There are a few things in life that don’t start as bucket list items but end up making the list retroactively. Horseback riding in Cotopaxi National Park probably would not be on that list for most people, but roasting a marshmallow over a volcano, which is actually on my daughter’s bucket list, might. Could a ride in the park make yours?
While at Cotopaxi National Park in Ecuador, my wife, Stacy, daughter, Tasha, and I decided to go on a horseback riding adventure. We had seen a few groups go on trips before us, and thought it would be a nice relaxing adventure to enjoy the beautiful landscape of the park for a few hours. It was a clear and calm day at the park, which was somewhat uncommon from our previous experience. As I’m told, it’s more common during this time of the year (July and August). I’m not so much a fan of riding horses for whatever reason; I guess I just find it boring. In any case, when you have family around, sometimes you do what they want, and maybe they’ll look back on the adventure someday as an experience they shared with you that they’ll always remember. Tasha loves horseback riding and does so, or so it seems, every time the opportunity presents itself. We booked a trip for the afternoon, so we could all experience what she loves to do together.
When our time came around, we went down to the coral and met with Rafael, who was going to be our guide for the afternoon. Rafael, an extremely experienced horseback rider, asked us if we had experience on horseback of our own, and we replied in the affirmative. He didn’t, however, ask us how much experience we had, and we had no idea that given what would happen during our trip that we would have needed a lot of it. He then asked us if we wanted to wear helmets. We had noticed that the members of the groups we saw earlier in the day were all wearing helmets. Tasha had mentioned then that if we were to ride, she would not want to have to wear a helmet, so when he asked I was pleasantly surprised that we actually had the option at all and politely declined the use of helmets. After all, we are experienced riders, right?
Rafael handed out horses like they were big pieces of candy, although, in this case, big furry pieces of candy. When Tasha got her horse, she received a little help mounting the horse. Stacy was directed to a rock, which she climbed up on and then easily got on her horse. I got mine and got on her. She was a feisty blond named Shaina, who didn’t even want to move away from the coral; she even got testy when I pulled on the reins. While Rafael and the girls were ready to go, I was towards the back of the group, fighting to get Shaina to mind me. She wouldn’t.
When we set out, Shaina has apparently decided that she had had enough walking for the day and wouldn’t budge – stubborn beast. I was certainly having my doubts about the trip and the horse, but mostly about my decision not to use a helmet. While I thought about that decision, Shaina was snorting and shaking her head back and forth and up and down. Whatever the matter, I would not be the one to give in. I was going to show this stubborn blond who the boss on this trip would be.
We set out and Shaina had no choice but to follow. Once we got away from Hacienda Tambopaxi, she lightened up a bit. My sense was that she “allowed” me to direct her. She wanted to be in the lead, and I let her get as far up as our guide, where we walked together.
Rafael and I immediately got along well and had a pleasant conversation about life in Cotopaxi and in his village of Pedregal. It had occurred to me after about 10 minutes that I should check on the girls, so I turned back to find them. They were hanging back quite a ways. I pulled back on the reins, Rafael followed, and together we waited for the girls to catch up a bit.
When the ladies caught up, Rafael was quick to get the group up to a trot. We were on some open prairie, so a nice trot wasn’t such a bad thing to do. At first I thought, this will be interesting but not exactly the first time – only the saddle seemed a bit harder than those I’ve had in the past. I don’t know how cowboys do it, honestly; all I can say is that it’s a good thing that I’ve already fathered three wonderful kids, and I’ll leave it at that.
The Back Country
On the back side of the park, there is a deep canyon with steep walls. We reached the canyon’s wall and were truly impressed by the beauty that lay before us down below. Rolling hills of lush green grass, wildflowers, and rocks waved down into the jagged sides of the canyon. In the Canyon, a mellow stream rolled down the slope away from the triangular shaped Cotopaxi, a magnificent active volcano that can actually be seen from Quito.
About the time that we reached the canyon trail, it started to sprinkle lightly, which didn’t bother me or the others much at all. We continued through the green hills, flowery slopes, grassy gullies and soft damp dirt towards the ancient Inca Ruins located in the park. I concentrated on changing my body position with every incline and decline we came to. Somehow in my mind, I felt like I was making it easier for my stubborn blond beast. We crossed a few open areas with small creeks flowing towards the bigger stream below us in the valley. As we absorbed the precious view around us, the sprinkles turned into rain with a few balls of hail landing around us and hitting us harmlessly and bouncing back into the air and to the ground around the horses’ hooves.
