Although not strictly the outdoor type, ANTHONY PEREGRINE surprises himself on the action holiday of a lifetime high in the Argentinian mountains

Although not strictly the outdoor type, ANTHONY PEREGRINE surprises himself on the action holiday of a lifetime high in the Argentinian mountains

I rode the Andes, scanned horizons that disappeared with the earth’s curve and bought llama wool socks at 4,000m. It was an uphill struggle – and Argentina was bound to fail – but few places on earth have come closer to making an action man of me.

You could fit England four times over into the barren spread of Patagonia. Aconcagua, Argentina’s loftiest peak, outreaches Ben Nevis by more than 6,000m. There are rainforests up north, Antarctica down south. In such hugeness, the support structures of human civilisation become fragile even before the tarmac runs out. ‘So what…’ I say to my new friend, Diego Giavedoni, as he drives up a cliff-face. I am about to add ‘…do we do if we meet something?’ But I don’t, because we do. Around the corner hurtles a troop of panicking mules. The leader bounces off the car, the rest make space between car and cliff by pushing us to the precipice. We end up with the front wheel on the brink of a 300m plunge into the rocky canyon below.’Happy?’ smiles Diego. ‘Delirious,’ I reply.

Argentina throws down this sort of challenge on an hourly basis. The locals barely notice. My first sight of the Andes, rising like supernatural elders behind the northwestern city of Salta, inspires a mixture of both. ‘Let’s get in among them,’ I say to driver Pom-Pom and guide Claudio, with less conviction than I’d hoped for.

I had spent the previous evening discovering the adobe clutter and colonial splendour of Salta, patrolling streets, parks and bars until the early hours in the company of most of the rest of the population. Argentinians live late. The shadows held no menace because everyone else was there – grandmothers, kids, sandwich-sellers. Around midnight, and for a dollar, I had my arterial tension taken by a bloke with a trestle table under the arcades of the magnificent main square.

Hence some of the lack of conviction as we pile into the 4×4 at 8am the next day. Within 20 miles, the road gives way to a beaten track and we are skirting landslips, crossing shallow streams and curving around canyons. The Rio Toro recedes further and further below. Only huge, phallic cacti temper the landscape – its rocks are otherwise unadorned but rear and plunge, showing off their different coloured strata with immodesty. I am stunned. We appear to have entered a completely different dimension of mountain from any I’ve ever known before. Then we pass a bus stop. A bus stop? ‘These people need to get to town,’ explains Claudio. ‘Which people?’ I ask. I have been so taken by the natural drama that I’ve discounted humanity. But, sure enough, absurdly isolated farmsteads cling to mini valley bottoms and distant hillsides. The llama herds perforce belong to someone, perhaps the old chap with bike and baseball cap we are passing?

A bend in the highland trail brings us to Santa Rosa: seven families, one church, one bar and conceivably the most remote soccer pitch in the world. ‘Mountain folk converge here on Saturday evenings,’ explains Claudio. ‘The young men get plastered. Then on Sunday morning, they play football.’ This cheers me no end. Two hours, several plateaux and some near-death experiences later we arrive, at 4,000m, at St Antonio-de-los-Cobres. It is an odd place to end the most exhilarating drive of my life. A town-sized collection of run-down adobe, its industry is borax mining. A zillion miles from anywhere, amid some of the most grandiose scenery on earth, trucksand mopeds stir up the dust, men hang about on corners and business is business. Stepping from the vehicle, I am surrounded by a scrum of Indian ladies pressing llama stuff upon me. ‘Buy the socks,’ shouts Pom-Pom. ‘They’ll keep you warm when your women are away.’ ‘Women?’ I say. Claudio smiles. ‘Pom-Pom has serious needs,’ he says, and we go in for lunch in the only brick building in town. It is beef, of course.

Now I want to ride. Thus a few days later and a couple of thousand kilometres south, I find myself at Los Chulengos in Tupangatu Mountain Park, holding the reins and raring to go. Well, almost. Two hours out of Mendoza and at 2,500m, Los Chulengos is an upland ranch converted by Fernando and Maria Palmas to welcome any visitors determined enough to get there. They may stay, trek, ramble, ride, fish or simply hang around awestruck. And then they eat, which we do first, because the weather has closed in. Rain lashes down, hiding what Fernando assures me is a 3,300m peak across the way.

This kind of hiccup doesn’t get in the way of Argentinian barbecues. Nothing does. We eat inside, though, tackling more beef (rib, steak, flank, innards) than I’ve seen in a decade. I stop counting the side dishes when I get to a dozen. ‘And now you ride?’ smiles Fernando, as we finish pudding. Certainly. I am full of beef and wine and, more to the point, my travelling companions are three of the most charming, attractive women of Mendoza. Chickening out is not an option.

