Riding in Mexico - You never know where life is going to lead you…

by Hidden Trails 12/14/2011

Story by Jenny

My adventures began when I first came to Rancho Mexicana on vacation through Hidden Trails. I owe Ryan and his team a big thank you for truly helping me find the perfect vacation and new lifestyle. I was a 4th year university student who had come to the ranch during my spring break.
At the University of Ottawa, I studied and graduated with my degree Nursing
Here is where, my life changed…
After I had finished writing my final set of exams, only 3 months after my last vacation, I could not wait any longer and had to come back to the ranch for a short vacation. I realized that I was going to be beginning my career and would not have much time to escape after this. The flight is nice and short and made it an easy getaway for me for a 4 nights 5 days. 
After my second visit to the ranch I could not imagine going back to Canada to live.
While I was here on vacation for the second time I was talking with the owner of the ranch, Uschi. Here she was explaining the new and upcoming upgrade to the ranch. I was fascinated in the progress since I was here three months before and had seen the changes already. Since I was so interested in the ranch Uschi jokingly said to me that I should stay here and work for her. I nonchalantly replied if she were serious I would be here in a heartbeat. At that moment we both looked at each other.  Serious or not… but here I am  and I am not regretting it.
A dream came true.

I have traveled many places around Mexico for example Playa Del Carmen and Cozumel.  There weather there was always hot and humid. Exactly what I thought I wanted when I was on vacation from the great Canadian winters. However when I came to the ranch that view changed, the weather is perfect here, we get the sun of the coast without the heat and the humidity. Also another added bonus about this area is that there are no bugs, any “bush” trail rider is in heaven!
The most important part is the riding, there is nowhere else that you can experience this type of riding. Well what can I say; when we say unlimited riding we mean it. I have been here for 6 months, I ride approximately 3 to 4 times a week and there are still new places that we are discovering to ride.
There are hundreds of reasons why I chose to stay in Mexico at the ranch; the people, culture, hospitality and of course the riding just to name a few. 
As mentioned above I have been here at the ranch for 7 months and I love everything about it. I am in charge of reservation and Guest Services and it is such a great job to attend to so many happy guests.

Here at Rancho Mexicana, I have found a true place that I can call home!


Mexico – the ultimate equestrian destination

by Hidden Trails 11/12/2011

Story by Ryan Schmidt, Hidden Trails

Last week we got back from a three week trip to Mexico and it has taken me 10 days to put together a “Trip Report” – it was just all a bit overwhelming. I have travelled the world and have been to many countries inspecting equestrian trips, but seldom have I experienced such a variety of landscapes and cultures as on this trip. We visited the Mexican states of Jalisco, Guanajuato, Hidalgo, Mexico DF and Chiapas.  The catalyst for the trip was the “Adventure Tourism Summit” in Chiapas and it turned out to be one of our best trips yet. We came home with two brand new trips that will be an excellent addition to our existing programs and of course we visited with our friends and partners of the existing rides.

Leon, Mexico

From Vancouver we flew to Leon via Houston (from Houston it is just a 2 hr flight). Leon is a busy city and one of the main gateways to central Mexico. It is well known worldwide for its factories that produce leather goods … so if you are thinking about buying shoes, leather pants or any kind of horse gear … plan on an extra day in Leon .. it may just pay for your trip. With its big malls, Office Depot, Wallmart, etc … Leon could easily be in southern California (I was impressed by the well maintained main road system). In one of the malls I bought SIM cards for my iPad and Samsung Tablet and off we went (great internet access almost anywhere we went .. no roaming charges throughout Mexico).

Hacienda Sepulveda
First stop was Hacienda Sepulveda, part of our “Five Haciendas” ride. It is a historic hacienda turned into a Boutique Hotel, without losing its flair and charm. Wonderful rooms, great facilities with a very romantic pool and good cuisine. We even tried some “real” Tequila from the region … and I can assure you .. it is not a Tequila you have ever experienced. I had no idea that there is a real ‘Art’ to Tequila production … I guess they only export the cheap stuff.

Riding at Hacienda Sepulveda
The rides were great fun through farm fields and to other historic haciendas that demonstrated to us true “Chargas” (cowboy) traditions. Mexico has an amazing horse culture and fantastic horses ! Mexico can really keep up with the best in the world. One thing I realized was that Sepulveda is so much superior to the other haciendas on the Five Haciendas Ride, that we decided to change the lodgings to be at this place for the whole week and just ride on the other haciendas … I think it will make for a much better riding holiday … relax at wonderful facilities during the week and enjoy great rides across five different haciendas during the day.

Guanajuato, Mexico

Next we were picked up by our new friend and partner, Angel, and we inspected and explored a new route that I believe will be an excellent luxurious progressive ride for our clients. The ride will go over mountain passes, across hacienda estates and faster paced travels on horseback over wide open plains. Overnights will be in Unesco Heritage Towns (Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende), at historic Colonial Haciendas and a Boutique hotel with delicious cuisine. I cannot even start to properly describe these places … you really have to see to believe it. Guanajuato alone would be worth visiting for a week … it is an amazing historic town with underground “Tunnel Roads” that can get confusing if you do not know your way around … these are not tunnels from the last few decades .. they were all started centuries ago when this was a mining town.

Tunnel roads at Guanajuato
The center is just lovely with a park like place that provides entertainment and is a social meeting point for the locals and the tourists. Bands play, children are laughing and people in general are having a great time. The same can be said for the maybe better known San Miguel de Allende …. romantic, artsy, cultural and just places to “feel good”.

Church at Guanajuato

I can’t wait until we got the whole trip organized and ready to go !

Then we drove across country (on very good roads) for 3+ hours to Toluca, where our friends and partners Pepe and Lucia picked us up to drive to Valle de Bravo and Finca Enyhe.

