Day 1: We woke up early in the lodge after a freezing night’s sleep that was often interrupted by crazy dogs barking all night long. We had a quick breakfast and then Fabian arrived to take us to his barn to meet our horses and load up the pack horse. Fabian and his dad introduced us to La Pinta, a very cute, gray and white smaller horse, and Al Tivo, a large, brown, beautiful horse. They were concerned about giving me Al Tivo because he often scares tourists with his intense desire to run, and more importantly, his tendency to disagree about when to stop running. They offered me another horse as an option but said I’d need to wear a spur because she could be kind of slow. I opted to take my chances with Al Tivo – after all, this was supposed to be an adventure! Raj was very comfortable on La Pinta, but it took some time to get used to the snug saddle. Though we had discussed our anxieties about whether we would be able to handle the unknown terrain on new horses and with new tack, once we mounted our beautiful horses, and rode out of the town and into the foothills, we were immediately at ease and our previous anxiety was replaced with anticipation for the sights and experiences to come.
We were prepared for a long day, but were a bit surprised by how quickly we rode into difficult steep and rocky terrain, at times the narrow path was only 2-3 ft wide and on a cliff’s edge. We rapidly learned to lean forward going uphill and to lean way back going downhill, and of course, to trust that the horses knew where to step. It was also a pleasant surprise to see how fast the terrain changed from cliffs overlooking lakes and rivers, to meadows and fields full of sheep, horses and cattle, and then into dense forests. We stopped after about 3 hours to enjoy our pack lunch of sandwiches, peanuts and cookies at a beautiful spot right on the lake’s edge (sorry, don’t remember which lake because we saw at least 4, but picture is attached). You can see that the color of the lake is a fantastic blue, but that the clarity is cloudy due to lingering ash from the Chaiten volcano. Fabian and I discussed my need to learn Spanish and how he became fluent in English in just 3 summer seasons of working with tourists. We took one other break later in the day in a small field, and overall, we rode for over 6 hours. The weather was nice during the day, but about an hour or two before we arrived at the first hacienda, the weather turned colder and very windy. The wind was blowing ash straight up into our eyes and the sky turned a bit ominous. However, we arrived in the small village of Espolon (which consisted of about 5 buildings total including church, school and store and for which the only mode of transportation is horse) around 7 pm, and another 15 minutes of riding later, as the sun set, we arrived at Irma’s home. We no sooner unloaded the pack horse and got inside when an absolute downpour began… I mean southern summer night – you are soaked in seconds rain. We were SO lucky!
So then began the awkward interactions between people who speak little to none of the other’s language. Irma was extremely hospitable; she immediately indicated our bedroom and where the bathroom was. For our first night we were fortunate to have running water with a water heater and a real toilet! And then the eating began. As we sat in the kitchen (which is traditionally dominated by the wood burning stove serving as the only source of heat for the entire home, as well as the water heater), we watched Irma prepare a feast of newly slaughtered lamb (from their land), soup and various other vegetables and spices taken from their land, all the while enjoying her freshly made bread with homemade jams and their own honey. I can honestly say it was the best meal we had eaten in Chile – the soup in particular was ridiculous (and is traditionally the first course, yet hearty enough to be the entire meal). Fabian taught me how to compliment Irma’s meal in proper Spanish, and after dinner, Raj and Fabian played two games of chess by candlelight (Raj narrowly won both). We should mention that they have a generator for limited amounts of electricity, which they sparingly used while Irma was cooking and when we showered, but turned off otherwise. With the excitement of the first long day, we fell asleep quickly about 11 and slept soundly in our drafty room.
Day 2: We woke up before Fabian and wandered out to a freshly made breakfast of tea, eggs, bread and jams (again, all from their land). Unfortunately, it was still raining and we began to prepare ourselves for a wet day of riding. We decided to go for a morning ride and then go back to Irma’s for lunch; the hope was that the weather would improve by the afternoon. After finally rounding up the horses from the vast land, we went on an exhilarating (and dry) morning ride. Tovah was on a mission to get me galloping on La Pinta. I’d trotted and cantered before but never really galloped at full speed without hugging the horse and praying for dear life. After a few pointers from Fabian on using my knees to hold on rather the the stirrups, La Pinta and Tovah’s horse, Al Tivo, took off at full gallop. I quickly understood La Pinta’s rhythm and was half scared to death and also overcome with adrenalin. Galloping was so much fun; La Pinta really wanted to run and I let her have her way. From that time forward, La Pinta and I had a better understanding. During the morning ride, we also discovered that Al Tivo was afraid of bridges – he wouldn’t cross a bridge first, but would reluctantly follow. After the morning ride, we said goodbye to our hosts and continued our journey through the heavily wooded Espolon Valley. The weather turned out to be beautiful and we never even got a drop of rain while on the horses! Again, SO lucky!
