A gringo amongst the gauchos . . .
A gringo amongst the gauchos . . .
Sometimes maps get me into trouble. Standing in the “office” at Gualfin a few years ago and viewing a map of the Estancia I wondered what was to the west; how far did it really go, and; what did it look like there? Not exactly a Google rendering, the 1909 drawing was vague on many details and had few names attached, but enough to get a feel. No one at Gualfin could really tell me. But it was seductive.
Fast forward past many hours staring at the detail on FatMap and Google I sent a proposed route to a Salta based guide and asked – what do you think? And how about throwing in a shot at 19,397 Volcano Galan, also part of the old Gualfin map? A few months later Pichi said – “Sure. Pablo (referenced here – URL of story) and Nicco will meet us at Los Patos and show us the way to Gualfin.” Well that worked for me since I knew both the gauchos from a five-day cabalgata (horseback trip) last October. If I was to screw up in the mountains they would be the ones to get me out of trouble.
And so, last week it began. The first camp was set at around 15,000 feet in Argentina’s La Puna near a hot spring fed by underground volcanic activity (reminder, Mt Whitney – tallest in the lower 48 stands 14,505). Outside of this little steam and a few dead-end lakes filled with flamingos La Puna is as much of a moonscape as can be imagined, punctuated by extremely tall volcanic peaks.
In the early morning we jumped into the truck and headed to the trailhead. Starting at around 16,000 and 45 below Celsius we shuffled upward. In a little chat before we departed my guide Pichi reminded me that there was no possible emergency extraction from our location. No helicopter will come. If there is any question about high altitude issues it must be communicated immediately.
The sun rose and the temperature first became bearable, then wonderful. The mountain ridge stretched out before us. Progress at this level is slow. Around 17,700 feet I began to feel a headache, which turned into dizziness. A quick chat and it was time to go down. Didn’t check that one off the list but the view was still spectacular. Onward and upward.
After a little recovery at Aguas Calientes we drove over to Rio Las Patos to meet the gauchos. There are a variety of lines on official maps that indicate roads in La Puna, but in reality, there may only be tire tracks in the general area of these “roads”. GPS coordinates rule. Arriving at the river about 6 hours later we set up our camp and waited for the horsemen.
La Puna is a vast Andean high-altitude desert – in Argentina about 69 million acres. Years ago, thousands of people lived up here at the extreme western end of Gualfin raising Llama and subsisting on goat milk and sheep meat. Now there are a few tufts of spiny green plants here and there, skitterish vicuna bands, and a very few birds. There is one known resident not involved in mining. Everyone else has headed to the cities or gone to work in the mines.
At our agreed location La Puna is marked by the Rio Los Patos – river of the ducks - a green stripe cutting through the landscape with aquamarine waters running briskly. Like all the other water in La Puna this is fed by the high mountains and will eventually end in a dead-end lake where it will evaporate leaving salt flats and other mineral deposits.
Dots appeared at the top of a steep hill – first two, then a gathering of 7 riders and four mules. Gaucho shouts drifted to us and we replied. A bit more than expected but . . . the word had gone out and many cousins heeded the call. An hour later the horses waded across the river and the real entertainment began. The plan was to spend the next day at Los Patos and then ride/walk to Gualfin over two days.
As lunchtime approached on the rest day meat, chicken, potatoes and vegetables appeared from the truck and were commandeered by Nicco. Over the next hour-and-a-half the food slowly grilled, and we cut slices off as needed – the gauchos with their facon knives, me with a truly gringo yet extremely sharp instrument.
Argentines are known for love of beef. And no more love can be expressed than by gauchos. I received an extended education about the Argentine cuts of beef. Many are similar to the US and as a cattle ranch owner I know something about the topic. But passion for “el vacio”, “the emptiness”, more or less an extension of a flank steak ran very high.
On past the last puesto
As the hikers, Pichi and I set out before the horsemen. The distance we would travel to Compuel was estimated, but unclear. And horses are much faster than humans on foot. As we looked back from time to time the gauchos finished tearing down the campsite and then they vanished from sight behind a hill.
We had an idea of which quebrada, valley, to ascend but needed confirmation from the gauchos. After a couple hours the horses caught up and all agreed we were on the right path. About four hours into the walk we arrived at the apacheta indicating the crest of the pass into the broader Compuel valley. The Andean tradition dating well before the Spanish is to honor Pachamama with offerings of food, tobacco, coca, earth, or whatever moves the travelers. We all added to the pile, then headed down the valley.
After another hour of so a deep green field appeared dotted with llama. We were arriving at the high pasture of the woman described here before. The most distant puestero. After another hour of so we arrived at her house. She greeted everyone as though they were expected and produced some cheese made from her goats. One of the guachos fixed her radio, recharged by a small solar panel.
She said she had three children: one working in Salta, another at the main house of Gualfin, and a son still in school. Pointing over a very large hill she said he was in school at Animana “only” a 12 hour walk away.
Compuel and on to Gualfin
After leaving her we headed further downhill. Midway through the walk we had to follow the rocky hillside to avoid even more difficult footing below. The trail was a few feet wide dropping hundreds of feet into the ravine. The horsemen, mostly on Argentine criolla, negotiated the granite pathway carefully, but with ease. We hikers scrambled and survived.
In Compuel, home to a couple of people claiming originario status, we made our camp for the last time. Tonight only beef, no accompaniments, to give the mules space and weight for the rest of the supplies. Tents up. Tents down. A little matte and the new day is ready.
Setting out ahead of the horsemen again Pichi and I crossed the well-watered and deeply green valley in about four-hours. Finally, we reached the old Inca pathway, now converted to a four-wheel-drive road of sorts. I’ve spent a lot of time off road and this one would be the challenge of a lifetime.
The final five hours or so were a pleasure. High desert gave way to hillsides dotted with cordones. Cordones to pastoral valley farms. Farms now contained corrals for sheep and goats. And finally, the tree lined road to the main house. Two days and 36-miles later our gracious hosts welcomed us to Gualfin. A great asado, way too much wine, and a real bed reset the world.
Let me take another look at that map.