Aconquija adventure

Three days to remember

Bonnie Tucker / FST
I am a trail ride freak. I like to just get on a horse and head for any place in the mountains that is far from cities. The objective is not so much the destination, but the voyage on horseback itself. With the animal’s first step in the direction of high places with sweeping views, I already feel better.
Sleeping in a tent is not my thing, but since it is part of most trail ride experiences in isolated areas, I accept without complaint as long as riding a horse is involved. So imagine my delight last November when Cabra Horco Expediciones invited me on a ride in the Aconquija mountains between San Miguel de Tucumán and Tafí del Valle, during which nights would be spent in a family home and the upscale inn of the Las Queñuas nature reserve deep in nature’s embrace.
The ride outfitter, Nicolás Paz Posse, had been warmly recommended by a travel agent friend who is very demanding with regard to horses, gear, safety, routes and service in general, so it wasn’t hard to convince me. He had even won Lugares magazine’s 2008 best adventure outfitter’s award.
Nicolás and the young men who work with him on his rides spent their high school vacations exploring those very same areas for the fun of it and enjoy sharing their experiences with riders.
Most of them are university graduates in fields such as law and business administration, but the call of the mountains is so strong that they have found ways to play both roles by spelling each other on rides. Foreign tourists don’t realize to what extent the family names of some of them are related to Argentina’s early history, and they do not volunteer information. They, and the mountain families whose homes they have equipped with proper bathrooms and sleeping quarters for visitors, act as the hosts of the riders who book pack trips from April to December.
Most of their horses are small but very sturdy and sure-footed “caballos cerreños” (mountain horses). There are also some handsome Anglo-Arabs.
Nicolás picked up the group at the airport of San Miguel de Tucumán and gave us time to offload our bags at a nice downtown hotel before taking us to dinner at a restaurant in the 9 de Julio Park. He was joined there by a tall, blond guide who would be accompanying the group, whom he introduced as “Marco.” Not a Spanish “Marcos,” but an Italian or Roman “Marco.” The full names of Marco, and those of all Cabra Horco personnel, were in the program e-mailed beforehand to each participant, but I had left it at home.
The next morning we riders were driven to a roadside farm house near Siambón, where we put the saddlebags with our belongings behind the saddles of the horses assigned to us, mounted and headed into the mountains. We were accompanied by Roberto Martínez Zavalía, owner of the new Las Queñuas inn where we would be spending the second night.
First we rode up the broad bed of the Río Grande, which at that time of the year was almost dry. It was strewn with enormous boulders left by different summer flash floods (for which reason Nicolás does not offer rides in the summer). Then we passed through a small cloud forest area and continued up through a sparser alder forest and a brushy area before finally arriving at a grassy mountain top. There we made sandwiches with fresh bread and cold cuts on a tablecloth spread out on the grass.
The distances between ranch outposts along this and other Cabra Horco routes are short, but the going is slow owing to the terrain, which comprises a series of mountain chains separated by narrow valleys, many of which harbor rivers that must be forded. As the horse, and you astride it, toil up a winding trail on one side of a mountain and gingerly make your way down the other side, which seems even steeper than the first, you have time to observe how the vegetation changes with the elevation and orientation of the ranges.
We saw particularly impressive vegetational contrasts in east-west-trending canyons, where chaco-type bushes typical of semi-arid climates cling to the side blasted by winds from the desert area to the north, and rainforest-type trees and undergrowth luxuriate, complete with ferns and mosses, on the other side in the humidity provided by the pampean winds from the south.

But more impressive still was the way that local people live and interact in remote outposts. There are no roads, just trails, a few rudimentary landing strips and clearings where a helicopter can land. They ride down to town to buy provisions once a month, river levels permitting. The nearest neighbor may be several kilometers away, but if one of them falls ill or is injured, they join forces to get him to the nearest house with a cell phone or radio and a big enough clearing to accommodate the province’s hospital helicopter. On the second morning of our ride, we awoke in the modest home where we had spent the night to find that ten people had brought a boy who had had convulsions out in the bush. They had traveled for six hours on foot and horseback on mountain trails in the darkness to get there, and were still waiting for the helicopter when we left.
It was Marco, a recently graduated lawyer, who did all the work on the ride, leading the pack horse and tightening cinches along the way, serving the picnic lunch and cutting bread for tea on the first day, always with a smile.
Late in the morning of the second day we posed beside an engraved stone menhir that was set on a high mountain meadow facing a beautiful mountain range by people of an indigenous culture that flourished in the area 2,000 years ago.

