Ongamira: The Secret of Las Sierras, Cordoba
January 1, 1970
by Gabriella Gioe
Cordoba, Argentina is a fascinating province in the very heart of the Argeninta. Its capital is most known for being a student city for the many universities and abundant night life it has to offer. It was originally founded by the Jesuits in the early 17th century who founded the first universities and missions in the country. Eventually, Cordoba was given the name La Docta; a Latin term meaning “the trained”.
But I’m not here to talk about the city or its education. Nope. Instead I want to drive your attention away from the city and up into the Las Sierras of Cordoba. Older than the Andes Mountains ranges, Las Sierras were created in the Paleozoic era (250 million year ago for you history buffs). Las sierras contain 4 distinct valleys, the most northern called Ongamira. Not too long ago I went with my fellow co-workers as an end-of-year gathering to have a typical Argentine asado, hiking, and horseback riding. It was one of my favorite days thus far.
To get to Onagmira is not exactly the easiest (hence the secrecy). The best towns to travel to are Salsipuedes and San Marcos; either of which you can get an inter-city bus for just a couple of dollars. From there you’ll need a special driver or you own car to get you through the mountainous roads.
[single_map_place] Ongamira, Cordoba, Argentina [/single_map_place]
So… at nine in the morning all 10 of us crammed into two different cars and headed off. The most difficult part of driving out of the city is the actual city. Traffic sometimes is unbearable especially during morning rush hour. Once we were out, we made out way northwest, past the towns of Rio Ceballos and Salsipuedes. If you’re not careful, you will overlook the side street that breaks off from the main road and turns into a dirt path. From there, it was at least another hour of slowly driving through the twists and turns to our destination.
The History of Ongamira
As we were driving, our boss and her husband began to tell us the historical significance of Ongamira. They told us the place was once home to the indigenous tribe; the Comechingones, who lived about 200 B.C. They thrived off the land, using caves carved out from the sandstone as their homes and ritual sites. Today you can still see some of the paintings left behind. Then around the year 1574, the Spanish invaded these lands and sought to conquer the Conechingones. In the end, the last of the warriors threw themselves over Cerro Colchequín, the highest peak, as to not fall into the hands of the powerful conquistadors.
The Ongamira valley, named after Chief Onga, is surrounded by colorful hills of reddish sandstone and lush green pastures. As we arrived closer to our destination, we were cut off of any cell service (gasp!) but the landscape transmitted absolute tranquility and peace.
Upon first glance of the valley I felt like this was truly a magical place that has been barely touched by human development and embodies the true guacho spirit of Argentina. Here you could see a spectrum of colors and fields with horses roaming free. The clouds looked like they were just within reach, as if I could jump up and grab them. The wildlife around the valley was abundant with foxes, pumas, wood birds, porcupine, and the condor which I was so hopeful to spot. The condors nest upon the Cerro Colchequín and it is a must see for avid birdwatchers as this is the only eastern region where you can see this incredible vulture.
The Final destination
We arrived around noon to our luncheon spot; a run- down tavern and horse ranch with our guacho ready to great us. Guillermo*, our host, welcomed us with a big smile and a fire started to prepare our asado. Now I can’t go into detail about how a perfect asado is prepared, but one thing I can say it is not something to be rushed. So even though I was starving, our group set off on a quick hike to the best panoramic view of the valley. We were lead by our fantastic guide, Guillermo’s daughter Juileta*. She was 10. About every 5 minutes or so she would point out local fauna and how the indigenous would used them to create paints or herbal medicines. She showed us parts of the caves were they would sleep and graves of where some were buried. She was super smart. That, or she has probably done this hike a million times.
The hike was an easy one, but I couldn’t get enough of the views. Since it was the beginning of spring, everything around me was coming to life; cactus flowers were blossoming, wildflowers dotted the green pastures with colorful patches, and new born foals and calves were bouncing around the fields enjoying the sunshine. We got to the top of our viewpoint and time stood still. You could hear the wind sing and mountains whisper. Any external sound from our voices echoed for miles.
FINALLY, it was time for lunch! The best asado of ribs, sausage, pork, fresh baked bread and char-cooked veggies. My stomach was happy. American bbqs have got nothing on the Argentino asado. Lo siento.
Horseback in Argentina
Mid afternoon, after our fat tummies have settled from the food, it was time for horseback riding. Each one of us was given a horse based on our height and level on experience with horses. Some were super chill horses, while other were feisty and down right stubborn. What is amazing about riding in Argentina is that there are no rules. Literally its “ride at your own risk”. In America wherever you want to go horseback riding you need to sign a wavier, then stay on the trail one behind another. DO NOT run the horses. You just walk and walk and walk and its lame.
No, here we were free. If you wanted to walk the horses, you walked. If you wanted to run the horses, you found a partner and raced up the side of the mountain. It was the best feeling in the world actually being able to run the horse. I felt so free and so lighthearted. The horse becomes a part of you and within that short span of a time you are together, you create a bond. For that day I really felt like guacho, a lone ranger, set back in time to where horses were cars and roads didn’t exist. Just you and your trusty steed.
We climbed farther and farther up the mountain alongside Cerro Colchequín. I was keeping my eyes open for any condors flying up above, but it wasn’t my day. We went through fields where teams of horses were roaming freely amongst thousands of acres of land. They ran right up to us; recognizing their friends with and greeting them with whinnies and neighs. A team of horses galloping through the open mountain range is probably on of the most majestic things I have ever seen.
When we came to the turning point of our ride there was a faint spot in the distance that was completely white. I thought it was snow at first, but then I realized it was flat land. Turns out, it was the salt flats of Catamarca, a province in the north…over 270 miles away! I couldn’t believe it. To see something from 270 miles away is unfathomable. But there it was and I could see it bright as day.
Our trip was about 3 hours long and cost us a little under 35 dollars each, which is a steal if you think about it. It was one of the best rides I have ever had and Guillermo was a spectacular tour guide. We ended the day relaxing in the tavern drinking a few beers and dancing to folk music from the region. My boss tried to teach me how to dance a traditional partner dance, but after several attempts we both gave up. The day was a success and it was the ultimate bonding trip for us a team. The ride home seemed longer than before, but maybe because we were all exhausted from the day’s activities. The next day, our bums were so sore we were all walking around like typical spread-legged cowboys. The final part of the transformation complete.