Without much warning, a flash of lightning struck near us with a sudden crack of thunder only moments later. The light rain turned to heavy hail, striking each of us (and our horses) with more force; each hail ball that hit open skin stung and left red marks on our skin. Rafael had gone back to get the ladies’ horses moving a bit faster, so I was in the lead. After a few minutes of being pelted by hail, I picked up the pace a bit. Apparently, the pace wasn’t brisk enough however. Rafael caught up to me and told me that we had to get to the refuge area quickly. A trot was no longer enough – we had to raise the level to a gallop. Much to my surprise a gallop was much easier to handle than the trot, which seemed to me to be more like a trashing on the hind area than anything else. As we moved rapidly through the fields of grass and flowers with dark clouds suddenly storming around us, the ground began to turn white.
Not Your Average Ride
Before I knew it, I was starting to increase my own rate of breathing. We galloped up and down hills and valleys, through grassy areas, through rocky terrain, up the sides of muddy hills, and over the magnificent landscape of Cotopaxi. I didn’t dare look back to find the others, especially while questioning my self-acclaimed “experienced” skill level. In any case, I could hear them running closely by, which gave me some sense of comfort – at least mentally. The hail, on the other hand, reminded me of a level of physical comfort way below the level of “cozy.”
As Tasha and Stacy drew closer, Shaina showed that she could outpace the horses they rode without much effort. She galloped faster while following a small trail towards the refuge area that lay out of view somewhere in the distance ahead. While squeezing the beast with my legs, I directed the horse to the right and left under my wavering balance as a means to keep from falling off the right or left side of the horse – a luxury I could only use when the landscape was wide and open and didn’t include the risk of falling off the side of some cliff together with my stubborn, blond beast. The hail continued to pelt us both, occasionally hitting me in the face.
The fun had ceased some time ago. I was cold and, honestly, a bit disturbed that cracks of thunder almost immediately followed the flashes of lightning. We were the tallest objects on the landscape, and I knew that horses don’t like loud noises and these horses were no exceptions by any means. Finally, we rounded the corner of Pucara Salitre – the Inca ruins. At last, we had reached the refuge of the Inca ruins. I rode up to the refuge and the others were not far behind.
By the time we had gotten off the horses and into the rebuilt Inca house at the side of the ancient fortress, the hail had stopped. It lightly sprinkled for a while thereafter while the four of us talked inside the structure with the straw ceiling while a stray dog, in the breed of a Caucasian Shepherd, lay quietly next to us. This particular dog had also, for whatever reason, begun this journey with us. He happily chased rabbits through the brush and had even chased a wild bull off the trail in front of us at one point in the journey before it had started raining.
After waiting for about 15 minutes, we mounted our horses once again for the journey back to Hacienda Tambopaxi. I was looking forward to the relaxing part of the journey now and ultimately getting out of the wet pants I was wearing.
On the way back, taking the more direct route back to the hacienda, storm clouds gathered and lightning once again began to strike down around us as we made our respective ways through the ancient dried lahar paths that once ominously flowed from the now 19,347-foot Cotopaxi. The horses were getting antsy. Nevertheless, I led the way with Shaina, who was happy as a clam to be the lead horse. We trotted over the vast lahar plains of the park when I noticed that I was no longer able to control Shaina with the left rein. Apparently the metal doohickey that connected to the bit had dropped out sometime during the last few minutes. I pointed out the problem to Rafael who got off his horse to come fix the issue as I looked down from above. Everyone stopped while the repair was made.
If horses could talk, they probably would have been saying something like, “C’mon, dude, what’s the problem. Can we just go already?” Stacy’s horse was, okay I’ll write it, “chomping at the bit,” slowly inching ahead impatiently as Rafael fixed the issue with Shaina’s rein. Stacy’s horse moved forward and, at the same time, Rafael’s horse wasn’t having any part of letting one of the two trailing horses get ahead, so he bolted…without Rafael on him.
Shaina moved ahead of the other two horses and Rafael as Stacy stopped her own horse, hoping that Rafael’s horse would come to his senses, which, in his own mind, he probably already did. He wasn’t having any part of waiting around any longer and decided against sticking around in an open lahar field with lightning touch down all around us. He trotted off as Rafael jog-ran forward in a futile attempt that to catch his fleeting horse on foot. I was still slightly ahead of the other three, looking back to see our guide standing there between two horses that were not his while his ran off into the distance ahead, obviously heading back to the hacienda.
