Posted by: Sarah Lidsey | June 19, 2011

Pilgrimage of the Heart: Tupungato, Chile

I’ve always loved horseback riding and so often over the years, when I have wanted to visit beautiful, powerful, places around the world, I’ve looked to see if I could do it on a horse. Apart from my love of horses, you can go further, deeper, more remotely by horseback than you can by vehicle or on foot, and I love the unique connection that a horse gives me with the land and that special feeling of togetherness and warmth that our partnership elicits in me.
Towards the back end of the 1990s I connected with Nigel Harvey, the founder of Ride World Wide, a great company designed for riders who love adventure. I wanted to ride in South America. I didn’t want to be in a large group, and I wanted horses that were sensitive and well cared for, and an outfit that was expert in both camping and riding. I had a shopping list of things that were important for me! Nigel, a knowledgeable horseman and experienced guide, knows all the right people who can provide that, and he leads some of the trips himself.
Going to Tupungato was one of the most profound trips that I have yet taken on horseback. At around 21,500ft., this volcano is one of the highest peaks in South America, and the highest active volcano in the central Andes, if not the world. It is surprisingly close to Santiago, but perhaps because of the rigorous nature of any hike near its base, and because of its use as a military training area, the entire region is not often visited, even by Chileans. The only seasonal regulars are herdsmen who take their cattle up to the high pastures for good grass late in the season, and high altitude endurance mountaineers training for their big peak trips. It was a rare privilege to be part of a small group given a license to ride and camp there.
The Cajon del Maipo valley, at about 10-15,000ft, is a vast area around the foot of Mt. Tupungato, and her dormant but smoking sidekick, Tupungatito, and it is inaccessible for all but three months of the year. These volcanos which sit shoulder to shoulder, guard a section of the border between Chile and Argentina, in an area so remote that it used to be a safe, regular route for cattle rustlers and bandits ‘laundering’ their bounty. The area is stunningly beautiful, with ranges of mountains rising out of high altitude vegetation of tufty grasses and low lying plants, on a ground which, in places, is rich in black ash-like soil or shale. The partly visible old lava flows scarring the bases of some of the peaks also remind one of the heavy volcanic activity, some of it within the last 30yrs. The mountains drop into steep valleys terminating in fast flowing rivers which can make travel a heart-stopping adventure. Several times on my trip an unstable footing in deeper waters seemed as if it would turn a crossing into a drowning. The thing to do was to hold on, let the horse find its way and remind it of the right direction if it started to protest or waver. The same could be said of descending some of the impossibly steep shale slopes into the valleys. But on the high planes there were moments of pure exhilaration where we could drop our reins and gallop away like cowboys riding for our lives.
It took our small group a short morning to get to the entrance of the reserve. We were just six riders in two jeeps going in. Once there we met up with the four gauchos, who tended to the horses and the camp, and who had ridden our horses in the day before. As we passed through the guarded entrance and drove between the high walls of a gorge on our way to rendez vous with the horses, we were buzzed by two condors that seemed to look directly into our cars. It was an eerie start. About half an hour later we stopped at a rustic hut where we were matched up with the horses according to skill, size, and temperament, and, with only a quick try-out, we were on our way.
I think of epic tales when remembering a journey such as this one, especially as we had such a clear and distinct passage from one reality to another. We left behind low-lying verdant valleys rich in vineyards, moving upwards on roads cut in the granite to cross over into a land of ancient grandeur, where mountain peaks only revealed themselves, mysteriously, once we’d ridden along way down a hand-cut trail. The only way in was to follow this path. It was also the only way out! We were told to keep well in because animals were known to slip on sections of this rocky track and fall to their deaths in the fierce, fast flowing river below us. It was easy to believe. Our pack animals were in a particularly precarious position with all our supplies for nearly two weeks balanced in panniers across their backs. My heart jolted just watching them, especially as occasionally one of them would clip the edge and stumble, rebalancing quickly as it moved on. Once through that test, we picked our way over boulders littering a narrow path cut into the rock of this steep valley that eventually led us into a reserve that is so isolated only helicopters can get there in a day, and jeeps can’t get there at all! Indiana Jones would have been right at home, and even though I didn’t know it at that point, like him, lost treasure was awaiting me – the treasure of reclaiming a long forgotten aspect of myself.
That first night we didn’t arrive at our campsite until dusk, and we had no time to explore, only to hurriedly put up our tents and gather for supper, exchanging excited chatter that tapered off as exhaustion struck and sleep beckoned. It had been a long day full of new experiences. On waking, we found ourselves in a beautiful spot, close to a cascading sulphur-enriched spring, whose pools glistened a golden yellow in the early morning sun. It was still chilly as we explored our immediate surroundings and chatted over simple breakfast before packing our tents and helping to ready our horses for another long day.
I could imagine being a cattle rustler that day as we weaved along an indistinct track leading vaguely into the heart of the Tupungato reserve. The landscape was big, in John Wayne fashion, and stunning. It was uplifting just being there, the kind of experience that called forward awe and silence as we settled down, finding our own rhythms and enjoying our horses, the majesty of our surroundings, the hot sun, and the high rare air.
Mid-morning we came across the skeleton of a dead cow. Simultaneously, Nigel and I saw some condor feathers around her and I called to Nigel that I wanted to stop and get off to pick up one that had caught my eye. Instead, gallantly, he hopped down and handed it to me – a huge flight feather with a quill as thick as my little finger.  In that moment, and in our excitement, both of us lost attention for a second – a dangerous thing to do around horses – and as Nigel stooped to pick up a second feather his horse shied away, struggled out of his hold and, turning, lashed out, kicking him in the thigh. It was a very dangerous blow that broke a blood vessel causing a pool of blood to collect in his upper thigh. Though none of the rest of us realized how serious this was until days later, the potential threat of this injury was huge, and in almost any other place it would have sent him immediately to a doctor… but we were nowhere near help, and he wasn’t about to abort the trip.
