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2023 11 La Cordura Chile

10.11.  When I flew from Denver to Atlanta and then on to Santiago de Chile, we encountered an unforeseen problem requiring a necessary repair on the plane, which kept us waiting at the gate in Atlanta for four hours. Sitting next to me was Frederique from Belgium and a gentleman from Utah who was traveling with his family to a Pokémon World Championship in Sao Paulo. I didn't know that such an event existed.

Well, we got talking, and Frederique offered me the chance to accompany him to Valparaiso to visit the house of his friend who lives there. Since I wanted to go there anyway, I happily agreed. Not only did I drive there, but I also stayed the night. Martin, a concert manager, worked as a tour guide in Valparaiso and gave us a private tour of the city. We spent the evening enjoying an asado and met his whole family. It was a great experience with new friends and Chilean hospitality.

I am currently on the bus to Santiago, sitting in the front row on the top floor. I'm collecting my luggage from the hotel; I hope it slept well there. I'm also waiting for the long-distance bus to Ovalle in the north. I hope to arrive there in five and a half hours.


We take the truck up the mining road to our first camp in the mountains. As we have to bring water and food for the horses up anyway, we decide to take our luggage with us. That way we can ride the horses to the camp later in the day without any extra weight. On the way up, we come across a washed-out ditch in the dirt road, which means we will be walking from here on, but not for the Chilean who grew up in these mountains. He gets out and pours heavy stones into the ditch so that the wheel of his truck has something to rest on. We get back into the truck and he carefully maneuvers his four-wheel drive through the ditch to get back on the road. We reach our camp and unload water, hay and our luggage. Back on another mining road, we reach Seron in time to feed the three horses that won't be riding with us.


We shoe the two horses and at 1 p.m. we saddle up, I get Negro, a stocky 20-year-old Chilean Pura Rassa, Meret her mule lady and Bernardo his brown Chilean. The maps I've been given for Chile are extremely accurate, so it's easy to find hidden hiking trails. We follow the path up the mountain, cross an area where copper is mined and climb up the path in a stream bed. The landscape is brown with cacti and Meret explains that it hasn't snowed all winter and is therefore extremely dry. Soon we can see the trees in the distance where our camp is located. We ride cross-country on the mountain side over sandy and rocky mountain slopes with lots of tall cacti and scrub until we meet up with the road we rode on this morning. There is a spring that has been dredged. There is a small pool where we let the horses drink before tethering them to some bushes and feeding them the alfalfa we brought in the truck. We make a small fire and boil our water for the freeze-dried meal and tea. At 8pm we consider whether our sleeping accommodation is good enough for the cold of the night..   




We saddle up. Negro, my Chilean riding horse, shrinks back and pulls the post out of the ground when I try to put the saddle on. A second later he is standing like a statue again. I put the post back into the sandy ground and finish saddling him. The Chilean saddle is very comfortable, but you sit high above the horse compared to my western saddle. We lead the horses steeply up the mountain until we reach a mining road again. Here in the region, copper is mined in open-cast mines, there are small pits everywhere and turquoise stones lying around. However, nothing is being renaturalized, so it looks like a lunar landscape. We follow the mining road for a while until my GPS tells us that there is a path we can follow over the mountainside to a mountain saddle in the distance. We climb through the undergrowth and find the small path and follow it for about an hour. We reach the ridge with views in all directions at 3440m. We let the horses feed before taking them down the pass. On the other side is a small patch of grass watered by a spring. We follow another path, cross a mountainside and pass a temporary shed used by the miners. We continue along the mining road until we follow a path that leads to the top of a mountain. Here, goatherds have built several semi-circular rooms out of stones, spanned by wooden beams and branches. We clear one of the wind-protected ovals and fetch wood to barricade the entrances. We will park the horses here later. But first we lead them down the other side of the road to a marshy grassy field where they can graze until nightfall. We go to fetch water from a spring and make ourselves comfortable between the stones. Soon a fire is burning under an overhanging rock and the kettle is whistling.