Our ride was supposed to be about 4 hours, but turned into a much longer day (and night) than we had planned. During the day we came across the most spectacular view of a rustic property situated in the Espolon valley right on the Espolon Lake. Tovah was immediately obsessed with the location and when Fabian told her that it was actually for sale, she believed it was meant to be hers. She even started talking about how she wanted to live there and create benches and tables from the abandoned trees fallen from a fire 40 years ago. The vegetation eventually thickened and we found ourselves in dense woods called The Rain Forest as the sun set quickly behind the canopy of the woods. Tovah and I were riding ahead of Fabian and the pack horse and soon found ourselves wondering whether we had stumbled onto a cow path rather than staying on the trail we were supposed to be on. Since the volcano last year, the part of the trail we were travelling had not been used due to the ash, and Fabian had warned us that tourists can get lost because they follow cow paths instead the proper trail. We no longer saw or heard Fabian behind us and we suddenly feared that we had become those tourists! After a few minutes of spirited debates, we agreed to turn around and try to find Fabian or a different trail. I started yelling out Fabian’s name but received no answer and we became more and more concerned as the darkness fell on the thick woods. Some ten minutes of backtracking later, we finally heard Fabian yelling back to us and we soon found each other and confirmed that we had indeed been on the correct path, but that the pack horse had slipped and fallen, and Fabian had stopped to re-pack all the gear. Since it was now quite dark, with no light penetrating the canopy, Fabian led us through the thin path, and reassured us that the horses saw better in the night than in the day, and certainly better than we could currently see. With one hand on the reins, and the other protecting our heads from branches, we slowly made our way through the woods – we could not even see our hands in front of our faces, much less the trail or horse in front of us.
All of a sudden, Fabian yelled out for us to stop and said “It’s BIG.” To which we predictably replied, “WHAT’S big?” He explained that our path was blocked by an enormous tree. He tried to find a way around but came back and asked us to dismount. Our only options were to leave the horses and continue the final couple of miles by foot (in the dark with our bags) or to try and jump the horses over this tree. To put this in perspective, the fallen tree was at least chest high on Tovah (approximately 5 feet high!). Fabian first tried his horse and was surprisingly successful. After Tovah and I climbed our way to the other side to hold his horse and wait for the others, he unloaded the pack horse and painstakingly got him over. It was NOT easy, but the horse managed with me pulling the reins and Fabian whipping him from the back. Al Tivo, magnificent animal that he is, cleared the tree easily. Then came little La Pinta, my much smaller horse in comparison to the other horses. She finally got her front legs on the tree with quite a bit of encouragement from Fabian, but when she attempted to jump over, she became stuck on the tree with her belly on top, her front legs in front (not touching the ground) and her back legs in back of the tree (also not reaching the ground). She was furiously trying to run, but to no avail. Finally, with Fabian pushing her hind down so she could kick off, and with me pulling on her reins from the other side with all my might, the sweet little girl found her way over the tree (and then sadly, if not amusingly, tripped before finally finding her balance on solid ground again). She was visibly shaken from the experience which made me concerned about mounting her again. However, she quickly calmed down and was fine.
About 20-30 minutes later we finally made it to a somewhat abandoned hacienda where our host, Irvin, had come to meet us and to cook dinner for us. He had only returned to the hacienda at Fabian’s request; he had left this home with his kids following the Chaiten volcano (further evidence of how disruptive the eruption was to the region). There was no running water, no bathroom or outhouse, no electricity, and the place had not been cleaned in 9 months. After our exhausting experience, the hot stove was all that mattered to us. As Irvin cooked a simple but delicious dinner of a single pot of rice, chicken and vegetables, Tovah fell asleep on the bench next to the stove. I struggled to keep my eyes open as our host spoke with Fabian in Spanish over the dim candlelit room. After our yummy feast, Tovah and I were shown our bedroom (with a single twin bed that sunk in the middle) and quickly, and perhaps rudely, passed out without even saying goodnight to our host.
***More to come soon. we promise that Part 2 covering the rest of week will be much shorter! Sorry for the very lengthy post!***