Eye-wateringly narrow and with a sheer drop to the right, the steep, rocky road to Ranquilco is not for the faint-hearted. We drove slowly, at least by Argentine standards, but it didn’t stop me from clinging to the side of the car. One would normally make this last part of the journey on horseback, but I guess we had too much stuff.
My fear, however, coincided with wonder at the absolutely breath-taking scenery before me. I wracked my brains for a place that looked similar but couldn’t think of anywhere. I had simply never seen anything like it.
I later came to think of it as other-worldly. Vast, arid and remote, the naked, green-yellow peaks seemed to go on forever, broken up only by clusters of lofty poplar trees (planted by owners), and with just Ranquilco itself, or the occasional puesto (gaucho house) as a landmark. Andean condors enjoyed their dominance in the boundless, unpolluted sky, eerily circling the cliffs. Water, free to carve its own route across the landscape, meandered down from the mountains.
That feeling of being on another planet also stemmed from the lack of people. This unique ranch in north Patagonia, run by survival expert T.A. Carrithers and tucked away in the foothills of the Andes, boasted only a small community of staff, guests and gauchos. Even for someone who’d come to relish the peaceful, unobtrusiveness of the Argentine campo, it could be deafeningly quiet at times save for the clip-clopping of horses’ hooves or the trickling of water through streams.
For the most part the streams and springs hid among the willows, but two majestic rivers, the Trocoman and the Picunleo, were less shy. Glittering in the morning sun or reflecting the bright blue of the afternoon sky as they wound through valleys, they met at the nearby Confluencia, racing over rocks and pebbles as one flowed into the other.
The price of such beauty was to live without, or with limited access to, mod-cons and even some foods I’d normally take for granted. Essentially an eco-lodge where vegetables were grown onsite and mules were used to “import” supplies, Ranquilco challenged its volunteers – mostly 20-something, outdoorsy-types from California – to enjoy a primitive lifestyle. Electricity, gas and WIFI were scarce, with wood fires used to heat water and sometimes for cooking. Fruit and beer were also considered a luxury, and for some of the volunteers, sleeping on a bench or in a tent was the norm.
The Infamous “Stream House”
I arrived at “The Stream House” prepared for something rather basic. In his email to me, property owner Ashley – my quirky, fun, wine-drinking boss who I think acquired the property in the 70s – explained I would be living in an old stone “house” (his inverted comas) adding it would be “funky, airy, communal”.
I’m not sure I would use the word funky, but it’s safe to say the place was rustic. The bedrooms all had dirt-floors, two with some carpet. The uneven stone floor in the living area was better, albeit a slight tripping hazard. In fairness I probably wouldn’t have noticed the holes in the “new” roof if it weren’t for the heavy rainstorm on my second day.
Tap water came from a nearby spring and so was fresh and delicious, though I found myself inspecting cups for the bugs that came with it. Other uninvited visitors included small scorpions and not-so-small spiders, mice, and latterly "Roger the Rat". I surprised myself by how calm I remained around them all, except for the mice. They were cute, but I felt slightly perturbed at the thought of them running around while I slept. One particular night I lost my patience with their incessant squeaking and endured a particular moment of horror when, half asleep, shining the torch on one, another scurried across my path, centimetres from my toes. I screamed and called out to my housemate Alejandro but, snoring nextdoor, he proved like most men to be rather useless in a crisis. I subsequently moved to the Stream House’s penthouse suite (slightly bigger and with more natural light) and begged Alejandro to put out poison, contrary to my non-violent principles.
The great thing about the Stream House was the bathroom. Yes it was outdoors and yes, we had some wasp-nests, but the flushing toilet was a godsend and once we finally fixed the shower, it felt like heaven (and I no longer burnt off my eyelashes and got smoke inhalation making the fire). The adjacent stream also turned out to be pretty useful, mainly for cooling wine and beer.
But the Stream House’s best feature was the location and view. A 10-minute walk from Casa Grande and the main volunteer house, it gave me the option of being with others or alone. We were particularly lucky to have poplars all around, and I would spend many a starry night by the fire gazing up at them, listening to the wind rush through leaves. Ranquilco horses, who mostly lived wild across the 100,000 acres, passed by regularly in the afternoons and at sunset. It was pretty spectacular.
