Hubie MacDermott - Riding from
Argentina to Ecuador!
In January 2005 The Guild received an email from Hugh ("Hubie") MacDermott.
"Dear Long Riders
I'm currently preparing for a ride from Argentina to Ecuador. In between preparing for the trip I am living and working on a ranch about two hours from Buenos Aires. At the moment I´m in the process of buying the two horses I am going to use for the trip at the moment. One is a pure Criollo and the other is an Arab/Criollo cross.
I found your website wonderfully helpful and I´d
love to hear any more advice you can give me.
Yours thankfully for an ace website
Thank you for those kind words, Hubie!
We put Hubie in touch with various Long Riders with experience in travelling in that part of the world, and he wrote again with a few more details of his trip:
"To clarify on the trip: it runs from where I am at the moment, 25 de Mayo, up running close to Cordoba onto Tucaman and crossing the Bolivian border at Agua Blancas in Salta. From there it follows close to the main road to La Paz along the west bank of Lake Titicaca into Peru and sticking to the mountains until coming down towards Lima. From there it goes straight up to Ecuador where I have a friend who will let me stay for as long as I want. From there I´ll decide what to do."
Finally, Hubie learned what all Long Riders find out!
"At the moment I'm having a minor nightmare with my
Gaucho friends. They have a worldview that no one else in the world knows
anything worth knowing about horses except themselves. I`ve tried
explaining the reasons behind yours and the other Long Riders' advice and the
fact that you have experience behind you but I might as well try and explain it
to a pile of rocks. I now just say "Tienes razon" (you have a point) and ignore
them every time they criticise me."
We wish Hubie all good fortune on his journey, which has now begun.
14th August 2005
After a long silence, The Guild has received an email from Hugh, who has recently been accompanied by some of his family:
"Life here has taken a bizarre turn around since
my mother arrived. Unfortunately Fresco's (the coloured horse) back is still not
good enough so my plan to ride on to San Luis with Tadgh (my little brother)
had to be scrapped. Sadly I've been forced to realise I cannot risk his back
going wrong again, which it probably will, so I'm reluctantly exchanging him.
After dragging him half way across Argentina only to change him now it feel a
little like I've failed somehow, though if I want to go on I have to be
On a lighter note Tadgh will be back next year to try again to join me for some of the way. Also I have to say travelling with the family to some lovely estancias and hotels was a nice break from sleeping under the stars. We started with a rodeo in Cordoba run by the chap I'm staying with. Like a fool I agreed to ride in it, I've enclosed some photos of the result. Then we flew up north to check out the mountains and across to stay in an amazing estancia in Correnties.
The family will fly home tomorrow and I'll head back over to Cordoba to organize the new horse and ride onto Mendoza."
Hugh with his mother and brother in Salta
Click on any of these pictures to enlarge.
"One of the nicer places I've stayed..."
"... and the norm"
"Just before the horse fell over"
"Fresco - he's done his best to annoy me in every possible way but I've grown to love him and I'm so sorry to leave him behind."
12th September 2005
"I've just bought a new horse, and I'm very pleased
with him. He's the same size as my pure Criollo Pancho but older and a lot
tougher. He was living on a hill where there was more rocks than earth, let
alone grass. When I shod him I was bending nails on his hoofs, more than once I
stopped and thought am I barking to be shoeing this horse at all.
An interesting point about buying this horse was the eventual cost of organising all his paperwork came to a third of the actual price. And to think we complain back home about red tape. I'm still waiting on his international passport. Hopefully I should be off within the next couple of days. I've named the new horse Serrano for the Sierras and the mule Cocca for the people I've stayed with, but at this point I'm crawling up the walls to get going again.
I'm currently in big discussion about where to cross the Andes. I went to Chile last week for my visa and there's no way I can get through my planned route in Mendoza. It looks like I'll be heading further north to San Juan. Ironically, despite all the debates I've had, it probably won't matter a hoot as the Chileans will come up with some new law to stop me crossing.
It's impossible to keep up with them. As it stands it's completely illegal to bring horses from Chile to Argentina but in theory there's no problem the other way about. That is provided you have the vast wadge of paperwork plus your horses have Chilean blood tests as they don't trust the Argentines. (To be fair I see their point: my horses have yet to have any of their blood sent for testing and yet I've numerous documents saying they have.)
However despite all that the Chileans without warning, on a regular basis (and more often than not without reason) slam the gates to all livestock. It really will be a miracle if I get through at all. But there's always that glimmer of hope and if I've learnt one thing about South America is there's always a back door, even into Chile.
Thank you for the note and I hope your New Year has started as well as mine. I checked your site and I'm sorry to hear about Louis Meunier`s trouble in Afghanistan. I've always been fascinated by the whole area and was astonished when you posted the news of his trip. What a horrible piece of luck to have to stop like that. Also I checked my own trip on the site, to see what I last wrote. My amazing organizational skills and carefully thought out plans really shine through. First I was going north, then west and now I'm not sure to go up or down. But then, for me anyway, I think the vaguer the plans the better for a first time Long Rider.
