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August 24, 2005
By Dave Todd


During our last trip to Mexico, we took a horseback ride up into the jungles in the mountains above Puerto Vallarta.

You might ask why a ‘city boy’ like me would endeavor to get onboard a large steed with a hard saddle and stress my ‘bum’ when there are also ATV and dune-buggy trips to the jungle as well. As usual, the answer has to do with a woman; in this case my girlfriend Lori.


horseback rides in Puerto Vallarta MexicoLori, a country-girl at heart, began to pester me about taking a horseback trip before our recent vacation. I was born a city boy and remain one, and my only memory of horseback riding is a painful one…spending an entire day riding through the countryside with a previous girlfriend, then not being able to sit or walk properly for the following 3 days. Let’s just say that my current girlfriend had her work cut out, trying to convince me to straddle one of those beasts again.


But in the interest of a harmonious relationship, I agreed to explore the possibilities. At a restaurant on the beach our first night in town we happened to meet and talk with some other tourists who had already been on a horseback trip. They told us the views and vistas were magnificent, but the horses a little sad. “I felt like I was forcing this poor horse to work. His ribs were showing and he wasn’t responsive to even the most basic commands…go, stop, left, right…all he wanted to do was follow the leader and then rush home” said Angie from Eugene, Oregon. Her husband agreed, including “the starting point was a good hour or so from town, and about 40 people showed up that day. So a four-hour horseback trip took us a good 7 hours total from start to finish. That meant getting up early while on vacation and then coming back dead tired.”


horseback riding in Puerto Vallarta MexicoAfter this exchange, and noticing the frown on my face, my girlfriend decided to have mercy on me and search out a better alternative. She discovered a ‘cooperativo’ (co-op) which offers guided horseback trips into the mountains close to Downtown Puerto Vallarta. Lori took me to meet Marilyn Kurtz, a Canadian who helps promote the co-op from a little stand at the corner of Olas Altas and Basilio Badillo Streets in Viejo Vallarta, the ‘old town’ part of Puerto Vallarta south of Downtown.


“All the horses in the co-op are privately owned” Marilyn said, “as opposed to some horseback tours here that merely stable horses and try to put as little care into their horses as is necessary.” She explained that the individual co-op members only have 3 to 5 horses each, and therefore they have the motivation to feed, veterinary, and train the horses well. These ‘cowboys’ are truly small businessmen who know how to take care of their most valuable assets.


Lori was convinced, and therefore so was I (whether I liked it or not).


We decided to take a tour the next day. Taking a taxi (paid for by the co-op) from Viejo Vallarta to the ‘suburb’ village of Paso Ancho only took about 10 minutes. We joined about 6 other people for the tour, 2 from Canada and 4 from Wisconsin, and chatted while waiting for three more horses to come down the village streets for us. Our horses were beautiful with glossy coats, well fed, and even I was getting excited about the trip.


horse back riding in Puerto Vallarta MexicoFernando came with the last three horses and we saddled up, most of us laughing at our ineptitude at getting into the saddle. Still, our guides Fernando, Amador, and Susano made us feel at ease as they held stirrups for us and helped us get on our trusty steeds. We got quick instructions on how to maneuver our vehicles…a little dig with our heels for ‘go’; pull back on the reins for ‘stop’; and pull the reins left or right to turn, accordingly, left or right.


Onward then up through the streets of the village and towards the jungle. The view from horseback is of a typical Mexican village…little stores every block, children in their school uniforms going to classes, men building houses. To the uninitiated, it may look ‘poor’, but these people are happy, not judging their lives by the typical USA standards of ‘poor’ or ‘rich’ but rather by ‘happy’ or not. Everybody looks content, so I guess we’re in a rich part of the country.


