Saturday 13 April 2013

The Gaucho Experience

His name was Rocky. At first glance, he certainly looked like a horseman who knew what he was doing. He emerged from behind his stables dressed top-to-toe in khaki, a cowboy hat, and expensive knee-length leather boots, a flourish of green silk around his neck. This, we had been told, was THE man to go to for a true Argentinian gaucho experience.

Yet Rocky appeared confused by the presence of 5 tourists surveying his patch. Fair to say it wasn’t quite what we expected.  We were just outside the town of Cafayate – a picturesque region of green vines and ochre mountains - but the painter’s brush seemed to have missed Rocky’s drab, dusty brown yard which was festooned with flies and littered with rusting cars. In the stifling midday heat, a quartet of saddled horses picked their way towards the shade, nudging the dirt wistfully for a blade of grass. Hmmm.  

Peering at us from behind comically thick glasses, Rocky had a slightly crazed look. His friend at our backpackers had warned us he was “un poco loco,” but he’d let us go fast.  But as he walked towards us, and staggered sideways into his horse, alarm bells began to ring – he wasn’t just crazy, he was completely, rottenly, drunk. In a country where wine goes down like water, it seems Rocky had spent the morning imbibing his mother’s home brew.

He pulled himself together enough to show us round his stables – yep, there were the bottles of homemade wine (a fair amount missing), and in the stable next door, a tatty nativity scene (naturally). Then he pointed proudly at his piece-de-resistance: a huge stuffed condor, its outstretched wings spanning two metres, pinned to the stable wall like it had just slammed into it in mid-flight. Things were getting bizarre.

We debated whether it was wise to get on horses with the local nutcase, who owned no helmets, and had clearly made his horses’ cruddy stirrups himself. But there’s something about being on holiday that makes you throw caution to the wind, so we saddled up, turning down the offer of a wine for the road and vowing not to go at the speeds we’d hoped for before turning up.

Thank god we did. Being on horseback seemed to sober Rocky up, and we filed down a dusty, bone-dry lane to emerge into spectacular scenery. The Rio Chusca threaded its way through a landscape of burgundy sandstone, exposing layers of beautifully twisting rock formations. In the distance, the rock rose up into a dramatic canyon. It was breath-taking.

Were it not for the heat we would have ridden for hours – but we turned for home down the dusty main street of one of the oldest towns in Argentina, with bemused locals waving as the wannabe gauchos rode by.

Back at the ranch, Rocky convinced us to join him in a tasting of his Mum’s overwhelmingly sweet wines. Our taxi arrived in the nick of time. “Moi loco, eh?” our driver said, and spent the trip back to town regaling us with stories of Rocky’s drunken misdemeanours. As he turned back to chat to us in the back seat, eyes-not-at-all on the road, it became apparent our chauffeur wasn’t exactly sober himself.  Welcome to wine country. 

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