A love of horses and the great outdoors is as fiercely entwined in the Argentine soul as tango or steak, and the country's rural heartland is an ideal destination for anyone whose passion for riding runs equally deep. The countryside estancias that provide character-laden lodgings are often still working ranches and there is nothing put-on about the gaucho lifestyle of those who live and work at them – hardy herdsmen, practically raised in the saddle, who wear distinctive cowboy garb and will prepare delicious asados of barbecued beef for you to savour at the fireside. For keen riders, we particularly recommend Estancia Huechahue with its ruggedly authentic atmosphere, steeped in the gaucho tradition, and British-owned Estancia Los Potreros, which though more refined is equally notable for its strong emphasis on riding and stable of 50 superbly trained horses.
Perhaps you've already heard about the alternative Inca Trails offering a less restricted and usually quieter route to Machu Picchu, among them the Salkantay Trek ('Machu Picchu through the back door'). But you may not know that it's also possible to ride to the ruins, staying each night at one of the comfortable mountain lodges that punctuate the Salkantay route for some well-deserved respite and relaxation after long days in the saddle. Along the way you will also pass time-resistant villages and homesteads adrift in the remote Andean countryside, where life continues largely unchanged by the centuries. The extraordinarily scenic trail first clings to the mountainside, leading across high-altitude grasslands indented with glassy lakes before dipping down to steamy cloud-forest. Finally it's a short hop onwards to Machu Picchu via the local train.
Special 5-day riding departures (as above) are also offered at the explora Atacama, where one of the most extreme environments on the planet can be yours to explore at a trot or a full free-spirited gallop. Here in the highest, driest desert in the world, life flourishes unexpectedly in oases born of Andean mountain streams. You'll be based in San Pedro de Atacama, the site of one such oasis, from where you can ride out into the Valley of the Moon with its otherworldly rock formations: eccentric monuments etched by the wind over millennia. The riding ranges from moderate to demanding, covering up to 18 miles a day along desert trails, grassy river valleys and dunes.
Ecuador isn't closely associated with horsemanship like Argentina, but our Horse Riding in the Ecuadorian Highlands adventure is reason enough to put this small Andean country on the map for serious riders. The immersive riding programmes (of two, five or eight days' duration) are paced to allow time for adjustment to life in the saddle, working up from an introductory ride through idyllic, volcano-backed pastures on the outskirts of Cotopaxi National Park to a maximum of around 7 hours a day spent on horseback in increasingly dramatic terrain. The bewitching scenery, blending from wild grasslands flanked by craggy peaks to forested valleys of Andean wildflowers, provides an ever-changing backdrop to the journey – and as the name of the area suggests, towering volcanoes stand watch from all sides. Accommodation is in a different rustic hacienda or cosy farmhouse each night, further adding to the authenticity of this one-of-a-kind riding experience.