Finca Enyhe - Classic Cavalcade
If you have followed our trips over the last 12 years, I am sure you are already familiar with our top of the line “Classic Cavalcade”. It always was and still is one of the best equestrian vacations anywhere. From the horses, accommodations, meals, guides, hosts and the immense variety of the landscapes – it is all first class. The millions of butterflies (the Monarchs) that winter here from November to March are just an added spectacular bonus to see, to an already unsurpassed trip. Our visit here was not to inspect, but to visit with our friends. It is always good to see Pepe and Lucia and their daughter Georgina. We spend a few wonderful days at Finca Enyhe and Valle de Bravo, which has developed into a small “boutique” type vacation destination for the well to do Mexican population of Mexico City. They are just starting to see a few foreign tourists here and most of them are on our riding tours with our friends. We were fortunate to spend some additional time with our friends at our next destination …. Chiapas, since also they were invited to the World Tourism Summit.

Tack room at Finca Enyhe
From Valle de Bravo we transferred to Mexico City to catch a short flight to Tuxtla in the southern state of Chiapas, which at one time was part of Guatemala for about 20 years - just after the 1910 revolution and war of independence from Spain. As already mentioned we were to attend the World Adventure Tourism Summit in San Cristobal de las Casas, but first we spent a few days on a pre-summit horseback riding trip that inspired me so much that immediately I decided to make it one of our next new riding destinations in Mexico. I am sure by now you have figured out that I am a bit Mexico fan, but the experience in Chiapas surpassed even my best expectations.After a nice dinner and overnight at the … Hotel in Tuxtla, we were met by Gloria and Juan, our hosts for the next few days.

Gloria and Juan

Both of them are excellent equestrians and active endurance riders. They are the most wonderful and warm couple you could ever meet. They took very good care of us over the next few days and took us on a journey we will not soon forget.
It was truly an equestrian adventure from the highlands to the beaches. The potential to create a real riding adventure here are endless – from breathtaking mountains, sink holes, remains of old historic haciendas and grandiose canyons to the jungles, lagoons, mangrove forests, wildlife and untouched beaches of the coast. Overnights will be in historic haciendas, the community operated beach resort of Madresal (not accessible by vehicles) and a few days of camping at Lake Tolan and in the large canyons of the … river and its waterfalls. Of course we will also include a night at the UNESCO town of San Cristobal.

Canyon on Day 1
Our group or riders (Ellen from New Mexico, Andres from Ecuador, Rachid from Lake Tahoe and with myself and wife Roberta) came from all over the world and not all of them were seasoned riders, but we still had an excellent ride with plenty of faster paced riding including some great gallops. In the hills it got quite technical, so I am sure this will be a trip designed for the more experienced and adventurous rider.

Riding in Chiapas Day 2

At the coast the “beach resort” was far from luxurious (no electricity), but a magical place all the same. It is operated by the local community with 46 actual owner operators - and it showed in their enthusiasm to create the best stay you can hope for. Service is first class.

Transfer to resort

The place is not accessible by road, so we had to leave the cars behind, take a long boat (canoe type) through the mangrove trees, across a lagoon to the resort – always accompanied by helpful hands with luggage, camera cases etc.

Realxing on the beach of Madresal

The cabins were simple, but nice and the highlight was the ‘restaurant’ right on the pristine sandy beach. Of course there were lots of fresh drinks and soon we all had a big freshly caught fish on our plates for dinner.

Fishing for dinner

Then the local people that are in charge of the turtle hatchery showed up just before dark with 1200 baby turtles in buckets ….

Release of turtles

We became part of releasing them into the wilds and into the ocean … what an experience.

Could get any better than that ? Yes, it did. The next morning early around 7 am we all got into some canoes that were masterfully manoeuvered through the mangrove forest. Here we experienced thousands of birds including a nesting area with hundreds of baby birds, as well as short sightings of a few crocodiles right next to our canoes …. Pretty exciting stuff !

Through the Mangrove forest

The trip ended with a transfer to San Cristobal. The city, especially the historic center, has maintained its Spanish colonial layout, with narrow cobblestone streets, roofs covered in red clay tile and wrought iron balconies with flowers. The facades of the buildings vary from Baroque to Neoclassical and Moorish, painted in various colors. In areas milk is still delivered from canisters on donkeys, with other donkeys hauling firewood.

  San Cristobal

After having enjoyed many good Mexican dishes along our travels, my wife Roberta, a Sicilian, had a craving for Pizza. So we strolled around some of the traffic free streets that are full of little stores, crafts shops and restaurants – and found a very traditional Italian Pizza place …. So we are in the middle of southern Mexico and we have one of the best Pizzas in years … and believe me – if Roberta says it was a good Pizza .. you can bank on it .
The atmosphere in this little historic town, that is part of the “Magical Towns” of Mexico, was just wonderful. It was relaxed, traditional and yet sophisticated. We enjoyed many good meals, some fun evenings and of course the Summit.

Even President Calderon came to open up the Summit … When have you ever heard of a president of any country to come to open an Adventure Tourism Summit … anywhere !? I was really impressed by his speach and outlooks for his country. Seems he is on the right track to promote adventure travel, sustainability and environmental conservation for his country. Thank you Mr President.

President Calderon at the World Adventure Tour Summit in Chiapas

The Summit was a big success, a lot of fun and of course the time in Ciapas was much too short to see everything this state has to offer, so be assured we will be back to see and explore a state so rich of history, culture and nature.
After the summit it was very difficult to leave San Cristobal … we really felt at home. But we had one more stop before going back home. It was the last, but certainly not the least important stop of our venture.

