Ber-hin-ya. Is this enough adrenalin, for you, Ber-hin-ya?"
I would shout, "Yes!" Except the word would be lost under the sound of thundering hooves as Juan and his horse overtake me at a race-course gallop.
I'm an experienced rider, but my heart is pounding as my horse runs full tilt along rocky terrain and strains against my attempts to slow her down.
Thankfully, Juan brings his horse to a trot and my mount follows suit. My husband and Pedro, the gaucho, catch up to us, and we resume a civilized canter.
We are in the middle of the Argentinian Andes, at an estancia only accessible by four-wheel drive a few hours west of Mendoza. We are the only ones here with Juan, son of the estancia owner (Juan has five sisters, and all help their parents host visitors), Pedro and a cook.
We quickly realize this will be the highlight of our three weeks in Argentina.
As a country that grew rich on agricultural output, visiting a traditional ranch is high on any travellers' lists. But we didn't want just a day-trip with a romanticized version of a gaucho and poky ponies. (To be fair, we did visit an estancia an hour outside of Buenos Aires and enjoyed cantering on spirited horses through fields and forest; wonderful food; and oh-so-comfortable hammocks for a siesta.)
After careful research, we chose Estancia Rancho'e Cuero, owned by the Palma family for more than 200 years and sprawling across 3,000 hectares near the Chilean border. Here you can (and we did!) see red deer, wild boars, foxes and condors.
Juan picks us up in Mendoza and, though this is a pricey option, we're glad we didn't drive ourselves because I'm sure we would have gotten lost. Besides, it's fun to hear Juan's chatter as we traverse dirt roads and riverbeds up 2,500 metres to the picturesque ranch.
It is mid-morning, and Pedro serves strong coffee and fresh-out-of-the oven pastries as we sit in the sun on the deck. Soon it is time to mount up. Though you can also hike and fish here, for me, it is all about the horses. I even made my husband take riding lessons before our trip. However, it's clear that his time learning to post the trot was unnecessary as he flies along on his mount, not giving a toss for technique.
These Criollo horses, a mix of native horses and steeds brought over by Spaniards, are expertly able to traverse steep terrain with dainty yet sturdy legs. As Juan says, "They are not elegant like the polo ponies but have a special beauty."
Pedro chooses two black horses from about 20 in a corral (at night, the horses are released into the fields, then rounded up at day break). We settle into deep, traditional saddles topped by sheepskin blankets. Comfier than the English version!
Our ride takes us up hills and along mountain tops and then down through bluffs and across creeks. This makes for a stunning panorama of mauve and blue peaks and pale green and flaxen valleys, dotted with red stags (one of the world's largest breed of deer). It is quiet save for the soft snuffling of our horses and the ring of their hooves on rocks, and the pure air is invigorating. It feels like we are four people alone at the top of the world.
On the steepest descents, I pull my gaze from the vistas to concentrate on my mount because as sure-footed as she is, she slips a few times, sending rocks skittering downwards.
After a three-hour ride, we have a huge late lunch of empanadas, salads and crepes covered in dulche leche, as well as wine and limoncello made by Juan's mother. The highlight is a huge rib eye steak grilled to perfection by Pedro.
This feast is followed by a splendid siesta (or, for my overly ambitious husband, a run along the trails—a little challenging given the elevation). Then back in the saddle for another challenging ride. All this fresh air ensures we can eat yet another big meal after the sun goes down. Only in Argentina would we eat steak twice in one day!
Over wine, Juan shares sobering information about current affairs and economics—drastic inflation in Argentina has been a problem for many years, investment is risky and politics chaotic. Then he lightens the mood with funny stories about his large family.
Then he leaves us alone in the guest house. Made of wood and stone, with large windows overlooking the mountains, and decorated simply but artistically with colourful ponchos and leather ornaments, the house is heated by fireplace and the generator is turned off at night. The quiet, pitch-dark bedroom guarantees the soundest of sleeps.
On our last night, however, as we snuggle under our fat feather quilt, we hear aggressive rain pounding the ceiling. The next morning, Juan urges us to breakfast quickly because the roads are slick and washing away.
Once in the 4x4, Juan boasts that he is adept at navigating in these conditions as he roars relentlessly up hills, tears around tight corners and dramatically descends slippery slopes, wrenching the truck from side to side. Once again, my heart is hammering, as I look down into the foggy abyss so close to our wheels.
Not fazed, Juan asks, "Ber-hin-ya. This trip is full of adrenalin, eh, Ber-hin-ya?" When I give a faint smile, he laughs and, thankfully, turns his attention back to the road.