Among the cowboys, mules and condors

Caroline Grayburn set off on horseback for an eight-day trek through the Andes

He had a face that had lived through many harsh seasons of snow and sun. Yet his agility belied his age. The ease with which those bow legs sprung him into the saddle put the rest of us to shame. Don Ramon, 70-year-old veteran of the mountains, patted his top pocket to check for precious cigarettes, clicked at his brown mare and with a cry of "hup, hup, mula mula!" was off, the pack mules trotting obediently after him, their loaded boxes swinging from side to side. Well into the route by now, we let them go on ahead, before falling into line behind Nigel, our English guide, careful to leave him the job of tearing down precarious- looking hillsides to head off any mules tempted away from the route by tufts of tasty grass.

It was four days since we'd left Santiago and only six since London, but we were, in every sense, a world away. Halfway through our eight-day ride into the Andes in Chile, heading to our top camp we caught our first glimpse of Tupungatu - at over 21,000 feet, one of South America's highest mountains.

Tupungatu presides over the border between Argentina and Chile. Next day, we were hoping to get close to the top. We were seven in all, alone with our horses amongst these magnificent mountains, apart from the occasional huaso rounding up his cattle from the summer pastures. The route we were riding followed mule tracks first used by smugglers crossing the border, and since then only by these few cowboys, splendid figures in black felt hats, glinting spurs and thick ponchos, who thought nothing of riding down near-vertical slopes to gather in their stock.

Thankfully, we weren't expected to follow exactly in their hoofprints - although every now and again an astonished cry of "not that" would slip out from whoever was nearest the front. "That" was usually a steep scree slope, criss-crossed by a barely visible path which, somehow, we were supposed to climb. None too keen on heights, I tried not to think of the narrow ridges and steep precipices that might lie ahead, absorbing instead the incredible views, watching condors glide against the snowy backdrop, picking out bands of red and blue in the rocks above my head and marvelling at the purple, pink and green hue of the mountains around me.

Having lived in Chile for several years, our guide rode like a huaso and attacked steep slopes in much same way as they did. I was not totally convinced by his mutterings of: "It's fine. Just hang on and leave it to your horse, after all, he doesn't want to fall any more than you do". However I had little option if I wanted to reach the border, so I wedged myself firmly in line between the others and put my faith in my horse, Espresso, and his acute sense of self preservation. The rough ascent was, of course, negotiated with ease, the horses even managing to snatch a few mouthfuls of grass on the way.

Born and bred in the mountains and turned out to graze on these slopes when work allowed, they had spent their lives negotiating these steep hillsides in search of patches of sweet grass.

Each night we camped in a vega, a green oasis near a stream where there was good water and grazing for the horses. Once the horses were untacked and the mules relieved of their heavy burdens, we lit a fire for a welcome cup of tea and some delicious treat would appear from the bottom of one of the mules' boxes to keep us going until supper. With tents pitched for those who wanted, and beds skilfully made from layered tarpaulins, foam and sheepskins from the saddles, the brave among us would wander off for a dip in the stream; the more cowardly made do with a bowl of steaming water and promised themselves a proper bath the next day.

On the day of our final ascent we woke with the sun, and were encouraged out of bed by the smell of frying bacon, our routine unhurried in typical South American fashion. Don Ramon and Marcello rounded up the horses whilst we ate a leisurely breakfast and then had time to perch on a rock with a book and revel in the morning sun as the horses were tacked up. Then Don Ramon, astride the smallest mule, led the way, following the edge of the stream that ran over the glacial moraine. Fresh puma tracks were our first excitement of the day. As we rode on, Tupungatu's peak towered above us. Puffs of smoke were visible from Tupungatito, its volcanic relation, and to our left, a glacier iced over the mountain side. The going was slow, horses and riders needing to rest more frequently as we climbed higher, and still higher, until at last we were above the snow line and over the top of the first ridge. Still full of energy despite the climb, the horses nervously eyed a barricade of snow, and row upon row of huge icicles blocking our path. At 16,000 feet, an hour or so later, we reached the final frontier: Argentina on one side, Chile on the other.