On horseback at Rancho Mexicana

We flew back to Mexico City where a driver from Rancho Mexicana picked us up and drove us to one of my favorite places. My family has spent several wonderful holidays at the ranch including an unforgettable Christmas. I don’t know what it was when I first came to the ranch, but immediately it felt like it was a part of me. We hadn’t been there for 4 years and it was amazing to see all the changes and improvements. When I first went to the ranch 10 years ago and sat down with Uschi, the owner, we looked over the valley and exchanged ideas about what would be the next improvements to tackle. Now I can say … everything is perfect – more beautifully decorated rooms, a small spa, wonderful pool area and hot tub … all surrounded by breathtaking views. Well done Uschi !

Pool at Rancho Mexicana

Uschi is one of my best business partners and I just love to work with her. I know she takes 100% care of my clients and it shows up in the incredible trip reports we get back. The ranch is one of the few places in the world where you can send very advanced riders and novice riders at the same and you know all of them will come back with an experience of a lifetime. A herd of over 30 well trained and extremely well taken care of horses, combined with 5 or 6 wranglers, offer riding for all levels in different riding groups. There are 2 hr rides with maybe a stop at the local store all the way up to rides of 8 or 9 hours that go across country and take all day. Now we can even offer progressive rides on a big circle tour (horse stay out at night and riders transfer back). I certainly had an excellent ride again with Uschi’s new helper, Jenny. Jenny actually first came to the ranch as a Hidden Trails guest, fell in love and stayed. That shows you the many roles we get to play as an equestrian holiday agency.

Jenny and boyfirend

Of course our trip had to come to an end and we sadly sad good-bye to Mexico and all of our friends and flew back to Vancouver … a wonderful trip had come to an end.

Hasta la vista Mexico

Ryan and Roberta in Chiapas

Horse safari in Mozambique

by Ryan Schmidt [Hidden Trails] 06/11/2011

Story by  Kate Kellaway    -- first published in The Guardian, Saturday 11 June 2011

Kate Kellaway

Horse play … Kate Kellaway in Mozambique

Two years ago, I received an email from a woman called Amanda Retzlaff. Her story sounded extraordinary: she and her husband had fled Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe with 104 horses which they had rescued during the land invasions and taken across the border to Mozambique. They were trying to piece together a new life and start a riding holiday business from scratch. Would I like to come and visit? I told her there was little chance of my getting there – but held on to her email.

I had reasons of my own, aside from the riding – which sounded fantastic – for being interested. I had taught in Zimbabwe in the 1980s and been curious about neighbouring Mozambique which, at that time, was more or less unvisitable. Independent from Portugal since 1975, it was in the grip of civil war (between the Renamo resistance movement and the Marxist Frelimo, the Liberation Front of Mozambique). I tried to forget about Amanda's invitation. But at the beginning of this year, I realised I could hold out no longer: I had to swap my armchair for a saddle.
The Retzlaffs met me in the last week of March in the tiny, shambolic (though being expanded and refurbished) airport of Vilanculos – a seaside resort 750km north of Maputo. They are what my grandmother used to call "real people". Mandy is warm, talkative, good company. Pat is quieter and a fine horseman: he makes his own saddles, shoes his horses and escorts all the rides.
They had been farmers in Zimbabwe. In time, I would find out more. But at first, I wanted to hand over the gifts I'd brought – honeyed horse treats, a spare riding hat and, at Mandy's request, a DVD of the award-winning documentary Mugabe and the White African. This film, which they had not seen, is the harrowing account of white farmers – friends of theirs – who were beaten up on their farm by war veterans in Mugabe's "Land Reform", went to court about it, and won, but later lost everything when their farms were burned to the ground.
Mozambique, unlike Zimbabwe, is uncontroversially peaceful now. I spent the first night in Archipelago Lodge, a resort of self-catering chalets on the ocean south of Vilanculos, where you feel you could easily run into Babar and Celeste, the elephants from Laurent de Brunhoff's stories. Each chalet is spacious, with a thatched roof and a view of the Indian ocean.

Mozambique riding
Riding by the Indian Ocean.    Photograph: Alamy  

It is a serene, reasonably priced base for a Vilanculos riding holiday. Mandy and Pat are open to riders of all abilities and can customise rides. (It is too hot to ride all day – two to three hours at a stretch feels right.) They proposed riding out on the afternoon I arrived. And that ride was a revelation.
The beaches of Vilanculos are wide – they go on forever when the tide is out – and bordered by mangrove swamps and the Indian ocean. I ride regularly and have had several holidays on horseback, but Mozambique has to be the most outstanding beach riding destination. I have never been allowed such freedom on a horse holiday. Here we were not herded or bossed, though Pat was mindful of safety. He might say, "Canter up to the yellow boat," or,"Stop at the big rock" – which was a small speck on the horizon. The atmosphere was personal, ad hoc and magical. The heat was intense but there was a constant breeze coming off the sea. The silk on my hat kept threatening to blow away.
The sea, in many variants of turquoise, was calm, though it rushed into the mangroves at speed. I had forgotten how the African sunlight transforms everything. And nothing could be more wonderful than speeding along the sand past egrets, herons, a solitary ibis. You might dodge a bed of shells, a rock or the rope securing a fishing boat but otherwise there were no obstacles. We rode along the north beach and up a red dune to a place nicknamed Fingerprint of God. God, I observed, seems to have had his hands all over this place.
In Mozambique, everything happens in its own time. There is a saying that in the west we have money; in Mozambique, they have time. The truth is that Mozambique needs our money: its tourist industry has huge potential but the country is still (blessedly for visitors) under-visited. And it is perhaps also true that we need its time. My timetable involved nothing more challenging than leaving Vilanculos for a 20-minute boat trip to the bewitching Bazaruto archipelago.
First stop was Benguerra island, 14km from the mainland, where half a dozen of Pat and Mandy's horses live and where rides are overseen by Lucy Campbell Jones, an engaging Englishwoman who first came to Mozambique as a volunteer.
The plan was to sample the varied pleasures of Benguerra and neighbouring Bazaruto islands. My life has not featured many luxury hotels but I adjusted with indecent speed to Benguerra Lodge and to being waited upon by the Byronic Sergio in his floor-length white gown and scarlet cummerbund. There was no resisting his ability to produce iced tea at the double, summon a dhow or string up a shady hammock.
When I lay in the hammock, I reasoned that everyone deserves to visit this country once. I walked down from Benguerra Lodge to a barbecue on the beach one night, where a fire was burning and its smoke, driven by breeze, poured out horizontally – it reminded me of our beach riding as it vanished rapidly alongside the sea.