For the rest of that morning and into the afternoon I rode clasping my condor feather in my left hand. I felt like nothing could spoil my day – I was at home on this land, and bonded with my horse and to this bird’s feather in a way that I didn’t yet fully understand. I would have done well to have absorbed the lesson Nigel had learnt in a heartbeat that morning, but I hadn’t, and at the end of that afternoon, as we broke into a canter approaching our next campsite, I was inattentive and unprepared. My horse slipped and as I tried to regain my balance, he lost his and we fell together, my left leg under his flank. It was the last thing I remembered! When I came too I was being carried into the camp on an old door found nearby that, once upon a time, had graced a shepherd’s hut. I was concussed, drifting in and out of consciousness, feeling as if I was in a dream. Though a lot better the next morning, Nigel ruled that I was to stay put and rest that day as we were to spend two nights in this camp. I did exactly as I was ordered, sleeping almost the entire time, surfacing either to look at the Andean geese that had landed on the nearby banks of a burbling stream, or just to breathe in the sheer and incredible beauty of the peaks all around us.
Some days later we completed the trip up to Mt. Tupungato, on one of the most arduous rides I think I have ever done. This ascent is very hard on a lot of horses, straining their hearts impossibly with the effort and the altitude. Mules were switched in where some of our horses were deemed unsuitable for this terrain. I ended up on one of our pack mules. He went at exactly his pace and ignored all directions from me unless it suited him … and I can’t say I blamed him! We started at dawn, and ended at dusk. It was an exhausting day even for us riders. The path moved relentlessly up, first through broad valleys overlooked by giant snow-capped ridges, then up a steep zig-zagging path of shale onto Tupungato’s shoulder, and finally through a stalagmite field of ice that lead to our destination, a narrow ridge a thousand foot or so below the peak. Once there it felt as if we were looking out across the whole world. Vast swathes of Argentina stretched out in front of us and behind us the bare, colorful mountains and valleys of the Tupungato reserve. It was magical and memorable, and the air so pure that its taste is still with me today.
All of our remaining days in the area were, thankfully, uneventful in the dramatic sense, but all were days that even years later remain etched within me for their unique qualities, for the exquisite quality of the landscape, and for the resilience that this terrain demands.
On arriving back in New York I had intended to give my condor feather to a dear friend of mine, but when he came to collect it I found myself weeping. Even though I handed it on and saw him walk out of the door with it, I was unable to let it go, calling him the next day to ask for its return while I explored my issues. The exploration that followed revealed to me old roots in South America, and a connection with the ancient Condor People of the High Andes. The integration of it returned to me long forgotten knowledge, and started me on, what felt like, a new life’s path. Treasure indeed.
Firstly, I contacted a shaman to work with me and the Feather, to help me to understand what I was experiencing. She was very clear with me about the information being given through her. If I wanted to disconnect from the Feather, I was to do a specific ceremony over a number of weeks to separate its consciousness from mine. In addition, as we journeyed in our session it was revealed by the spirits connected to us that this feather was a reminder to me of a task that I had been sent on as a messenger for my Andean tribe many lifetimes ago, to take out a gift from the heart of the people to humanity beyond their borders – a gift with knowledge for the world outside their reality, imparting their wisdom for the greater good of mankind. Unbeknownst to me, part of that assignment was that I would lose the gift in order for it to be found by these people, and then owned by them as if it was their own discovery. I did lose it, but in the wave of emotions that accompanied my perceived failure of a trusted mission, I also lost contact with my own heart, and with my connection to the gift. The Feather had come now to remind me that I did what I was asked to do, and to help me to forgive myself for the personal consequences of my misunderstanding, and by so doing reconnect once again to an ancient aspect I hold, and to my heart. The knowing served to strengthen my bond to the Feather, and with great grace my dear friend willingly released it back to me permanently.
My next step was to get help for myself. I’d felt fine for the rest of my trip in the Andes, but once back at sea level I struggled physically and emotionally. The effects of the concussion were definitely still around, but on top of normal symptoms, I felt as if I was drowning, held down by a chain, and I had started to watch myself carefully on the streets as I was weaving about, even being inexplicably drawn to crossing the road at the wrong moment on a couple of occasions! It really wasn’t funny! When, a few weeks later, the improvement I hoped for with time had still not arrived, I called my mentor, Dr. Patricia Fields, for help. In the course of the next few weeks Pat helped me to understand what was going on. My structures had been dissolving as I had completed and crossed over a major vibration of my soul, using the pure Andean energies, and the concussion as the platform from which to do it. I could feel the truth of some of what she said immediately, but it would be weeks before I felt stable and strong and could walk in a straight line again.
Not only did I experience physical changes, but people and pastimes that had interested me prior to my trip now had no hold on me at all. The full integration of my journey, the nature of the energies I had been gifted, and my physical transformation following it took several months. In this period I had no option but to surrender to its flow, and trust that I would align with and integrate this new vibration of my being with time and patience.
As it turned out this was one of a number of karmic completions, soul integrations of existences I had experienced as part of different indigenous tribes and peoples. This valuable awareness helped to shine a light for me on my psychological challenges today and to learn self-forgiveness. I also deepened my appreciation for the unique and valuable nature of all our diverse cultures and the respect that each one’s unique qualities deserve.
For information about great riding adventures contact Nigel Harvey at
©2011 Sarah Lidsey. All rights reserved.


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