Enshrouded in waterproofs, we mount the awaiting horses. I haven’t ridden for 20 years and am fairly sure I’ll go flying over the horse’s head or be dragged by the ankle as it bolts for Chile, but nothing like that happens. While by some way the worst rider there, I still ride across moorland, up ridges and along ravines (whose real depth is, thank heavens, obscured by banks of mist).It is wonderful. I am riding in the Andes! ‘A real gaucho!’ cries one of the ladies on a nearby horse. ‘Gaucho Marx,’ I shout back, but secretly I am pretty pleased with myself. And a lot more pleased with Los Chulengos – warm and welcoming enough to even allow civilised mention of (and I’d been dreading this) the Falklands.

The poor weather continues, writing off the agenda the next day’s white-water rafting around Aconcagua. This is a pity as I’d been anxious to build on the cavalier triumph, but it allows me time to nose round Mendoza, a graceful, grid-pattern colonial city of avenues, arcades, trees, squares and parks. And so to Patagonia. I arrive at Neuquen on its northern fringes and we drive straight out into it. Then we stop. And stare. The odd thing is that there is nothing to stare at. Absolutely nothing. The tableland, bare but for an interminable sprinkling of knee-high scrub bushes, unravels as far as the eye can see and much, much further. ‘It’s like this for 2,000km,’ says my host Guillermo Barzi. It is the enormity of the void that fills the vision, hypnotises the senses and, given a day or two, would probably drive me beyond reason.

If we were real holidaymakers, we would push on 600km, off the tableland and up to the apparently beautiful mountain lake district around Bariloche. But we don’t have time, so we pull up at El Chocon, where the desert dips down to an artificial lake, dammed to send hydro-electricity hundreds of miles to Buenos Aires. Here, during the excavation, the remains of the biggest meat-eating dinosaur ever discovered were unearthed. Gigantosaurus carolinii was a brute. Its skeleton, almost intact, lies in the little town’s museum and, at 14m, outstrips the tyrannosaurus rex. Impressive indeed, this was a beast built to suit the dimensions of Patagonia, though it wouldn’t find much meat to sustain it these days – a snake or two, perhaps a fox and the odd mini-ostrich. ‘It would, though, make a hell of a mess on the pampas,’ I tell Guillermo. He doesn’t hear. Perhaps just as well – you don’t joke about beef in Argentina.

Thus we return, along roads straighter than laser beams and through the frontier sprawl of Neuquen, to Guillermo’s fruit and wine farm in the Rio Negro valley. This is an extraordinary burst of greenery. We eat and, in the fresh, clear evening air, I wander the orchards plucking a fruit from a tree every now and then. ‘Picking plums in Patagonia,’ I hum to myself, essaying a couple of the tango steps I’ve seen in a bar in Buenos Aires. I fervently hope no one is watching.

Other attractions

  • Iguaçu Falls
  • Among the world’s most impressive, in the rainforest of the far northeast of the country

  • White-water rafting and canoeing
  • Around Mendoza or in the Patagonian Andes

  • Trekking, climbing or sailing
  • Among the ice-fields, forests and lakes of the southern part of the Patagonian Andes

  • Long-term trekking
  • A week or more, by horse or foot, throughout the
    Argentinian Andes

  • Whales and the Welsh on the Patagonian coast
  • Between May and December, the whales cruise around the Valdes Peninsula, while Welsh settlers have been around Gaiman for generations and apparently still take tea with Welsh cakes

  • Staying at an estancia (ranch)
  • On the limitless pampas, getting to grips with gaucho life before golf, polo, huntin’ or fishin’

  • Fishing
  • From the Parana and Uruguay rivers in the north to salmon or ocean fishing in the south

  • Winter sports
  • In Las Lenas, Penitentes and Valles de Plata in Mendoza province, at Cerro Bayo or Cerro Catedral in the lake district around Bariloche or further south in the Patagonian Andes

    Which wine?

  • For Salta-based activities, the wineries are at Cafayate. Try Bodegas Etchart, Michel Torino or Lavaque, which are all clustered around the little town.
  • If you’re trekking or rafting in the Mendoza province, you’re in the heart of wine country and there are dozens of wineries to explore. Among the most interesting to pop into are La Agricola, Chandon and Luis Segundo Correas.
  • Down on the rim of Patagonia, the winery to visit is Humberto Canale, just outside the town of General Roca in the Rio Negro valley.

  • Anthony Peregrine is a freelance writer who specialises in wine-related travel.

    Written by ANTHONY PEREGRINE