Guts and Gauchos in Mendoza

Getting a glimpse of gaucho life on a ranch near Mendoza, Argentina.

Getting a glimpse of gaucho life on a ranch near Mendoza, Argentina.

“Well, that’s something your children aren’t likely to see in school,” a chipper young woman from the UK said in a typically understated British way. She was referring to a dozen or so desiccated, grayish-black pairs of horse testicles that were the size of plums and hanging on barbed wire by a weathered corral used for castrating young studs.

The gaucho Orlando, whose horse had a type of hand-crafted bridle and saddle I'd never seen before.

The gaucho Orlando, whose horse had a type of hand-crafted bridle and saddle I'd never seen before.

We were at a ramshackle ranch about 40 minutes outside of Mendoza. I had traces of amniotic fluid from a newborn goat on my hands, flecks of spit from a llama on my shoulders, and dirt and manure all over my shoes. Dust, kicked up by a wind storm that had turned the sky brown above these drought-parched hills of Argentina’s wine country, coated my nose and hair.

“They saw a lot of things for the first time today,” I said, picturing Colly and Kyle studying a gaucho named Orlando, who wore flaps of cowhide on his legs and tucked an 18-inch blade into his waistband, and whose dirt-crusted little finger won’t bend because a puma tore its tendon.

We all experienced new sights and sensations that morning: We rode in an unfamiliar type of saddle cinched to some of the scruffiest, skinniest steeds we’d ever seen, and we viewed the nearly complete skeleton of a horse that had been gored by a bull. We kept our eyes peeled for a wounded cougar that had been trapped but not killed, and then we stopped along the trail to taste bacon-flavored homemade tortillas — thicker and doughier than the Mexican kind — and to sip mate tea from a shared gourd.

Kyle tries tortillas on the trail with the gaucho Orlando during our ride near Mendoza.

Kyle liked eating tortillas on the trail and getting to know the gaucho.

Colly handled her horse and its unusual tack well and loved galloping on the trail.

Colly handled her horse and its unusual tack well and loved galloping on the trail.

Two days after traveling north for 17 hours by bus to the Cuyo region from Patagonia, we signed up with a tour company called Kahuak for this half-day ride to see the countryside. I had guessed the region might seem like a Latin American cross between California and Arizona — vineyards meet dude ranches — and that the experience would be more charming than challenging. I was mostly right about the look and feel of the area (although we’ve been disappointed since our arrival by the ugly, depressing high-security architecture everywhere that features bars on windows, high walls in front of homes and razor-wire fences defining property lines).

We were surprised, however, to discover an excursion more authentic and eventful than expected.

Pablo, the guide, talked to Colly about snakes and pumas.

Pablo, the guide, talked to Colly about snakes and pumas.

We were joined by three women who looked in their twenties or thirties — one from Ireland, one from England and one from France — who were visiting Mendoza for various reasons. As we drove together in a van on a dusty dirt road toward the ranch, Morgan and I both commented how the mountains reminded us of the wilderness behind our hometowns, Ojai and Santa Monica. Spiky yucca and some type of shrub like chaparral covered the ground, and cacti and thistles blooming yellow flowers added a few spots of bright color. On a clear day we could have seen the Andes foothills that lead to the 22,000-foot Aconcagua (which is about three hours away by car), but a violent wind storm that knocked out our power the night before had left the sky tinted with dust and obscured the view. It wasn’t exactly pretty, but I liked the familiar feel of it, as though I were in Southern California on a hazy summer day.

We saddled up for a two-hour trail ride that was mostly a nose-to-tail amble but allowed for a few stretches where we picked up the pace. Colly nagged her nag into a gallop, and Kyle managed to cling to his saddle on a fast-paced trot. The horses thrilled the kids, but I found the landscape and conversation more interesting than the ride. While Orlando galloped off to check puma traps or to herd a stray, I listened to the English-speaking guide, Pablo, explain how the gaucho manages some 500 horses and raises goats.

Back at the barn, surrounded by goats ...

Back at the barn, surrounded by goats ...

... and dogs.

... and dogs.

The biggest eye-opener came after the ride, when Morgan and I were in a goat shed crowded with week-old kids and handing some to Colly and Kyle to hold. We were petting and cooing over the cute goats — and inwardly absorbing the sobering news they would be killed in six months for meat — when suddenly we noticed Orlando and Pablo spring into action a few yards away. We realized that two newborn kids and a mother goat’s placenta had dropped unexpectedly onto the ground right by us. Orlando and Pablo began rubbing the two mewling babies and swatting away several hungry-looking mutts that hovered too close. As our family moved closer to watch, a guanaco (a South American relative of the llama) chose that moment to spit all over my back. I scarcely noticed or cared because I was transfixed by the helpless minute-old kids.

Orlando and Pablo turned to catch the mother and force her to nurse, leaving the newborns pathetically struggling in the dirt, so I knelt down and started vigorously petting them the way I had seen. “It’s eating your pants!” Colly said as one tried to nurse the hem of my jeans. Orlando reached over and grabbed one of the babies and stuck it to the teat of the mother, who was butting and kicking.

Orlando and Pablo forced one newborn to start nursing while the other struggled on the ground.

Orlando and Pablo forced one newborn to start nursing while the other struggled on the ground.

“The mother, she no good because no rain,” Pablo said, suggesting in broken English and Spanish that the animals’ intuitive rationing of calories trumped their maternal instinct. He said it hasn’t rained for eight months, and now the region is heading into what promises to be a tough summer. An underground spring waters the horses, but we could see from their protruding hips and ribs that they don’t find much to eat as they roam freely on this open land.

We had just finished explaining to the kids what the afterbirth coming out of the mother goat was when Pablo said it was time to head back — and on our way through the gate, he gestured toward the hanging horse testicles. Kyle visibly shuddered and said, “Wow.” Then, on the van ride back, he said, “I’d give that five stars.” I asked him to explain why, and he said, “Well, horse riding is fun, but that was so different, and there were people from all over!”

We’ll post more from Mendoza soon, but for now we’re still reflecting on that ride.

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