My inaugural night beneath the vast expanse of stars was a chilly affair. I huddled close to the clay oven, scavenging its residual warmth against the cold.
The Calchaquí Valley is a land of extremes—balmy days where temperatures can hit the 80s and 90s°F give way to nights that can plummet to a brisk 40°F. This dramatic fluctuation between day and night temperatures sets the vineyards in this valley apart from others around the world. The contraction and expansion cycles cause the grape skins to thicken, responsible for the red wine's deep and vibrant colors (all grape juice is clear; the color of red wines comes from the tannins in the skin). These conditions not only define the wine's appearance but also its flavor and structure, ultimately determining its overall quality.
Exhaustion ensured I slept soundly, cocooned in my poncho with the saddle as my makeshift pillow. Dawn's early light was ushered in by a hungry baby goat, its bleats for food a gentle alarm. It was too early, too cold to rise. The sun barely peeked over the horizon. Wrapping the goat in my poncho, I sought mutual warmth and a bit more rest.
A morning visitor...
Breakfast was a modest affair of the high-caffeine herbal drink mate, traditional in Argentina, cookies, coffee, and bread — a testament to our bodies' austere demands in survival mode (being overfull can be as uncomfortable as being hungry in these conditions). Gathering our horses from the corrals, we engaged in a brief clean-up before saddling up for the day's journey, oblivious to the grueling challenge that lay ahead.
The initial leg of our trek was deceptively serene, through a meandering river valley. Yet, as we ascended, the reality of our endeavor quickly dawned on us. Even before the real challenge began, our horses began to gasp for breath. The “path” ahead promised only sand and jagged rocks with no real trail to guide us.
As one of the less experienced members of the group, I trailed behind, deferring to the seasoned riders to forge our path through the treacherous terrain. The absence of a trail, coupled with the steep hillside and sharp rocks, soon made it evident that our horses were struggling as much as we were. We adopted a zigzag pattern to ease their burden but eventually had to dismount and proceed on foot, leading our horses. The group stretched out; some reached the peak hours before the rest.
Zig zagging up the mountain.
My sole focus was to ward off altitude sickness. I took my ascent with painstaking slowness, falling behind all but one. It was then when I heard Agustín, screaming, “Diego, come get me” as his horse lay prostrate, succumbing to the altitude. Agustín's calls for help were broken by bouts of dizziness, a grim reminder of the altitude's ruthlessness.
Agustín, while asking for help and trying to get his horse up, started getting dizzy from the altitude sickness and also had to lay down. At that point, things looked grim. I know the rule is never to leave a man behind, but at the moment, it was more like quicksand. If you don't have the right tools to help the other one, you might end up getting yourself stuck too. So I passed the message between the other riders, to come down and help him. Some of them were easily 1,640 feet further away, which at that point felt like an hour's distance.
The two local guides came down with a mule to help pull the horse, or give a ride to Agustín if needed. We sent them with water and some candy to raise Agustín’s blood sugar. That all helped, and they started slowly moving, along with the rest of the troupe. We all arrived at the top, with different times, faces, moods, but all with a feeling of "what did we just do?" At almost 16,000 feet, where the world seems a bit different, a silence conquered our group; the thin air forced us to use our words wisely.
The descent mirrored the difficulty of our ascent, often necessitating dismounted walks to spare our horses. Yet, with each step, breathing eased, and humor seeped back into our ranks. Teasing Agustin for his moment of vulnerability became a light-hearted jest among us, a collective relief at having overcome danger.
As we reached the valley's base, the setting sun cast long shadows, framing our arrival like the closing scene of a classic western. Anticipation for the celebratory wine and asado grew with each step. The meal that awaited us — lamb and potatoes, nurtured by the land and roasted in a clay oven — was perhaps heightened in flavor by our harrowing experience, but stood out as exceptionally delicious.
Upon reaching the campsite, our first task before dinner was to take our horses to a field of alfalfa, where we also took a moment to lie down and rest, soaking in the tranquility of the valley. After ensuring our horses were content, we organized our saddles and prepared our poncho beds for the night.
Our local guides, who became part of our little family, played an essential role in navigating the challenging terrain. But their presence enriched our journey in other ways, sharing meals and anecdotes that brought laughter and warmth to our evenings. Their stories solidified the magnitude of the experiences we had lived through together. Our guide's revelation that he hadn't traversed that route since 1991, and never by horse, drew a collective gasp. Our astonishment was mostly directed at Agustín, whose audacious plan had led us to this unforgettable ordeal.
Our glances towards Agustín were a blend of respect, disbelief, and a touch of incredulity for the journey he had orchestrated. In this moment, we recognized the depths of Agustín's passion, and I realized that this is the essence reflected in his wines. This adventure was not just a testament to endurance, the beauty of uncharted paths, and the unforgettable stories born from stepping into the unknown. It was also a journey into understanding the heart and soul behind Agustín's winemaking philosophy, a passion that, in the end, we see mirrored in every bottle from Sunal: the spirit of adventure in the wild, unforgiving Andes.
I tracked our entire journey using my GPS watch because I was keen to document our path. This allowed me to capture an overview of the landscape and our route through the mountains. Here’s day 2!