Having safely arrived at Hostal El Punto, located the late night receptionist and obtained the wifi key we are alarmed to find we have an 07.30 start tomorrow (today). A flurry of emails and phone calls defers the start to 08.30 and the rising mutiny recedes.
Marcelo, Chilean charm personified, loads us into his battered but functional pick up and we're off through the mist to the Elqui Valley for our planned horse riding adventure. Sarah, who had started brightly is affected by diesel fumes and motion sickness, so by the time we arrive is not feeling great.
The valley is hot and dry and after an hour Sarah decides she cannot continue, so she and Marcelo descend on foot/pick up while we continue.
The gentle slopes of the first hour and a half soon give way to more difficult terrain, zig zagging up the mountainside. As a vastly inexperienced horseman I am spending the majority of my time looking down when I somehow find my horse, Albondigas, in the lead and taking an unscheduled detour.
Victor, the lead gaucho signals me to turn Meatballs around but the going is dusty to loose scree (not something you'd find at the 2.15 from Haydock Park!) and not favourable. There is a wheeling and a scrabbling for traction that lasts a only few seconds, during which Alfie helpfully shouts 'abandon horse!'
The assistant gaucho grabs the reins of my charge while it pants and shakes reflecting on our narrow escape. I receive a mutinous look from Victor, possibly calculating the impact of a dead gringo on his insurance premium.
We continue to climb for another 30 minutes before we reach our scheduled lunch stop next to a cool and shaded waterfall. Both Jude and I were keen to press on, but the break was for the horses as well as us, so we lingered longer taking the opportunity to view the vista I'd been so intent on ignoring all morning. We had made it up the last ridge of the pre-cordilleras, the foothills before the Andes proper. An imposing snow capped ridge now directly ahead of us was the last obstacle before Argentina.
The way back down was the same as the route up but Albondigas had settled his nerve (and mine) and seemed much more willing to keep moving when homeward bound. By the time we reached a drive-able track he clearly knew his way and was waiting for no-horse, trotting down the track, through town and back to the yard.
Jude had abandoned the saddle at this point deciding he hated horses. I think his horse, Lewis Hamilton, wanted to go faster but didn't have the bottle to squeeze past Horsey McHorseface (Aflie's charge) or Albondigas, so settled for scraping past brush and trying to unseat his rider.
Sarah was much recovered when we all returned and altitude sickness was the consensus cause of her travails. Sadly, diesel and descent again made her feel unwell, so she watched Olympic highlights while us boys headed into La Serena for dinner at Arezzo's.
What a find!
Fabulous fresh mint lemonade, sensational cerviche, gnocchi Alfredo (Jude was very happy) and chocolate, raspberry and whole almond crepe - the absolute dish of the day - were consumed while we regaled each other with our equestrian exploits.
A great way to unwind and forget our aching limbs - but a shame Sarah couldn't share the experience.