The riding on Benguerra is out of this world: the horses are safe, well-schooled and fit. One late afternoon, Lucy and I cantered along the beach and trotted inland past beautiful freshwater lakes where there were cashew nut trees (the toxic husks are used to brew liquor), wild orange trees and gatherings of flamingos.

Benguerra Lodge
Benguerra Lodge.    Photograph: Alamy

On Benguerra, I was introduced to non-riding pursuits too: fishing and snorkelling. I think of fishing as a wait at the edge of a dreary English pond and had not realised it could be so active. At one thrilling moment, guided by expert fisherman Graham Pollard, I caught a ladyfish which, with unladylike athleticism, promptly flung herself back in the sea. At another, I hauled in satisfactorily – with help – a majestic green spot trevally. From the boat, we saw several dolphins and a turtle (I was thrilled to catch its beady eye on camera). Sometimes it is also possible to see humpback whales and dugongs in these waters.

The next day, I went snorkelling above a coral reef and was entranced by the shoals of parrotfish, the finest of which was maroon with traces of gold – like swanky hotel upholstery (an escapee from Benguerra Lodge?). I also saw powderblue surgeonfish and goatfish – white with inky dark spots. I could not believe how unfazed the fish were – as if we were of their company, just larger and more cumbersome, with our rigid flippers.

I stayed one night in the immaculate, modern Marlin Lodge (also on Benguerra) where I was treated to a memorably over-the-top "bush bath" scattered with hibiscus petals in an outdoor playpen made of palm leaves. At Marlin Lodge, they toss their flowers about freely – like confetti for the many ecstatic honeymooners who fetch up there.

I spent another night on Bazaruto island, a mile or two north, at Indigo Bay – a magisterial hotel for those who prefer not to give modern life the slip altogether (air-con, computer room and, a rarity in Mozambique, sparkling mineral water). But what I most enjoyed was an outing with Indigo Bay's Mozambican horseman Domingo, who took me up a 100m sand dune called the Pelican. Going up was easy enough but then I had to descend an almost vertical sandy slope. It seemed impossible, but I just had to trust that the horses knew what they were doing (and they did).

Back on the mainland in Vilanculos, I decided the time had come to find out more about Mandy and Pat. I already knew their story had not been one of five-star luxury. They were victims of the 2001 trashing and looting of farms in Zimbabwe's Chinhoyi district. As the land invasions spread, thousands of horses were abandoned on the farms, or destroyed.

Many veterinary surgeons, depressed by the relentless slaughter, left the country altogether. Pat and Mandy took in horses from miles around. Some were in a sorry state. One had a war vet's spear piercing her withers – a wound that took two years to mend. ("I could stick my fist through her back," Pat says).
The Retzlaffs moved from one leased farm to another as the land invasions intensified. Often, they would have to pack up and move on in less than four hours. Along with most of Zimbabwe, they hoped Morgan Tsvangirai would win the presidential election: "It would have been light at the end of the tunnel."
After their sixth eviction, they moved to Mozambique, by which time, they had to acknowledge, the horses were becoming "a huge burden".
Mandy was starting to panic: "What on earth are we going to do with all these horses?"
Pat replied: "We are going to start a horse safari."
He took his horses off the truck at 4pm one day and was taking guests on rides the next morning: "I went up the beach, and found a few paths. The customers loved it."
And the horses themselves were "delighted by beach life – as though they were on holiday". It was then that Pat realised he had "never ridden anywhere as beautiful".

But on 22 February 2007, two months after they'd settled into this new life, disaster struck: a cyclone flattened Vilanculos: "We didn't get a single customer for six months."
Did they think then of giving up?
"No, because the horses had become part of our lives. There was no question of deserting them."
They got by, with help from volunteers from overseas. (It is hard to imagine a more brilliant destination for horse-mad volunteers.)
But on 14 November 2010, disaster struck again. They had moved 26 horses to an area where there was fresh drinking water and grasslands.
"We thought we were being clever but we weren't. The horses ate a rare, poisonous plant called crotalaria and started to die. We lost a horse every three days. We were pulling dead horses around in a Land Rover and digging pits to bury them."
They had to hide this tragedy from clients and "paste smiles on our faces" while weeping behind their backs. "We had been through so much together," Mandy told me, with tears in her eyes. She has written: "May their hoofbeats always be heard on the beaches of Chibuene."

mozambique map

On my last morning, the plan was for a swim on horseback after a final gallop along the beach, if the tides allowed it. By this stage, any attempt at equestrian propriety had gone and I was, like my hosts, riding in Crocs (practical, as it turned out). As I rode into the sea, I registered, suddenly, an uncanny weightlessness as the water lifted half a tonne of horse and me. The horse was swimming horse paddle, moving like a stocky dolphin. It was wonderful. I laughed at the absurd joy of it – this was the ride/swim of a lifetime.
And then it was time to say goodbye. The previous night had been spent at Casa Rex – a charming, Mediterranean-style hotel in Vilanculos, an upmarket alternative to Archipelago Lodge. There I did my last-minute packing with reluctance, trying to work out how to wedge a tremendous Mozambican wire-and-beadwork chameleon – a metre long – into my suitcase. I'd named him Bazaruto.

