- By Bill Bonner
I was in the dining room putting the table to order after my English class. Six little girls between the ages of seven and eleven had just gone home. Dona Felica knocked on the door. She had been sitting in the kitchen with Marta during the class, and I assumed she had been there to accompany a little scholar home. But not at all.
She had been waiting to ask if she could take a manzanita-a few little apples - from the quinta. The sala's orchard produces quantities of apples, peaches and walnuts. Perhaps it had been a commercial venture in times past. We consider it part of the cost of being a dueno. Ever since we have been at Gualfin, it has been the custom for the gente to come to the door and politely ask if they may have a "manzanita," a handful of apples. Or of peaches, or of walnuts. They promptly vanish into the orchard, coming in and out with large sacks stuffed to the brim with fruit or nuts. The sacks are sewn shut, loaded onto waiting burros, and taken to ramadas or depositos in their arriendos or puestos to last through the winter. We had not fully understood this aspect of the economy of Finca Gualfin until this weekend - on our attempted expedition to the rio de Los Patos. Our first night's halt was to be at the most remote puesto of the finca, Atacamara.
Dona Felica had also left behind two pairs of llama wool socks she had knitted. Marta laid them down on the dining room table. "Socks for Don Bill," she announced. "For rio de los Patos," she added. "Mucho frio!" I bought both pairs.
The next day, Dona Maria brought over a mountain of clothing - long johns, a llama wool-cardigan and vest, a ski cap, a polar jacket, a quilted vest. Marta, who was watching, picked up an enormous woolen blanket with pompoms that someone had given us for our living room, and draped it over herself until only her eyes and her hands were visible. "This is what I'd wear," she said. I laughed. Dona Maria did not laugh. "It's a little too bulky," she said, consideringly. "You'd have to put it under your saddle when the sun gets too hot."
I borrowed the cardigan for myself and the quilted vest for Bill.
The next day, Marta brought me a present. It was a pair of woolen socks. I had seen her knitting them, using four needles made from cardon cactus thorns. She had spun the wool herself from the family's sheep fleece. I offered to buy them from her, but she demurred. "You're going to need these," she said. "Un regalito." A little present.
Bill and I began to take our preparation for the expedition more seriously. The night before, we tried on our outfits. Bill wore two pairs of corduroy trousers, two shirts, a sweater, and the quilted vest. He wound a woolen scarf over his head and around his neck, and put on his hat and sunglasses "Do you think its enough?" he asked, innocently. Perhaps another pair of socks? I suggested, trying not to laugh. He took my advice and also the poncho that Marta's father had made for him a few years ago. It is a magnificent poncho - impervious to water, wind and thorns, dyed brown with walnut skins, with dark red stripes, and extremely heavy. It came down to his feet. I packed my extra clothes into a saddle bag. My jacket would go under the saddle.
Two friends arrived that night to join us on the expedition. One of them had done some research on our trip and was visibly agitated. "It says here that rio de Los Patos is 4,500 meters," he said. "I've never been that high without an oxygen mask." Hmm...how high is Kilimanjaro? we wondered. A mutual friend had hiked up and been carried down on a stretcher. When we saw him a week later, he still had wildly staring eyes and a bright red complexion. Even his hair still seemed to be standing up on end.
I went out to the kitchen, where Marta and her sister Niconora were getting our provisions loaded into sacks for the mules. It looked like enough food for a month.
"You don't want to run out," counseled Sergio, who was leaning against the stove, sipping mate with a silver straw. The farm's encargado, he had driven up from Salta that evening with provisions, and was to accompany us - a prospect which he did not seem to regard with enthusiasm. "I was once lost for three days in Corriente, in a canoe surrounded by crocodiles," he remarked, with a bleak, far-off look in his eyes.
Of course, it is too cold in rio de Los Patos for crocodiles. Rio de Los Patos lies at the border of the provinces of Salta and Catamarca. It is the frontier to the Puna, the high-altitude desert that stretches in an almost sterile plain between the mountains of Argentina, Chile and Bolivia. The nightly temperatures drop to freezing. The rare oases support little more than llama and a few sheep.
Our plan was to ride all day up to Compuel at 3,500 meters, and then on to Atacamara, at a little over 4,000 meters above sea level. The next morning we would set out to rio de Los Patos.
None of us slept very well that night, except possibly for the youngest member of our group. Agustin has the optimistic temperament of the typical sporting Salteno.
