Born and raised in London and with family roots there that go back many generations, city-living is part of my family’s DNA. Horse riding on Saturdays in London when I was a child involved walking around a large sandpit in circles. Needless to say, I lost interest in that hobby fairly quickly. Occasionally I’d see a couple of police officers out on the roads of Hither Green exercising the police horses. But as you might imagine, there wasn’t anywhere you could practice real horse riding in the London suburbs. Plus – city-girl that I was – I was usually rushing from place to place with a purpose. I didn’t have time to trot across a small urban green area on horseback just for the fun of it.
Nowadays, keeping up with the fast pace of life in a city can be exhausting. This is especially true in Bogota, where you have trancones (traffic jams) and maniacal bus drivers added to the mix. Over the last six years, the shortage of green areas and the constant drone of traffic in Bogota leave me craving contact with nature. So whenever I can, I seize opportunities to escape the urban jungle. Past memorable day-trips included a trip to a coffee farm out in Tibacuy to the southwest of Bogota; a visit to the Hummingbird Observatory up in La Calera beyond Bogota’s eastern mountains, and a challenging hike through the stunning paramo landscape of Chingaza National Park.
This week, I went horseback riding in La Calera with Andes EcoTours.
Horse riding in La Calera
A fine rain was falling that chilly Monday morning as I mounted my allocated horse, Coronel. I immediately felt at ease as I slipped into my stirrups and took a firm grip of the handhold on the saddle. I hadn’t ridden a horse for many years, so I was pretty rusty. The last time I’d been horse riding had been in 2003 when my friend and I went galloping along a Tunisian beach at sunset with the sparkling Mediterranean Sea beside us.
This time I’d be walking at a gentle pace through the mountainous region of La Calera, about an hour’s drive from Bogota. The views at the top would be overlooking the San Rafael reservoir, and the terrain on our way up would be a cobblestone path through the forest, with several boulders to navigate along the way. In some ways, outdoor adventures feel foreign to me, and I always feel slightly nervous before a hike, or in this case, horse riding. But once I get going, it just feels right.
Arriving at the farm
After an hour’s drive by jeep from Bogota to La Calera, we arrived at the ranch. Before we set off, Andrés and Jorge, our guides, introduced us to our horses and gave us some horse riding tips. We learned how to use the reins to steer the horse left and right. We were also told that we could help the horse by shifting our weight, leaning forward when we’re going uphill and leaning back when going down. The easier we could make the horse’s job, the smoother the ride would be.
Our horses, Coronel, Diamante, and Bacalao, knew the route we were taking well, so not much steering was required on our part. As we headed toward the forest, we passed cows and sheep grazing on green pastures and heard a rooster crowing nearby. It wasn’t so different from my green and pleasant homeland.
It was a bumpy ride as the path got steeper, and I started to get that familiar sensation in my inner thighs of impending bruising. I began to recall why I hadn’t been horse riding for 16 years. But from a philosophical point of view, during those 16 years I’d learned that many of life’s most memorable experiences come with an element of discomfort. My move to Bogota, for one. So I adjusted myself in the saddle and took in my surroundings.
Riding through an old trade route
We were walking along quite a narrow cobbled forest path, surrounded by hanging ferns and leaning branches covered in blue-green lichen. There was no sound other than the clip-clopping of the horses’ hooves, the pitter-patter of light rain, and the sound of Jorge directing the horses from time to time. I asked Jorge what this path had been used for in the past. He told me that people from the countryside had used it to transport their wares – wood, cheese, milk, eggs etc. – from La Calera to the markets in Bogota. It used to be a dirt track, and the stones had been added a couple of decades ago. The local farmers take responsibility for maintaining this path, Jorge told me, to prevent it from becoming overgrown. But other than that, the area felt untouched. It was quite moving, feeling that we were following a centuries-old trade route.
My horse, Coronel, navigated puddles, stones and boulders like a pro, though at times I had to duck the overhanging branches. I got quite wet as he casually brushed past damp bushes at the side of the path, soaking my clothes in the process. There were a few sheer drops down the mountain beside us at times, and I tentatively asked Jorge if the horses ever slipped.
“No,” said Jorge. “They know how to tread carefully.” I chose to believe him.
Occasionally the horses, like small children, would test us by stopping to tear off a juicy-looking chunk of bracken. I was going to let Coronel go ahead and eat – for once, I wasn’t in a rush – but Jorge insisted we continued.
“If you let them stop and eat, they’ll do it along the whole route. Give them a hard kick!” We all felt reluctant to “kick” the horses, so I gave him a soft but firm ‘nudge’ with my heel and steered Coronel back to the path with the reins. Occasionally the horses got a bit riled up with one another, as one would try to brush past the other or get too close to another’s rear. Equine road rage, perhaps?
Sweeping views from a great height
Once we reached the top, we took a moment to appreciate the vast reservoir and the mountains partially obscured by cloud. We dismounted the horses with Jorge’s assistance to give them (and our backsides) a rest. I haven’t read Wuthering Heights, but as I took in the misty scenery before me I remembered that lyric from Kate Bush’s song. We peered across “the wily, windy” countryside with not another human in sight. If it hadn’t been windy and raining, I could have happily stayed there longer, contemplating the beauty of this wild Colombian landscape.
Heading back to the farm for a warm snack
As we were getting drenched, I quietly congratulated myself for buying a water resistant jacket from Decathlon the day before. After one last glance, we mounted our horses once again and made our way back to the farm. I practiced leaning forward and back on Coronel at the appropriate times and was more assertive this time about steering him away from the soaking wet bushes lining the path (even though my jeans were well past saturation point by this stage!).
When we arrived back at the farm, one of the horses in the paddock whinnied as if to greet us. Jorge’s wife had prepared arepas and hot agua de panela for us, a delicious and warming drink made from sugar cane. We sat and ate, talked, and enjoyed our last moments in the fresh air of La Calera before returning to Bogota.
Colombia: a challenge and an adventure
Colombia continues to push me right to the edge of my comfort zone, and perhaps that’s why it has embedded itself in my heart. Here, I feel inspired to try things I wouldn’t be able to do back home in London. I feel compelled to slow down and appreciate my surroundings. Life in Bogota can be challenging, and this has motivated me to search for things I’ll enjoy doing, and try things I might not normally try. The danger of the comfort zone, I think, is that we can become complacent, preferring to remain within its cozy boundaries. But by doing this, we limit our exploration and enjoyment of the world around us. Colombia may be well outside of many people’s comfort zone. But it’s only by breaking through that barrier of fear, discomfort and culture shock that we can overcome it.
I might have a pain in my ass right now as I sit here typing this, but the natural beauty and serenity of horse riding in the mountains of Cundinamarca made it all worth the discomfort.
I’m thankful to Andes EcoTours for taking me along on this ride.
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