Peak performance: the Andes

The ups, the downs and the sideways of pony-trekking in the Andes.

A weeklong hike in the snow-covered Andes just outside Santiago, Chile, first introduced me to the secluded, untouched oasis of Chilean cowboy country. It's a lost world of impossibly high mountains and plunging valleys, in which travel is either on horseback or by foot. The only people you're likely to meet roaming the peaks are mountain cowboys, guarding their herds from cattle rustling. It's a place most Chileans avoid–but being there, you think you're at the top of the world. I was hooked and swore to return.

The Andes are Chile's defining feature. The snow-covered peaks appear in every Chilean child's drawings representing home. The range rambles from the north to the south of the country, the last and highest stretch of the 7,200-kilometre chain that runs along the entire west coast of South America. It forms a protective barrier that, together with the sea to the west, turned Chile into an impregnable kingdom.

Though the Andes are easily reachable, for safe access to its higher peaks and valleys it helps to go with a tour company that is familiar with the terrain. But 15 years on from my initial foray, a problem presents itself: how to get up into those remote, craggy peaks with an exercise-challenged, sun-hating partner. Answer? On horseback, armed with a traditional Chilean cowboy hat. It all sounded so decadently easy for this occasional canoe tripper–the horses lifting us to 2,700 metres, the mules hauling our wine, the “hired help” setting up our tents and cooking for us….

But sitting on my horse in the base camp at Cascada de las Animas, a family-owned private nature reserve that runs horse trips through the mountains, I'm starting to wonder. It's raining, something it never does in the Santiago area in December. My partner, James, has a fever and the trots, and has just heard our guide, Gordita, announce we must not get off our horses without her permission. “You must not be afraid–No hay que tener miedo,” she says. I look at the eight-inch knife threaded through the belt loop of her riding pants and wonder what on earth she is talking about.

It doesn't take long to find out. We are climbing the hills (which are quickly turning into mountains of hard-scrabble rock) at a vertical angle. The horses lurch and heave with the effort, occasionally stopping to catch their breath. The hairpin curves seem narrower than our steeds' girth, and as they pick their way through the rocky turns of our 40-kilometre trek, we get vertiginous views of the nature reserve buildings shrinking behind us.

Getting to the top, however, involves going down just as much as up, and that is a truly scary proposition. On the descents, Gordita shows us how to lean back and point our stirrupped feet toward the sky, to balance the horse. The saddle has a grip at the front as well as the back; I make full use of both. “Vamos, chiquillos, vamos chiquillos, go, go, go,” Gordita shouts at the horses, who have cottoned on to their riders' inexperience and are taking progressively frequent snack breaks.

Gordita tells us that only horses born in the mountains can survive these trails. Non-native horses usually don't survive the week. We notice cast-off horseshoes ominously littering the scree. Our companions, a Yale professor and his wife, claim that they are going to call the video of their trip “Blind Faith.” It's true–I have absolute terrified confidence in my horse, a bonding only occasionally fractured when he reaches over the edge of the trail to chomp on some elusive local flora.

It's also important to have faith in your guide. And for five generations Gordita's family has roamed the Andes. The family of 10 siblings has turned its 10,000-acre ranch into the Cascada de las Animas (Waterfall of the Spirits) ecotourism company. They couldn't be better located: the Andes that circle Santiago are the most majestic and beautiful in the country.

The Incas seemed to think so, too. More than 500 years ago, they travelled from Peru to one of the higher Santiago peaks–El Plomo, 5,430 metres above sea level–to sacrifice a prince, likely between seven and nine years old, in a religious ceremony. (The perfectly preserved body is now kept at Santiago's National Museum of Natural History.)

Convinced in his feverish state that he will soon experience his own death, Inca prince-style, on the mountainside, James is nevertheless as euphoric as I am about where we find ourselves. The mountain range has enveloped us, rugged peaks in every direction, the snowcaps tantalizingly within reach. Wildflowers carpet the trail. Gordita points to the rococo-like shrub, chagual, that only blooms every seven years. It quickly disappears, swallowed by James's steed. Waterfalls from the melting snowcaps tumble down the mountainsides.

As we approach our campsite, a slanted oasis marked by two pointy poplars, Nano, the arriero (mountain cowboy) who guides the temperamental mules hauling our stuff, pulls out a small flute and starts playing a jubilant tune.

While Nano and Gordita make camp, we play in the 1¡C glacier pools and gather wood, exercise that leaves us breathless in the thin air. As the sun sets, the shadows lengthen on the valleys, a tumbling pattern of blacks like a cubist painting. Nano has cooked us a traditional Chilean meal of steak and a variety of fresh vegetables, preceded by pisco sours, the country's intoxicating national drink. As the southern constellations crowd the sky, Nano plays folk songs on his guitar and Gordita tells us stories about the days when arrieros would drive enormous herds of cattle a thousand head strong through the mountain passes.

Gordita says that if the mountains were people, she has only taken us to the equivalent of their hips. To reach their heads, we have to come in January, when the snow melts on the highest mountain passes. Every year, she leads a 12-day trip through the peaks to Argentina, the team of horses followed by a troop of 25 mules carrying food and equipment. Two mules are dedicated to carrying wine. It may take me another 15 years to get there, but I have already mentally signed up for that trip.