Luckily, we were to ride with Jorge, our capable capataz, or farm manager, and his wife Dona Maria. They know Gualfin, we reasoned. And although neither had been to rio de Los Patos, they seemed unconcerned. That is, until we starting bringing out our luggage. We looked like Argentines from the Golden Age leaving for a year's trip to Europe. Worst of all, our friends had not brought the extra mule we expected. Gustavo, our gardener, proposed two of his burros. One was so small we thought it was a foal.
"He's three years old!" replied Gustavo, as he laid a pad made of old sweaters stitched together on its back, and then loaded three bulky sacks on the little creature.
We started on our way, riding out the back of the sala, over the mountain pass and down to the Quebrada Chica. Partway up the mountain to the abra, we noticed that Agustin was missing. "He's just gone back for the wine," said our friend. It is true that Agustin is an accomplished wine maker. Four days without wine must have seemed unthinkable. And we would be glad to have it with our asado.
"Asado?" queried Sergio, nervously. "Won't that take a lot of extra time? Cheese and crackers will be fine." We all ignored him. There was no way our mule and the burros were going to carry two legs and two racks of lamb any longer than necessary. One of our flock had given its life for our asado and we were determined to enjoy it to the fullest.
Observing the dust from Agustin's galloping horse rising toward us, we set off again. The burros ran along in front, as is the custom, encouraged with whistles, growls of "ha-har," "burr-r-o," and whacks on their narrow rumps with the end of Jorge's reins. The mule, on the other hand, had be led, coaxed and bullied in a tone of affectionate exasperation with a "mu-u-la!"
It had been a year since we had ridden to Compuel. We followed the road that winds along the mountainside into the Quebrada Chica. Far below, we could see the well-known places and markers. There were the sala'salfalfa and hay fields and pastures. There was the quinta secreta, the old abandoned orchard ringed with a high stone pirka, where we like to take an afternoon's ride. There was the line of trees, grown rust-colored with the progress of autumn, where the acequia passes. As we rode further along, we recognized the arriendo of the gente.
Javier's is first; well-kept pasture for his livestock, fields of corn and potatoes for his household. He and his family live in an adobe house on the cliff, well above the arable land. Next is Don Francisco's arriendo, untidy with lines of laundry, goat skins hanging in a tree, peaches drying on the roof, dogs sleeping in the sun, and the constant movement of eight children and three households living under one roof. Up behind the house is the corral and scattered in the hills, Dona Felica's goats from which she makes savory cheese.
Next comes the prospering arriendo of Hugo, who sells his produce in Molinos, then that of Don Natalio with his fields of alfalfa sown in precise curving rows and the tidy, rambling house where he lives with nine of his children and their mother. Afterwards, Pedro's first arriendo where his daughter and son-in-law help him farm, then Don Domingo's arriendo, where his grandson Gustavo lives. The two burros made their last dash for familiar territory, and Jorge charged off after them on his intrepid mule, with a threatening shout of "burr-rr-rro!" and spinning his rein end with a terrifying hiss. Not entirely dutifully, they trotted back in line.
We passed the arriendo of the Vilte with its heart-shaped corral. Three Vilte women live there, with their respective children. And last, a small arriendo that Pedro also farms. Dona Maria pointed out the corral with a twinkle in her eye. "We hear Pedro is very helpful," she said. It seems he built the corral for one of the Vilte ladies, with whom he has several children. "But there are two sides to every heart." In case I hadn't understood, she reminded me that Pedro's wife lives on the first of his arriendos. "It seems to suit them all," she added, demurely.
In the midst of the orchards, pastures, fields and houses with their hard-packed dirt yards, flows the rio Barranca, running over rocks and down the long steep slope from Compuel. As we reached the last arriendo, we could look through a cleft in the mountains to the Quebrada Grande, where two arriendero families have their farmsteads. The ensemble of fields were large, green and thriving. They looked rich and appealing.
"When water runs in the Quebrada Grande, there is more of it," explained Jorge. "But even in a dry year, there is always water in the Quebrada Chica." The other disadvantage, I noticed, looking at a track that led from the Quebrada Chica over the steep rocky foothills to the Quebrada Grande, is that the access in or out is only on foot, horse, mule, or burro.
"Two thousand eight hundred meters and five kilometers!" announced our friend, who had brought along a GPS. We had another 1,200 meters to rise and thirty-five kilometers to go before we came to the puesto of Atacamara for our first night. From there, we intended to ride on to the rio de Los Patos, at 4,500 meters and another day's ride away. We would spend the night in an abandoned puesto by the river that Jorge knew about, and then come back - four days of riding and three nights in tents.