It's a cold night with minus 10 °C and a strong wind whistling over the mountain. Up here at 3200 m. At 6 a.m. I'm glad to get out of my sleeping bag and light a fire to boil some water for coffee. Further up is half a barrel, which is filled with a hose from the spring. There is 2 cm of ice on the water. We feed the horses with alfalfa and oats carried by our pack mule. The sun shines on our camp and the horses enjoy the warmth. Negro is still skeptical when I put on the halter and reins, but it's getting better.

We follow the road down the mountain and back up to a peak at almost 3000 meters, leading down into a travers valley beyond. There is a small shelter as well as water and grass. We want to give them a small amount of oats in a plastic bag, but they are afraid if the plastic is moved by the wind. We follow a path along the stream that leads up the mountain and gets really steep at the top at 3900 meters. On the way up, we pass a small lake in this rocky desert and can see the Argentinian border from here. We have reached the central Cordillera. There is no longer a path, just a rugged stream bed where we lead the horses down and they prove that they are at home in this difficult terrain. Later, the stream begins to flood the grassy slope and we have to be careful not to stumble into swampy ditches. After two more hours, we reach a lower valley at an altitude of 2660 m, where we camp at a majadra, one of the stone huts that the huasos (goatherds) build here. Another wonderful day comes to an end.


15.11. We get up late because this is a rest day. Just a short ride to the next camp. It's warmer than last night. I slept in the hut, which was covered with a tarpaulin to protect me from the wind. After freeing themselves from several layers of blankets, they sat down by the fire and Bernardo started to work dough with oil, water and yeast to make bread. The smell of freshly baked rolls and coffee filled the small bay where we huddled together, and with homemade goat's cheese and Italian salami, it was a delicious breakfast. We had fed the horses some oats and they were grazing on long ropes secured to the ground with iron stakes. I drilled a hole in the top of a goat's horn, and shortened it to about 1.2 cm to make a stopper for my new leather hat string. Gusts of wind have blown my hat off my head twice in the last few days. We ride up the valley on small paths, trying to avoid the deep, boggy holes in the flooded grassy slopes. Further up the valley, about 40 cows graze and we find tracks of a group of horses in the sand. We reach another small shelter without much grass and leave Bernardo and the packhorse at the shelter while Meret and I ride further up the valley to look for open pastures. We find a better place for the horses to graze and decide to camp here in the open. Bernardo builds a sheltered fire pit, Meret collects firewood and water and I set up our tarp in the lee of some bushes to give us shelter for the night. The horses are tied to some bushes.



We only have 18 km ahead of us, so we start slowly. It's a wide valley of rocks of different sizes that leads to the summit, which we have to cross. In the distance we see two guanacos and a little later a frightened hare runs off. Apart from the howling wind, there is no sound, just the clattering of our horses' shoes on the rocks. We passed a herd of horses and mules grazing on one of the larger grass fields. Around one o'clock in the afternoon we reach the foot of the mountain we have to cross, and the path marked on the map doesn't correspond at all to what we have in front of us. An avalanche of rocks must have destroyed everything that resembled a path and we were wondering which way to take to the 400 m high crossing, which reached 4,200 m. A little later, we realized that thick clouds were gathering and visibility was decreasing. Nevertheless, it would only take us 2 hours to reach the summit if everything went smoothly, so we followed Bernardo up the mountain. He chose the shortest possible route but that meant we had to climb around large rocks. Undeterred, he began to pile up a path of stones and work his way up the mountainside. Meret and I followed and took all four horses to where the path he had built continued. After about 90 minutes - there was no way to really help Bernardo - I decided to climb up the ridge to see what it would look like on the other side. At over 4000 meters of altitude, it's not so easy for me to walk up the mountain anymore, so it took a while and many breaks to catch some air before I finally reached the top. The other side didn't look bad, but where Bernardo zigzagged up the mountain, he either had to go 50 meters to the left or just as far to the right if he wanted to reach the ridge. On the way up I had come across a path that was out of Bernardo's reach, and on the way down I found another path in the direction Bernardo was working, but we had to cross some fridge-sized boulders to get there. It was after 3pm, it was starting to snow and low-hanging clouds were reducing visibility even more. Bernardo was only about halfway up the mountain and still had a lot of work to do, so I suggested we stop, turn back to camp and try again the next morning, weather permitting, because I didn't want to get caught in the snowstorm on the pass, as we didn't know the way down the other side. After some deliberation, Meret and Bernardo agreed and we headed back down the mountain towards the camp. 4 km before the place where we had started in the morning, we made camp again and it stopped snowing and cleared up. I checked the weather on my satellite phone and it said that it would snow tomorrow with low clouds. It would only get better the day after.

