the skillof an arriero, handling mules in the Andes

Octavio checks the weight and balance of the bags on a mule in the Andes

The special skill of an arriero is in handling and loading mules in the Andes. A mule has a horse for a mother and a donkey for a father. Like any crossbred they are somewhat temperamental and although they are picturesque we have to warn visitors to keep away from them. Mules are usually female, but there are also ‘machos’ who are particularly strong. They cannot themselves breed as they are infertile.

Before loading a mule, ready for a camping trip in the mountains, the arrieros first blindfold it. Once blindfolded it does not see the huge loads being heaved onto its back and stands quiet and submissive. The packs have to be equal in weight. One is put on top and then allowed to slide down to one side while another of equal weight is carefully balanced, with connecting ropes and slipknots, on the other side. Then the gap on top is filled with smaller items. Sometimes camping chairs, a guitar or a saucepan with lunch will sit above.

The weights are tremendous and the strength of the mules in the andes is phenomenal. A ‘macho’ can carry around 120kg. If the loading is not well done the mules can develop sores.

Mules are said to be more comfortable and more surefooted than horses and often the arrieros will accompany the horse ride, by day or camping, on a mule. We do not put visitors on mules! Watch the video below, showing arrieros load a mule in the Andes.

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  1. I am afraid I don’t know the answer to this. Mules are used to take mountaineer’s luggage up to base camp on, for instance, Marmolejo which is 6000+ metres. I am not sure how high the base camp is, but definitely over 3000m. If this information is imortant to you I can make inquiries and let you know a more precise figure. I imagine above a certain height it would be as much a question of the track as the altitude.
    Let me know if you want more details.

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