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Hankering for a Hacienda

When I was a child, I was mad at my parents for buying a family van instead of a horse. I refused to understand why using a horse to get around the suburbs of Toronto was not a practical choice and that a van would be much more suitable for our family. As you can imagine, this familiar anecdote has been a favourite of my parents to spill at opportune moments among friends and family, much to my chagrin. When my mom recently reminded me of it a few weeks ago, it got me thinking about how I had always been drawn to horses, begging for lessons over dance classes (which never happened so I was left flailing and flapping off beat like Elaine from Seinfeld), spending a week at horseback riding camp, basically taking any chance I could to gallop my way through childhood, however, it has been through my adventures in Latin America as an adult that has really fostered and forged my love of riding – and in particular when staying at haciendas, which Latin America has in wonderful abundance, in all styles, types, hues and traditions.

In Ecuador, 2 hours north of Quito I spent a handful of nights at a working farm that sprawls over 4000 acres and has been owned and operated by the family of Mr. Galo Plaza Lasso, former president of Ecuador, for over 100 years. The original structure of the Hacienda dates from 1691, and has now been lovingly restored into a beautiful hotel. It is also home to close to 100 horses and a popular spot for equestrian-minded guests. I spent days riding between the mountains, venturing to the Condor Conservation project, milking cows and soaking in that unique hacienda laidback lifestyle.

It was in Chilean Patagonia where estancias are plentiful that I convinced my husband, then boyfriend, to ride with me up the side of a mountain, much to his displeasure, to a small camp our gaucho had set-up with a fire and hot maté. It was windy, it was cold, and it was oh so worth it.

Back in Brazil, I had travelled across the country by plane, boat and car, but it wasn’t until I was in Lencois Maranhenses where I got to ride horses up and down the strikingly undulating shapes of the sand dunes, some so steep you had to walk your horse down and pray that your inexperience meant you wouldn’t get trampled. The sand dunes however were dotted with fresh water lagoons, a cool and sweet swim to cap-off this perfect sunset ride.

Back to Ecuador, this time south of Quito, in the Avenue of the Volcanoes, where you can find haciendas with original Inca stonework, I crossed the steppe in the shadow of the perfect cone snow-capped Cotopaxi volcano. It is also on this same trip that I convinced the local Chagras that I could help him move his horses between the paddocks, with the plan being for me to be on horseback to hold steady while I hooted and hollered at the horses running in my direction so that they would turn and go into the next paddock. Instead, and much to my embarrassment, they ran right through me, turning a simple task into a hot pursuit!

The pampas of Argentina is where I saw a dog riding a horse – yes a dog, and he was quite good actually. It was also where a group of us on horseback spent the afternoon galloping across the golden pampas, the sun waning with just the outlines of llamas in the distance, to then return to the estancia where an asado was waiting for us.

But it was in Colombia, in the Los Llanos region where I have my fondest memories of pretending to be a wild cowgirl. Not a hacienda per say, more of a tented Africa safari style camp where you spend your days with the local cowboys on horseback looking to spot different wildlife such as anteaters, as you ride across the vast savannahs. I spent a morning with the llaneros herding cattle, holding the lines on the side, pretending I knew what I was doing, chasing the odd stray cow. It was incredible. In the evenings, as the sun was setting we would all gather around the fire, out would come the instruments (some I’ve never seen before or since) and I’d sit and listen to them perform the most beautiful local music. A true siren song.

I’m not sure what it is that draws me so strongly to the hacienda experience in Latin America. Perhaps it is the raw and wild side of riding that I’ve experienced there. The hands on, welcoming culture, lack of red tape, waivers and even helmets at times. The encouragement to hop a horse and ride to the best of your ability, no matter what that is. To make the horse run across the pampas, wind in your hair, herding cattle, feeling like a true gaucho. Perhaps it’s actually my guide’s inflated belief in me that I’m a better rider than I am. Whatever it is, it has stolen my heart.

It does make me think that perhaps I’m a bit of a poor Canadian, coming from a country with such a strong ranching culture and yet having very little experience with it, nor even venturing to our neighbours to the south. Perhaps that’s where you’ll find me next, riding across the midwest. I can only hope.

it has been through my adventures in Latin America as an adult that has really fostered and forged my love of riding and in particular when staying at haciendas, which Latin America has in wonderful abundance, in all styles, types, hues and traditions.