It’s a long ride to Pueblo Llanitas.
For two days each spring and fall, a local group of horsemen and women gather and ride to the village of Llanitas, about 17 km up the Cuale River Road out of Paso Ancho. This is a Mexican cowboy party, plain and simple.
About 30 people on horseback set out on a Saturday morning and start riding up the mountain. A beer truck leads the way, stopping every 20-30 minutes to replenish the ice cold bottles. This road is hot and dusty and in March and November the sun has plenty of sweat power here in Puerto Vallarta.
This cabalgata isn’t a tourist ride. Out of the 30 participants, 6 of us were gringos and the rest were local cowboys and a few Vallarta business men who also loved horses.
The premise was simple: Ride and drink and eat and party on horseback for two days away from the City. There’s no place to sign up for this cabalgata; you just have to know about it.
I accidentally discovered it while stopping at a restaurant up the Cuale River, Moro Paraiso. I was talking to friends about wishing to be able to ride horses for more than a few hours like I occasionally do with the VallartaScene Forum “drunken horseback” tours, when a woman who was eating in the restaurant heard me and asked if a cabalgata was something I might be interested in. …Talk about synchronicity.
She described it as a “come as you are” horse ride/party for two days and a night up in the Sierra Madres on a private, rather primitive ranch. The cost was 1000 pesos ($70 US) per person, all inclusive (horses, food, beer, raicilla, todo, even, she added, “the Horse feed”). She said that everyone else would be real cowboys but, she added, sensing my gringo hesitations, “They are all gentlemen.”
With my typical exuberance at discovering something new, I blurted out, “Yes! I’m in.” I had forgotten (probably on purpose) my wife, Sarah, and she quickly corrected me, “We’re in!”
I had worked with gringo cowboys for about 6 years in the US so I was a little worried about putting my wife in the hands of 20 or so drunken Mexican cowboys for a night and two days. But, what the heck, she was game.
Two weeks later we met up in a field by the Moro Paraiso restaurant early one Saturday morning. We each brought a toothbrush, a blanket, sun screen and insect repellent and a camera. There were two couples (me and Sarah and Lorna and Jose), a young divorced mother (Jane) and Carolina, a rather strange, very pleasant character from someone’s novel, I’m sure. Plus there were 20 or more cowboys, enough horses for all of us and a beer truck. We started riding.
The beer stops were great. One of our neighbors, the owner of some of the horses, a man named Susano, brought along a 2 liter bottle of raicilla which he dispensed in a small plastic shot cup that we all shared, over and over. Maybe it was the circumstances, maybe it was the company, but this was the best raicilla I’ve tasted here and I’ve tasted probably all of the varieties available locally from Mascota to Tuito.
The Sierra Madres are dry this time of year, but they are very beautiful and it was good to be out of the city. As we rode, other riders joined in and the cabalgata grew, the anticipation also grew and spirits were high. The view from horseback is far superior to any other when you’re traveling and a loose camaraderie builds up between riders. I’ll never remember everyone’s names but I’ll never forget their faces and their laughter.
The pueblo of Llanitas is basically a gathering of ranches. It has a tienda, a restaurant and new rodeo grounds. Dirt roads and adobe brick buildings. We rode through town, stopping for a short break at the restaurant and then on to a small ranch bunk house overlooking the Cuale River valley. The horses were unsaddled and we were given bunks. Sarah and I, Lorna and Jose and Jane shared one room with 3 beds.
The ride had taken longer than anticipated and we were tired and dirty. We rested and a BBQ was started with arrachara and chorizo for the best tacos I’ve ever eaten (you know how you exaggerate how good something is when you have it after much anticipation or need…). There were salsa, cheese and beans, also.
The day was still young so we were told that some of the cowboys were going to put on a mini rodeo for us in town so we headed back down the road. About half way there we came to a small corral and everyone stopped because there was a cowboy in there with his arm, up to the shoulder, inside of a cow’s vagina. Not an everyday sight. We got out the cameras….
The cow was trying to give birth but the calf was breach so the cowboy was trying to turn it around. Everyone said that the calf was probably already dead. Soon some of our cowboys jumped in to help and, at one point, two cowboys at once had their arms inside this poor cow.
No one seemed to be able to help until a cowboy called “el vet” showed up and was able to figure things out, eventually turning the calf and introducing it to the world. Mother and son were doing fine after a few hours. These images of the cow birth are forever engraved in what’s left of my cortex. I’m not a stranger to country life but this birth was amazing. More amazing to me was how everyone selflessly joined in to help. One of the cowboys did say, however, “I should be getting paid for this” as he had stuck his arm up the cow’s vagina.
