Sitting in a saddle like a sheepskin armchair, closer to the clouds than the city, it’s hard to believe that we’re only just beyond the reach of the Santiago Metro system. This is the magic of the Chilean capital: a modern, forward-looking metropolis where sparkling skyscrapers rise alongside fine colonial architecture, only moments away from the wild, snowcapped beauty of the Andes.
We are on horseback, on a ‘cabalgata’ trek into the green foothills of the Andes that descend into eastern Santiago. The farm where Cabalgatas Santiago is based sits on the border of the La Reina and Las Condes districts, where the noise and bustle of the center give way to broad avenues, smart apartment blocks, children’s playgrounds and the gated rows of charming one storey houses that characterize this residential quarter of the city.
Heading into nature
For a foreigner, a horseback ride in the mountains only 35 minutes from the city center on Santiago’s efficient public transport (Metro Line 1 to Los Dominicos station, followed by a short bus or taxi trip) is strange and delightful. Travel for the same amount of time out of central London or New York and you’re as much in the urban jungle as ever. But when we disembark at the little bus station in La Reina, there are cowboys on horses milling about on farmland located behind the trees. Today is a rodeo day: an hour from the central business district and we’re already in the countryside.
In fact, this isn’t where we’re headed: Cabalgatas Santiago is further down the road, where tarmac turns to dirt track. Passing through vegetation fresh from occasional spring rains, we arrive at a large wooden barn with horses tied outside in the sun.
“Horses are my passion”
We are met by Nina Stumpf, the lean, friendly, no-nonsense German who runs Cabalgatas Santiago. She moved to Chile 12 years ago with her husband and two sons, and the family fell in love with the place and have lived here ever since. Four years ago, Nina, who has always loved and ridden horses, started her own riding business, the only cabalgatas in such easy reach of the city center.
“Horses are my passion,” says Nina, who buys, breeds and trains her own animals, with two newborn foals currently skipping round the corral and another baby on the way. “I’ve lived and worked with them for 30 years. In Santiago, I can be near my horses and near the incredible natural landscape. To share it, I set up the business offering cabalgatas and riding lessons.”
On the cerro, in the school
Nina’s horses are all native Chilean criollos, sweet and smart and as at home in the rodeo ring as they are trekking across mountain highlands. “The Chilean horses are great”, says Nina. “They’re fast and strong, really agile on the mountainsides and along the cordillera, and they have an excellent character.”
The horses are so calm and adaptable that Nina arranges treks and lessons for children as young as eight, as well as for adult beginners. A course of four one-hour riding classes, held in the farm’s circular riding arena, costs US$120 (CP$50,000) per child, with adult courses also available.
The mountain treks range from US$40 (CP$20,000) per person, for a two hour group ride into the green foothills of the Andes, to US$185 (CP$90,000) for a private day-long trip through the valley with a chance to see eagles, foxes and condors. For the adventurous, there are moonlight rides and even overnight camping trips when seasons and weather allow.
Santiago from above
Today we’re making a two hour trip up the cerro (foothills) above Las Condes. The horses scramble up a steep track for the first fifteen minutes before the path levels out and we turn to see the whole of Santiago stretching out below us. It’s a unique vista of the city, much further east than the traditional panoramic views from the Santa Lucía and San Cristobal hills in the center. To our right lies the upmarket district of Vitacura, where a solitary skyscraper window catches the sun and gleams like an afternoon star, and ahead stretch the long streets and parks of La Reina and neighboring borough Ñuñoa.
We have beginners and long-term riders in our group, so for the most part we move at a steady walk, but as the track widens further up on the cerro we decide on a gallop. “It’s much easier than trotting,” Nina assures us. “The saddles are so much more comfortable than English saddles.” And it’s true – cantering along the valley, wind and sun in our faces and the horses racing beneath us, everything feels fantastic.
The Andes are an ever-present backdrop to Santiago life and when you live in the city, they can become simply beautiful, breathtaking scenery – always there, but distant, far from fast-paced urban existence. This is the way to rediscover them: get out to La Reina, up on a horse and into the mountains. Five minutes among the rocks and the eagles and you’ll remember exactly where you are when you’re in Santiago: tucked in against the spine of the world’s longest mountain range, an icon of South America.
For more information, visit www.cabalgatasantiago.com
By Clare Bevis
This post is also available in Spanish