I noticed that I was behaving as if there were all the time in the world. And that, I now realise, is because Mozambique makes you believe that there is.

Getting there
Virgin Atlantic (virgin-atlantic.com) flies Heathrow-Johannesburg from £740 return; Fed Air (fedair.com) flies to Vilanculos from £325 return.

Horse Safari: All details can be found on the Hidden Trails website at: http://www.hiddentrails.com/tour/mozambique_coastal_paradise_riding_holiday.aspx
Five days and four nights start at $1525 pp with accommodation at Archipelago Lodge, including meals, riding and transfers but not flights.

Choosing your first horseback holiday

by Ryan Schmidt [Hidden Trails] 06/09/2011

There are so many things to consider when going on holidays of all sorts but this applies none more closely than when choosing your first horseback adventure. To make your decision simpler, it’s important to figure out what you want to get out of your week or two away from the workplace. There are literally hundreds of destinations you can visit on horseback holidays, from riding through safari treks in Africa, to climbing mountain ranges in North America.

Establishing what you want to see, whether that be wildlife or stunning and unique landscapes, is simply vital for your holiday experience. Once you have decided on a destination, then the level of horseback riding is the next important factor to consider.If you’re relatively new to riding, you should opt for tours with similarly skilled riders, so you can improve at the same pace and over the same period of time. Everyone has to start somewhere, so there is little point in going for a trip that’s above your level during which you may find it difficult to keep up.
The more relaxed you are with your horse and the overall riding aspect of the holiday, the more you can take in and enjoy the beautiful settings you are bound to be riding through each day.Tours also offer other outdoor activities such as fishing, so you can even add other hobbies you may enjoy onto your horseback holiday experience. There is also usually a choice of accommodation on offer from horse riding companies, so keep your hotels preferences in mind when planning. The key to going on your first horseback adventure is planning. 

Once you have broken down what you want from your break away from the daily routine, you will be set for an experience you will never forget.

Call the experienced travel consultants at Hidden Trails to help you during your decision making process. They have a wealth of experience with equestrian travel all over the world.


From Chile to Argentina on horseback

by Ryan Schmidt [Hidden Trails] 06/01/2011

From Chile to Argentina on horseback

South America might not be your first thought when planning your next riding getaway,
but it’s worth a second look.

Crossing the Andes on Horseback with Hidden Trails
Story and photos by SHAWN HAMILTON
-- first published in "The Chronicle Connection"

If you’re an adventurous equestrian seeking a spectacular addition to your bucket list, look no further than this ride of a lifetime:
the seven-day trip across the Andes Mountains on horseback from Chile to Argentina.
Following the historic trail Jose San Martin and his army rode in 1817 when they liberated Chile from Royalist rule, native Criollo horses transport you across rushing rivers, navigate narrow ridges and zig-zag up steep pitches reaching altitudes of 4,500 meters. Yellow, red and blue flowered valleys welcome you into the mountains while enormous condors soar overhead, and guanacos (wild llamas) run freely beside the trail. 
We team up with excellent local guides and a number of gauchos to transport you back in time.
Each day, mules haul provisions to a new camp under the stars, where you’ll enjoy meals cooked over an open fire and accompanied by some of Argentina’s most favored Malbec wine.
With spectacular vistas and constantly changing ecosystems, combined with true Argentinean hospitality, this vacation is one of the most unique adventures one can enjoy on horseback. 

See the full story with photos here.

Christmas with the Bedouines - Across the Wadi Rum

by Hidden Trails 02/25/2011

Story by Jessica Kiefer

In early November 2010 I decided that I was going to escape dark and dingy December and finally joining the Wade Rum tour in Jordan – something I have been wanting to do for a long time. I quickly signed up for the Christmas tour, ready to spend my holidays with five other participants from Switzerland, France and Canada. Luckily, I just barely made it out of Europe before the snowstorm hit and soon I was at the Amman airport purchasing my tourist visa for 10 JD (about $15).

As I exit the airport the driver waits for me with a friendly smile. Our first day is dedicated to the ancient city of Petra; it is beautiful. I marvel at the impressive siq (throat), the ancient ruins of Nabatean tombs, Roman temples, and the red, pink, and yellow sandstone. Our knowledgable guide is very impressive as he relays all sorts of facts – including how to ride a camel! I climb on top just for the photo then quickly dismount.
The next morning we leave Petra along the desert highway that travels through the Wadi Rum. After an hour we reach the stable in Rum Village. The horses are matched and ready and within ten minutes we are in the saddle. Maryse from Canada takes on Antar, a stallion and I get a relaxed brown gelding named Saim. We begin the ride at a nice walking pace, before finding a huge rock wall where to stop for a picnic lunch. Afterwards, we ride on through the impressive pink and yellow shimmering desert, with rocks jutting out everywhere. The vegetation is sparse and consists mostly of arid shrubs.

Generally the Christmas tour has a solid base camp but due to our good luck and stable weather pattern, we spend the first two nights under the stars with a fire. When we reach the camp on the third day, we get a tent to store our belongings. I elect to sleep in the open, Bedouin-style tent, as it is warmer with a fire than the closed one without.
Each night we sit with our guide Suleman and the other tour staff. Suleman has 17 brothers and sisters that have each worked as horseback guides. His trainee, Ali, is learning the trade from his older brother. The conversation and company entertain us with games and stories. Some nights we climb the surrounding rocks where, in the light of the full desert moon, there is a magical mood.
Throughout the six riding days we roam through new canyons and plains, each time delighted by the colors and shapes. The first couple of days were not perfect; one of the French riders proved to be a beginner and slipped off his horse. At first we thought we could continue if she had a more quiet horse, but it soon became apparent that he was not skilled enough to do the ride. Let this be a lesson – never sign up for a ride you are not qualified for; he spends the rest of the tour following behind in jeeps. 
Once he is safe and satisfied with this alternative, we trot and gallop freely, sometimes for long stretches. Most of the time we spend walking, but it is never boring because the landscape around us constantly keeps us under its spell. Highlights include huge sand dunes and a great bridge under which we all pose for a photo. Along the way we admire rock carvings and ancient Nabatean dams.

