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Horseback Riding in the Andes: A Photo Journey

If you’re in Chile's capital Santiago for more than a day or two, you really have to head out and see the Andes mountain range close up. But hiking the Andes can be a bit daunting, especially if the Chilean sun is blazing away in clear blue skies. That’s why many people look to horse riding as the perfect way to explore, getting close to nature using traditional methods, without having to hike the hills yourself. This photo journey follows just one horseback ride in the Cajón del Maipo in the mountains near Santiago, to give you an idea of all that you can see in a day.

 
Valleys of the Cajon del Maipo
 
 
Driving out to the Cajón del Maipo in the Andes from Santiago is often glossed over as a means to and end, just a way of getting from the city to the starting point of the horse riding experience. But this is one journey that’s far too beautiful to just close your eyes and doze through. Winding along good roads, Santiago soon disappears behind a wall of mountains and you can sit back and enjoy the sight of the limpid rivers that salsa along the textbook v-shaped valleys. Because Santiago sits at the bottom of a kind of mountainous soup bowl, hemmed in on all sides by the peaks, the weather there can be markedly different there from the weather just a few miles away. Driving out of the city on a rare overcast day, look back over your shoulder as you leave and you’ll see the captivating sight of a wall of cloud trapped in the bowl of the valley, which suddenly stops short as you emerge into the hazy morning sunlight of the mountains.
 
Chilean horse
 
Chilean Criollo horses are raised in the Andes mountains and are insanely sure-footed, a fact that you’ll appreciate when they’re tackling steep paths with you on their back. The horses are slightly shorter than European and North American breeds and are built of pure muscle, but they are also calm and responsive, reacting to the lightest touch of the reins. This makes them perfect even for those with no previous riding experience. Just one day riding a Criollo horse will leave you in awe of these powerful but disciplined animals. In terms of tack, the saddles here are also different from what you might be used to if you ride back home; they’re more like big comfy seats with plenty of padding. Rather than simple loops of metal, the stirrups are large leather pockets that are great for protecting your feet if you get too close to a spiky bush or scrape past a boulder. And you’ll have to get used to riding ‘gaucho style’, or with both of the reins held in your left hand close to the horse’s neck.
 
Clothes for Horse Riding in the Andes
 
 
Speaking of kit, you’ll want to make sure that you’re also dressed to ensure maximum comfort on the ride. Bear in mind that once you get going you can be sat in one position in the strong sunshine for some time so it’s important to cover what you can - so that’s long sleeves and trousers - and apply high-factor sunblock to anything that isn’t covered. As tempting as it might be to wear shorts in the balmy weather, jeans are a much better choice as they will protect your legs from being pinched by the saddle and from being scratched by any prickly plants you plough through. Opt for boots or sturdy trainers for your feet. You’ll also want to wear a hat with a brim and a chin strap. Nobody’s claiming it’s the most attractive look ever but you’ll appreciate it when the wind comes blustering down the valley and tips someone else’s prized fedora over the edge of a gorge. And yes, if you can find a cowboy hat it really does make it twice as much fun.
 
View of the Andes
 
 
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where the breathtaking views begin when horseback riding in the Andes, because in reality there are incredible sights on offer from the moment you head out towards the mountains. However, the horsemen that have ridden these hills and valleys their whole lives are true showmen and know just how to take you up over perfect ridge at the perfect time to reveal the glorious vistas of the valleys falling away below and the frosted tops of distant peaks. When you’re sitting astride a proud Chilean horse on the top of the world, the enormous blue sky unfolds in all directions and fills you with a sense of possibility. The views are on a scale that have to be seen to be believed - in fact you may find you still struggle to believe it even with the evidence right before your eyes.
 
Waterfall in the Andes
 
 
The valleys of the Cajón del Maipo are threaded with glittering rivers and streams, flushed with fresh meltwater hurrying down from the frozen peaks. These provide opportunities for the horses to stop and drink before they forge straight across and save you from getting your feet wet. When combined with the steep-sided gullies this abundance of melting snow also creates the perfect conditions for the numerous cascades and waterfalls that gush towards the valley floor. The plunge pools that form at the bottom of these falls make for great photo opportunities and are also a good place to hang out and look for wildlife. And if you have the time and fancy a thrill, try taking a dip yourself in the icy water to well and truly awaken all of your senses.
 
Thin Tree Lizard
 
Riding through the Andes, the only sounds are splashing of the waterfalls, the fiddling of the cicadas and the clop clop of the horses hooves on crunched up stone. This tranquility allows to you truly immerse yourself in the natural surroundings and get up close to a whole range of fauna and fauna. Look to the skies, down on the ground and in the rivers for a taste of everything that the Chilean Andes has on display. Flying overhead you may spot the coveted condor with its vast wings outstretched, or the stocky but equally impressive Chilean Blue Eagle. The waterways are teaming with fish including small trout, along with frogs, toads, and aquatic lizards, and on land there are just as many thrilling critters to spot. This spectacular Thin Tree Lizard was just one of many vibrant characters sunbathing on a tree near a waterfall. 
 
Asadito Chile
 
 
The asado is a traditional Chilean way of preparing food and literally translates as a barbeque. Chilean Spanish is full of diminutives, and you might hear the asado being affectionately referred to as an asadito, meaning something along the lines of a "small barbeque" or a "little cookout". As you can see, however, there’s usually nothing diminutive about the asadito and more often than not it is a hearty and filling meal. The meat is top quality and grilled slowly over a glowing fire, breathing woodsmoke. Sitting on top of the mountains, tucking into a juicy hunk of meat and fresh bread warmed by the embers is an experience that will stay with you for some time. What better way to break for lunch among the mountaintops before you turn back into the valley and return to Santiago, just in time for a nightcap.
 
 
Horse riding in the Andes is an all-round fantastic experience that requires very little effort and gives a whole lot back. Cascada offers daytrips from Santiago including Horse Riding in the Andes to El Colorado in the Cajón del Maipo with a traditional Chilean barbecue lunch. Alternatively, you can head even further into the mountains with a Horseback Ride to El Morado, in search of a hidden glacier.