To recap, on leaving the province of Cordoba I finally started getting going with the trip. I arrived in a town close to the Chilean border within a month. It was the same distance as I'd done to arrive in Cordoba and I did it in a quarter of the time but this part was a long shot from the grasslands of Buenos Aires. On the first night I was gently awoken by a bush fire, I then had to get through the dry scrublands of San Luis province where water is scarce and food is worse, then on to Mendoza City where I was stopped by the police trying to ride into the center of town, and then by the Andes. From there I wandered south in the foothills looking for an ideal pass into Chile until I arrived at where I am now.
I've been kicking around here for a few months waiting for the snow to melt a bit and then just before Christmas I took a bus to Chile, to check what I've been told by the Argentine livestock officials. To my huge surprise it turned out they were as ignorant as I was. The Chileans saying had I gone with what the Argentines had told me I needed they would have shot my horses and put me in jail. I won't bore you with the ridiculously long list of vaccinations, tests and absolutely necessaries but the killer blow was the horses had to cross in a sealed lorry. The whole thing is so pathetic, as the Chileans told me they are simply protecting themselves from a disease ridden Argentina. I mean who are they kidding with a border thousands of miles long? So in future reference please advise strongly against anyone trying to ride horses over the entirely politically problematic Chilean-Argentine border.
Having said all that it's never very nice to be told you can't do something and thanks to a wonderful friend I've made, called Ernesto 'Chano' Quintana, I went anyway. Chano has helped me since I arrived in the little Mendocino town of Vista Flores. He found a place for the horses and we organized the whole Andes crossing together. When I arrived back from Chile in a depression he insisted it was for the best. He explained how Chile was much more expensive and how we could still go, just not too far in. The following day we walked up to check the pass of Portillo Argentino over the first line of the Andes. The snow was appalling and another friend, Mingo, who followed us up with horses failed to get through the pass. Bearing in mind this guy is a tough, hard old gaucho and his horses are accustomed the mountains I wasn't exactly spilling over with confidence but Chano had only the first week in January free, so the options were slim.
I rode up into the hills on the day of the New Year's eve, a couple of days early to ease my horses into it. I only took Pancho, the original horse, and Cocca, my little mule, due to the difficulty of the route. I was strongly advised to take my new horse Serrano (who've I renamed Guacho, pronounced watcho) as he's older and tougher but I'd come so far with Pancho it felt pointless to go with out him. I met up with Chano on the Monday night where we had a piece of luck. Mingo's son with a couple of mates had also ridden up to try and show up his father. We all set off on Tuesday and after a gruelling morning we finally reached the pass. In the wind and sun the snow had formed what looks like thousands of mini mountains. They're too soft to grip in the afternoon and like granite in the morning making it impossible to ride and seriously tricky to lead the horses through. The elation of getting over the first pass was short-lived as we had along way to go before reaching the valley between the two lines of the mountains. Descending the other side it all started going wrong as one of the pack mules belonging to Mingo's son floundered in the softer snow and collapsed. I'm proud to say Cocca never had too much of a problem, though she took her more gentle pace and my pack was much less complicated, so I could remove the bags to carry them up or down the hardest bits. As soon as the gauchos swapped the struggling mule with another both of their pack mules wandered on ahead and got stuck in a snow drift. In the end we reached the valley of the Tunuyan River at six in evening. Even the gauchos said what a difficult crossing it was but we had only the next day to get to the Chilean border and I couldn't sleep with worry. I'd never had to push the horses this hard or been over such appalling terrain. I didn't think Pancho could take much more and never again will I doubt him.
Early the next morning we crossed over the infamous Tunuyan River. The border police had only let me through on the Monday after I'd signed a disclaimer and promised not to try to cross the river. As luck would have it the river had still not fully joined and we were able to cross it in parts. To be honest I was surprised over all the fuss made over it, as you can see from the photo the water though strong wasn't too deep. Crossing back was a different story. After the river the three gauchos left to hunt Guanacos (mini Llamas) and, unpacking Cocca, Chano and I went on alone. It was pleasant riding up through the valley until we turned round a corner to be faced with what they call the pass of Onda and the ascent to Chile. The Onda Pass is a goat track leading down and up a huge ravine that cuts through the valley and the ascent is best describe simply, as white and long. Less steep as the climb to the pass of Portillos but the snowy hills leading to the pass of Piuquenes stretch out so very far.
