Les Trois Escargots

A growing family of snails.

Monday, November 06, 2006

The good, the bad and the ugly

About two hours north of the Argentine border lies the township of Tupiza. Comfortable in the bottom of a green valley, it is surrounded by a dry, barren desert landscape populated by cacti and the ghosts of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Not quite ready to leave Bolivia, we had stopped in the town and, with the hope that it wouldn´t hurt too much, we had signed up to do a 2 day horse riding tour of the surrounding mountains. Apart from Albane and I, our small, but perfectly formed group comprised Ismael (the guide) and Michelle, a dancer from the US. With next to no experience amongst us punters and 14 hours in the saddle ahead of us, we were all pretty nervous.

Our horses seemed nonchalant as we were introduced and it seemed that they could indeed do the tour on “autopilot”, as we had been promised. We swung ourselves into the saddle and the horses walked sedately south on the railway line. With only six trains a week, we were in little danger and it was a gentle start with the three of us finding our balance, getting used to the movement of the horses and trying to relax. After half an hour, we climbed on a dirt track through scree and cacti, only piles of plastic soft drink bottles giving away the fact that we were in Bolivia. The heat was intense, radiating off the rock with scant regard for the gringos. It felt like we were riding in a sauna. The valley narrowed and we found ourselves squeezing through a cleft in a huge cliff. It was like something from an Indiana Jones movie with the valley tightening even further until we were forced to dismount, tether the horses and walk between twisting walls of dark rock, duck through natural arches and climb dried waterfalls crusted with salt crystals.

A couple of hours later and we were sat in the shade by a shallow, trickling river eating lunch. A popular Sunday afternoon spot for Tupizians, we were taunted by the smell of steaks on the barbeque and our ham and cheese sandwiches did little to satisfy our cowboy hunger. In the afternoon, we headed up the wide valley of the San Juan del Oro river and found our confidence growing as the scenery became more and more impressive. Flat alluvial gravel gave us the chance to risk a gallop and we clung on for dear life as the horses careered upstream, occasionally slowing to a trot to cross braids of the river. Intense green beans and young maize plants flourished on the rich soil to the edges of the river and the colour seemed almost foreign against the ochre reds and gun metal greys of the surrounding ridges. In the late afternoon, we reached the small village where we would spend the night. Surrounded by vertical, smooth cliffs, the adobe church, dating from Spanish times, looked beautiful and, later that evening I looked around its deserted interior - pages of latin text blown into the corners, two ancient rifles propped by the altar and crowds of decaying Jesus Christ dolls.

We woke the next morning feeling stiff and a little sore (imagine sitting on a stiff leather saddle for 7 hours and you´ll know where we were feeling sore), but keen to see more and to ride more. The sky was deep blue and with the long dark morning shadows, the landscape was stunning – big cliffs, jagged ridges and fields of green and purple alfafa. We crossed the river and gave in to the horses´ desires. A small dig of the heels into the ribs and my horse accelerated straight into a gallop. Hearing the noise, the other horses sped up and we found ourselves three abreast (Ismael keeping out of the amateur fray) across the gravel, dirt flying, and screams filling the air and fuelling the horses´ frenzy. It was terrifying and exhilarating in equal measures.

After a long, slow stretch north along the train track when we all felt the heat, we stopped in the shade, drank a couple of litres of water and ate fresh bread and tinned sardines. It was a welcome break and gave us a chance to find our strength again as well as letting all our aches die down. The rubbing of our legs against the saddles had given us all sore patches and, in my case, the friction had burnt the hairs off my legs leaving me with two painful, red, bald patches.

The horses were slowing by now and we plodded into the Valle de los Machos where spires of rock, ribs of solidified rubble and rain-shaped ridges filled a wide gorge. We snapped a few final photographs and headed back to Tupiza, the horses managing one final gallop before we swung our cramped legs over the saddle and tried to coax some life back into our locked knees. We were hot, dehydrated, sweaty and coated in dust, but we were happy. Despite the aches and pains, two days of riding in the most spectacular scenery had left its mark on us and I don´t think that any of us will forget it for a long time.


Post a Comment

<< Home