gaucho guides in the Filo Hua Hum Valley near the Jakotango base camp.

My husband David and I were snuggled in sleeping bags on a still Patagonian night in the mountains of Argentina’s Lake District, recounting the afternoon’s vertiginous ride across the Paso de las Lágrimas, or Pass of Tears. In the darkness beyond the campfire, horses nickered softly. It was the third day of our seven-night adventure with Jakotango Riding Safaris, a local outfitter owned and run by one of the country’s top riding guides, Jakob von Plessen. Set in and around 12,000 hectares of private land bordering the Nahuel Huapi and Lanín national parks, the experience so far had been remarkable, a chance to ride native criollo horses in the company of modern-day gauchos while taking in the glories of this untamed wilderness at an easy pace.

That said, I’m not an experienced rider, and the hours of saddle time were catching up with me. My glutes ached. My legs felt like jelly. David was unsympathetic; he was sore too. But it was worth it. As the stars began to glitter through the forest canopy above us, I couldn’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be than this makeshift camp in the foothills of the Andes, reveling in the clean air, open spaces, and camaraderie of the trail.

*            *            *

I had first heard of Jakob from an Argentinian friend who had ridden with him the previous year. His descriptions were enthralling. The son of an Austrian family, Jakob was four years old when he moved to Argentina in 1984 with his mother and stepfather. He acquired his outdoor skills while growing up on the family farm near Mar del Plata, where he spent his free time with gauchos learning how to lasso cattle and break wild horses. After finishing high school, he headed to Kenya for his gap year and ended up staying more than a decade working as a guide for a horseback safari company. When he finally returned home to settle down with his future wife, Zaira, he brought the concept back with him, founding Jakotango Riding Safaris. It didn’t take me long to decide that spending a week riding with handsome gauchos and eating hearty Argentine food in the wilds of Patagonia was just what I needed.

The Jakotango base camp at dusk.

Left to right: the cozy interior of the base camp’s cabin; lounge time outside one of the safari tents.

Our adventure finally got underway when our plane from Buenos Aires touched down at San Carlos de Bariloche, a picturesque resort town on the shores of a crystalline glacial lake. Surrounded by Andean peaks and peppered with Swiss-style chalets, Bariloche has a charming Alpine feel to it, not to mention what is reputed to be the best chocolate in Argentina. In winter, the town is a magnet for skiers and snowboarders; in summer, people come to hike, fish for trout, hit the water, or, like us, ride horses.

The hub for Jakob’s riding expeditions is the Jakotango Base Camp, which comprises four safari-style tents and a communal timber cabin situated on a bend in a river at the base of a broad valley. From Bariloche, the two-hour drive north along the region’s only major road, National Route 40, brought us to Lake Falkner, where an awaiting speedboat zipped us across the water to a pebbled shore fringed by stands of southern beech trees. Jakob was there to greet us along with a couple of gaucho guides and our horses, saddled up and ready to ride. Mine was a calm brown mare named Chicholina, who snorted happily when I put my hand to her neck.

Jakob, with his beret set to a jaunty angle and a facón (dagger) tucked into his thick leather belt, looked every bit the gentleman gaucho: raw, rough, and incredibly refined at the same time. After a brief introduction to gaucho tack — the saddles are multilayered affairs topped with woolly sheepskin, with a high pommel — we set off at a leisurely amble.

Jakotango Safaris founder Jakob von Plessen surveying the Pass of Tears in Lanín National Park.

Descended from animals brought over by the conquistadors, criollos are known for their sure-footedness and stamina. They are also trained to be handled with just one hand on the reins, though I hardly needed to give Chicholina any directions. She was sure of her route across this mountain-rimmed valley, and I apparently was just along for the ride.

We finally trotted into the base camp, and it was the dreamiest Patagonian refuge I could have imagined. The main cabin had wood-burning stoves, a crackling fireplace, and the sort of rural-chic vibe you’d find in a stylish decor magazine, with antlers and colorful textiles adorning the rough timber walls. Leaving the horses to graze, we sat around the dining table on the veranda and got to know the rest of the group: gauchos Marito Zanoni and Alberto Russo; their fellow guide Daisy Soames, from England; and two British guests, Helen and Marie-Rosie.

After dinner and what seemed like an endless flow of ruby-red Argentinian Malbec (the name on the label, appropriately, was Salvaje, Spanish for “wild”), we retired gratefully to our tent, which had all the comforts of home: a cozy bed, heating, an en-suite bathroom. We fell asleep to the sounds of the river and awoke eight hours later entirely refreshed, ready for another day’s adventure around the valley.