Puerto Vallarta Mexico Horse Back ridesSoon the road peters out and becomes nothing more than a trail along the river. I’m amazed at how well my horse “Canterita” (meaning “little canteen” because he likes water so much, I’m told by Fernando) handles my pull on the reigns. Horses tend to forget there’s a rider on top of them, so low-hanging branches don’t mean much to them. Nonetheless, when we approach them (soaking with last-night’s rain) and I pull left on his reigns, he diligently veers to the left so I can avoid a wet slap in the face. At one point I want to stop and see a trail-side waterfall; I pull back on the reigns and he stops instantly so I can gaze at the beautiful site…he stands and waits for me until I’m done admiring before I nudge him onward, waiting for my command. I’ve had cars that don’t respond this well!


horseback tours Puerto Vallarta MexicoThe trail splits, and we head down towards the river… and INTO it. The horses have no problem with this, and I’m thinking we’re on the world’s original 4-Wheel-Drive equipment. The river is swollen with the previous night’s rain, up to the bellies of our horses, and yet they work their way through without a problem. Further up a single-track trail, then across the river again, and then across another, higher and higher we go into the mountain jungle. Wild mountain flowers bloom around us and the trees are full of fruit…mangos, avocados, and limes…and banana trees hold thick strands of ripening fruit. I never knew that bananas grew ‘upside-down’ (stems at the bottom)!


Puerto Vallarta horseback toursAs we move higher up trails and seldom-used roads we pass small farmsteads of a few cattle or a mountainside where a local “ranchero” (rancher) has scratched out a plot of corn on a steep mountain hillside. It’s not like I remember my grandparents growing corn in Iowa! The mountain is steep and rocky, and yet the corn seems to be growing strong. “Some of this will help feed his cattle, a little bit for his horse, and the rest for feeding his family,” Fernando explains, “and he has a beautiful view from his little house at the top of the hill. He goes on to tell me how he has a wonderful family and considers himself a rich man because he is able to take care of them in these beautiful mountains. I can see his house…it doesn’t seem like much to me, but I can understand Fernando’s point…the view must be incredible!


Puerto Vallarta horse-back tours

Crossing the river again, we continue to climb higher and higher, crossing smaller streams and passing small homesteads, which might corral a burro, 1 or 2 cows, a pig, and a dozen chickens picking bugs along the rutted road. An idyllic life if you crave solitude and self-sufficiency.


horse-back rides in Puerto Vallarta MexicoWe eventually reach a small palapa-covered bamboo oasis where we dismount, tie the horses up, and take a breather. There are a couple bottles of tequila on the bar and ice-cold beer and pop below, and the sound of rushing water nearby. We strip to our swimsuits, clamber down some rocks, and find a beautiful spring-fed stream of crystal water. The stream makes a short but dramatic fall into a deep calm pool, and it’s a very refreshing dip. Lori takes a dare and jumps into the deepest part from the rocks about 20 feet up with a scream, and we get a nice massage from the falling water by swimming up to the cascades.



Puerto Vallarta Mexico horsesWe relax for a bit under the palapa, cold beer in hand, lush jungle plants and flowers all around. It’s a serene and calming environment, and we share stories about what we’ve seen and fantasies about living in the jungle as apparently many people here in Mexico do…raising cattle on small patches of pasture cleared from the mountainsides.


Any soreness I had in my legs has disappeared after my swim, so we saddle up again and take a slightly different route down the trails, the lush jungle-covered mountains continually rising up above us. We learn that riding a horse downhill uses a whole different set of our muscles than riding uphill, but it’s a pleasant return to Paso Ancho where we began, culminating in a half-mile galloping race between Lori and I a couple of the Canadians, which the horses are enthusiastic in participating in.


Puerto Vallarta Mexico waterfallApparently we’ve taken the ‘summer route’, made necessary by the typical summer rains. In November all the members of the co-op take a weekend to clear the summer’s growth from the ‘winter route’, which takes more remote trails and culminates at en even larger waterfall, and this is the route taken from December through May. Marilyn informs us that the winter route is even more spectacular.


We’ve all developed a good appetite from the ride, surprising since the horses did most of the work. We say our good-byes to Fernando and the other guides, and cross the bridge to a riverside restaurant called Cuale Paraiso (roughly “Paradise of the Cuale River”). Under a huge palapa on the rocky banks of the Cuale River we enjoy authentic Mexican tacos and enchiladas, guacamole and chips, and more ice-cold beer. It’s the perfect end to a great tour.


While the following day I was quite aware of which two points of my bum were making contact with the saddle, my legs were not the slightest bit sore, perhaps a testament to advice Marilyn had given me before we started. “Just relax your muscles…don’t try to hold on to the horse with your legs, and you’ll feel fine.” Well, not only did I feel just fine, I felt great, having seen the jungle side of Vallarta from atop my trusty steed for a memorable day.





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