We had left England and boarded our cruise ship, the Island Princess, in Fort Lauderdale. The journey took us on a leisurely voyage across the Caribbean and through the Panama Canal where we marveled at the ingenuity of man overcoming the hostility and wildness of the jungle. Once through the canal our ship was moored overlooking in the distance the modernity of Panama City. We enjoyed our cocktails that evening in high anticipation of our Horse Riding Adventure in Costa Rica.
Ten of us boarded the mini bus in the early morning in the port of Puntarenas. Our guide, who was short and swarthy with a vibrant moustache and smiling eyes, checked that we were all wearing long trousers and sensible shoes.
“We are going to a farm,” he told us in excellent English with only the trace of an accent. “There we will select your horses for you but as we journey I would like to tell you about our country. Here in Costa Rica, education is our top priority. Every village has a good school. We spend much money on our children. They are the future of Costa Rica.”
When we left the coolness of the mini bus, the heat of inland Coast Rica hit us. We regretted our long trousers and sensible trainers. The horses were especially bred, they were sturdy. Some of them hovered around waiting for their riders. The others trotted across the wide field to the shade of the trees. They had no bridles or reins, just a rope tied around their noses where the bridle would have been.
“Can you ride?” a stable hand who was allocating the horses to riders, said to me. “Only a little, a long time ago,” I said but was immediately led to an alert looking steed. One by one we mounted and were instructed “hold the rope in one hand, and balance with the other like this.”
We set off across the savannah with our two guides, getting used to our horses. They were placid and good tempered but could be coaxed into a gentle trot. It was indeed many years since I had ridden but as we approached the brow of a hill, my shaky confidence returned. I could do this. Suddenly we heard a noise, quite alien in the stillness of the afternoon. The noise increased in crescendo – a very loud croaking and high pitched chirruping. Our guide indicated for us to stop and the sound wrapped around us. As the guide went over the top of the hill, the sound disappeared. All was silent. There below us was a large pond full of bullfrogs. Static as statues on the surface.
We pressed on into the trees. One guide led us in single file through a narrow path. The other guide brought up the rear. The terrain became uneven and the path twisted through the ever encroaching mass of trees. There were deep gulleys which meant it was sensible to let the rider in front get ahead so that you could allow your horse to negotiate the dips and rises at its own pace. There were branches overhead and close beside you. The path became narrower.
Suddenly I realized I could see neither the horse in front nor the horse behind. It felt as though I was alone with the heat and sounds of the jungle all around me. It was not a good time to think about snakes. I do remember thinking “don’t look up, don’t look down and just stay on.” I even considered I had taken a wrong turning but dismissed it almost immediately. This horse knew what he was doing even if I didn’t. Before long, I could see the horse in front and indeed several horses and our guide.
The message was passed back. “There is a tree blocking the track. It must have fallen since yesterday.” The guide at the rear, who we later discovered was jack of all trades and a medic, pushed past on his horse, clutching a machete. He hacked away at the fallen tree, whilst we sat and waited on our patient horses. The track was soon cleared. Our guide noticed a line of lime green traversing the track. It was a party of leaf cutter ants, holding their booty aloft. Nothing stopped their journey to where they were going and we were no exception.
We soon reached the edge of the jungle and the guide pointed out families of howler monkeys swinging from branch to branch in the trees. Their cries were sharp and loud, spearing through the low buzz of jungle noise. As we neared the river bank, we could see a narrow stream of water trickling down over the rocks towards the sea. The air was fresher, the intense heat lessened. We turned right along the beach, our horses and ourselves too tired and weary for much cantering.
We dismounted and said goodbye to our trusty horses. Fresh exotic fruits and cooling drinks were laid out for us in the comparative coolness of a courtyard overhung with trees.
“Were there any snakes in there?” I asked the guide. He chuckled. “Oh yes. I was tracking a coral snake to show you, but he went away. In Costa Rica we have hundreds of snakes but only 37 species are poisonous.”
Back home, of course, I told everyone how brave I had been!