On the third day I say goodbye to Saim; he has colic and needs to rest. Now I ride Saba who is tireless with excitement. Now, our order is much clearer: in the front, three fleet mares, geldings, and Antar the stallion bringing up the rear. Saba is sensitive but friendly and she seems to like me. For Nabataean dams and buildings she doesn’t have much interest, so I ride past these things rather than stopping to inspect them closely.
The last day of riding brings us a surprise: Mufleh, our guide’s brother, invites us to watch the Dromedarrenntraining. We race to the event in the jeep – riding helmets still on – with no way to know how fast we are going (all speedometers in the desert seem to be broken). We arrive to meet Mufleh’s huge camel, who was funny yet friendly. He has a small box attached to his hump which allows the trainers to give orders by radio, so a rider is no longer necessary. Mufleh explains to us that this is a very popular sport in Jordan and that men will spend entire days training their camels. For Europeans, however, it is a totally wild experience.
Once we are back with the horses we set off for the last ride back to the bard. One last time we enjoy the plains and the memories of sipping sweet black tea. The twenty horses live together in a large and open barn. Smaller bites and kicks cannot be completely avoided due to animal nature and temperament. On our return to the camp, we can see the horses become boisterous in their excitement to get home. They are left here in the sand to snooze.
Our cruel driver brings us back to Kerak, to the citadel, where the ancient Crusader Castle is perched high on a conical mountain; the view is impressive. The check-in into our 5 star luxury hotel seems to take ages, like the airport, but after a week of unleavened bread we fully enjoy the buffet. As we prepare to board flights back home, I check the news in Europe and hope that the snow chaos would keep me on the ground in Jordan. However, there are no problems with my flight, so I’ll just have to come again another time.

More details on this trip can be found on the Hidden Trails website at: http://www.hiddentrails.com/tour/jordan_acrosswadi_rum.aspx

First Class Saddle Club in Argentina

by Hidden Trails 09/16/2010

Story by Julie Miller
... first published in the Sydney Morning Herald (Aug 21, 2010)

Julie Miller discovers the power of the mallet as she attempts to crack the country's number one sport of polo.
It's one of the most satisfying sounds in the world: that sharp, decisive "pock" as a bat connects cleanly with a ball - so effortless, so graceful, so absent from my existence.
As any sportsman knows, it's all about hand-eye co-ordination - a genetic blessing I was cruelly denied. But I take heart that, in this game, I have a partner who knows what's she's doing. In fact, she's doing all the work - I'm just along for the ride.
The stocky, hogged-mane mare I'm riding senses she has to follow that little white ball, ducking and weaving to fend off aggressors, and compensate for my attempts to make contact with it.
To be fair, this is my first crack at polo - the world's fastest, most physical horse game.
My lesson in sporting humility takes place at Estancia Sierra Chicas, a 2600-hectare ranch in the moody Sierra Chicas near Cordoba, in central Argentina. Owned by the Anglo-Argentine Begg family, this working cattle and horse stud attracts international guests seeking an authentic slice of gaucho culture without sacrificing life's luxuries. The property dates back to 1574 when Jesuit priests enslaved the indigenous people to construct the dry-stone walls that scar its golden, windswept hillsides. Back then, the land was used to breed pack mules for the Bolivian salt mines, those sturdy beasts kept in the stone enclosures, or potreros, that gave the ranch its name.
A family home for four generations, the 300-year-old homestead is a time capsule; its whitewashed adobe walls, worn timber beams and original cartwheel window are portals to those turbulent colonial days. But it's the personal touches that give the old building its character: faded family photographs, original oil paintings of favourite horses, a well-stocked bilingual library and a roaring log fire.
Guest accommodation in adjoining wings is comfortable, with an enviable collection of antique furniture. It's a little like staying at a friend's rural retreat - but one where you have no obligation to contribute to the cooking or washing up.
With a maximum of 12 guests at the ranch, time spent with hosts Kevin Begg and his wife, Louisa, is guaranteed as they lead condor-watching hikes around the property, visits to local churches, painting classes on the homestead verandah or tasting sessions of the ranch's own-label malbec.
But most guests come to ride, with the reputation of its horses firmly established in equestrian circles. As well as their extensive stable of working criollo cow ponies, the Beggs raise prized paso peruanos, a rare breed renowned for its fifth gait.
Most horses have four speeds: walk, trot, canter and gallop. The paso has an extra gear, a fast amble that slots in between the walk and trot and is as smooth and exhilarating as a canter. For novices, it's a breeze; for experienced riders, a revelation. As Louisa boasts: "It's like being upgraded from economy to first class. And once that happens, there's no turning back." Both passionate riders, the Beggs lead guests out to explore the property on their horses, allowing the natural rhythm of estancia life to dictate each day's activities.
During foaling season, for instance, a ride includes rounding up pregnant mares, bringing them in for the night as protection against marauding pumas, or checking on newborn foals, still wobbly on spindly legs. In summer, barbecues, or parillas, are on the agenda.
By far the most popular ranch activity, however, is polo - Argentina's national sport. No one plays polo quite like an Argentine. They are simply better, faster and more highly ranked than anyone else in the world - not to mention ridiculously good looking. This is where other champs of the sport - including the Packer clan and Australia's polo star Ruki Baillieu - come to hone their skills; adoring crowds of more than 15,000 attend the national finals in Buenos Aires.
Despite the fame and fortune of the sport's top players, polo in Argentina is not just for the wealthy. With an abundance of good, cheap horses and plenty of land to spare, it's played by all and sundry in rural areas - and, today, that includes me.
Having had a rather inglorious fall from grace the first time I rode a polo pony, I'm nervous as I mount my horse, Polera, and begin the trek down the driveway to the Beggs's competition-sized polo pitch.
Joining Kevin, Louisa and me are two other newcomers to the sport - staff member Hedda, from Sweden, and her co-worker Holly, from Britain. Head gaucho Luis makes up the numbers, his prancing pony working up a sweat in anticipation.
At the field we dismount while Kevin takes us through the basics - don't hurt yourself, don't hurt your horse and don't hurt other players. The idea, he says, is to have fun.
"We don't teach polo here, we play polo," he emphasises. "You could pay $150 an hour to learn to play in Australia and spend the first 10 lessons on a wooden horse. But here, the idea is to get you into a game within an hour."
More easily said than done; but as I swing back into the saddle and take my first clumsy whacks at the ball from a standstill, it seems achievable. Introducing speed into the equation, however, is another challenge. As I trot up the field, steering one-handed, it's starting to resemble a game of croquet more than polo, with most of my shots a mere dribble or complete miss.
After an hour of fumbling around, Kevin announces it's game on: the two staff girls and Louisa versus Luis, Kevin and me.
"We'll set the shots up for you," Kevin advises. "If you miss the shot, just ride ahead - we'll get the ball back to you." Which is exactly what happens - I ride, I swing, I miss - embarrassingly squandering Luis's perfect passes and soft set-ups.
Despite the fact it's a "friendly" game, Louisa, who plays in a local competition, isn't going easy. As I canter tentatively - still too scared to give Polera her head - I sense Louisa on my left, pushing me off course. The aim is to pressure opponents physically and mentally, distracting them from taking the shot. She succeeds; I overshoot the ball, swinging back into a fray of clashing mallets.
There's a bit of cheating, a lot of shouting and plenty of laughter as Luis, Kevin and Louisa drive the game back into the open.
Suddenly, the way is clear - there's nothing between Polera and the goal as Luis flicks me a perfect pass.
"Julia, Julia, your ball!" he hollers. "Go, go, rapida!" Surely this time - but how can anyone be so hopeless? From behind, Kevin taps the ball, which rolls to a stop just in front of the line. This is my moment to shine - victory is mine! Gooaaaaaaallllll!