We climbed higher, leaving the fertile valley behind. The river narrowed. We passed an abandoned arriendo, roof gone, adobe washed out of the stones, corral tumbling. A flood had torn away what were probably its fields. Jorge could barely remember the name of the old man who had been the last occupant.
But the mountains still maintain farmsteads, hidden in their folds. Over beyond the abandoned arriendo lives Pedro's mother, Dona Valentina, in La Bunilla. "A buna," explained Dona Maria, who started her life in Gualfin as the maestra of the little school, "is a natural reservoir."
We rode through the Abrita Celeste, where the soft sandy stone is a pale blue, through the Cuesta Blanca, named for its white stone, looked across at the Loma Blanca, where lines of white quartz stand out on the mountainside, and where there is high pasture for one of the families of Gualfin. We entered a miniature world of small canyons formed by the meandering river. Inside the canyons are soft grass, low cliffs where birds have made holes for their nests, a gentle place until the spring snow-melt and summer rainwaters come roaring through.
At last, we arrived at the Abra de Compuel. At the summit we halted at the apacheta. Dona Maria found a stone to place on the top of the conical pile. "Reverence for the Pachamamma," she said. It seemed wise to follow suit.
From the abra, or opening, the land slopes smoothly down to the immense plain of Compuel. There were our cattle grazing peacefully on the golden cienago, the tufted grass that grows at high altitude and tolerates wet soil. Sitting on top of a huge boulder at the foot of the pass were three young men. They said not a word as we went by, and barely returned our greeting with a nod. It was a reminder that Compuel is a transitional territory, between the comforting green of the arriendos in the quebrada and the tough, austere world of the high altitude pastores. Up in Compuel, the authority of the finca is not as well-seated as we would wish - and this tension has existed for at least forty years and probably far longer. Maria remembers when a revolt by some of the gente, who refused to recognize the property rights of the dueno of the epoch, led to forced expulsions under police rifles. And we've read that the Gualfin Indians, secure for decades behind these high mountain passes, were the last tribe of the Calchaquies valleys to be conquered by the Spanish colonists.
We put sobering thoughts aside. It was time for lunch. The only person who seemed not to be tired, after four hours in the saddle, was Jorge. He had been stopping, dismounting, tightening cinches, readjusting falling packs on burros and mules, chasing the wayward burros, and generally keeping our little band moving forward. Let's stop under the cross, he and Maria suggested. At the base of the little mountain on which it stood, there was a cleft in the rocks to shelter our fire. We let the horses graze, and gathered the dry branches and dead roots of the wiry desert brush, the tola, to make the fire. Jorge and Sergio made skewers from branches and Maria threaded them through the meat. We had a restorative meal augmented with Chilean wine from Agustin, and the cheese that Marta makes from our Holstein cow's milk.
Then over the long plain of Compuel we rode, noting Modesta and her son Daniel's house set at the foot of a mountain on the other side of rim. We were sorry to see that Modesta is allowing her sheep to range over our pastures at Compuel. Maria shook her head. "She can't stand up against pressure from the Chaille." This family, a few of whose members had been sitting on the boulder, flagrantly runs their horses, llama, sheep, and -worst of all, according to Jorge, their burros - on the finca's grazing land. "A burro eats more than a cow!" he remarked, indignantly. Our cattle need every scrap of pasture we have to get through the winter. And it is especially true this year, with low rainfall in Compuel.
A generation ago, the Chaille family arrived in Compuel from the Puna, reputedly running from vicuneros , the lawless hunters of vicuna. Maria, telling us the story, added, "At least, that's what their grandmother told me." Her tone suggested there might be some doubt about the identity of the vicuneros.
We followed the river, starting to climb toward the abra de Atacamara. We were still hours from our destination at the puesto, and wisps of cloud were beginning to whiten the sky. Ponchos came out from under saddles. The long mound of the nearby mountain showed streaks of snow and ice, as though a puma had scraped its claws over it.
The river widened through a narrow valley. Horses and riders disappeared among tall thick clumps of corderito. Rivulets of bright blue and silver, pools of dark water, visible now and then through the golden grass, the sound of trickling streams, a few small birds darting among the white plumes of the corderito made up this quiet world. The land rose gently upward. Maria and I admired the interesting rocks - layers of coral, black and white swirling together, evoking the geological activity of eons past. And another rock that looked like a gnarled stump of wood.