A ‘land of extremes’
For me one of the biggest challenges of Patagonia, more so even than the Stream House, was the climate. Harsh and seemingly barren in parts, this so-called "land of extremes" no doubt presented a struggle for all newbies. It was bitterly cold at night, baking hot during the day. The air was bone dry, leaving my skin parched and cracked. The ground was mostly dusty, and no matter how many showers I had the dirt clung to my skin like glue (friends at home thought I was sun-kissed but really I just had a dirt tan). The paths, sometimes dangerously steep, were cluttered with loose rocks that threatened to disappear from under your feet. Where the ground wasn’t dry it was boggy, with deep mud that flooded my shoes or tall grass that made holes difficult to see. Snakes were a bit of a concern, but the biggest threat was the brutal plant life that took every opportunity to plunge sharp thorns into my flesh or grab at my clothes and hair. I was perpetually covered in scratches.
A book I was reading recently said few people were indifferent to Patagonia; you either loved it or you hated it. Though I found it tough, I can safely say I came to love it. In truth once I worked out how to navigate the roughness, it felt fun to be dirty, exhilarating to hike up and down, and even the plants, my biggest nemesis, I came to admire for their incredible self-defence strategies. I even came to love the Stream House.
If you were to speak to Ashley – who is T.A.'s dad and himself a former adventure seeker - he would argue the place is far from inhospitable. He claims all you really need is “salt and matches”, evidently to cook and eat fish from the river. (That said, he also sent me out on horseback in thunder and lightning). He points out the surplus of wood, great for making fires and building houses, and occasional orchard. I have to admit that together with Ashley’s grandson Kincaid – a 16-year-old Ranquilco expert, who turned out to be my chief camping partner and probably my best friend at the ranch – we often found fruit such as apples, plumbs and even apricots, growing on trees.
My amazing horses
As Ashley’s “horse girl”, my job involved taking care of five very special horses: Paulo, Poco, Cona and Cayanne – all geldings, and a mare, Beckan, who was introduced later. While I’d increased my horse knowledge at La Margarita, (my previous estancia), being solely responsible for this group and in a place like Patagonia, gave me an opportunity to learn more.
My first hurdle was to get our horses down from the top of the Stream House pasture (essentially, a giant hill) each morning. This involved: crossing the cold stream – either by balancing on pebbles while grabbing dead tree branches or taking my chances and jumping – then wading through ankle-deep mud, before hiking up the slope, often slipping on the dust and rocks and sometimes resorting to hands and knees, all the while being scratched to death by plants.
When I finally got up there, out of breath, sweating, I’d have the added challenge of finding the horses, sometimes spending what felt like an eternity scouring the top part of the pasture, wading through more mud and battling more thorns. And then, how to get them down? Unlike the horses I’d worked with at La Margarita who’d long lived together in a herd and knew what to do, these horses had been living separately and were seemingly clueless.
In the early days, when I had just the four, my only option was to lead one (a treacherous task if there ever was one) hoping another would follow, and then return to the top of the pasture to collect the other pair. It was therefore a huge achievement when I finally had all four herding down just a few weeks into the job.
…Only for Beckan to come along and mess everything up.
In the end, these horses came to be the best teachers and companions I could have asked for. Observing them together and riding them every day across some of Argentina’s toughest terrain, I learnt so much about horse behaviour, relationships and power that will stay with me forever. I have to admit to being surprised at how strong and versatile they were. No route was too tough for them, no slope to steep. As Kincaid would regularly remind me: “These horses are badass”.
I also came to understand their unique personalities. Paulo hated confrontation and took a passive role in the field, (mostly eating), but was my number-one lead horse on a ride. Cona wasn’t great at being first on the paths but seemed to command the respect of the others in the pasture, often bringing them down in the mornings. Poco was suspicious of humans, but to my surprise he was an easy ride, and extremely strong despite being petite in stature. The biggest of them all, Cayanne, was the most affectionate. His downfall was that he was nearly – but not quite – as stubborn as our mules when something fazed him.
And then there was my dream horse, Beckan. A bay with a jet-black mane and tail, she was Paulo’s mum, my dominant mare and the fastest horse at Ranquilco. Strong, beautiful and willing, she was also bolshie and determined, full of personality, but always gentle. It was very clear the other horses respected her, and I imagined her as the popular girl at school. I tried not to lord it over her too much, interchanging leading her with letting her follow me. That’s not to say she didn’t test me a couple of times, running away or taking off with me on a gallop across the airstrip. But I really loved her. I can’t remember how many times I asked Ashley if I could buy her, but his response never changed: “you can have her for $25,000”. Oh, to be rich.
Lost in the dark
One of Ashley’s greatest quotes – and there were many – was “you can never get lost at Ranquilco”. His directions to me or his partner Jen were usually along the lines of: “It’s just up that hill, right at the rocks, just keep going and you’ll find it. You can’t get lost.” While I always admired his faith in others and his general optimism, I am living proof this last statement was not true. You can, in fact, get very lost in a place where google maps is futile and where every hill looks identical to the one before.
