6 October: Ride four hours from La Bodega to El Peusto on horseback with Martin, Bruno, Jose, Gustavo, and two pack horses. Chicken and beef Asado over a campfire for lunch with boxed wine. Climb a nearby peak in the afternoon to take in the landscape. Condors watch us overhead. Drink mate with coca and local herbs before turning in for the night. Sleep on leather bound cots with our horse blankets for padding.
7 October: Wake early to watch Jose round up the horses. After coffee and some leather repairs we ride from El Peusto to El Ojo de Agua. The trail is steep and difficult, choked with thorny shrubs. We reach El Ojo de Agua by lunch time; salami, bread, cigarettes. My old gelding is already exhausted. After lunch we ride higher towards Mt Creston. We are now well within the zone of the taruka and spend some time glassing the hills and ridges. See many condors but little other wildlife. In the evening we set up a base camp at El Ojo de Agua. Find tracks near the spring that could be taruka or possibly peccary. At night we drink mate cooked on the campfire with herbs, coca, and burnt sugar, and mixed with tequila. Many rounds are passed in a tin cup until the gaucho stories become an incomprehensible feature of the dark landscape.
8 October: Of our five horses, only the two that were tethered are still in camp, the others having gone riderless back to El Peusto. We leave some food and equipment at the camp and pack the rest of the gear and our saddles onto the two remaining horses and head back down to El Peusto on foot. Jose, Martin, and Bruno leave us and ride back to La Bodega. Gustavo and I cook a stew over the fire and bake flatbread for the coming week, and cook what is left of the lamb and beef that is beginning to spoil.
9 October: The morning is overcast and shrouded in fog. I ride our horse Blanco out into the pastures to round up the other horses. After a good chase, the horses escape into the impenetrable brush and fog of the surrounding hills. We take a day hike up through the fog onto peak where we hope to get views of the high pastures through the shifting mists. In the afternoon we see the horses returning and head down to try again. We successfully corral the horses this time, and lasso a large horse called Sieno. In the evening we ride back up to the base camp at El Ojo de Agua. On the way I am dismounted by a low branch that catches my backpack. We tether the horses and build a fire just as the sun is setting. Drinking mate by the fire, exhausted, we hear a strange gurgling sound by the stream. Blanco is up to his withers in the dark water, tangled in his tether, and struggling to get his head up. By the time we pull him out he is cold and frightened, eyes rolling wildly. We build up the fire and dry him off with a t-shirt.
10 October: Leave the horses at camp and head up to La Cueva Chocovar (2904m), glassing for taruka along the way. The hiking is steep and difficult with full packs. Eat lunch in the cave and then head higher up to search for taruka until dark. Collect an antler and fecal samples. Spend the night in the cave which is well protected from wind, but is open with great views to the north and west.
11 October: Wake in the dark, flatbread with marmalade and mate. Climb from cave to summit of Mt Creston (3225m) with the sun rising. After glassing all morning and making a difficult circumnavigation of Creston we arrive back at the cave, exhausted and thirsty. We fill water bottles at the spring below the cave and then hike back to El Ojo de Agua. Both horses have become tangled in their lines and are unable to reach food or water.
12 October: Ride back down to El Peusto to meet our resupply. Seino is very herd-sour and tries to run the entire way down. Luis arrives with supplies. Cigarettes and coca were not included, but we did get our requested bottle of tequila. Spend the day cooking and preparing to head back up the mountain tomorrow.
13 October: Construct a screened box to keep the raw meat in at El Peusto. Ride back up to the base camp at El Ojo de Agua. Clouds move in with the evening.
14 October: Cold and cloudy today. Head up to the cave, glassing along the way. Heard a sound like a large mammal grazing in a forest of birch, but it turned out to be little birds rustling in the leaves. Six condors watch us as we ascend to the cave. Spot for taruka near the cave until dark. Find tracks at a saddle below the cave. Sleep in the cave.
15 October: Very cold morning. Stake out the saddle with the tracks- see nothing. Explore the canyon north of the saddle- find water and a “bajada” or drinking hole with game trails leading down to it. See humming birds, grouse, eagles, finches, and condors. After lunch head back to El Ojo de Agua, spotting along the way. Looks like a storm is blowing in.
16 October: Very cold all night, frost on the ground this morning, but clear sky above. Hike the ridges around El Ojo de Agua, spotting. Explore the forests of Queñoa (Polylepis) and birch. Spot for taruka from ridges until dark.
17 October: Today the Salta Ministry of Environment is doing an aerial survey around Mt Creston to help us locate the taruka. We hike up towards Mt Creston and watch the plane make passes. Hike the knife-edge ridge north of Mt Creston. Well-traveled trail with lots of peccary sign, see cattle and condors. Collecting plant samples we lose track of the time and have to sprint back to the cave over difficult terrain to make it back before dark.
18 October: Leave the cave early, heading south from the saddle. Explore forested canyon with water. Find a peccary skull and see woodpeckers, turkeys, parrots, and hummingbirds in the forest. Leave the canyon and cut across the steep southwest face of Mt Creston. Eat lunch and refill water from a spring south of Mt Creston. Arrive back at El Ojo de Agua after a long day.
19 October: Rain in the morning, stay in the tent until it lets up. Head down to El Peusto to meet our resupply. Luis and David are waiting with supplies, five trap-cameras, and a note from Martin with the location of three taruka spotted from the aerial survey. Unfortunately they were spotted on another ranch over 15 kilometers from Mt Creston. No taruka were spotted on Mt Creston.
20 October: Gustavo is feeling a little sick. We have a day of rest and preparation for heading back out. In the evening Gustavo is feeling better and we ride back up to the base camp at El Ojo de Agua.
21 October: Cloudy, cold, and damp this morning. Hike up to the cave and have lunch. Spend the afternoon on the summit of Mt Creston glassing the surrounding country. We see no taruka but we get to watch condors courting and mating from about 200m-quite a rare and incredible spectacle! Sleep in the cave.
22 October: Traverse west face of Mt Creston to the southwest ridge. Head down off the ridge to the south crossing a high, grassy mesa on cattle trails. Place a trap-camera in a gully near a well-used game trail. Head back across Mt Creston, stopping at a spring to fill water and place another camera. Back at the saddle we are exhausted but it looks like rain is coming so we hike fast back down to El Ojo de Agua. Arrive at camp just before the rain.
23 October: Rained all night and socked with fog this morning. Hike back to the cave through thick fog. Arrive at the cave- visibility has dropped to less than five meters. Stay all afternoon in the cave.
24 October: Head to the summit to spot for taruka. Place a camera in the upper part of the canyon with the cave. Hike back down to El Ojo de Agua to check on horses, spotting along the way.
25 October: Hike back up towards the cave. Place a camera at the watering hole on the way. In the afternoon the clouds descend on the cave. We wait in the cave but the weather doesn’t improve enough to go out and spot for taruka.
26 October: Mt Creston is still covered in clouds this morning. We break camp at the cave one last time and head down towards El Ojo de Agua to meet the gauchos, spotting along the way. The gauchos arrive late at night with a posse of dogs and a wild boar all dressed out and ready to cook. We eat the boar, drink some tequila and turn in.
27 October: It is a fine morning and after breaking camp we ride with the gauchos up onto the ridges looking for a few stray cattle and hoping that we get lucky with this one last chance to see the taruka. We see no cattle or taruka and by midday have to head down to the El Puesto. After packing our equipment and taking a short siesta we ride down the trail back to La Bodega, arriving just before dark.