Ride Like A Cowboy
What was I thinking? I turned Shaina towards the scampering solo, black beast ahead, and reluctantly gave her a kick in the side. She did not sense my reluctance and was off in a flash, another horse was ahead of her and she wasn’t going to have any part of playing second fiddle. Or maybe it was more like, “you don’t have to ask me twice; I’m outta here!” Whatever the case, the next thing I knew was that I was balancing myself on the back of a blond beast that was galloping up hills, between jagged rocks, and into rolling basins. At one point, we crossed a stream. My right hand hung onto the saddle horn as I guided Shaina’s direction towards the bolting guide horse ahead using my left hand.
Much to my surprise, I was riding full gallop next to Rafael’s stray bullet. Amazingly, Shaina was faster. I got ahead of Rafael’s horse and pulled up on the reins, stopping her in front of the black phantom. He had no choice but to stop. Unfortunately, Rafael’s horse was smarter; he cut back around the back of Shaina as Shaina pointed to the right, he ran behind to the left. I quickly tried to redirect Shaina to cut him off from the left, but Shaina didn’t realize what the point was and hesitated long enough for the black phantom to get the upper edge once again.
“Ohhh, caaraap! Here we go again.”
Once again I caught up to the ghost rider. This time I was determined to get a rein and stop this chase once and for all. I stopped the phantom rider using the same method as before. As I leaned over to the right of Shaina towards the black horse, I saw his left eye, the only eye visible, get big. He obviously didn’t trust this idiot newbie holding his reins from the top of the likes of Shaina. His halted momentum turned into a quick bolt once again first in back of and then to the left of Shaina. I hesitated this time. Was it really worth it?
Shaina and I watched the phantom rider go up over a hill. “Ah geez, really?” I squeezed Shaina once again and she was off without any hesitation, and, yes, once again we caught the infuriating black beast – this time to the left. I was sure I had the runaway brat this time. “Yup!” As I reached over with my left hand to grab his rein while guiding Shaina “skillfully” over to her left into the phantom’s path, a got a cramp in my right hamstring. “Nope! No way!”
Together with the phantom rider, we made our way back to the hacienda in a gallop. I figured I’d just tell someone back at the hacienda that they need to send someone out with another horse to collect our guide, and that’s what I did.
The man that went out to get Rafael left with the phantom trailing behind and attached to a long rein. They rode over the hill from the hacienda in a trot. I thought the comedy was over, but much to my surprise, about 4 minutes later, the phantom came back, running to the hacienda by himself. About a minute later, the man came back, riding on his own horse, asking a young boy who was also there to grab the phantom’s rein once again and give it to him, which the toothless kid did. This time they rode off without any horse returning by itself.
As the young kid started to show me the trout pond near the hacienda, the others rode back into view from over the hill. They were safe and sound.
Now, two days later, as I write this story, I feel the muscle pain in my groin, back, and legs and can honestly say that this adventure, not previously present on my bucket list, has now made it there retroactively and sits next to item 3, driving a Porsche on the Autobahn at 140 MPH. Say what you will about roasting a marshmallow over a volcano being the last thing you’ll ever do on your bucket list, but you never know how something like riding a horse in a park might actually somehow make yours. Now it’s time for some more ibuprofen.
Guest Blogger, Brad Scott
Scott started his nomadic career in 2005 when his wife began working for the US State Department. As an EFM, Scott first moved to Moscow, Russia in 2005 where he worked at the U.S. Embassy for USAID as the Communications Officer and at NASA as the Management Support Officer. In Vienna, Austria, Scott redesigned financial operations and accounting systems for the US Embassy’s American Employee Association while working the capacity of Financial Coordinator. In Dhaka, Bangladesh, Scott worked as the Country Manager for bGlobal Sourcing, a consultant for the American Recreation Association, a consultant for the US Commissary of Dhaka, the Deputy Executive Officer for USAID, and an accounting consultant for North End Coffee.
Brad currently lives in Quito, Ecuador. One of his many projects includes being part of the coaching staff for the Lobos de Quito American Football Team.
For more information about Brad, please visit http://aeaportal.com/bradley-scott/.