17.11. At seven we are in the saddle and ride towards the mountain that refused to let us yesterday. At 9.30 am we were back at the pass and this time we chose a longer and less steep route in smaller scree. The sand and rock combination was surprisingly stable and we made good progress up the 400 meters of altitude. We led our three riding horses while the packhorse slowly followed. 3/4 up the mountain we saw a path again and now it became easier. By 11am we had reached the summit and stood there for a moment as we realized we had just conquered 4200m. And to top it off, instead of the predicted snowfall, we had bright blue skies. Luckily the map was accurate again and showed us the way, which led through difficult, dense, jagged rocks, but the horses coped without any problems. At the bottom of the first steep descent was a lake and it was difficult to navigate through the boulders. We let the horses drink in the crystal clear water and filled our water bottles.

We came to a long valley, again flooded with spring water, and when we reached the valley floor we were on a path leading up the transverse valley. We would have set up camp here yesterday, but there was no shelter from the wind, no wood and only heavily grazed grass. We therefore decided to continue over the next pass until we found enough food for the horses. The path was now sandy and we managed to ride to the top. A barbed wire fence had been erected there, partly lying on the ground, which we covered with large stones and led the horses over. The descent from there was again easy, going down a large sand dune. A group of mares were grazing by an extensive grassy area. We reached a rocky bottom of the valley where a 1.50m high stone wall had been erected across the entire width of the almost 1000m wide valley, with a fence gate that we could open. We rode down a rocky landscape that resembled a wide river bed, except that there was no water except for a small stream running down one side of the valley. A single young bull and a young gelding eyed us as we rode past. We later learned that the mares were to be taken to this pasture to protect them from cougars when they were ready to foal. The wide river valley turned into a ravine with steep walls, forcing us to find our way again. We led down one side of the gorge, where the map suddenly showed a turn-off to the right, straight up the hill on the opposite gorge wall. We turned back, hoping to find this other path, but it wasn't visible until we crossed the bottom of the canyon. From then on, there was only one direction. Uphill. Until we reached and crossed a ridge that led slightly downhill, and then in a few thousand meters back up to the next rocky ridge. I was sorry that the horses had to climb this third peak that day, but in this sandy desert there was simply no food all afternoon and Bernardo was sure that we would find good grass at the lake behind the last ridge. As we descended, we saw a large group of horses in the valley, but there was also the promise of plenty of lush green grass. We had covered about 35 km and more than 2000 meters in altitude that day.


We were in no hurry to get up. Meret wanted to be woken up by the sun. I repaired some open seams on my saddlebags and boiled water for a cup of coffee on the small gas burner. We had permission to camp, but without a fire. The day before, smoke from a large fire had blown across the valleys, and later we learned that a campsite had burnt down. Too bad, it takes years to grow a tree in this climate and without shade there is no camping. Chilean gauchos, called huasos here, drove horses past us down the valley and I noticed that some of them were hobbled. I wondered about this, but there were some really beautiful horses among them. One of the leading huasos stopped to chat with Meret and Bernardo. Later, after coffee and breakfast, we rode down to the lake and had a quick swim in the refreshing water. We got dressed and got back on our horses. We rode past a large camp where all the horses we had seen were saddled up and tethered to some bushes. A fire was still burning on a large rock and people were loading things into boxes to put on the horses later. Further down the sandy canyon, we meet the riders who were climbing down the gorge on foot.

