Hernán Uriburu

A tribute to the dean of Argentina’s pack trip outfitters.

Hernán Uriburu, Argentina’s first pack trip outfitter, whose approach to people, horses and his beloved province of Salta launched lifestyle tourism in the country, is no longer with us. One of the province’s best-loved native sons, Hernán thought that a backcountry pack trip should offer riders a cultural experience in addition to a series of impressive landscapes. His passing has deeply saddened those who were fortunate enough to take part in one of the many memorable rides he led into the mountains over a period of more than three decades, because those expeditions included contact with local families, and with his philosophy of life.

For Hernán, watching the landscape change from atop a horse that picked its way up and down mountain trails was the best way to “ruminate” (assimilate) it, and to slow down enough to enjoy living a rustic life for a few days. Indeed, one’s concepts of time – and priorities in life – inevitably changed during the course of one of his rides.

The first rule of the game was implacable: all your essentials had to fit into the saddlebags behind your saddle. There was room for just a few toiletry items (soap, towel, toothbrush, comb, toilet paper), a change of underwear, and clothing for dealing with heat, cold and rain, all of which could be experienced in a single day at certain times of the year. In the outdoors, nothing can be taken for granted.
As the hours and days passed, you learned the value of patience, prudence, caution, silence, the simple things in life, and respect for others. Riders had no need to fear, or be ashamed to ask for help when they needed it. And they soon understood and accepted the need to eat lightly to avoid altitude sickness while acclimating in places that presented the problem, and to use the same outer clothing throughout the ride.

Hernán lived in the city of Salta and took his clients on three different circuits in semi-arid and high-mountain areas in the province. On each circuit he used the horses of a local supplier (usually a small rancher), who accompanied the ride and took care of his animals. He said that local horses know the terrain, and what poisonous plants they are not supposed to eat.
Hernán took care of the riders. His preferred mount was a small mule, which apart from being sure-footed, was close enough to the ground to allow him to dismount and remount easily several times a day to solve any problem from a loose cinch to a lost hat. He did the cooking if the group was small. If there were more mouths to feed, he brought along a cook.
His clients included many a stressed businessman, systems analyst and diplomat, as well as a few journalists. During his first two decades in the business, most of them were foreigners. Later, groups included several Argentines.
In 1995, I signed up for his classic four-day mounted venture into the mountains behind the town of Guachipas, about halfway between the capital and Cafayate. I particularly remember focusing the camera on a perfect figure of a rhea at an impressive rock art site, chatting with a family of goatherds, and toiling up a trail to a mountain peak tall enough to offer close-up views of condors flying over the valley below.

We lived four days without electricity. On the first night we ate and slept beneath a storm lamp on the porch of a rudimentary ranch house. On the second and third nights we slept in tents, or under the stars. A sole kerosene lamp illuminated the family table at which we devoured noodles on night two, and on night three, food was prepared by flashlight and eaten around a campfire because the host (a curandero, or practitioner of popular medicine) had no lamp at all. Earlier on the third day, when we had tea in the curandero’s cookhouse, we learned that by sitting on a low stool, one escapes the smoke, which rises and goes out the door.

Hernán called this sort of experience “alternative tourism” – that is, “doing something different from what a consumer society proposes.”
He insisted that mountain people are not poor. “They pay grazing rights, they have their own animals, but they have no boss. They subsist with no money but they have a lot. They have freedom because they live there because they like it, not because it’s imposed on them. If not, the mountains would be uninhabited.”
After a ride in Hernán’s mountains, his clients returned to civilization and their everyday lives. But for more than one, something had changed.
Bonnie Tucker

PS: Hernán’s son Marcos, who accompanied his father on several pack trips with tourists, will continue organizing rides in the Salta backcountry. Information: (0387) 401-1200, or hru@arnet.com.ar.

PHOTO CREDITS: Hernán Uriburu. Bonnie Tucker. Riders in the hills behind Guachipas. Bonnie Tucker. Hernán with a local guide. Courtesy Lihué Expediciones. Thousand-year-old painting rock painting of a rhea. Bonnie Tucker. A goatherd milks one of his animals. Bonnie Tucker. The author with local hosts. Courtesy Lihué Expediciones. Hernán Uriburu with riders in the kitchen of a local family. Courtesy Lihué Expediciones.