Have you ever found yourself stuck in a travel rut? You know the ones where you find yourself going to the same area time and time again because you love it so much… and before you know it, it’s pretty much your default go-to destination? South America is that place for me.
Ever since I booked an impulse flight to Rio de Janeiro for a trip at the end of my first year of university (and then somehow persuaded two of my friends that it was a good idea to do the same), I’ve found myself returning time after time to explore more.
Of course, South America is so big that you could spend a lifetime there and never see everything, which is part of the attraction. Even so, I thought it was time to go somewhere a little different.
The question was, where else could I go for a new adventure? I’d always wanted to go to Central America – particularly Costa Rica and it seemed like the perfect time… so I booked my tickets for six weeks and started to plan some adventures.
Trying Something New
I was deep in the obsessive travel research phase (you know, the one where you read so much and think so much about a place that you really, really can’t wait to just be there already), when I came across a horse riding trip in Costa Rica. Ten days of riding, in two relatively remote regions of Costa Rica? Sounded like heaven. It was.
Now I’ll confess that if you described my riding skills, you’d be more likely to err on the side of “enthusiastic” than technically proficient. Ten days in the saddle – it was much more riding than I’d ever done before (the most was about five during my time on an Argentine estancia near Salta) – but what’s life without a challenge?
If you’re ever looking for an adventure with a difference, you might want to consider horse riding. The contrast between the quiet hours in the saddle, making conversation with your companions as you slowly wend your way from A to B, with the thrill of heart-stoppingly fast canters down the beach is a bewitching one – and one I’ve never been quite able to replicate with other adventure trips.
A Sense of Anticipation
Orotina, a small town a short drive away from Costa Rica’s capital San Jose, is the kind of place that you drive through on the way to bigger and shinier places. We decamped from the transit to be introduced to our guide Alan.
Within seconds, Alan had led us into the town’s main square – pointing upwards to the canopy of the trees clustered around it.
I’m not sure what I was expecting – but peering upwards, I could just about make out a rounded figure, perched in a cosy nook on a tree limb. It was a sloth – the trees were full of them, though you could barely tell as, true to their name, they barely moved. It certainly made a change from the pigeons you find on town squares at home in London.
In the Saddle
From Orotina we drove a short distance to the stables where we met our horses for the first half of the trip. Costa Rica, like most of South and Central America, favours small, surefooted Criollo horses. After nuzzling up to our new friends, we’re in the saddle and on our way.
We skirt around the edge of the town, making our way into the Gallery Forest. The first canter across a large clearing is electrifying. The worries of the morning, of whether I’d bitten off slightly more than I could chew, were gone. All I was focused on was the rhythm of the horse, the lush scenery whipping past in a barely-seen blur. It was sublime.
Exploring the Pacific Coast
The days spent in our first location Hacienda La Maravilla passed quickly. We’d ride through the coastal rainforest, edging our way down steep cliff paths for a canter on the beach, making our way to a small beach hut for lunch, beer and a spot of swimming before climbing on for the return journey.
This part of Costa Rica is far off the tourist trail – empty black sand beaches, rainforest paths our guide had to cut through with a machete, small village cafes serving delicious (and very moreish ceviche) – it was a glimpse at a side of the country that can be difficult to find.
There weren’t many “hotspots” so to speak, but we did ride along Tivives Crag, apparently the spot where the Spaniards started their conquest of the Central Pacific in 1561. It’s strange to think that that particular spot has remained pretty much the same, but the conquest changed the shape of Central America.
Riding wise, it was challenging. I could barely move after my first full day in the saddle, yet we forded streams and trotted along reassuringly empty train tracks – stopping to peek at scarlet macaws, toucans and (shudder) monkeys in the trees (no, they’re not cute, they’re terrifying bundles of mischief and destruction).
Volcanoes and Hot Springs
Ten days of straight riding would be a tough gig and my muscles were pretty thankful by the time the rest day came along. Rest is used in the loosest sense of the word, as the day involved a hike to the base of the active Arenal volcano. The nearby hot springs provided a welcome relief that evening – to the point where I pretty much had to be dragged away.
Still, sad as I was to leave the hot springs, it was time for the last part of my horse riding adventure, this time at the 1,000 acre lodge, La Ensenada. It was strange jumping into the saddle on a new horse. That wasn’t the only thing that was new – the region is a combination of wetlands and mangroves – starkly different from the landscapes of the region we’d been riding in before and filled with more mosquitoes than I thought possible.
Hosing myself down in bug spray, pre- and post-dressing lessened the never-ceasing attack near the mangroves – spotting the local wildlife as we wound our way along wide dirt tracks across the lodge’s land provided a welcome distraction.
La Ensenada is a bird-spotting sanctuary as well as a riding base – perched on the edge of the Gulf of Nicoya, you can spot pelicans, herons and parrots among others.
Another day on the wetlands, we dismounted, waiting in a small shelter overlooking a salt lagoon where we spotted crocodiles lying in wait for their next meal. Can’t say I was keen to get any closer and increase the chance of me being that meal though.
A Memorable Experience
Time passed quickly as we spent long hours in the saddle exploring the property and surrounding area. Federico, La Ensenada’s riding guide would tell us about the history of the lodge and point out favoured hiding spots for some of the local wildlife.
On the penultimate day, he promised we’d see something special – and took us up into a small enclave overlooking the Gulf to see the most spectacular sunset I’ve ever seen.
Once the sun had set, the fireflies came out, briefly emitting bright flashes of light as we skittered our way down the trail and back to the lodge.
The trip was nearly over and it was time to pack up, but there was time for one more ride.
We decided on one last gallop and, true to form, I went flying off the horse after a less than graceful turn. Ego bruised but (relatively) sound of body, I bid a rueful farewell to my mount and we jumped in the jeep to return to San Jose.
I booked my ten day horse riding trip in Costa Rica with In The Saddle. The trip cost £1,500 for ten days and included all meals, accommodation (some in shared rooms), riding and excursions. Find out more.
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