Estancia vacations or Polo Clinics can be booked with Hidden Trails

Classical Dressage Training in Spain

by Hidden Trails 06/01/2010

My name is Kim Yotko.  My husband and I own and operate Fox Meadow Farm Riding School in Haymarket, Virginia.  As an American Riding Instructor’s Association Certified Riding Instructor in both Hunt Seat and Dressage, I understand the need for continuing education and I embrace any opportunity to do so, both in and out of the saddle.

In the pursuit of higher learning, I journeyed to Epona Equestrian Center, in Seville, Spain along with three of my most enthusiastic dressage students to participate in the Rafael Soto Clinic.  Our goal was to improve upon our classical dressage seat and to clarify aids.  Also, we were extremely interested in learning more about the Andalusian breed.

Our group had such a fabulous time at Epona that I feel compelled to praise them and to share with you a brief synopsis of our experience.

Upon arrival we were thrilled to meet Fernando Garcia.  He and his wife, Jane are the owners of Epona Equestrian Center.  They and their staff provided the perfect environment for Dressage emersion.  Every detail was taken care of for us.  A 16th century Hacienda served as our accommodations, we dined upon delicious home-made gourmet food, and we were carefully matched up with gorgeous, classically trained Andalusian mounts.  All we really had to do was think about dressage!  I remember thinking that this was like a dream that had finally come true!
Their intensive program of lunging lessons and training classes with Caty Garcia was designed to accustom us to our horses and the techniques that would be used by Raphael later in the week.  In addition to working on our positions, we focused on stretching techniques and plenty of lateral work.  Thanks to our work with Caty we felt like we were set up for success.

Upon completion of our prep work, we were finally ready to ride with Rafael Soto.  What a pleasure!  This 2004 Olympic Silver Medalist was extremely encouraging and enthusiastic about his teaching.  He was very generous with imparting his vast wisdom and knowledge to each and every one of our rides.  It was almost as if he was riding every step right with us as we half-passed, piaffed, and passaged around the arena!  Rafael Soto is truly an ambassador to his sport.

I also must express how amazing an experience it was to ride their lovely and talented P.R.E. horses!  I enjoyed my mount Seneca so much that I actually regretted having to take a break to eat and sleep because it meant that I would have to dismount.
Now that I have returned from the clinic, I have noticed that my horses are happier than ever with my riding.  I am full of new inspiration, along with an enhanced appreciation for the Art of Classical Dressage, and of course, I now dream of owning an Andalusian some day!


Riding in Spain: It’s not just another clinic

by Hidden Trails 09/23/2009

An amateur dressage rider from Wyoming finds a clinic in Spain with Olympian Rafael Soto
By Darlene Vaughn
Epona Rafael Soto Clinic