Cocca, following loose, took one look at the view and decided she'd rather wait for us to return on the grassy side of the Onda Pass. Chano's mule also hit the go slow button refusing to take the lead and within a few kilometers the snow forced us to get off and walk. Despite disliking leaving Cocca behind Pancho was fantastic, trudging through the snow and never once needing more than a few words of encouragement to keep going. After a few hours of this, arriving at the top of one of the hills, I looked back down to see the tiny shape of Cocca patiently looking up at us. Within about five kilometers of the border my lungs, hardened by years of smoking, started packing up. Unable to keep going I threw the reins over Pancho's neck and shouted to him to go on. The sight of my little horse, born and bred in the pampas of Buenos Aires who so many have criticized, trekking on alone leading us all to Chile was enough to make me cry. Forcing myself up I followed in his footsteps and finally not believing it I watched as he went on to be the first living creature to cross the Pass of Piuquenes in 2006, after the winter of the worst snowfall in living memory. Let anyone try and criticize him now!
Looking down, the far easier and shorter, descent into Chile it hurt to know I couldn't go any further but at least I felt in some small way I'd got one over the madness of South American livestock officials (even though they didn't know and far less cared). Then we had to turn around and go all the way back. Practically skiing downing through the much softer snow we got back to Cocca, still quietly waiting, much quicker. Despite this we still didn't arrive at the river till half nine, as night was beginning to fall. We'd planned to stay the night close to the bank of the river and cross early in the morning but Chano wanted to push on to the valley. The river was swelled by snow melting during the day and I couldn't recognize where we crossed in the morning. Fast losing my nerve Chano rode into the by-now torrent of water, as I saw his mule sway from the pressure I couldn't believe I was about to take such a risk but once he hit the far bank there was no turning back. The water pounding against my knees I lost my grip on Cocca's rope and as Pancho staggered through I looked back to see Cocca, encumbered by the pack, stranded in the middle. For one awful moment, with the water almost over her back, I thought the current was about to sweep her away but thankfully she was only stabilizing herself before pushing on.
The next day I was able to give a day's rest to my poor exhausted horses before crossing back over the first pass on the Friday. Taking it very slow the three gauchos soon left us behind but arriving in our own time we are now all back safe and sound in Vista Flores. Considering over four days they traveled more than thirty five hours climbing to over four thousand meters three times I am overjoyed, and amazed, to say neither Cocca or Pancho have even a scratch on them. I'm united in my disbelief with the whole town we actually managed to do it and for the first time I feel we can ride with our heads held high and wait for whatever South America can throw at us next in confidence we'll get through it.
Thank you once again for all your advice and please continue to send news from the Guild.
All the best
Click on any of the photographs below to enlarge.
The first line of the Andes (the Pass of Portillo Argentino is roughly in the middle)
Pancho unused to the snow trying to jump through it.
Climbing the first pass
Crossing the Tunyan river.
the most beautiful horse in the world, Pancho Panza, sporting his new name engraved head collar I just made for him.
Here is a poem which Hugh wrote while on the trail:
La Tumba (The Grave)
Twenty Gauchos strong,
Hard faces cracked with broken smiles.
A thousand cattle they pushed along,
Into the mountain miles.
In January’s final days,
Riding in sun’s unbroken rays,
Fifty years ago.
Sommos Gauchos, (We're Gauchos)
Sommos Duros, (We’re tough)
Llegamos esta nauche. (We’ll get there tonight)
The first range they climbed,
Certain in their knowledge, feeling fine.
On to the valley they went to find,
And last barrack Argentine.
The Gauchos smirked as wings at paws,
To men caged by government laws,
With the river winking just in sight.
Llegamos esta nauche.
Through river they rode,
To end of valley, green pastures lush,
At standing stone camp they did unload,
Red faced from a rough days rush.
Poncho wrapped men, flickered in fire,
Circled in hooves, down to retire,
Shadowed by the silent mountain foe.
Llegamos esta nauche.
Tired sinews strained,
Up to the pass, to Chile, and down,
Gaucho hands to Guaso (Chilean Gaucho), cattle changed,
In midday sun, close to town.
Roasted meat from a butchered beast,
The wine did flow and thinking ceased,
Echoed cries from mountain height.
Llegamos esta nauche.
Clouded came evening,
As they stood to return, Gauchos bold.
“Heed the time and stay to the morning,”
But drink had taken its hold,
And they laughed at Guaso fear,
As they packed to head home so near,
Guaso’s warnings ringing in ears.
Llegamos esta nauche.
To the ridge they gained,
Before the white wind came down full force.
Natures dark face, her tempered inflamed,
Howling to claw man from horse.
Harrowed, blinded to where they’d gone,
They dropped ‘till only one pushed on.
And streams cut through snow from hot tears.
Llegamos esta nauche.
Fifty years ago,
With the river winking just in sight,
Shadowed by the silent looming foe,
Echoed cries from mountain height,
Guaso’s warnings ringing in ears,
And streams cut through snow from hot tears,
The last man broke, fell to his knees and died.
Llegamos esta nauche.
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