Alto Ongamira, horses & Jesus Maria

A group of 5 friends went to Dos Lunas, a horse riding lodge in Alto Ongamira, Cordoba province of Argentina, in March 2019 and we all fell in love. It only took a few weeks for Michael, a riding friend from Germany, to plan a second trip back, and I couldnt help myself but to tag along.

just another day in the life of a gaucho

This time, we would be hosted by the managers of Dos Lunas, at their own ranch down the road, with horses and cows in the backyard and 3 dogs and one cute cat to call company.

 

Ruben and Malu at polo lessons

Malu and Ruben had just gotten married, so we invited them on a second honeymoon to Pompeya Polo club in Aschochinga for 3 days. There we took polo lessons and practiced our swings at full speed, all the time trying to look the part but failing miserably in being liable polo player candidates. So, instead we watched the owners and his family play a real game whiles cuddling Australian shepherd puppies.

Pompeya Polo club meet

We rode all around Alto Ongamira, to Dos Lunas for rides with guests, to the local bar for empanadas, to waterfalls and to round up cattle. We saved a horse and a cow from some flesh-eating bugs and tried to break in an orphaned foal, and felt special to be able to help, but those were all just everyday things for them.

Festival Nacional de Doma y Folklore

It was also the time of year for the Doma festival, a rodeo and folklore festival in nearby Jesus Maria. Hundreds of cowboys compete in different categories, either bareback or with tack, for different times they need to stay on a wild, bucking bronco. We wanted to go 5 of the 10 nights, but sadly on our first night there, a gaucho fell under a horse and passed away that night, so Doma was cancelled the next night. Its only the second rider to die in 10 years, but horses also get seriously injured, so this may have been one of the last Doma festivals since social pressure for safety is rising.

Our friend Valentina enjoying the great views and fresh air of Ongamira

The highlight for me this trip were all the small moments, when I found myself bareback on a horse on a road that didn’t lead to anywhere familiar, and traveling down gravel roads to unknown destinations and always finding something magical. I made friends, beastly and manly, and don’t think it will take another year before I find myself back in Ongamira

This Backroads Life

At Backroads, I´m called a leader. I much prefer chasing sheep on horseback, but that job doesn’t pay as well, and I’m deathly allergic to hay, so I’ll stick to Backroads leading.

Skaftafell National Park for a Backroads day

You can also call us glorified tour guides, where we’re capable of acting as babysitters or bus drivers just as well as we get to shine in the spotlight, but Backroad’s leaders are really one of a kind – a rare and spectacular breed of individuals that are capable of so much. There’s benefits to being an Icelandic leader in Iceland, but actually it means I get to spend extra time defending Backroads in Iceland, and doing extra work for the company since Im the local language expert and live here anyway, so I’m not really that special, on the Backroads global scale kinda measurement.

on Fjallsjokull glacier

The trips I lead are called multi-sport: we do sports, different kinds, one for every day. Its a 6 day trip, and we hike, bike, glacier walk, and sometimes, horse back ride. We go from Hofn to Reykjavik, in our Backroads vans, and are always atleast 2 leaders working together. We sleep at Iceland’s best hotels; Hotel Ranga and Ion Adventure hotel, to name a  few, and eat like kings and queens. It’s hard to stay fit, even as an active tour leader, since the food weighs me down, day after day, in addition to all the snacks we’re meant to offer guests, but really just end up eating ourselves, out of boredom, or guilt, or satisfaction, or all of the above… I don’t know.

biking around Thingvallavatn

The Iceland season is short, beginning at the start of June and ending at the start of September. I start and end the season, with a few weeks off in between, and our groups are anywhere from 9 to 26 people, almost always only Americans. They tip, so I love them, and speak English, which makes my job easy, but the few weeks I get off from Backroads to lead horseback riding treks are also a blessing. I may be surrounded by middle-aged German women, who were expecting a Chris Hemsworth kind of Thor as their guide, and barely speak english, but the horses are always worth it.

horseback riding in Hella

A couple of nights in the highlands, in mountain huts without running water or electricity, sharing bunk beds in one big room, and I’m immediately ready to go back to Backroads leading. My Fosshotel glacier room feels more like home than my own bed in Reykjavik does, and I’m not sure I remember what life was like before Backroads… *sigh*

my well-worn hiking boots at Hoffell

This Backroads life was meant to be, the dream job I never had and the perfect lifestyle to enjoy Iceland and traveling. If only my midriff agreed.