*            *            *

Our goal on day three was to traverse the Pass of Tears, one of the most dramatic mountain crossings in the region. It was an overnight trek, so we stuffed our saddlebags with a change of clothes and other items that we’d need for our stay at a basic fly camp on the far side of the range.

Jakob built the trails we were riding today. “We are still discovering these mountains,” he said when we stopped to stretch our legs and rest the horses. “There are these secret places among the peaks, like little treasures that we come across on rides. That’s part of the magic of Patagonia; it makes you feel like a pioneer even in the 21st century.”

The horses carried us up, up past the tree line and into a moonscape of steep scree-strewn slopes where nothing but a few hardy shrubs grew. We climbed to a lofty volcanic ridgeline studded with rocky protrusions. The shaley ground was as loose as sand. Nervously, I tightened my grip on the saddle, but Jakob was quick to reassure me that our mounts were born to handle this terrain. “Just sit back and let her do her thing,” he advised. Chicholina never missed a step.

Traversing the Pass of Tears.

Left to right: Jakob von Plessen; coffee and a pot of stew on the grill at a fly camp in the mountains.

The wind plucked at our ponchos as we made our way single file across the pass, sheer drops leering on either side of our path. But after fighting back a wave of vertigo, I was able to focus on the grandeur of the vistas, which stretched across the Andes and into Chile. Far below us to the southwest, Lake Falkner glistened in the hazy light. It was thrilling to be so elevated and exposed; wiping my eyes, I understood now how the Pass of Tears had earned its name. “Drink up,” Daisy said as she handed me a small flask of whisky. “You’ve earned it.”

We spent another couple of days exploring the meadows and forested foothills around the base camp, occasionally fording streams or breaking into gallop where the terrain allowed. Deeper in the woods, our criollos zigzagged through veritable cathedrals of giant conifers, their trunks shaggy with green moss. Siestas were a must, for the horses and riders alike. There is no better sleep than the one that follows a morning’s ride and a good lunch, with a sheepskin for a pillow and an icy swim to wake you up afterward.

In the evenings, the base camp awaited with huge steaks of local beef cooked to perfection on a parrilla grill above a fire pit. Gathered around flickering candlelight inside the cabin, the Malbec flowing like the river outside the door, we shared stories and experiences. Jakob told us that his parents envisioned a more “urban” future for him, but that he followed his heart into the Patagonian wilderness. He said his passion for the region goes back to when he was 12 and his stepfather first brought him here on a hunting trip. And he remembers one old gaucho who used to live alone in a secluded wooden cabin like a hermit, with only his horse for company. “It was a humble life, but he was content. I found a lot of inspiration in that.”

Riders fording a river.

Left to right: Lunch on the veranda of the base camp’s cabin; reshoeing a horse.

Left to right: Gaucho saddles consist of layers of sheepskin, leather, and wool blankets; guide Alberto Russo on cooking duty at a fly camp.

The next day we packed our bags and bade farewell to the base camp; tonight would be spent at a second fly camp in the mountains to the south. The route took us across another breathtaking pass, but this time the elements were against us. The temperature plummeted and sharp gusts of wind drove us deeper into our woolen ponchos. We urged the horses along to reach the shelter of the distant woods.

Even in the late summer, the weather in Patagonia is fickle: warm and clear one day, overcast and chilly the next. Which suits Jakob just fine. “Freezing winds or scorching sunshine, I’m content just knowing that I am in the right place and that I don’t want to be anywhere else. It makes me feel at peace with myself,” he said.

After a breakfast of skillet-cooked eggs and bacon whipped up by Alberto, we climbed back in our saddles for the final ride of the trip. The four-hour descent brought us to the estancia of Felipe Chandia, a third-generation rancher and the closest thing that Jakob has to a neighbor in these parts. His homestead, with its weathered corrals and barns, lies close to the shores of Lake Traful, which we’d cross tomorrow on the first leg of our journey home. But for now, we had Felipe’s hospitality to enjoy, as well as a barbecue feast that he cooked with his sweet wife Marta.

The wine came out again and we toasted our adventures in an ancient barn that Felipe had converted into a dining room. Outside, the Patagonian night sky was as big and bright as ever, and it occurred to me with a start that this might be the last time I laid eyes on it.

I wished we could just keep riding.

Left to right: A criollo close-up; Alberto Russo sipping mate, a traditional tealike beverage made from the yerba leaf.

Overlooking Lake Falkner from the Pass of Tears.

Seven-night excursions with Jakotango Riding Safaris start from about US$765 per day per person, including lodging, food, drinks, guides, and transfers to and from San Carlos de Bariloche. The riding season runs from late November to early March, during the Argentine summer.


This article originally appeared in the September/November 2021 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“High in the Saddle”).

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