His horse dipped down as far as its shoulders and splashed across, and our guide, in an impressive feat of balance, lifted his own legs high to keep his feet dry.
Near San Carlos de Bariloche, the central town of the temperate Argentine Lakes District, the Andean foothills slowly fade into vast stretches of scrubby grass, land once frequented by free-spirited gauchos, and still used for grazing cattle and sheep.
After sipping dark coffee and eating a traditional breakfast of sweet, buttery croissants called medialunas, my husband and I headed out for a day of riding on a nearby estancia with Carol Jones, a thin woman with a wide smile descended from a Texan immigrant. Carol, who has been leading riding trips in the area since 1985, picked us up at our hostale and in barely-accented English told us how her family had lived on the estancia for generations, breeding cattle and sheep for steak and wool.
The estancia, not the glitzy ranch that I was expecting, was a simple wooden barn holding rows of bridles and wide saddles covered with sheepskin. The air inside smelled pleasantly like leather and horse. My mount for the day was a sturdy brown criollo, the Argentine national horse breed, which stood quietly as Carol inspected her guides' work in saddling the horse for the ride. With endurance to rival famed Arabians, criollos are well suited to the sometimes scarce grazing options of the area.
Gauchos live rough and tumble in the folklore of Argentina, working for vast estancias herding cattle, but retaining their independence and ignoring the law where it suited them. Carol left us in the hands of two guides, not the gauchos that I had romantically imagined but two local university students who took out tourists for extra cash. They helped us up on our horses then rode ahead, leaving my husband and I to enjoy our ride together.
A blanket of green and yellow grasslands stretched out in one direction, and the peaks of the Andes towered over rolling foothills in the other. We meandered under broken clouds past small herds of cattle and clusters of beech trees. With no trail to follow, we trotted across fields of scrubby grass and splashed through streams. One guide galloped ahead, and from our position on the top of a rise, we watched as he herded a small group of horses from one fenced field to the next.
At lunch, our horses grazed nearby while our guides stoked a fire and heated up empanadas, deliciously greasy pockets of cheese and beef wrapped in dough, in a cast-iron skillet. One guide kept a façon, a gaucho knife, in a sheath tucked into the small of his back, which he whipped out to split kindling.
A stop is not complete without maté, the Argentine national drink. Brilliant green leaves are steeped in an elaborately decorated gourd and sipped through a bombilla, a silver straw. Drinking maté — even sitting in the dirt with horses — is highly ceremonial. One gourd is passed around the group in turns. Once you say thank you, the maté server assumes you are done for the day. Along with vitamins, minerals, and a healthy dose of caffeine, the maté ritual helped to transition the day from a tourist experience to something deeper, something that would not be forgotten.
Later in the afternoon, with shadows cast long across our path, my husband's horse abruptly shied sideways, his nostrils blowing heavily. Directly ahead, on the ground to the side of the trail, lay the remains of a small horse. Only skin and bones remained. He managed to get his horse back under control, and asked one of our guides about the remains. He was told that there had been puma sightings a few months ago and that a foal had gone missing. Tentatively, I urged my horse forward. He held his head high, as though still looking for the puma.
We returned to the barn and were driven once again by Carol back to the bustle of Bariloche. The day of riding had offered not only an intersection of culture, food, and geography, but also a taste of the freedom that gauchos might once have experienced. As Jose Hernandez wrote in El Gaucho Martin Fierro, the great 19th-century epic poem, "I am the best of my own at home / And better than best afar."
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