What do the critics reckon?
'Evans is an adventurer...Her writing is full of colourful anecdotes on taking tango lessons in Buenos Aires, attending polo tournaments and galloping across the pampas and into the mountains. This is a jolly romp of a read, with some good snapshots of local life' Clover Stroud, Sunday Telegraph
'Funny and easygoing, Evans reveals the little-known richness of Argentina' Kirkus Reviews
'Here she goes again, putting herself in uncomfortable situations with a risk of aches and pains – and embarrassment. The celebrated author of "It's Not About the Tapas" (her take on Spain) and "Fried Eggs With Chopsticks" (her China travels), Evans has an engaging style that draws comparisons to Paul Theroux and Bill Bryson. Certainly, she's open to adventure, whether motorcycling across New Zealand or dogsledding in the Yukon (the subject of her book due out next year). For this South American journey, she decided to fly to a 6,000-acre cattle farm in Cordoba, where she would learn to ride in a week. Then she would spend two months touring the country from Patagonia to Buenos Aires, riding horseback whenever she got the chance. Her girlfriends were wary. They warned her that the denim seams on her jeans would permanently scar her calves, that her hands would be rubbed raw, and worst of all: "Oh yes, and also, remember that after you've been riding you will really stink." But she has sense enough to take it all in stride' Newsday
'A journey rich in historical figures perfect for armchair—or horseback—enthusiasts alike' Kirkus Reviews Lifestyle, Travel and Leisure issue
At the age of thirty-four, Polly Evans decides to fulfil a childhood dream – to learn how to ride a horse. But rather than do so conveniently close to home, she goes to Argentina and saddles up among the gauchos. Overcoming battered limbs, a steed hell-bent on bolting, and an encounter with the teeth of one very savage dog, Polly canters through Andean vineyards and gallops beneath snow-capped Patagonian peaks. She also survives a hair-raising game of polo and back-breaking day herding cattle.
Taking a break from riding, Polly delves into Argentina’s tumultuous history: the Europeans’ first terrifying acquaintances with the native ‘giants’; the sanguinary demise of the early missionaries; and the gruesome drama of Evita’s wandering corpse.
On a Hoof and a Prayer is the stampeding story of Polly’s journey from timorous equestrian novice to wildly whooping cowgirl. It's a tale of ponies, painkillers and peregrinations – not just around present-day Argentina , but also into the country's glorious and turbulent past.
Robin’s driver, Fabio, collected me from Córdoba airport in a long-bonneted Ford pick-up. Its leather-upholstered banquette stretched wide enough to accommodate a family. We drove out of the city and passed through flat fields and grassland – some green, some the colour of pale straw. Cattle and horses grazed. We came into the town of Río Ceballos where Ford Dodges and huge, antiquated American cars ornamented with rust weaved through the streets.
‘Argentines can’t drive,’ Fabio shrugged as he swung out of the way of a truck intent on collision.
Leaving the Chevrolets, we turned right onto an unmetalled track, then climbed higher and higher into the Sierra Chica hills. The land undulated green and gold for as far as the eye could see. The buzz of the city was far below us now.
‘That building there,’ Fabio pointed across the hillside to a tiny, one-storey whitewashed construction, ‘that’s the local school. It’s very small – only about ten or twenty children go there.’
The schoolhouse was right in the middle of nowhere. No roads seemed to lead to it. I asked Fabio how the children travelled there each day.
‘Oh,’ he said, ‘they ride there on horseback.’
He said it nonchalantly, as if to ride one’s horse to school were the most natural thing in the world.
‘How old are the children?’ I asked, trying to hide my urbanite’s surprise.
‘Oh, the youngest ones are probably about six, I suppose.’
‘And they ride a horse to school, all alone?’
‘Oh, the little ones ride with the older kids.’
So here I was at last in Argentina, where six-year-olds travelled to school on horseback. I was a long, long way from home, where harassed, highlighted mothers ferried their offspring through city streets in outsized SUVs. Here in the Sierra Chica there was no school bus. And if the six-year-olds were so competent, why, after a couple of lessons, shouldn’t I be? A small current of euphoria sparked within me. I hadn’t even made it to the corral, yet already I felt a powerful sense of arrival.
We wound our way higher into the hills. A tinamou scuttled out of our path. As we drove through the gates of Estancia Los Potreros, a pair of bright green monk parakeets flitted between the trees.
‘You can teach those birds to talk,’ Fabio told me. ‘You have to cover up their cage, then give them a piece of bread soaked in wine. It loosens their tongues.’
We rattled along a track until we finally arrived in front of an L-shaped, whitewashed house. The house sat slightly elevated from the lawn that spread before it: at intervals, staircases of five or six stone steps led up to a terrace, raised to the same level as the floor of the house. Along the outside of the terrace a series of square, white pillars supported a low-pitched corrugated metal roof. Robin was standing in front of the house as we drew up. He was in his mid-forties, his brown hair just starting to thin. He was dressed in beige chinos and a blue cotton short-sleeved shirt, and wore large, horn-rimmed glasses.