"Flores de piedra," said Maria, "Flowers of the stone," when I pointed out a granite boulder covered with bright orange and green lichen.
It was 8 o'clock in the evening. We had been on horseback for almost twelve hours. We slid off the horses with legs like jelly as the darkness began to fall.
Silvia and her daughter Claudia came out to meet us. They both wore broad-brimmed flowered hats, decorated with trailing ribbons of various colors, fluttering around their backs in the wind. Claudia was muffled in a bright turquoise scarf up to her wide-set eyes. It was cold.
Silvia, about forty, has been a pastora in this puesto all her life. Since her little daughter Nancy spends quite a bit of time in the sala, where Marta takes care of her after school and where she learns English, I have gotten to know Silvia better than many of the gente. Dona Maria told me her story: She is the youngest of the six children of old Jose Guttierez from his first marriage. Silvia's mother died when she was born, and she was brought up as best her father could manage until he married again. At the age of two, she was crippled by an infection in her right leg. In Gualfin, where the hard realities of life are never veiled in political correctness, she is known as "la rengita," the limping one. And she has more than a limp; she moves with a twisting shuffle, dragging her almost inert right leg as she steps along. Yet she somehow manages, and quite often, the fourteen-hour walk back and forth between Atacamara and the sala. During the school year, she and Nancy stay in a little house near the school. But Silvia doesn't like to leave Claudia, who is only eighteen, completely on her own, and in any case, provisions have to be carried regularly to the puesto. Apart from llama meat and mutton, there is nothing to eat - no huerta of corn and potatoes, tomatoes or pumpkin grows in this cold altitude. Here above the tree line, there is not so much as an algarroba tree with its edible pods. Nor a quinta with fruit to dry for the long winter months.
The clue to Silvia's endurance is in her eyes - quick, observant, shrewd, direct. The rhythm of her speech is also quick, as well as decisive and emphatic -- if foreign ears cannot always grasp her vocabulary, they sense her meaning. Her face is a narrow oval, with delicate bones and well-shaped lips, ready to smile in shared humor. Her body is well-proportioned if maimed; slender, wiry, and tough. And even her movements, economical, deft, signal Silvia's strength and intelligence.
She invited us into the kitchen for a drink of tea. It was a small square room, separate from the sleeping quarters and storerooms. A hearth in the middle of the space was edged with stones, making a raised brazier on one end, where three blackened pots steamed over a tiny fire of roots. On the ground next to the fire, two little tin teapots stayed warm. Plastic jerry cans of water from the stream below the pasture were stowed in the corner under a table, upon which were a few cups and plates, and a canister of sugar. I was surprised to be offered a Lipton tea bag with my cup of hot water. A small, easily transportable luxury.
Around the hearth were five miniature chairs. Here in the mountains, chairs are low, taking up little space, light and easy to move around, made to perch on below the rising smoke of the fire. Though my eyes stung, the warmth of the bright flames was irresistible. And with such a small fire, there was not actually much smoke. It went out a little opening high in the wall, and perhaps out through the roof, the underside of which was jet-black with pitch and soot. Soot darkened the stones of the walls, too.
Jorge had cautioned us against eating too much once we got up to the high altitude of Atacamara. So I brought a small sack of rice out of our bulging bags, and Claudia set to work.
Outside, meanwhile, the horses were ready to turn loose, unsaddled and unbridled. Jorge and Sergio hobbled them. They used a thick woolen rope, a manea, made into a loop with a knot at one end. They doubled the loop around one leg, then twisted the two ends into a single strand in the middle, and neatly slipped the knotted end into the remainder of the open loop to attach the other leg.El Criollo hopped around, his front legs maneadas, working out, in his intelligent, good-natured way, how to get to the stream. Jorge attached the maneas to La Saltanita, who was used to be thwarted and resigned herself. El Tigre, being the tamest of our horses, did not have to be hobbled, but a soft woolen rope attached his neck to that of La Saltanita. Acollararos, she and El Tigre lurched off together. The mules, the burros, and our friends' horses received similar treatment, much to the shocked incomprehension of the latter. But it was not worth taking the risk that one or more of us would end up walking to the rio de Los Patos.
The tents were set up. Silvia had offered us the bed she shares with Claudia, but we didn't want to displace them. Although we were tempted. We discovered that the foot pump we had brought to inflate our mattresses was more adapted to balloons for a birthday party than camping. It was also found that our friends had only one small tent between then. Their other tent was hors service. "What a shame!" announced our friend to his comrade, "your tent is missing its poles!" Being as he was the youngest, he reckoned, Agustin would find a solution. Sergio had cleverly been the first to erect his tent, in the sheltered space between the kitchen wall and the storehouse. Jorge and Maria whipped up their tent in a jiffy. And finally, Bill and I borrowed all the saddle pads we could find to put under our sleeping bags.