It was one of the few menhirs that had escaped the collection and concentration atop a hill near Tafí del Valle ordered by the military governor during the 1970s. Later on, we rode across a ridge that harbors the remains of stone constructions that were possibly lookout points built by the same pre-Inca culture.

Las Queñuas is a private nature reserve located on what was once an enormous ranch. When Martínez Zavalía, a rancher and former provincial tourism official, bought the land, he gave outpost families deeds to their homes. It took him three years to get the inn built and bring in the furniture, and even mirrors, on pack mules.

Yet the property’s cozy, tasteful décor has nothing to envy of country hotels nearer town. The guest rooms with their private bathrooms are large and fully equipped, as are the dining room and living room. There are easy chairs on the porch. The midday meal of the second day – pasta with two sauce options – showed that the cook had gone to a cooking school in Buenos Aires.

As it was a warm day, lunch was served on the patio in front of the inn. It faces an uneven ridge that serves as a landing strip for daring bush pilots. They land headed uphill and take off downhill.
The heat brought a shower. Shortly thereafter, Nicolás arrived with his fiancée. The men went out to continue exploring the surroundings on horseback even though more rain seemed to be in the cards, and the women had tea in front of the fireplace in the inn.

When we were about to descend a particularly steep mountain slope to our lunch stop on the third day, there was a bit of action. Marco got off his horse – a tall, handsome but bloody-minded young Anglo-Arab sorrel palomino – to tighten the cinches of the tourists’ horses. While he was doing that, his mount got loose from the bush where he had left it tied and, calculating the distance, began to inch its way toward freedom. Warned of the impending escape, Marco attempted to dissuade the animal with slow movements and kind words, which were ignored. And it took off at a trot, and then at a gallop down the trail, with him in hot pursuit. He finally caught it in the river 500 meters below because it got tangled up in the reins. During the pursuit a boot sole came loose, and when he washed his feet in the river before lunch, the wounds left by the nails became evident. “It’s nothing serious,” he said as he slipped on some alpargata cloth slippers.

During our last lunch in the mountains, eaten seated beneath the grape arbor of an outpost beside the river, we gorged on delicious fried empanada turnovers and different salads. This place is quiet because the river and difficult trails put it out of reach of motor bikes.
When we got to the top of the Cuesta de Raco, the mountain above the town of the same name, we were returned to reality by the revving of enduro motorcycles that ascend and descend for the fun of it the trail that outpost residents use to buy provisions. The deep ruts left in the dirt trail by the wheels of these infernal machines of the local jeunesse doré were just one more example of the damage done to many of the country’s natural environments, and the enjoyment of them, by this sport, which should be practiced only in stadiums or closed tracks.
The excursion ended with tea served at Nicolás’ family’s home in Raco.
When I returned to Buenos Aires I looked at the ride program and saw that Marco’s family name is Avellaneda. The same as that of a local grandee whose life and death are legendary in Tucumán. A phone call to Nicolás confirmed that our guide is a descendant of Marco Avellaneda (1813-1841), a fiery, idealistic young journalist and governor of Tucumán who made history by dying for his ideals. That Marco led an unsuccessful uprising of the northern provinces against Buenos Aires dictator Juan Manuel de Rosas and was beheaded for his efforts. His head was impaled on a pike driven into the ground in the main square of San Miguel de Tucumán as an example to the citizenry of what not to do. One night, a brave society lady removed the head from the pike, left the square with it hidden beneath her shawl, and returned it to his family for burial. It lies at rest in his mausoleum in the Recoleta cemetery in Buenos Aires, not too far from the tomb of Rosas. That Marco’s son Nicolás (1837-1885) was president of Argentina from 1874 to 1880.
In Buenos Aires, the travel agency that organizes groups for Cabra Horco rides in the Aconquija can be contacted at 5031-0070.

FOTO CRÉDITOS: Mountaintops, and cloud forest trail, Rafael Smart. Crossing the bed of the Río Grande, Rafael Smart. An outpost owner with her goats, Rafael Smart. Marco Avellaneda, Bonnie Tucker. A rider looking at the menhir, Francisco Didio. Roberto and Marco look over a pre-Hispanic site, Rafael Smart. Living-dining room of the Las Queñuas inn, Bonnie Tucker. Lunch in front of the landing strip in Las Queñuas, Bonnie Tucker. A ride on a rainy afternoon, Rafael Smart. The table set for lunch on the third day, Bonnie Tucker. An old portrait of Marco Avellaneda (1813-1841).