GETTING TO SOUTH AMERICA

As autumn sets in for the northern hemisphere, South America is warming up nicely. Anyone planning to visit the area over the Christmas period should book as soon as possible; availability is already poor.

Until the end of November, competition on fares is intense, especially to the more distant destinations of Buenos Aires, Montevideo and Santiago.

The Colombian airline Avianca is planning to re-introduce direct flights from London to Bogota after a gap of five years; at present, UK passengers are obliged to change planes in Paris or Frankfurt. Avianca (0990 767747) offers some of the lowest fares on the market for destinations in the south and west of South America, all connecting in Bogota. The airline also sells cut-price airpasses for travel within Colombia.

Lufthansa of Germany is discounting heavily on flights from Heathrow, Birmingham and Manchester to South America via Frankfurt. Bogota and Caracas are priced at pounds 456 (including tax), with Buenos Aires, Rio, Sao Paulo and Santiago all at pounds 511 through Portland Travel (0171-631 0808). Specialist discount agents will be able to offer similar fares on a range of airlines.

The Brazilian airline Transbrasil is expected to launch four flights a week between Gatwick and Rio in November. It is thought some of the flights may stop at either Fortaleza or Recife en route to and from Rio.

Health requirements for South America remain as complex as ever. Take Brazil: in his book Stay Healthy Abroad (pounds 7.99), Rob Ryan recommends precautions against malaria, Yellow Fever, hepatitis A, typhoid, polio and tetanus, and suggests that protection against hepatitis B and meningitis should be considered. He warns of many other threats, like "Chagas' disease, caused by kissing or assassin bugs, common in rural areas".

Prospective travellers should read the book, and seek advice from a travel medicine specialist well ahead of departure. The Medical Advisory Service for Travellers Abroad (MASTA) issues a detailed health brief if you call a premium-rate number, 0891 224100.

The South American specialist operator Journey Latin America (0181-742 3108) has begun to enforce regulations on travellers arriving without a Yellow Fever vaccination certificate. At present the ruling appears to be that visitors arriving either by air or land from Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru must have this certificate, but JLA advises that "all travellers to Brazil, irrespective of point of origin, should have this certificate".

Caracas is the cheapest big city on earth for the travelling executive, according to the latest Business Traveller magazine (pounds 2.90). The average daily living cost in the Venezuelan capital is pounds 78 per day, based on a four-star hotel. The survey also reveals that no large city in South America is as expensive as London. The priciest place on the continent is Sao Paulo (3 per cent cheaper than London), closely followed by Lima, Buenos Aires and Bogota.

Rail services in South America are continuing to crumble, according to the new Thomas Cook Overseas Timetable (pounds 8.40). Chilean railways in particular are being reduced: the editors report that "service south of Concepcion has all but disappeared, and there is nothing advertised at all south of Puerto Varas - though a correspondent's daughter who has just visited the area assured us that service had actually resumed to the far south after the most disastrous earth movement for years."

The man who wrote the screenplay for The Graduate can be seen searching through the Andes and Patagonia for further inspiration in one of BBC2's Great Railway Journeys. Buck Henry's televisual trek across South America is due to be screened at 9.30pm on 25 September.

The 1997 edition of the South American Handbook is expected to be in the shops on the last day of September. The publisher has changed its name to Footprint Handbooks, but title and the format of the book remains much as it has for the past seven decades. The price for next year's edition is pounds 21.99.

Chile on horseback

Caroline Grayburn paid pounds 880 for an eight-day riding trip with Ride World Wide (0171-735 1144). The company has further trips organised in January and February next year, for which the typical cost is pounds 930. This includes all riding, food, drink, camping equipment and transfers from Santiago, but not the air fare to Chile.

At present Aerolineas Argentinas is selling flights for pounds 528 (including tax) for a London-Santiago round trip, with a change of plane in Buenos Aires, through South American Experience: 0171-976 5511.

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