Riding in Alto Ongamira Valley

One of the most common bucket-list trips for horse riders to want to take is Argentina. Whether its Patagonia or Mendoza, its not hard to sell your rider friends to make the trip to South America, as long as its for the love of horses.

cowboys and cowgirls

I had 4 such friends, and we went from gushing about all the places and ideas we had for an Argentina trip 2 or 3 years ago, to finally making it a reality and all meeting in Buenos Aires.

riders all aboard!

From there, we flew to Cordoba, and drove another 120kms to Alto Ongamira Valley, where our gauchos and caballos were waiting. We stayed in an estancia built over 100 years ago, by Eastern European immigrants, where rooms were still heated by wooden fire places and the buffet breakfasts and coffee hour every afternoon would have been enough food for the whole day, but 3 course meals, with Argentinian wine, at lunch and dinner were also swindled into every corner of our full tummies.

asado picnic

Somedays we had barbecues outside, roasted over open fires, and the food quality was impeccable. Red meats and red wines flowed equally generously, and one day we had a sommelier come in to teach us about wines from the region, with more than half a dozen wines to sample – sparkling, white and red, and 2 bottles of each. We were meant to take home a third bottle, but none of us had space in our suitcases after buying so many gaucho hats and gaucho shoes. Instead, we left it for the cook and hospitality staff, who never ceased to be amazed at how much 5 adults could drink.

sunset dips were the best

There was a pool to swim in at the Estancia, but the weather was quite cool, perfect riding temperature which had a freshness to the mountain plains I would never have traded out for more heat. We went down to Ascochinga one day for a polo lesson, and we had plenty of sunshine there, sweating under our colourful polo hats as we tried our best to swing those heavy polo sticks to actually hit a polo ball from the back of a cantering horse.

polo coaching at Pompeya

We spent most of our days on horseback, with a gaucho or two, and atleast 5 dogs. One dog was slightly smaller than the rest, and he would barely see over the tall grass or worn trails at time, but always insisted on coming with us, climbing even to the highest point at Condor Mountain.

Monty, the little-big dog

I felt pity for him, especially when he’d get a burr in his paw or pant up hills trying to keep up with galloping horses, so I made the excuse my legs were cold and held him on my lap for parts of the ride.

riding to the mountain

The riding was never the same, the scenery or the weather, but the horses were consistent – always excellent. Everytime I rode a new horse, I swore he or she was the fastest, and they always were. We raced moth days, and my horse always won, but maybe it was the foxtail on my cowboy hat that made us run faster – noone wants to lose their role as the fox.

this one was, really, the fastest

Riding in Lesotho

Lesotho is a tiny, land-locked kingdom, surrounded by South Africa on all sides. There aren’t many road borders in or out, but you could easily walk into the country by accident. There are some beautiful mountains and National parks on the north side where South Africans can see Lesotho just across the valley, including the Drakensberg and Golden Gate National park, places I visited to flirt with the idea of Lesotho before arriving.

on the road in Lesotho

I found couchsurfers to stay with, a household of Filipino sisters and brothers and cousins. They’re all working in various businesses, from textiles to furniture and a car garage. We ate breakfast and dinner together every day, with a few other guests, and at one point I was in Lesotho singing Karaoke with 9 Filipinos drinking South African wine and couldn’t imagine expecting a more random experience to write home about.

bumpy road ahead

I borrowed a friend’s car from Johannesburg and drove to Lesotho. The roads on the South African side were excellent – and also filled with tolls and speed cameras. Once entering Lesotho, I didn’t see a single traffic police officer or camera, and only one traffic light, and the roads were full of potholes, where they were paved, and one big pot hole where they weren’t. I was driving a Ford Fiesta, not the greatest off-road car, and it took hours just to drive 80km, but I managed to get deep into the countryside and find some horses to ride.

riding off into the Lesotho countryside

Lesotho has an alive and kicking horse culture – people still travel by horse, shepherd on horse back, and use horses to work their fields and transport goods. I found a camp called Malealea where tourists can go on multi-day treks, up to 28 days, and basically see the whole of Lesotho from the back of a horse. I rode for only one day, barefoot because I didnt have proper shoes and it was too hot, and left my guide in the dust everytime I asked him if we could go for a gallop. We visited a waterfall, a cave, and some ancient rock art paintings, and by the end of the day I realized I should have stayed a week for this. But oh well, there’s always a next time. And next time I’ll bring riding shoes.

