Minty Clinch signs up for a horse riding "glamp" high in the desolate Andes mountains.
As hospitable as the Argentinian Andes get
"Would you do this again?' I asked Neil as we packed up our tents on a stony plateau near Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the Andes. In January last year, he was my companion on a ride in the hoof prints of General San Martin, the great liberator who passed this way in 1817 on his mission to free Chile from the colonial yoke. Neil, an inexperienced horseman, reviewed long days in the saddle in temperatures of 35° Celsius and bone-chilling nights on the rocks in minus-10. He shuddered. "I think I'm better suited to glamping," he replied.
I'd never heard of glamping, but when I had the chance to try it a year later, I was quick to sign up for a walk-in tent with a real bed, a communal dining room with real chairs, a shower block with hot water. No more crawling into a micro-tent, crouching on a rock to fork down rapidly cooling pasta or squatting to wash in a freezing stream. Why resist?
Sergio Cernadas, a Buenos Aires native with a passion for high places, established Nuestra Tierra (Our Land) in 1999 to organise regular cabalgatas (horse treks) with nightly stopovers. A decade later, he decided there was a market for a more permanent arrangement. His clients already rode horses provided by Armando and Lalo Escobar, brothers whose family have grazed their flocks on Andean summer pastures since the 1930s, so all he needed to do was pick a spot in their domain and set up glamp.
With the help of six men and an army of mules, he transported tents, furniture, cooking utensils, crockery, shower units and toilet bowls from the road head at Las Loicas, two hours west of the small town of Malargue, over barren mountains to Guatana. After 25 gruelling days, the camp was ready to receive its first guests. It lies at 2,400m on a sandy plateau above a grassy, flat-bottomed valley. Sergio chose the site for the vast rock that contains a cave kitchen. In winter, when the valley is under 3m of snow for at least four months, everything that moves is dismantled and stored inside it.
Like many riding holidays, this was a sisterhood event - six women from Buenos Aires exploring parts of their country they'd never seen before and one London-based reporter whose Spanish was not really up to the task of following their rapid exchanges. On the first ride from Las Loicas to the camp, we crossed a moonscape overshadowed by towering sandstone cliffs, terrain that underlined the ambition of Sergio's vision.
En route to camp, we stopped for the first of several delicious Nuestra Tierra picnics on a grassy bank by a stream, the only oasis of green during the day. Three mature condors with wing spans up to 3m kept watch as Sergio sliced and distributed pionovo, a sweet cake roll with a savoury filling named for Pope Pius IX, a worthy tribute to papal taste. I felt the condors agreed, but Sergio was quick to correct me. "They'd prefer to have us," he commented. An alarming start to the siesta, but as condors are carrion eaters rather than killers, I didn't allow it to interfere with my sleep.
At the top of the final hill above the camp, Sergio paused briefly. Below us, the sand lay steep and deep in the evening sun. "You have two options," he said. "Follow me or take the easy route behind the pack mules." Then he turned abruptly and rode tall as his black horse sank up to its belly in the shifting sands. I followed his wide loops, rising and falling in the rhythm of the descent like a skier in hip-deep powder. The sisterhood followed gamely. Though most were novice riders, they were always up for everything the adventure had to offer.
We arrived in camp on the adrenaline high that follows a challenge conquered. The Escobar brothers take it in turns to lead Sergio's groups. This was Armando's week so he had to field the sentimental questions as he unsaddled his horses, hobbled them and set them free. "What are their names?" we asked eagerly, patting necks. He shrugged, bored by the need to tell city slickers that his horses are workers, not domestic pets. "No names, never any names," he replied.
Thwarted on this front, we explored the camp, checking out three walk-in tent cabins with twin or double beds and two much larger circular yurt-style tents with four beds in each, sleeping a maximum of 14. The tents have wash basins, blocky gas heaters for cool evenings, cheerful orange duvet covers and bedside lights. The sisterhood squealed in delight, checking out four showers with powerful jets of solar-heated water, two toilets with bidets and stupendous views .
