The Andes, Condor, & I

The mountains sang in a chorus, “Come up, don’t be afraid.” I looked up at them and replied, “You are just as beautiful from down here.” Just then, my friendly and very knowledgeable guide, Yanina, explained that we were riding up approximately 9,000 feet on our excursion that day. “What?” I exclaimed in shock. She had to be kidding me. I assumed that once we got to the ranch we were going to go around on flat grounds. Yes, around several times for four hours. However, as I reluctantly mounted my horse, Capuccina, I realized that I could either feign being sick or just go through with it. What had I signed up for? I looked at the two young women from Germany that were on the same tour easily mount their horses. They made it look so easy! Well, it was since they had both grown up riding. I didn’t understand their girlish conversation since it was in German, but I could easily detect their excitement.

I remembered them from the day before while at a tour agency in Mendoza, Argentina. I walked into the agency to sign up for a trekking adventure. However, why did the brochure say ‘trekking and rappel?’ I sort of knew what rappelling was, but my brain wasn’t registering it completely. I tried to explain to the agent that I was not going to do the rappelling, and he suggested the full day horse excursion up in the mountains instead. I don’t remember him saying going “up” the mountains. The two young girls that had left minutes before had confirmed the excursion. I mentioned to them that day that if it weren’t for them, I would not be there. The excursion seemed reasonably priced, and I had been on a two hour camel ride once before. That experience had been scary within itself as my friends and I rode in the dark through the Sahara desert. So, how hard could this be?

The guide gave me a five minute lesson on how to steer the horse. How to break, turn left, right, and how to rise my buttocks in case it had to urinate, and to not allow the horse to eat or she would stop to munch for the rest of the day. Then it hit me that I was guiding the horse. Being that I had never been on a horse for more than fifteen minutes, I became instantly anxious. Did the horse speak Spanish or English? Four hours then seemed really long, and 9,000 feet seemed unreachable as I looked up at the clouds. However, with their encouragement, and the fact that I never really back down of things, we started the route up the mountains. As soon as we got to the first creek, we began ascending and descending on rocky walkways. The horse began to mock me, slowed down, and kept me all the way in the back. She knew that I was a complete novice. Capuccina would also lower her head as if completely bored, and I had to constantly pull on her. Apparently, I had a horse with a sense of humor.

Two hours later we were up the mountain, and I swore in my head that Capuccina was going to throw me off. The cliffs that we had gone up were steep, and somehow we had to go up and down in order to keep climbing. There were instances where if Cappucina made one step to the left or right, I would end up at 4,000 feet below. I also tried not to throw myself off since at some point the balance in my ears became a little irritated. Vertigo is no fun when you’re up that high. Yet, I learned to trust my horse as she finally gave me a break, and even trotted a bit. She never really needed me to steer her as she knew the way, but she wanted me to learn so she would go sideways to make me pay attention. My legs were sore, my buttocks numb, but I felt completely intoxicated. I wasn’t sure how I had made it up there along with the rest of the experienced riders. The oxygen was the purest that I had ever inhaled, the mountains had a million colors, and it smelled like roses and oranges. I recognized wild thyme, and oregano. The creeks that we rode through were completely crystal clear. There were no trains, no buses, nor people. It was us, the mountains, sky, clouds, fauna, and the many condors circling us from above. I had been trying to see condors for a week since I arrived in Argentina. Yet, I understood that day that I wasn’t ready to see them as every time someone cried “condor!” it kept flying away or I simply could not find them.

I was pleased to know that the ranch was on the “Quebrada del Condor,” which translates to “mountain’s narrow pass of the condor.” If I did not see any condors on that day, then it wasn’t meant to be.

Yet, we were blessed with over a dozen sightings along our route. In the animal totem world, these birds are extremely important, and they teach us to soar above our limitations without using much energy. They don’t fly. I had no idea that they actually soar through the thermal currents, and glide along the sky. Condors also remind us of protecting ourselves, that things constantly change, but that it’s unavoidable. We must soar above every day life through our own spirit, and continue with our journeys — no matter what.

At times they glide in circular currents several times, judging, feeling, until it crosses a wind going towards their destination. This animal is very observant, and uses its senses to know where to go. A condor can measure up to over ten feet its wing spam—making itself visible when it needs to without much effort. This totem reminds us to stop flapping our wings, and to learn to go with the flow. To stress less, save our energy, and trust our instincts. I had never seen a bird soar the skies so nonchalantly, and so effortlessly. The condor is also a special bird in Argentina since they are close to extinction. Yanina mentioned that if someone hunts, and kills the bird that they do time in jail for over six months.

At some point during the route, I began to relax, and trust myself. I stopped pressing my legs against Cappuccina, and the views around me became even more beautiful. It was as if I was inside a painting. I learned that I had to lean back while she descended steep cliffs or to lean forward as she climbed to balance my weight on her. Capuccina would want to eat at all times, and would move closer to the cliff sides. I would get scared, and the guide would be at my side telling me what to do. That horse sure liked to snack! Finally, I allowed her to eat at the highest peak, and I think she appreciated it as she stopped teasing me for the rest of the journey. She no longer lowered her head, and kept up with the rest of the riders. Capuccina knew that my body tends to lean towards the right, and apparently got tired of it as she ran me through a thorn bush at the end. That hurt, but I laughed and screamed through it.

I stopped flapping my wings just like the condor, and glided through the rest of the ride. The heights became smaller, and I listened to my guides both spiritually and on the excursion. Once we reached the ranch, I was able to appreciate my accomplishment. I then admitted to the guides that I was afraid of heights, and suffered from occasional vertigo. They asked why I had not said anything. I realized that I had pushed myself that day. My reply was that it’s not every day that I’m on the Andes mountains in the midst of all the gifts that nature can grant.

While we got in the truck to go back to the city, eight condors circled the sky above us. I smiled with my entire body and soul–I was so glad that I did not back down. I told the young girls once again that I was happy that they had crossed my path. The lessons from Capuccina, the mountains, and the condors were evident – steer, soar, and succeed. A valuable message to carry on in my continuous journey.

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