‘Hello, welcome!’ he shook my hand in a very English way. Robin was born in Argentina, but went to boarding school in England from the age of thirteen. He then worked a long stint in the City and married his English wife, Teleri, before returning to Argentina seven years ago. Robin and Teleri now had four children; at the time of my visit the oldest, Elicia, was eight. Teleri lived with the children during the week in the nearby village of La Cumbre where there was an English school; the two older girls went to the regular, Argentine school in the morning and studied the British syllabus in the afternoon.
Robin showed me to my room: a wooden four-poster bed took prominence; its dark, polished pillars spiralled dramatically skywards. In the corner of the room a wood-burning stove sat alongside a basket full of logs. The floor was constructed from parquet squares of gleaming algarrobo – carob tree – wood the colour of bitter chocolate; a vase of fresh, pink roses stood on the table. On the wall hung old sepia photographs of Robin’s family.
‘There’s a key here if you want it,’ said Robin, ‘but we never bother to lock anything ourselves.’
I often receive emails from readers asking for more details about the places that feature in my books. How can they, too, find themselves squashed onto a cramped, smoke-filled, clattering Chinese bus for hours on end? How can they experience the extraordinary pain of cycling through the Pyrenees with no training, the humiliation of dropping their motorbike in the middle of the road and being too feeble to pick it up again, or the fright of finding oneself on a bolting horse with their hat over their eyes and no feet in the stirrups? For anyone who really wants to do it themselves, here's my DIY guide to On a Hoof and a Prayer. Destinations are in the order in which they appear in the book.
Estancia Los Potreros is in Córdoba province, a short flight or a comfortable sleeper bus ride from Buenos Aires . There's a minimum stay of three nights. Most people come here to ride, but beginners are welcome and there are alternative activities – walking, bird-watching, sight-seeing and so on – on offer for non-riders and the saddle sore. It’s a heavenly place.
My Movitrack trip out of Salta was perhaps the best day trip I've ever done.
Just outside Cachi I stayed at El Molino de Cachi Adentro. Tel. +54 3868 491094
In Buenos Aires I stayed at the Casa Alfaro B&B in the Palermo district. It's not flash, but I liked it. It's at Gurruchaga 2155, tel. +54 11 4831 0517. Also recommended is La Otra Orilla a few streets away (Julián Alvarez 1779 +54 11 4867 4070).
The Argentine Open polo tournament takes place at the Palermo ground in November and December each year. Tickets are cheap (I paid ten pesos) and can be bought at the door. It is definitely worth going along if you're in the city during the right months.
Estancia Dos Talas is near Dolores. The owners Sara and Luis offer both day trips and accommodation with full board. It’s a wonderful place and well worth a visit.
From Estancia Huechahue I went on the camping trip to Lanín National Park. Estancia stays here generally last a week or more, and most people who come here are riders. The riding and scenery are totally fantastic.
Harberton is well worth a visit for anyone who gets as far as Ushuaia. It's really worth trying to get hold of a copy of Lucas Bridges' wonderful book Uttermost Part of the Earth to read beforehand (it's out of print, but available from some libraries and second-hand book websites such as Abe Books.) I took a day trip to Harberton through one of the tour operators in town, but you can contact them direct via www.estanciaviamonte.com/Harberton.htm Or, if you're feeling flush, stay at Viamonte, which Lucas Bridges built.
I booked my trip to Estancia Rolito through Turismo de Campo in Ushuaia (25 de Mayo 50). Again, it's a fabulous place and well worth heading out to.
The buses in Argentina are excellent, and the sleeper buses are very comfortable. Seats either recline well back or, if you travel first class (which costs little) you sometimes get a fully flat bed. It is often more comfortable, more convenient, and cheaper to travel by overnight bus than by air.
And lastly, something that's not in the book at all: I was recommended a fabulous place to buy leather in Buenos Aires that's not on the tourist trail. Trust Leather has no shop front – this is in an apartment block – but if you ring the brass bell and take the rickety lift to the 10th floor, you'll find a dazzling array of off-the-peg and made-to-measure leather at much better prices than in the tourist haunts. Uruguay 469, 10 th floor, Apartment A, Tel. +54 11 4373 7354. Open Mon-Fri, 10am-12pm, 1pm-7pm.
If On a Hoof and a Prayer wasn't enough for you, here's a list of my top five favourite books on Argentina, in no particular order:
Bad Times in Buenos Aires by Miranda France
Uttermost Part of the Earth by Lucas Bridges
A State of Fear: Memories of Argentina's Nightmare (Biography & Memoirs) by Andrew Graham-Yooll
Far Away and Long Ago: A Childhood in Argentina by W. H. Hudson
Tschiffely's Ride by Aimé Tschiffely (Actually this last one isn't much about Argentina but his journey from BA to Washington D.C. but for anyone interested in horse-riding in Argentina it's a must.)