It happened on Valentine’s Day. Jackie, another volunteer who was living with Alejandro and I at the Stream House, was keen to ride and so I decided to take her to the Confluencia for a girly lunch. We had a great day taking the horses in the water and discussing our failed relationships over wine, and left feeling merry around 7pm while it was still light.
The ride home was normally an hour or so. I was on Cona, who seemed determined to find his own footing rather than follow my instructions. Exhausted with him, I gave him more rein, figuring he knew the way home.
All of a sudden I realised we weren’t going the right way. The river was on the right side, but everything else was unfamiliar. I told Jackie we needed to get higher, and that the usual route had great views. And so, we started upward, and upward, and then upward again. Still no path.
After covering a lot of ground, bushwhacking over rocks the size of boulders, it began to get dark and I started feeling uneasy. Jackie was frustrated and I was struggling to make out what was what as the sun went down. The horses were also getting tired.
After some arguing, we decided to keep going. Jackie had suggested we go back down to the river, but I was worried that by the time we got down there it would be pitch black, I had no idea which part of the river we'd meet up with or even if we'd be able to walk alongside it.
We’d found a fence, but after realising that up and around it was impossible we went back downhill in search of a gate. By now the sun had set and I was using my headlamp. The hill was incredibly steep, and to their credit, the horses were extremely cooperative, not faltering even once. Jackie however, was not feeling so confident and we started arguing again. Then we heard dogs howling and it honestly brought to mind some sort of horror film as Jackie said they were probably wild coyotes. I was less concerned about the dogs and more by the fact that I still had no idea where we were, and should we have to camp out, I had only one, thin sweater.
Finally we found a gate and relief poured over me. I figured if we could just get on the other side of this fence we could rejoin the path at the top. Unfortunately, my relief was temporary. After going through the gate and up – while being hounded by six dogs – we came across another gate-less fence. It was like being in some sort of maze.
I was about to give up, when out of nowhere I saw a light coming from a house at the bottom of the hill. “Jackie a light! I’m going down!” I shrieked, racing ahead so as not to lose sight of it. I was met by two gauchos and a young boy. Using pretty basic Spanish I cringed as I explained to them we were from Ranquilco and had somehow gotten lost. They gave me vague directions and Jackie suggested I ask them to show us the way. Cringing again, I asked, and luckily for us one of them agreed.
In the end, we had a stunning, moonlit ride behind a gaucho on what was an incredibly warm night. We eventually got home around 11.30pm, roughly four hours after we'd left the Confluencia. When I told the story to Kincaid, I could barely look at him as he laughed at me. I remain embarrassed about it to this day.
From girly to “badass”
Aside from the horses and scenery, the best thing about Ranquilco was all the things it taught me. First, some measurable skills: how to make bread and granola from scratch, lots of Spanish vocab (thanks to a very patient Alejandro), what you should actually do when you get lost in the wilderness in the dark, and to some extent, how to pack a mule (though I never did this alone).
Then, some realisations: How I’m lot more capable than I think (the best compliment ever was when Kincaid told me I was “badass”), how having a lot of possessions can be restricting, and crucially, how much I love outdoor adventure. From cooking outdoors and sleeping in a cave, to swimming in icy-cold river water and riding horses down near-vertical slopes, it was not only great fun, but wonderfully liberating.
Likewise at Ranquilco, you have a rare opportunity to learn about the type of person you are and take notes from those you admire. I’m proud to say I didn’t rely on others too much and was good at staying positive. I did, however, notice how much more relaxed, confident and extremely generous my Argentine friends - Alejandro, Sylvana and Ivana (two badass gaucho girls) - were, even in a place where supplies were limited and the climate was tough. I decided I wanted to be more like them.
Lastly, you really come to appreciate the basic things. The day I noticed we had propane in our house - and so could have coffee in the morning without making a fire - I was overjoyed. The time the shower got fixed I was probably the happiest person on the planet. That moment when I herded the horses down successfully for the first time, I was similarly ecstatic.
From there you observe what is important to you. While there’s tons of fun in being dirty, I have to admit, I also love being clean. Having the freedom to be active and eat fruit regularly is amazing. In the future, I will definitely strive not to underestimate myself, and instead, simply learn how to do things. I've decided I don’t need so many belongings, everyone to like me, or to look perfect all the time. I can live without WIFI for a while. Horses have, and will continue to take priority, over things like dining out.
And so, for anyone who is considering volunteering at a horse ranch in some remote part of the world, I would highly recommend it. I’m not going to lie, it’s hard-going: emotionally, physically and mentally. But when not chopping wood or getting creative with the food supply, we at Ranquilco passed our time playing with horses, learning about survival, telling stories and sleeping under the stars. What could be more magical, or more life changing, than that?