Last year I sent an email to an outfitter in Arequipa, Peru, inquiring about hiring a guide to do an extended solo horseback trip in Colca Canyon. The outfitter summarily dismissed my inquiry.
Not to be deterred, I tried again. I got the same response.
Since I know Peruvians, knew enough about the culture and what I was up against, I enlisted the help of a dear Peruvian friend -another man- who wrote to the outfitter for me. He made it clear that I was a serious rider, my riding experience was valid, and that he’d be smart to sell me the trip.
Grudgingly, the outfitter relented. When I got to Arequipa, I met the Peruvian outfitter. We got along just fine. He was still doubtful of my ability, which was demonstrated by his sending along a translator with minimal riding experience on an extremely difficult five- day riding journey. We’d also be hiking above 12,000 feet and riding some very challenging trails. Since I’ve done Kilimanjaro and the Everest Base Camp and train at 6400′, this was not a big deal.
The translator sat his horse like Quasimodo- hunched over and gripping the horn of the saddle, which threw off his balance, and annoyed the crap out of his horse. He was frankly terrified of the extreme heights where we rode, the narrow paths, and of trusting the animal. He was a likable kid. Knowledgeable about the area, and great fun. But not a good rider.
Our guide, Wilbert, spoke Quechua and Spanish. I liked him instantly.
The very first day, the heavens opened up on us for hours on end. Didn’t bother me a whit. That’s why you bring damned good gear, Goretex and a sense of humor. I told Wilbert, and meant it, that it had been one of the best riding days I’d ever had.
While the translator slept in, I awoke at 4 am and went out with Wilbert to bring in our mounts, brush them down and saddle up. At the end of each long day, I helped break down the gear while our translator sought out the beer. The food was local and excellent.
As the days wore on, my translator began to relax. I would periodically suggest to him that he trust his innate athletic skill. His balance. Trust his posture. Relax on the horse. The horse would relax with him.
By the fifth day, he was riding one-handed. His back was straight. His horse was calm and happy. I rode up beside him, now astride Wilbert’s best horse Caprioso, and teased him. He was beaming. Proud. This was a major accomplishment.
Wilbert, who had been a soldier during the Shining Path years, knew every back country cow path in the mountains. Cow and horse thieves were constantly after him to go in cahoots, but he was starting up his guiding business. An intense, handsome man, I’ve never worked with a better guide. He’s patient, quiet, and above all the horses come first. Many tourists don’t understand that without this rule, there is no ride.
Wilbert and I are planning another lengthy trip in November. I can’t wait to spend more time with him and his horses. I won’t go through the same outfitter again. I had fun with the translator, but the simple truth is that it gets old having to swim uphill like a spawning salmon to prove yourself. I’m tired of having to have another man intercede in order to help me spend thousands on an adventure trip. Especially where I am likely to be in far better shape and more skilled than those sent along to “keep an eye on me.” Wilbert’s assistant reported that he’s really looking forward to riding with me again. The feeling is absolutely mutual.
As more Baby Boomers head out into the world- and a great many of are women in very good shape – international operators would do well to take us seriously and not dismiss us out of hand due to age or gender. Traditionally, adventure travel has been hugely male-centric. Smart outfitters are recognizing that ignoring us is not a good business move. Wilbert not only has a repeat customer but I’ll be sending other riders his way.
But not to the original outfitter.
Condescension is an expensive business mistake.