After six hours in the saddle, we received a warm welcome from Sergio's girlfriend, Maria, his son Juan and his two daughters. And then it was time for tea. Argentinians often say that many of their compatriots, especially those who join country clubs, play golf and ride horses, are Italians who want to be English. I wouldn't put Sergio and his family into that category, but there's no doubting their enthusiasm for afternoon tea, served with due ceremony and two kinds of homemade cake after each day's ride. On the other hand, their approach to mañana is strictly Spanish. No one gets up before the sun strikes the tents, rapidly transforming chilly nights into glorious warmth, so our mornings started with a leisurely breakfast and a 10am departure.
Sergio uses Guatana as a base for excursions to remote parts of the Andean desert, uninhabited and treeless. On the first day, we rode steadily upwards to the Chilean border at the Martinez milestone, an iron cross on a ridge in the middle of nowhere. Or so it seemed until four horsemen, ghostly in the swirling dust, galloped up to us out of the midday sun. Would Argentinian invaders with no documentation be confronted by unfriendly fire? Seemingly not, despite the traditional hostility between the two countries. As the horses came to a halt, the riders were revealed as hunky Chilean gendarmes with winning smiles. The collective sisterhood pulse-rate skyrocketed as everyone leapt from their saddles to pose for photographs. Even in high winds and dust storms, Argentinian women take pains to look their best so there was a lot of hat-tilting and scarf-draping - not to mention coquettish posing - to optimise this virtuoso photo opportunity.
The next day, we negotiated an extreme mountain trail into the neighbouring valley to visit the one home we'd see during the trip, a tiny stone casella owned by Armando and Lalo. From December to March, the only snow-free months, the two men live with their collies, 80 horses, 160 cows and more goats than they can count. They bring in the bare necessities of life - salt, flour, sugar and coffee - and kill a baby goat whenever they fancy a roast. Sergio is connected to the real world by satellite phone, but the Escobars rely on their household radio. The local station broadcasts family news and, although they can't reply, they can ride out in an emergency.
In the four-hour gap between tea and the typically late dinner, we played tejo, a street game throughout Argentina, just as boules is in France. It has the same rules, but the equipment comprises wooden discs with holes in the middle, suitable for hurling with skill or rage. Our games were hard fought: Sergio and Maria enjoyed home-sand advantage, Armando cheated cheerfully and I hate to lose but, thanks to the Cernadas's generosity, I now own the tejo set. When I return, I shall be unstoppable.
On our final day, we rode up the valley of the waterfalls, pausing for an early lunch and a paddle before pressing on to another iron cross on an even bleaker border, gendarme-free but with outstanding views of Chile's 4,000m Campanario Hill. Back at Guatana, it was party time. Somewhere along our route, another baby goat had died young and it was soon grilling on the asado, accompanied by three plump chickens. Sergio prepared hot cheese nibbles and broke out chilled beer for toasts at sunset.
Anticipation rose as smoke and juicy aromas floated in the evening air. Vegetarianism is a very bad option in Argentina and the sisterhood, so enviably slim, polite and elegant, fell on the meat like wolves. As platters of roasted flesh on unfamiliar bones came and went, I realised that there's a lot more to a baby goat than you might imagine. For the majority, excess ended there. Sleep comes easily when you're tucked up with a hot water bottle and an unpolluted view of a million stars. Where were you, Neil? Glamping is made for you.
If you go
The flight Qatar Airways (www.qatarairways.com) flies from Abu Dhabi to Buenos Aires via Doha for Dh6,475 return. Return flights from Buenos Aires to Mendoza with Aerolineas Argentinas (www.aerolineas.com) cost from US$544 (Dh2,000), including taxes.
The trip Lihue Expeditions (www.lihue-expeditions.com.ar; 00 54 11 5031 0070) has a nine-night trek for US$4,300 (Dh15,795), with four nights in Guatana Camp, two in Malargue and stops in Mendoza and Buenos Aires.