We ate dinner outside and in the smoky kitchen, thin slices of salty ham with our rice, and the remains of Marta's home-made cheese. The Lucera del Amanecer - a bright star in the western sky -- came out in full brilliance, glittering in the cold black air.
We all went to bed. But sleep was an elusive companion. The wind picked up, and tore at our tent as if it were a puma trying to devour us. The dry high-altitude air gave me an unquenchable thirst. The lack of oxygen woke Don Bill every time he fell asleep. Like the princess in the fairy tale, he felt every pebble under the layers of fluffy peleros and pelones. Our friend in his one-man tent found that his sleeping bag was far too lightweight. We heard his voice, asking of the general company,
"Is anyone sleeping in the kitchen?" Go ahead, we answered. We would have followed, but the idea of getting out of our sleeping bags was unthinkable. We, at least, were warm. I fell asleep and dreamed that I was asking Silvia where I could take a hot bath.
We heard him talking, a little before dawn, with Silvia. She was leaving early to gather her cattle from the cerro. With her typical forthrightness, she was answering his questions and asking her own. Occasionally, we would hear the high-pitched, rising note of her "hmm-mmm!", an expression whose meaning varies with its tone from sympathetic marveling to polite incredulity.
When we conferred in the morning, the only person who had actually slept well was Agustin, whose good fortune it was not to have a tent. Silvia and Claudia offered him little Nancy's bed in the sleeping quarters they all shared. And he had drifted off like a baby under the warm covers.
As the sun started to rise, the close-cropped hills filled with harsh golden light. The streams running through the pastures had iced over, and reflected the blue sky. The llama stood outside their corral, clustered on the rocks above it along with a herd of sheep. These sheep were the criollo breed: white or black, with long fluffy fleeces, slender legs and long narrow faces. Some of the sheep and llama had little colored threads hanging from their coats. I asked Claudia what they were.
"Florita," she said, smiling. Little flowers, offerings to the Pachamamma, like the pompoms Marta had sewn onto the ears of our calves at the round-up a few weeks before. And no wonder Claudia invokes the aid of the goddess of the earth. She spends long hours in the puesto by herself. She watches over the herds of sheep and llama, keeping them from wandering too far, protecting them from puma. And she is a guardian of the finca's border. Just over the hills to the south is the vast territory of Jasimana, inhabited by several of her uncles and aunts, but also by unscrupulous pastores. Jorge thinks that Jasimana livestock, particularly the voracious burros, are interloping in our pasture of Compuel. Back in the days when Claudia's grandfather Jose -- "un hombre respetuoso," Maria told us, approvingly - and his sons ranged the hills, foreign animals were driven back over the border. It is not so easy for 18-year-old Claudia and her mother to maintain order.
We went back to make breakfast for our party. Claudia turned on the radio. It was Sunday morning, and the mass from the mountain town of Cachi was on the air. Agustin sang along : "Ven al Senor con amor..."
Jorge had gone to round up the horses, and came riding across the pasture on his mule, driving them ahead along with the burros.
Jorge was ready to ride onward to rio de Los Patos, but there were second thoughts among our party. Sergio shook his head without the trace of a smile: What if the wind blew away our tents? What if it snowed? We all nodded. Our friend took out his GPS and showed us the little blue dot that indicated our camp at Atacamara:
"Four thousand and fourteen meters!" High-altitude sickness, possibly resulting in death, is most common between 4,000 and 5,000 meters, he pointed out.
The plan to ride to rio de Los Patos, where it would be even colder at this time of year and the air thinner, was unanimously abandoned.
We had ridden as far as Atacamara, the most remote puesto of finca Gualfin, and now we prepared to turn back. The ride home was long and arduous, although hearts were lightened at the thought of hot baths and warm beds when we arrived
As we rode down into the Quebrada Chica from Compuel, we looked out over the mountains and through to the plain of Gualfin. The setting sun cast rosy reflections on the snows of Cachi; the evening sky was streaked with pink.
Next year, next summer, we'd make it to rio de Los Patos. - E.W.P. Bonner
Bill Bonner is the President & Founder of Agora Inc, an international publisher of financial and special interest books and newsletters.