Photo Highlights: A Summer of Riding in Iceland

the calm before the storm - an empty sheep coral waits for the round up to arrive in Oxafjordur, Iceland

the calm before the storm – an empty sheep coral waits for the round up to arrive in Oxafjordur, Iceland

After 7 week-long tours and 2 sheep round up weekends, my summer of riding in Iceland has come to an end. It’s a bittersweet moment, since my butt and back are surely happy to not spend another hour in the saddle, but as soon as the last ride is over, I already start to miss the horses.

the lose herd is one of Iceland's signature horse tour characteristics

the lose herd is one of Iceland’s signature horse tour characteristics

Here are a few photos from a summer of riding Kjölur, Mývatn, The Golden Circle, Þveráhlíð and Melrakkasletta.

a rider poses over Jökulsá á fjöllum glacier river

a rider poses over Jökulsá á fjöllum glacier river

If you´re looking to book a riding tour in Iceland next summer, check out Ishestar´s long list of short and long tours on offer (some are even available all year round!).

Heading into Mývatnssveit

Heading into Mývatnssveit

Other operators that I´d also highly recommend are Exploring Iceland, Riding Iceland, and Hestasport in Skagafjordur, North Iceland.

my second Kjölur group

my second Kjölur group under Langjökull glacier

Photo Highlight: the Lonely Trails of Melrakkasletta

The north-eastern most part of Iceland is an isolated peninsula called Melrakkasletta. It doesn’t have mountains or fjords, but it has a lonely Heath full of moss and sheep and not much else. It seems as if more farms there are abandoned than inhabited, and riding there felt like we had risen into the clouds.  

the lonely trails of Melrakkasletta


If you’d like to ride here next year, check out Halldór’s tours with Ishestar

 

Power of Creation

riding past the Unicorn mountain

riding past the Unicorn mountain

Fjallabak

Fjallabak

There’s an area of Iceland between the glaciers called ‘Fjallabak,’ or ‘the mountainside,’ which may or may not be the most beautiful trail I’ve ever ridden in Iceland. It rides past the infamous Eyjafjallajokull and the Laki craters, a volcanic lava field created in an eruption 250 years ago. I may be a bit biased, since we had perfect, sunny weather the entire 6 days, but any or all visibility you could have were stunning, breath-taking views. There are glaciers and mountains in all directions, sand deserts, lava rock fields, yellow mountains, green moss and water galore. We saw beautiful waterfalls on our first day, rode over grassy fields at sunset on our second day, and through volcanic canyons on our third day.

Hundafoss

Hundafoss

The fourth day we went exploring some vegetated valleys, and found an old sheep-round up hut built of turf and stone. Then we went to the top of a mountain, for a 360 degree view of countless mountain peaks and 3 big glaciers. We could see all the way from Eyjafjallajokull to Landmanalaugar, sitting just above the Thorsmork nature park. Our last 2 days rode us past a unicorn mountain and back into the farm lands, to Birna and Kiddi’s horse breeding farm at Eyvindarmuli. We went up to the mountains behind his house to look for some foals, but instead got stuck with the only rain and fog we had seen all week. It passed in just a few minutes though, so we clambered back down the slippery steep slope and saw some more beautiful waterfalls.

feeling like we're on top of the world

feeling like we’re on top of the world

This was my first time riding this trail, which we took from Lakagigar west back to Eyvindarmuli. There were only 7 guests in the group and it eventually felt like we were just a group of friends riding the same wonderful horses we came to know and love. We rode one of the longest days I’ve ever ridden, 53km, but it went by nice and easy with our small herd and young staff. I can’t wait to ride this trail again next year, perhaps from west to east, and see what kind of weather and riders we’ll get then. Take a peek at the tour description here, and maybe get tempted to come too 😉

one of many stunning waterfalls

one of many stunning waterfalls

Egilsstaðir Riding Tour

If I had to name my favourite tour, the one I could do over and over without getting tired of it, it would be the Egilsstadir ride in the east. It’s basically 6 days of roaming the highlands, the same highlands wild reindeer and foxes live, which is the largest uninhabited area in all of Europe. There are almost no fences to open, or roads to cross, only a handful of interactions with civilization as we dip in and out of the valleys between the heaths to feed the horses and charge the riders batteries – literally, and figuratively. Some of the huts area really primitive, no running water or electricity, just a big shelter to squeeze 20 riders and all their luggage into for a cozy night of eating, drinking, singing and sleeping.