As if nothing had happened, we then walked on to the rodeo where a few of the cowboys, almost too drunk now to stand, tried roping first, each other, then me, and finally some poor donkey one of them had rustled from a neighboring house.
The cowboys had added the rodeo to the cabalgata for us gringos, it was obvious, and it was, like much of this trip, something that wasn’t really planned but something that took on a life of its own, in spite of any intentions.
When we returned to the bunkhouse, 3 campfires were started and we sat around for hours drinking, talking and listening to music from the radio in the beer truck. The fires were for light and warmth in the high mountain night air. It was good to relax.
I started getting more and more tired of drinking (I have my limits) and the cowboys were getting more and more drunk. The music was getting louder and things slowed down only once when we all heard the horses crash out of the pasture and head off into the hills. It was dark so the cowboys just shrugged and let them go, figuring that they’d be back for food in the morning.
Carolina sat up late talking with her friends and Jane was busy deciding which suitor to spend time with. Sarah and I and Lorna and Jose went to our beds. Jane soon followed.
About an hour or two into sleep we were jarred awake with thundering horse hooves, blaring Mexican pop music and a dust storm. We went outside the bunkhouse and there were about 8 cowboys sitting around one of the campfires while another cowboy was “dancing” his horse to the music, occasionally bouncing off the bunk house wall or into boxes of beer bottles. It’s amazing how well trained (and tolerant) these horses are. You could swear that the horse was keeping time to the beat while trying to help the cowboy look good for his friends.
Sleep was not to be. The cowboys took turns dancing and the music didn’t die until almost dawn. Dancing horses, shadows, dust, fire, music. You can see where Carlos Fuentes gets his inspiration.
We finally did sleep for a couple of hours and when we awoke, there were tacos again, plus coffee. It was only Nescafe, but it was divine.
It took a couple of hours to round up the horses and we tried riding over to the restaurant for breakfast, but, again, we were sidetracked, this time by some of the cowboys milking cows.
Like I said, I’m used to country ways but these cowboys took milking to a new high. Apolonio, the owner of that particular herd, brought some powdered chocolate, a bottle of raicilla and a plastic Squirt bottle of something he simply called “alcohol” into the corral, along with some plastic glasses.
He then added a couple of teaspoons of chocolate, a generous shot of the raicilla or “alcohol” (according to your preference) and he walked over to a cow and filled the glass with fresh, foamy milk, which he handed to each of us (and to each of the cowboys) with a big smile of anticipation on his face. It was heaven. I tried both versions (out of anthropological curiosity). They were distinct and equally fine.
We probably stayed with the milk cows for an hour and then headed back to the restaurant, again, this time for menudo, the perfect ending to a night of drinking. As with the tacos, this was the best menudo I’ve ever had. One of our group of gringos wouldn’t even look at the menudo and was given traditional eggs, etc, and another pretended to eat it but left all of the tripe in the bottom of the bowl.
No matter, the cowboys had expected none of us to like it and only offered it as a token of light-heartedness before beginning the long ride home.
The master plan for this restaurant visit, aside from the menudo, was to have a horse dance inside the restaurant for our entertainment. This ended in a bit of embarrassment for the cowboy dancer as his horse didn’t quite feel up to dancing that early in the morning and balked more than a little. His buddies laughed at him and were kind to him after the screw up. True friendship.
Back in the saddle we had 5 hard hours of riding ahead of us. It was a hell of a ride, considering that I hadn’t ridden more than and hour or two at any one time in the last five years.
At one point I was talking to my horse (who seemed as tired of it as I was) and telling him that it was ok if he wanted to jump over the cliff on the side of the road and that I would gladly go with him to end the pain in my butt. Fortunately he didn’t react nearly as melodramatically as I did to the discomfort and we eventually arrived back in Paso Ancho in one piece.
Probably the biggest discomfort of the ride home was that the beer truck had disappeared. We drank far too much beer the night before and the driver had gone off to replenish the stock and never came back. Oh, well. In spite of this rather major flaw, the cabalgata was the most interesting, most exciting “tour” I’ve done here in Vallarta.
The cowboys want to make this a *real* tour but I don’t see how they can since it relies so heavily on spontaneity and happenstance. And how would they bill it? “A 2 day, All Inclusive, Drunken Mexican Cowboy Cabalgata?”
This might be a hard sell to almost anyone except me but already I’ve seen how capable they are of turning the unexpected into reality. I loved this tour.
by Rick Hepting
Photos by Sarah Hepting
March 29, 2009