A few hours later, we saw metal roofs flashing in the sunlight and the path turned into a dirt road. Along fruit tree plantations and bungalows with swimming pools, we descended towards the village of Colorado. A locked gate prevented us from entering civilization, but Bernardo had organized the right phone number, so a few minutes later a girl on an all-terrain vehicle appeared and opened the gate to the entrance of a trail riding company. We were greeted warmly by Luco, the owner. We unsaddled, put the horses in the covered stalls and stacked our equipment next to the bathhouse. We were looking forward to a beer and some lunch and found the restaurant that the huaso by the lake had recommended to us. It was run by his sister. We got a dark beer, the only one available, some goat stew and mashed potatoes and tomato salad. For dinner we found another restaurant with an open terrace where we could get some more local beer of the lighter variety. We met Pino, an architect, and his wife, later joined by Kate from the UK and her Chilean husband, and after filling up and eating a Chilean hamburger with loads of guacomole, we were invited for coffee and cake by Pino. We enjoyed their company late into the night, then went back to the horses and unrolled our mats and sleeping bags in front of the stables.


We were at the kiosk at 8 a.m., whose owner had promised to serve breakfast the day before. We had to wait a while for the man, who was wearing traditional Bolivian clothing and had an Australian didgeridoo and a Peruvian wooden flute hanging from the ceiling, to finish his coffee. But it was worth the wait. A great sandwich of grilled meat and mozzarella cheese, accompanied by homemade ground coffee made from a variety of beans, and then a pitcher of what he called Jugo Natural, a mixture of lemon juice, ginger and other herbs colored with red beet juice. The horses dozed in the parking lot across the road, tethered to various trees, and when we finished our breakfast, we led the horses along the paved road through the next three villages. On the side of the road was a dug out canal lined with rubber tarpaulins that carried the water down to the bottom of the valley. The same construction could be seen on the opposite side of the mountain, except that at one point the canal must have broken because the water cascaded down the steep cliffs in a huge waterfall. We reached the bottom of the valley. We rode up a side valley on a tarred road and were stopped in the village by a gentleman in a truck labeled "horses" and he started asking us about permits and the like. Meret insisted that she had taken care of all the permits, but the gentleman insisted that we follow him to the regional office just up the road.

Fortunately, the lady at the office was much more accommodating and remembered speaking to Bernardo, so all we had to do was get the permit in writing and, of course, pay the small fee. In the meantime, the horse man chatted to Meret about where we had crossed the Cordillera and seemed impressed. He ended up getting us another harness, as our pack mule had lost some weight and needed a front harness. An hour later - Bernardo had bought some meat and beer in the meantime - we arrived at the campsite where we had brought some hay the day before we left. We looked after the horses and had a beer before taking a shower and a dip in the swimming pool. After washing our clothes by hand with washing-up liquid and hanging them up to dry, Bernardo prepared a wonderful assado while I chatted to a Chilean gentleman who had approached me in the bathhouse. He was from Italy near Lake Como on the Swiss border. He was retired and traveling around his home country in his Chinese-made motorhome. We invited him and his wife to an assado and had a wonderful evening.


On our next part of the trip it was going to be really hot , so we decided to beat the heat by riding off at 6am and climbing up the mountainside overlooking the village. We started at 1200m and climbed to 3200m in 5 hours, having breakfast on the mountain top at 11am. The horses were just incredibly tough. We had to cross a wide basin on the contour line, which was not easy due to the loose gravel and stones sliding down the mountainside, while the horses sank deep into the gravel with every step. Finally we reached the other side of the mountain, crossed the summit and descended on the same deep gravel, only of a different gray color. At last we reached the path I had planned as an alternative route at the junction of two valleys, and as we continued uphill on the other side of the valley, we descended and found water and grass where we fed the horses. Again we rode up to a peak at 3200m and descended on the other side, leaving the planned route in search of water and grass.