After a lifetime of dressage lessons, this was just one more. Or was it? I was mounted on a wonderfully well-trained Andalusian gelding, and I was in a foreign country listening to an Olympic medalist giving me riding instruction. As this realization hit, I caught my breath and tried to grab and hold every detail of what was happening.
As an amateur dressage enthusiast, I am part of the largest group pursuing the sport, and I have worked hard, taking lessons, going to shows, buying the correct tack and finding the horses that suited my level of expertise. Through Hidden Trails we discovered a wonderful riding center near Seville. Epona (named for an ancient Celtic goddess) is a family owned and operated equestrian center with dressage as one of its specialties. We both fell in love with the setting, the horses, the Garcia family and the great staff. After a number of visits “across the pond,” we also feel like family.
The winter of 2006 – 2007 offered an opportunity I could not resist, even though I would be travelling alone. Epona was hosting four dressage clinics with Rafael Soto, an Olympic silver medalist. He and his Andalusian stallion, Invasor, have been a crowd favorite with the international dressage community over the last decade. Rafael is a dedicated horseman living in southern Spain and spending most of his time at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Jerez teaching and training. He has been to the United States only a few times to teach clinics, since he prefers to be at home with his family.
The second Sunday in February of last year found me with four other gals unpacking our riding clothes after traveling from Wyoming, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wales and Malaga, Spain. We each had our own comfortable room in the hacienda on the grounds of Epona. Fernando Garcia, our host and one of the school’s owners and directors, loaded us quickly into a van and we were on our way to a typical Spanish restaurant in Carmona to get to know each other over a great meal. I learned Fernando’s riding resume included show jumping.


Monday morning we began a marathon of preparation for our lessons with Rafael. We each had a private longe lesson and then small group lessons with head instructor Caty Garcia in the covered arena. The longe horses were so solid and rhythmic that we had only to pay strict attention to our positions and transitional cues.
One of the goals was to match each rider with the perfect horse for the week. I drew one of my favorites, Trajano, a bay Andalusian I had ridden on previous visits. With the number of highly trained horses among the 60 that are available at Epona, all of us were well-mounted in no time.
Caty is a talented and experienced instructor who has worked with many international competitors and holds some of the most coveted certifications in Europe. She was able to quickly discern our strengths and weaknesses as riders and, beginning with the basic gaits and a snaffle bridle, we climbed through the ladder of relaxation, obedience, lateral movements and, finally, collected work.
We are not upper-level riders, so it was a steep learning curve, impossible without these horses. Using leg yield and shoulder-in exercises to help us get a better feel for the connection of the hand to bit and supporting leg on the horse, we understood much clearer the concept of teamwork between horse and rider. Caty was persistent and committed that all work was done properly and in a manner that kept our horses and us happy and working toward the goal of Rafael’s lessons later that week. Most American riders do not get this opportunity, and I marveled at the huge steps forward we all made in our riding skills in such a short time.


Higher Education
The other director of the school, Jane, Fernando’s wife, used her marvelous culinary skills and served us a delicious luncheon, after which we observed the traditional Spanish siesta time. Jane is another talented rider and instructor herself. Although she leaves most of that to her daughters now, she was just as excited as we were about our progress during the week. After another lesson in the early evening and another wonderful meal, we retired for the night a bit sore but totally satisfied in the food department. This was to be duplicated for the entire stay.
Tuesday we traveled to Jerez and the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art (Real Escuela Andaluza del Arte Ecuestre) to watch a performance by the professors and students. It brought tears to our eyes. Applications for admission come from all over the world, but few students are accepted each year at this government supported school. Vivi Gracia, Caty’s sister (Fernando and Jane’s other daughter) has juts completed four years there. A bit of Jerez’s famous sherry made for a sleepy ride home, but soon we were back on the horses with more lessons.
By Wednesday, Caty had us graduate to full bridles, and we began to attempt some of the finer movements of our capable horses. This meant complete instruction in how to hold the double reins and the different uses of the snaffle and curb bits. For those who have never ridden a passage, piaffe or flying change, the experience can be overwhelming – lots of smiles, laughs and even shouts of joy.
Thursday morning, we had another lesson but, that afternoon, we went into Seville to discover a Spanish tack store and to enjoy the art of Flamenco dancing. After four days of intense training, we were all glad to have some time off.
Clinic with Rafael Soto
Friday was the day Rafael was coming. Each student had two scheduled private lessons with him on Friday and again on Saturday. This was his fourth clinic at Epona, but you could feel the excitement in the air. The Gracia family and the other staff members at Epona are very respectful of Rafael for his riding, training and instructing accomplishments. Needless to say, the five of us were excited and more than a bit apprehensive. Would we be good enough? Would we be able to follow his instruction? Would our horses listen to us? We had our boots polished and the staff had our horses groomed, tacked and ready to go.
As we had been told, Rafael was a wonderful clinician, speaking fine English for those of us knowing only that language and explaining in Spanish for our gal from Malaga. He talked us though the basics. Then, as the lessons progressed, he allowed us to try our hand at the upper-level movements. He also concentrated on lateral movements to engage our horses. Rafael directed us to do a bit of walk, then a forward trot, using leg yield and shoulder-in. After concentrating on straightness on the long sides, bending correctly on the corners and many transitions within the gaits, we did our canter work, using counter canter as a gauge for our riding.
Toward the end of the lesson, we were encouraged in the upper-level movements. I was particularly impressed by how much preparation time was used for any change a rider requested. The shoulder-ins began at the end of the short side, which made the transition much smoother and easier for the horse. By Saturday afternoon, we were all doing flying changes on a serpentine topped off by a few steps of passage and piaffe and, of course, we had to do the Spanish walk with our Andalusians. We all felt like real dressage riders and cheered each other on throughout the sessions.
I was honored to sit with the family and our distinguished instructor at lunch on Saturday. “I think you could not find better horses in the world for our lessons here at Epona,” Rafael told us. “Without them, I could not do my job, and it would be impossible to do this kind of training.”
We ended our lessons with a ceremony and diplomas for the five of us. We were oh so tired but oh so happy that we had had an experience we will never forget. I treasure the week, the good friends I made and the excellent dressage instruction. I brought home so many new training tools to use with my own horse. I also understand the optimum method of rider education is the importance of learning on a trained mount before trying to transfer that schooling to a less experienced horse.

You can book this riding clinic with Hidden Trails, a specialist in equestrian vacations worldwide.
Call toll free at 1-888-9-TRAILS – or check out this trip on their website at: