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When Swiss born Aimé Felix Tschiffely (1895-1954) decided to ride from Buenos Aires to Washington D.C. in 1925, he was called every name under the sun and none of them very flattering. This trip seemed an impossible feat for any man: There were wild tribes, deep valleys, steep mountains, crocodile-infested and the raging rivers of Colombia, endless plains, mud holes, quicksand, Panamanian jungles and the Matacaballa, or horse-killer desert in Peru. Any one of these would have challenged even the most seasoned traveler, let alone a schoolteacher who was not an experienced rider and knew little of horses or horse care. And, add to that was that the two horses he took with him were no spring chickens at 18 and 16 years old. However, undeterred, Tschiffely was about to undertake one of the most incredible, dangerous and awe-inspiring rides that would turn him and his two Criollo horses Mancha and Gato into household words and famous personalities.
The reason for this Swiss-born schoolteacher’s obsession was very simple. He wanted to prove that the Criollo horse, descendants of the few horses brought to Argentina from Spain in 1535 by Mendoza, founder of Buenos Aires, were the hardiest horses in the world. The horses were from the finest Spanish stock, the best in Europe at the time, with a mix of Arab and Barb blood. Over the centuries they had been hunted by man and beast and had learned techniques that had ensured their survival as they lived by instinct and nature alone after the city of Buenos Aires was attacked by Indians and the horses set free. It was certainly survival of the fittest.
Tschiffely, a history fanatic, left his teaching post at an upscale boy’s school in Argentina where many of his travels had been experienced from the safety of an armchair to undertake “the plunge” as he called the trip. The fact that his riding experience was minimal didn’t bother him at all…“kick on and go” might be the best expression for this man’s attitude!
His trusty equine team mates were Mancha, meaning “The Spotted One,” a red and white 18-year-old piebald, who deterred close relationships by kicking, and Gato, meaning “The Cat,” who was the youngster of the trio at 16 and was just a shade nicer..but initially not much. Ironically, their 10,000 mile voyage started with a “warm-up” trip of 1,000 miles when they were brought from a ranch in the wilds of the pampas to the departure point. They survived on what little grass and other edibles they could find along the way, and once amongst civilization were awed at their first sight of houses and cars. Even the stables were new to them and they sneered at their oats and horse feed, deciding they preferred to eat their straw bedding instead!
Tshiffely wrote, “Their sturdy legs, short thick necks and Roman noses are as far removed from the points of a first-class English hunter as the North Pole from the South. Handsome is as handsome does, however, and I am willing to state my opinion boldly that no other breed in the world has the capacity of the Criollo for continuous hard work.”
His supplies for the trip had to be kept at a minimum and included a .45 Smith & Wesson, a 12-gauge shotgun, a Winchester .44, travel maps, passport, letters of credit, compass, barometer, woolen blanket and a light rubber poncho, goggles, and a large mosquito net that would fit over his sombrero. He also brought along some coins to give to the Indians he met along the way.
Tschiffely prepared for his massive undertaking full of outward bravado, but as the departure date loomed ever closer, inside he was beginning to have some doubts. He admits that he was to be “assailed by a sickly feeling, as if my stomach were a vacuum.” However, he was at the point of no return and had to press forward. As the rain fell in sheets on the day of his departure making the muddy streets hock deep in sticky slime one reporter wrote of the “lunatic proposing to travel overland to New York.”
He was escorted out of town by a young lad on a big thoroughbred and Tschiffely said that by the time they parted ways the boy’s horse was steaming with sweat while Mancha and Gato hadn’t turned a hair. As the boy turned to leave, our brave traveler stared at the vast, flat plain stretching ahead of him; this land of nothing-ness was called the pampas meaning “open space” and it was well named. On and on they rode each day getting choked with dry dust, baking in the sun and getting soaked by the rain. At times they were even asked to pull cars out of the mud but Tschiffely declined such requests while eventually developing a hatred of cars as the drivers seemed to enjoy scaring the horses who reared and plunged at the noisy machines.
Mile after mile stretched ahead of them as they pressed on towards Bolivia, all the while skirting quicksand bogs and fording rivers. Tschiffely also realized that the maps he had were useless and instructions from passers-by and villagers were not much better. The stock answer to a request for directions was always: “just go straight ahead” or when asked how far to a destination the answer was always: “quite close,” neither answer being realistic.
As the miles fell behind then trio with thousands more ahead, the travelers formed an incredible bond and eventually the horses never had to be tethered at nights. Gato settled down after realizing that his antics would not unseat his rider and he had the wonderful sixth sense that helped him avoid bogs, mud holes and quicksand. Mancha was the more alert of the two horses and was the watch dog, his eyes scanning the horizon while making it clear that nobody could handle him except Tschiffely himself.
However, this initial 1,300 mile trip would prove to be a walk in the park, (or the pampas) compared to what lay ahead. Bolivia had some nasty secrets of her own to share and she made sure that the trio would be challenged like never before. Raging rivers, massive boulders and the need to get to the top of the 11,000 foot high summit of Tres Cruses Pass made life a nightmare and Tschiffely’s nose bled in the thin air. The hail that fell was as large as eggs and the burning sun and sand storms forced Tschiffely to create a sandstorm mask for himself out of goggles. Finally after three weeks he reached La Pas, the capital of Bolivia where he was treated with delight and welcomed with open arms by an astonished mayor who had no idea that this newcomer would be arriving into his village.
The horses seemed none the worse for wear and after restocking, rest and respite they were set to tackle the next part of their trip which was onward to Peru through Cuzco, the gateway to the ancient Inca Empire. In places the trail was so steep and rocky that Tschiffely divided the packs between the two horses and often held onto Mancha’s tail when ascending a steep portion. He could guide Mancha with his voice while Gato had proven just a little too eager to get ahead and often barreled up the mountains with little thought of the obstacles they might encounter.
In Part II our travelers will tackle the Peruvian jungle valleys and up mountains while conquering some of the most frightening mishaps imaginable: decrepit swinging wooden bridges, cliff accidents and searing deserts where bleached bones hinted at what might lay ahead.
If you are interested in reading more about this amazing trio, www.amazon.com has some books available. In A Tale of Two Horses Tschiffely writes the trip from Mancho and Gato’s viewpoint. Tshiffely’s Ride is written by Tschiffely himself and chronicles the whole 10,000 mile trip.