My life is in the hands of Centurión; a Mexican stallion. This doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in me considering it’s my first time on the back of a horse since I was eight. Centurión only responds to Spanish instructions and my Spanish is lacking.
My boyfriend Justin, his brother Eddy and I are at Rancho Pitaya in the Valle de Tlacolula, 15 kms east of Oaxaca city. The ranch belongs to two Texan expats, Mary-Jane and Bobby. We are about to spend half the day horseback riding through the cacti jungle that makes up the Oaxacan landscape. I have just mounted Centurión and am cautiously leading him out of the gate toward our route. Though I fear, at this stage, he may be the one leading me.
“Okay Rosie! Move with the horse!” Mary-Jane yells at me from the front of our group.
I try to let myself sway with Centurión’s movement. He is a young stallion and I get the feeling he would rather be galloping down a race-course than taking a delicate stroll with me in tow. Every so often he makes a jerky movement with his head and my heart rate soars through the roof. My first instinct is to hold the reigns as firmly as possible but Mary-Jane keeps reminding me to let him move freely.
Justin turns his head and gives me an encouraging smile. His horse is called Mambo and is significantly bigger than mine. I take a deep breath and try to relax and drink in the surrounding view of Oaxaca.
Oaxaca is situated in Southwestern Mexico. The city is a beautiful place, bursting with colours and drenched with a relaxed atmosphere. The surrounding highlands are dotted sporadically with green cacti and shrubbery and the view spreads around us for miles. I can see hills in the distance. The ground we are walking on is rocky and my heart catches in my throat several times as Centurion slips and slides down unexpected slopes.
I trail behind Mary-Jane, Justin and Eddy. Centurión seems to be enjoying this slow-stroll through his natural environment.
“Give him a kick Rosie! Let him know who’s boss!” Mary-Jane yells at me from in front.
I take a deep breath and slightly dig my heels into Centurión’s side. If he has felt anything at all he doesn’t show it. In fact, he seems to have slowed down several paces.
“You’ll have to give it a bigger go than that Rosie!” Mary Jane yells again.
I dig my heels into Centurión’s side again, this time more firmly. I get a sudden jolt as he increases the pace, taking us forward so we are side-by-side with Justin.
“Good boy!” I say to Centurión, patting him on the side of the head and making sure I give him enough room to breath. He probably can’t understand me, but it’s a nice sentiment all the same.
For a while, we walk in silence. I stare out at the miles and miles of countryside and half-listen as Mary-Jane tells us facts about Oaxaca. The other half of me is monitoring Centurión’s every step. We wander through some dense trees and suddenly the horses are leading us toward a water-hole down a steep path.
“Ok the horses want a drink guys! We’re going to let them stop here.”
We wander down the narrow, steep path and I am momentarily desperate to jump off the horse and make a run for it. We wait for them to have a drink and I sit back on Centurión, ensuring that I don’t slide down his neck and into the water. Several minutes later we realise we have come down a one-way track and Mary-Jane informs us that we’ll have to take the horses back the other way. I concentrate as I turn the reigns, under Mary-Jane’s instruction, and eventually get Centurión to go back up the steep path. I am sweating with anxiety and relieved as we hit flat ground again.
We spend the afternoon drinking in the surrounding scenery and climbing to higher ground to get the best view. By this stage I have found my rhythm on the horse and have almost relaxed. Mary-Jane takes several photos of us with Oaxaca’s countryside in the background. At this point of the day the air is muggy and my shirt sticks to my back. We were encouraged to wear long sleeve shirts and pants in order to prevent being scratched by surrounding flora and burned by the heat of the sun.
On our way back to the ranch in the late afternoon, Mary-Jane encourages us to try a canter. I am disconcerted by this request. She informs us to sit up on the horse with our bottoms elevated and our legs straight and kick the horse firmly in the side. Justin and Eddy are off and racing on their first go but it takes me several tries to spur Centurión into action. According to Mary-Jane, he has absorbed my gentle-nature and is treating me accordingly. I try again and this time I am off, hurtling through the cacti and trying not to scream. I feel wonky, as if I could fall off any moment. It’s exhilarating but utterly terrifying at the same time.
“Ok Rosie! Stop!” Mary- Jane says as she is beside me and helping me gain control of the horse.
I feel the adrenaline buzzing around me and I laugh as we saunter back toward the ranch. Bobby’s group consisting of two Swedish girls has already arrived. They had trouble with the horses and one of them fell off, though she seems okay. The two girls are practiced horse-riders and spent most of their tour galloping through the landscape. They also took the dog,Chocolate (pronounded cho-k0-lah-teh) with them as she is trained to round up the horses and stop them from fighting. What an intelligent dog.
Rancho Pitaya is picturesque. It is a traditional-style ranch with a flat terracotta roof and brick facade. The ranch is surrounded by cacti, horses, chickens, cats and dogs. We sit outside the ranch in the shade and cool off after our ride. My legs are stiff and sore from tensing on the horseback. I notice that Bobby has bow legs, and he informs us it is because he has spent many years on a horse.
We are provided with fresh Mexican beers a lunch of beef, chicken, fresh avocado, tomatoes, and flat taco-style bread. It is delicious and is served to us by Maria, one of the ranch-hands. We share stories over lunch, and Mary-Jane and Bobby tell us of their decision to move to Mexico because of their love of the country and its people. They are happier here than they ever were in Texas.
After lunch, we are treated to chocolate biscuits and fresh home-made mango gelato. It is delicious and a relief in this humid Oaxacan climate.
In the afternoon, Mary-Jane and Bobby give us a lift in their truck back to Oaxaca city. On the way we make several stops. Firstly, they take us to a neighbouring farm to show us where they currently have foals. The babies are gorgeous, prancing around next to their mothers and staring at us with a cautious eye. They approach Mary-Jane like a second mother and allow her to hug them. I run my hands along their soft coats and watch them play by their mother’s side.
After, we are taken to see the biggest tree in the world. It is called El Árbol del Tule and is located in the town centre of Santa Maria del Tule in Oaxaca. The tree has a circumferance of an amazing 36.2 metres. It is protected because it is slowly dying due to factors such as pollution and water shortages. We spend around twenty minutes marvelling at the sheer size of this tree. It is a magnificent sight. The local Zapotec legends say that the tree was planted approximated 1400 years ago by Pechocha, the Aztec Wind God. After, we shop for hand-made produce at the nearby market. I buy a pink hand-stitched handbag and a loose, white shirt. Mary-Jane helps us fight the prices down by bartering in her fluent Spanish.
We are dropped off in the main square of Oaxaca around an hour later. My legs are stiff and my eyes are heavy from the long day. We saunter back to our hostel. I have had another wonderful day where I enjoyed something unexpected and overcame my nerves. In fact, I would even welcome another trek through the Oaxacan country on horseback.