Three years ago there was water here, but now it seemed to be bone dry, and by the time we reached the Majada there was no water on site. About 1000 meters further down, we saw a green band of grass on the left that promised food and water. When we got there, we decided to camp here


We fetch the horses from their grazing areas and saddle them up. We return to the Majara from yesterday and follow a path up the left side of the valley to a pass that we saw yesterday at 3000 meters. On the other side are large boulders and rocks through which we have to find our way. Later, we get help from a barely existing path. I lead my Negro, who now trusts me and even allows me to scratch him behind the ears. After about two hours of steep descent, I get back on him. We wind our way along a sandy path through the boulders high above the stream, which has no running water but enough to feed the green undergrowth and the occasional tree.

We find a watering hole and let the horses have a drink. The mountain now also shows some cacti and the sand frequently changes from reddish brown to cement gray. We reach the valley floor along a thick water pipe that carries water to a majara further down the valley and supplies the alfalfa fields with water. In the distance, we see a power line and some trees providing shade. As we cross the road, we reach a majara with 20 young goats in a pen and a shepherd working on his well. We give the horses some water and eat our lunch of goat's cheese salami and bread under the broad canopy of one of these indigenous trees. After lunch, we ride across the mountainside to a road that leads to the observatories. A new one is currently being built, which will be fully automated and controllable via the internet to take pictures of the southern sky from anywhere in the world. We follow the road for a while and then take a shortcut across a rocky plain near a black mountain. The horses run on railroad ballast-like stones and just when I thought it couldn't get any worse, the stones got even chunkier without losing their nasty sharp edges. We reach the road to the observatories again, cross the road and follow a wide riverbed towards a small gorge where a majara awaits us. This is even covered with plastic sheeting and in other places with dried branches with leaves. There is a spring nearby, but the water is covered in green algae, so we decide not to water the horses. Later, Bernardo and Meret empty the well with buckets, release the spring and create a new basin for clean water. Even the local wild horses seem to appreciate their work.


After breakfast, we took the horses to the fountain with beautiful clear water. We rode through colorful sand mountains in shades of red, grey and beige. A few individual trees, one with green peperoni-like fruits and cacti, alternated, giving the mountain a mysterious appearance in the morning sunlight. We rode up a few hills towards the observatories. Just below the peaks with the observatories, we rejoined the road and walked down it for the next 5 km. We left the road and followed the path down the hill. In the distance, we saw the roof of another majara blinking in the sunlight. In a ditch with a huge willow tree, we found some pools of water and fed the horses. We climbed up the last ridge before descending to Bernardo's father's majara. He had slaughtered a small goat for us and we ate its meat with some bread and wine. It was three o'clock in the afternoon and the heat was at its peak when I fell asleep on an old mattress in a storage shed. The radio was playing soulful songs by a singer with an accordion.



This was the most comfortable Majara we had on the entire trip. Apart from running water, everything was there. In the morning we saddled up and decided to take the 5-hour trail. Here again there were bushes with a jalapeno-like fruit, straight and spherical cacti. Trees in the distance promised water and possibly grass. And, of course, there was another majara. We climbed over a ridge and found another well. We followed the riverbed down into a gorge, the horses scrambling over large boulders, until we saw the valley of the Huetardo River, where Seron and LOCURA Chile are located. We stayed on the eastern flank of the valley and rode upstream, past the house and into the village, where a village road crosses the river. The horses enjoyed standing in the cold water and drinking, and a little later we also quenched our thirst.

A great trip came to an end. Many thanks to Negro, who reliably carried me over all the mountains, and to Bernardo and Meret for the super tour guide.



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