The Maipo Valley, reached in our rental car about an hour’s drive southeast of Santiago, is a world of wineries and rugged hills that lie between the Coastal Mountains and the Andes. The big-city sprawl quickly turned into natural surroundings, and we easily found our destination: the horse ranch where we’d be taking an overnight horseback riding trip.
We’d found Horseriding Chile https://horseridingchile.com/ online, and the reviews and photos looked great. The owner, British transplant Rose Deakin, couldn’t have been more helpful in answering all of our pre-trip emailed questions, which included whether someone who had never ridden a horse before–my husband–would be able to do it (answer: yes, the horses are used to novices); would our guide be able to speak English (no, but we’d be met by an interpreter before we set off who could answer more questions); would there be any other tourists in our group (that depended; some might sign up for that date, or they might not); and where we’d sleep (our choice: rough open-air, or in a tent).
We found the lovely ranch, and the owner and former rodeo champ who would be our guide. Rigo–who indeed spoke no English to us as we sat waiting for the interpreter, Rose’s son, Harry, to arrive–couldn’t have been friendlier, or more confidence-inspiring in the way he got the three horses and one mule ready. It turned out that Jules and I would be having a private trek (yes!). The mule was for transporting food and camping gear.
One question I had for Harry, after we’d decided we’d sleep rough on mats, without a tent as the forecast was for hot, clear weather, was if there were poisonous snakes, wolves, scorpions or other dangerous creatures to fear as we slept. “No,” was his firm reply. You can only trust that he knows, can’t you? No doubt the mule would be happier not to carry an unnecessary tent, anyway.
And so, after loading up our water bottles and bidding Harry “adios,” off we went along the Maipo river valley, following Rigo on our gentle, relatively small horses: Jules’ was called Colorado, and mine was Nero. Harry told us we could expect to stop for lunch in an hour or two, then be off again for about another three hours of riding until we’d get to our camping spot. So we settled into our saddles, gave our horses the odd little giddy-up kick when they tried too often to graze–Rigo wasn’t having any of that–and enjoyed the meander through lush land alongside the Maipo, going against the flow and gradually uphill. There were a couple of houses here and there, but very little in terms of development. The stop for a lunch of sandwiches and fresh fruit beside the river was lovely–and I should mention, our wide-brimmed hats were absolutely mandatory in the beating southern-hemisphere December sun.
Then things got a little, shall we say, fun: Up, up, up the horses climbed, on the narrowest of paths, with the steepest of cacti-studded slopes cascading down to our right all the way down to the river, which by this point seemed tiny. (“Lean forward on the uphills,” I remembered Harry saying.) I guess it felt extra scary to be high up on the horse’s back, as opposed to on your own two feet, but whenever I thought I might feel safer walking–given the choice, which I wasn’t–I could see that the path was too narrow and loosely packed for even one person. These horses were absolutely confident, even galloping through hairpins that seemed to be serving up death on a platter. This was not for the faint of heart, nor was it a good feeling when Rigo, who was strongly leading the mule by a rein and sometimes got way out ahead, would disappear, and our horses would be standing at a fork waiting for us to tell them which way to take. But Rigo would always come back for us; obviously, he was used to beginners.
I mentioned Jules was a beginner, but he was completely trusting of his horse–although Colorado was an ex-rodeo horse, and was literally chomping at the bit. That’s why Rigo put him behind my horse, which was a trekking horse and just slower by nature. I’d had some experience riding horses when I was younger, and felt confident around them. But while Nero seemed nice enough, and clearly knew what he was doing, his slowness was a little frustrating. He needed a strong rider on his back, and I guess I was a soft touch so he took full advantage. Which served to slow down Colorado–so it was a good thing.
At about 3pm, Rigo led us into a woods with a little clearing. Home sweet home for the rest of the day and the evening. He pointed out where we could go for a refreshing swim; Harry told us about this place before we left. “Oh, we didn’t bring bathing suits!” I’d said. “Bathing suits? You don’t need them. Rigo will be well away from the river prepping dinner and setting up camp. You guys will be on your own.”
So off we went, stripped off our padded cycling shorts (another absolute essential), plus everything else, and jumped in the cold rushing waters of the Andean river. Off with the sweat and dust of the day. There was a rock pool to lounge in, the sun was beating down, and it was absolute bliss. Bonus: We each had a Pisco Sour in our hand; Rigo had packed a couple of those, plus some beers, and this was an excellent reward. What scenery, too! Spectacular.
We headed back to camp to see that Rigo had let the horses and mule out to pasture, and was tending a nice wood fire he’d built. We tried to speak in our very few words of Spanish, which he appreciated and answered back in Spanish, which we struggled to understand. But gestures go a long way, and he was easy company. He barbecued some chicken and steaks, plus made a lovely fresh salad and served it all up with some fresh bread. Then there was his freshly made fruit salad–Chile is such a great place for produce. (And in fact, we found that Rigo did know a word of English: Apple.)
After we all cleaned up, then sat around chatting for a bit with a beer, it was time to bed down. We were given each a sleeping bag and small pillow, plus there was a foam pad on the ground. Rigo slept near the fire. Such stars above! And the moon was a full one. It was actually so light out that even after spending most of the day in the saddle, it was actually a bit tough to nod off. But we ended up having a great sleep.
Morning came, and Rigo collected the horses from the riverside. He didn’t bother tying them up, as they were kept busy eating hay he’d brought along for their breakfast. The one misstep of the trip happened then: The mule, seeing his boxes being prepared–the ones that would be roped onto his back for transport home–slipped off into the woods. “Um, Rigo….” we got his attention and let him know that “mule” had “vamoosed.” He got the message: dropping everything, he was off on foot like a flash. Jules and I sat on a boulder, waiting, wondering what would happen if the mule couldn’t be caught. Then Rigo was back–no mule–grabbed my Nero and dug his spurs in. Nero was like a different horse, galloping off with incredible speed and purpose. We finished up the packing, still wondering what would happen if not only the mule, but Rigo himself and Nero, were to never return…after all, there wasn’t a soul around…and then noticed he’d left his cell phone on the rock in his haste. So there was a lifeline.
But here he was: Rigo returned on Nero, pulling along a very reluctant mule. That mule was promptly blinded with a cloth so he wouldn’t see the boxes being packed and try the same trick again. And soon we were off, going back partly along the same path but then descending on the other side of a saddle, seeing another valley below. Really, truly breathtaking to see little villages lying below.
The trek seemed to be over all too soon. Day 2 of riding was much easier, now that we knew the horses a bit better, and vice versa. The scary bits weren’t actually as scary, for some reason–even though going downhill is not an easy thing. (We followed Harry’s good advice, “Lean backward on the downhill trip.”)
This trek was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, one that I truly hope can be a twice-in-a-lifetime experience. Just do it. It’s not cheap, at more than US$300 per person, but entirely worth it.
In Part 3 of this Chile diary, we head west to the sea, and then east to the Andes foothills towards the Argentine border. (Remember, Chile is a long strip of a country, at less than 200km wide.) Stay tuned…