Here’s another excellent un-beach experience near Puerto Vallarta ~ Hacienda Dona Engracia. When we arrived, a Holland America shore excursion group was taking in an “authentic” Mexican experience of dancing and cowboy rope twirling, piñata bashing and tequila tasting. That was fine, but the hacienda also offers horseback riding and that’s what we were after.
My gal Loba was a moderate size, very gentle and accommodating. We rode down a dusty track with trees sauce trees (small willows) and papelillo trees (known locally as the tourist tree because of its red, peeling bark like tourist skin) formed a leafy arch. Ambling along beside an easy-going, tea-and-milk coloured river , the only sounds were unshod hoofs on dirt, water gently pulsing over hidden river rocks, an occasional bird song and the creak of wooden saddles. A small dust cloud rose to knee level from the animals in front and I was transported by the well-remembered and much-loved scent of horse.
Twice we forded the river. The first time I gave Loba her head and she carefully threaded her way among the randomly spaced rocks, the water just touching the soles of my Echo shoes. The second ford was deeper. My Echos took a real soaking when the water rose to calf level, but again I left the reigns slack, trusting her local knowledge and instincts to get us across.
It was mid-October, the end of the rainy season, and the water level was decreasing daily. Along the shore a few plastic bottles and bits of other refuse showed where the high water had pulsed through the valley at significant flood levels not long before.
Eventually we came to a halt under the branches of an unfamiliar tree – unfamiliar to me. The animals clearly understood this to be their rest stop. Tio (Spanish for uncle) helped us dismount and tied up the horses. He then led me across a grassy clearing past a massive – I mean, massive! – pistachio tree – so immense it could have shaded half a city block. He pointed out smaller trees 30 metres away, the babies, spawned like cottonwoods by underground runners. We walked through a grove of trees and bushes with a sour orange (good for cooking, not raw eating, warned Tio) festooned in green fruit, a papaya similarly laden, and bananas and mangos picked clean at this season. The land is unbelievably bountiful.
Mountain Hot Springs
Together we climbed up the steep slope of a foothill of the Sierra Madre and I could smell a distinct hit of sulphur as we neared a spigot tiled into the topmost of three cascading hot tubs. He told me to dip my hand in and I was shocked at the temperature. The water for these pools is piped four miles from a neighbouring volcanic mountain.
Swimming with Horses
When we returned to the horses it was time for the highlight of our ride. Tio led Loba to the riverbank where he stripped off her saddle and his shirt. He climbed aboard and rode her bareback into a wide pool. She walked confidently, deeper and deeper. Then suddenly Tio disappeared from the chest down and only Loba’s head was visible as she swam down river. A few meters on she turned to shore and found her footing again.
I let my companions (Lana from Vancouver Island and Sara from Puerto Vallarta) go first. Lana, an experienced rider, completed the circuit just as Tio had done, but I could see a point where she had to work hard to stay aboard. At the same point, Sara came adrift and had to swim ashore. I stripped off my shirt and capris (bathing suit underneath) and went barefoot to mount Loba. I admit to feeling nervous, but she wasn’t too big, so it was easy to grip with my legs and I twined my fingers into her short mane (very hard).
She stepped confidently into the river and I was overjoyed at the feel of cool water rising on my legs. I’d been absolutely melting. My eyes burned from salt as sweat dripped into them and I longed for one of those 80’s-era sport bands around my forehead. Anyway, the water felt great. Ankle deep, knee deep, chest deep – whoa, suddenly it was like we were airborne. Loba’s head just above the water, me half submerged as she swam downriver.
It was fine while she steered straight ahead, but as soon as she turned to shore her head suddenly twisted to the right while her body twisted left – the moment of truth. I dug my fingers even tighter into her mane, squeezed as hard as I could with my legs and shifted my weight. Miraculously the water began to fell away – waist, knees. I felt Loba’s hoofs touch bottom and she began to climb up the bank – me still clinging to her back. I patted her neck and squealed like a six-year-old. “We did it,” I burbled. (OK, strictly speaking, she did it. But I managed to hang on.) When I slid off her back I could barely stand – shaking all over – total adrenaline rush.
After we dressed, resaddled Loba and retrieved the other horses, the return ride was extremely calm, but not disappointing. Where I had felt apprehension on the outbound trail, I was now confident and relaxed, dropping one hand from the reigns to rest easily on my thigh, enjoying the peaceful countryside and the rhythm of the animal beneath me. It didn’t hurt that I was now blissfully cooled by my damp bathing suit and no longer in imminent danger of death by heat prostration.
I felt sorry that Loba hadn’t enjoyed as long a rest as the other horses, but hopefully those cooling dips in the river made up for it. She definitely had a little spring in her step as we closed in on the barn.