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The Southern Glaciers Adventure – a trip to a wild frontier

Updated: May 29

glaciers on horse

“Every household needs a gaucho,” one of our group remarked as the charismatic Juan lived up to the gaucho’s reputation as an Argentinean hero by deftly opening a bottle of Malbec despite there being no corkscrew.

We were on our first full day of riding on the Ride Andes Southern Glaciers Expedition, and our lunchtime stop at a remote puesto (or gaucho outpost) had been a surprise in itself as a corrugated iron and wooden building appeared out of nowhere in the midst of the wilderness within the Los Glaciares National Park in Patagonia.

While Juan and Sally prepared an asado, cooking steak and onions on the parilla, we sipped Malbec and reflected on the morning we’d just had.

Earlier that day, there was a particular moment when we were riding along when the other-worldliness of the scenery really hit home. It was when we noticed the bow of a rainbow hanging above the lake and against the backdrop of dark mountain silhouettes, and saw the bluey white of a hanging glacier wedged between the folds of the mountains.

Of course, we’d been expecting to see glaciers during our trip but nothing prepares you for the awe that seems to grow as you spy them, while your Criollo horse quietly gets on with the job of carrying you across the vastness of such an untamed landscape.

It’s not that there is no traffic here – there are a handful of gauchos herding Hereford cattle and horses running free – but for the days we were riding we didn’t see one single tarmac road or any motorised transport.

Instead, we had majestic condors swirling overhead and the noisy chattering caracaras for company as we followed Juan and Sally up through native forest with trees drenched in lichen; over open grassy plains where long stretches of cantering were possible; and alongside the huge stretch of water that becomes Lago Argentino, Argentina’s largest lake.

Each day we learnt more about the gaucho culture which is so tightly woven into the landscape.  Clad in their bombacha trousers, woollen ponchos and berets called boina, Juan and fellow gaucho Tibo (both stars of the Patagonian episode of BBC One’s Wilderness series) talked with pride about the horsemanship, the cattle handling skills that are passed down generations and what life was like for the early pioneers.

We helped round-up stray cattle, tried learning to lasso, watched the barrel racing and, of course, drank mate like every good gaucho should.

There were some long days in the saddle but never once did we want any of the rides to end sooner than they did.

There was time enough to relax in front of the open fire or over dinner once we were back at our estancia, a century-old farmhouse originally built by some of the pioneers, which still retained all the character of those early days while introducing plenty of modern luxuries (hot water, comfy sofas and beds, good food and of course more Malbec, but, hurrah, no TV).

It was a wrench to leave the estancia and the horses, and pull yourself back into the modern world. But to stay would have meant missing out on more highlights – another day’s riding out from El Calafate seeing guanacos and rheas; and a boat trip out to the Glacier Perito Moreno, a stunningly beautiful expanse of ice that is humbling to stand in front of. Plus the last day spent soaking up the historic atmosphere of St Telmo in Buenos Aires, enjoying a tango show and staying in the superb art hotel Cassa Lepage.

All-in-all a perfect trip that packed in so much variety while giving us a real sense of gaucho life!

 Glacier Perito Moreno boat trip

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