riding past snow towards Snaefell

riding past snow towards Snaefell

There were only 2 tours this summer, but I was happy to take both, one with Ishestar and one with my old friends Denni and Arna. I’ve taken this tour more than 10 times now, and its the one area of Iceland I’ve started to know like the back of my hand. Every fall I go to the same area, Fljotsdalsheidi, and ride with 10 or 12 other farmers to look for sheep. There are a couple thousand sheep that roam this area freely each summer, and they come home each fall with their lambs all fat and fluffy. There are hundred-year-old horse and sheep trails all over the place, but its still tricky to find your way when thick fog rolls in and your visibility gets reduced to about 2 or 3 meters. It happened to us on the first tour of the season, when we climbed up a few hundred meters into the clouds and had to keep avoiding snowbanks that still hadn’t melted in July.

the valley of rainbows and waterfalls

the valley of rainbows and waterfalls

Even though the highlands can be like one big marsh, waterlogged from the late snow-melt, the rivers run cold and clean enough to fill our waterbottles on the way. There’s no need for running water either if you’re gutsy enough to dip into the icy rivers for an all-natural bath – me and a crazy Norwegian managed to do it on night 3, sitting beside Saudarkofi mountain hut under Icelands largest mountain Snaefell. We could have waited til night 4, when we reach Laugafell and the natural hot-water baths there, but then we wouldn’t have appreciated the hottubs as much after trying the other extreme.

Egilsstadir usually has repeat guests, the same riders who come back twice, sometimes thrice or more, and ride the same trail. Its different every year, depending on the weather and the difference between the highlands in July or August, and even the way can change a bit to avoid the really wet lands or washed out trails. Two of the mountain huts have also changed over the past few years, upgraded to include electricity and water. Ill be back next year to ride it again and see what else is new, and those who want to do the same can make a booking with Ishestar or Denni and Arna.

Kjolur: Riding across Iceland

100 horses in line

100 horses in line

One of oldest trails in Iceland is the one that goes from the north of Iceland to the southwest, where the national Assembly was held every year just outside of Reykjavik. It was the trip hundreds of powerful rulers, sheepherders, tradesmen and post men traveled across over the last 1000 years, with the help of their faithful horses, and it took them atleast 3 days to cross, sometimes a whole week. There were many unbridged rivers, icy glaciers, and stormy weather to deal with, but the journey was always made. Nowadays there’s a gravel road, passable even by little 2-wheel-drive hatchbacks, a lot of bridges, and heated huts along the way, and Ishester does the trip north and south in 6 days on horse back.

Kjolur

Kjolur

We follow the road sometimes, since there’s alot of wet lands, lava fields and rivers we also need to use bridges to cross. But then we also follow the thousand-year old trails that have been worn down and multiplied all along the way. We stay at the mountain huts, sometimes alone without electricity or showers, and sometimes we share the popular huts with dozens of other hikers and jeep-riders. We try to not run into another horse group, even though there are others that do the same trail, since sorting out two herds of 100+ horses each is hard to do if we cross paths on the way.

big river crossing

big river crossing

Ironically enough, it was my first time riding Kjolur too, even though I was the guide for the 2 biggest groups Ive ever ridden with. The group north was 21 guests and 10 staff, so we crammed 32 and a half people (there was also a 1 year old baby with the cook) into each and every hut for dinner, sleeping and breakfast every day. The group south was even bigger, but between all those people, we were lucky enough to have great riders and one heck of a party both ways.

trails and trails

trails and trails

The trip starts at Kjoastadir farm, with some 100 horses, and makes its way up between two glaciers. The third day is the longest, and we ride through a famous green-valley oasis that used to house many-a outlaws, and is still home to some sheep, elves and trolls. One of the biggest highlights of the tour is the third night, when we stay at Hveravellir, a natural geothermal area with a pool-sized hottub surrounded by steaming pools and more green valleys. We managed to fit more than 30 people inside at once, and it does wonders to your body after 3 days of riding. The trip continues north towards Maelifell mountain, and we finally wind our way down into Skagafjordur valley, also known as the horse capital of Iceland.

Hveravellir pool

Hveravellir pool

If you want to join us next year, check out the tour on Ishestar’s website.