Travel Story 

Monteverde by boat, horseback, and zip line: Costa Rica's cloud forest playground

Travels in Central America, Part 8

The grumbling summit of Vulcan Arenal was covered with cloud when we left La Fortuna and drove around the base of the volcano to the north side of Arenal Lake. After a short boat ride to the other side the 12 of us piled ashore into a small clearing where Marvin and Domingo were waiting with the horses. It was a familiar scene from my past – a couple of horsemen in chaps and big hats, a dozen gentle horses, saddled and waiting for the dudes. In years past I would have been one of the horsemen, quietly sizing up which of the arriving dudes I would have to boost aboard.

But on this trip I was one of the dudes. And it wasn't until I put my foot in the stirrup and prepared to spring into the saddle that I faced reality – it had been decades, not years, since I worked as a horse wrangler and guide in the Rockies. But once in the saddle the old instincts returned and Skippy accepted me as an ex-cowpoke.

Skippy, a lively but well mannered bay gelding, was obviously anxious to get home. In a sense all of us were heading home at this point. The horseback ride along the south shore of Arenal Lake was the first leg in our trip to Monteverde – last stop before San Jose and the end of our Central American tour with GAP.

My mount was determined to be in the lead with Domingo and, ears pointed straight ahead, he took every excuse to break into a faster gait. The lake-side trail skirts the pastures of small farms where groups of brahman cattle rest in the shade of broad-crowned oak and beech trees. Occasionally our route wound through ravines choked with giant ferns and trees thick with vines, orchids, and epiphytes – remnants of the original jungle as it was before the land was cleared for pasture.

Half way through the ride Domingo left the main trail and ducked into a shady clearing where we dismounted for a lunch of fresh fruit, tortillas and cheese. I took advantage of the stop to have a close look at the horses. Unlike the tired, chaffed, and underfed animals so often used by outfitters, Domingo's horses were well groomed, in prime condition, and fitted with good tack. Surprisingly there were no flies and the horses rested quietly while we ate our lunch.

When we reached the home ranch Skippy relaxed and we waited patiently while a couple of gauchos and their dog forced a herd of reluctant brahmans out of the gate and across a fast-flowing river. Then, as we said goodbye to our mounts and thanked Domingo for a great ride, our van pulled up at the west end of the lake, ready for the next leg of the day's journey.

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