When I arrived for this exploration of Mexico on horseback my eyes lit up at the sight of my trusty steed for the trail; a little grey mare with lovely, intelligent eyes. Standing at about 15hh she was the smallest of the group but what a sparkle she had about her! I had asked for a small, lively horse who liked a cuddle and Angelito, our host, could not have been more right with his choice for me; ‘she just loves to run’ he tells me, and soon I would find this to be completely true. My friend Kelly was equally besotted with her mount, a 5yr old Azteca gelding a real show-stopper of a horse who moved so beautifully. The smile on her face said it all as we rode out of the city, the horses excited and bouncing along with great enthusiasm.
On the first day we were joined by a number of local Mexican riders, friends of Angel, who were a great point of reference for those of us who had never ridden here before. All immaculately turned out, both horses and riders, they made the whole departure from Guanajuato rather an exciting spectacle!
Our trail was a significant one historically; we were to ride the old Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, the “Silver Route”, a conduit between the mines of Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende. Both cities have been designated World Heritage Sites. The trail would also pass through Dolores Hidalgo; although not a World Heritage Site, Dolores Hidalgo is particularly important as it is where Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla gave the cry called “El Grito” which began the War of Independence.
Having never been to Mexico before I was keen to visit the central heart of the country as not only does it have this fascinating history it is also one of the more authentic regions to visit as a first-timer; places like Guanajuato display some really stunning architecture, with colourful Baroque buildings sitting atop the atmospheric subterranean tunnels which help control the traffic flow. From the bustle of the city to the mountain villages such as Santa Rosa which offer a typical, rural Mexican experience, this trail encompasses all things Mexican.
Our journey began with an incredible climb. The air was crisp and the sun beamed down as our horses danced their way along the old royal road. The mountainside resonated with the staccato beat of many hooves; this must have been how it felt for the Spanish in colonial times as they transported gold and silver from the surrounding mines, always on the look out for an Indian ambush! We stopped at a small village where the locals prepared a feast for us. The beer flowed and there was the chance to relax and visit the church before continuing on to our overnight accommodation in Santa Rosa. At 2,850m this had been a significant hike for our horses but they never tired. That evening we enjoyed delicious Margarita cocktails before a sumptuous dinner in a local restaurant.
Day two of the trail was the longest; a 37km trek through unspoilt mountains, wooded valleys and pine forests. The mountains are so peaceful; the only sounds you hear are birdsong and the breeze through the trees…and, in the case of our group, Chu and Ulisis, our fantastic back-up ‘charros’, singing old Mexican ballads with gusto! As we neared Dolores Hidalgo, having traversed part of the Sierra Madre, the landscape began to soften and open out into fields and farmland. Suddenly, the lunch-stop was in sight! A splendid affair with table, chairs and canopy; a tasty hot stew, peppers stuffed with cheese and quesadillas were on the menu alongside a generous helping of beer and wine. After this a siesta was needed so we all spread out on the grass, hats over eyes, and dozed in the sun.
A short ride later and we finished for the day; the team picked us up in their minibus and we were off to our overnight accommodation, just outside the city of Dolores Hidalgo. As we approached the sprawling hacienda along a long, cobbled lane lined with trees, we looked in awe at the size of the building and at its beautiful architecture. This was a rare treat; we were lucky enough to be staying at this private hacienda thanks to Angel and his good friend Juan Ramon; it is not open to the public and we were welcomed like family by the owners. Before dinner we explored the grounds; ornate and sympathetically restored it is a perfect example of the colonial style with original features and a vast, magical garden of tall trees, dense foliage and hidden fountains. We all slept well after a hot shower and a great 3 course meal.
The following morning our horses, as usual, were raring to go, ears pricked and eyes on the horizon. Today’s terrain was different again as we leave the fertile pastures and cross Cactus Valley to reach our overnight destination of Atotonilco. Along the way we passed Hacienda la Erre. Although now a ruin, this hacienda is one of the oldest in the country and was the first headquarters of the Insurgent Army. After a quick stop there we picked up the pace with canters along the sandy desert tracks and gallops where possible. Both my horse and I relished the speed and enjoy the freedom of space.
We reached Atotonilco late afternoon and rode through the town’s main street. At sporadic intervals fireworks went off as it was a festival week here. The horses have seen it all before though and hardly twitch at the sound. On our way to our hotel we passed the Sanctuary of Atotonilco; the most noticeable feature of this World Heritage Site is the intricate mural-work that adorns the main nave and chapels. This has led to the church being dubbed the “Sistine Chapel of Mexico.” After settling the horses in the grounds of our hotel we changed into our swimming things, pour some tequila and, with the stars shining down on us, spent a fun couple of hours in the hotel’s pool which they fill for us from the natural hot springs of the area – what a restorative!
Next morning we took the time to visit the Sanctuary and marvel at its impressive frescos. It is hard to believe that this little town harbours such an important and extraordinary building. As always our horses were keen to set off so we once again rode out, this time into agave fields (used for making tequila) and corn plantations, picking our way across country along donkey tracks and rural roads.
I don’t know what I was expecting in coming to Mexico, but at every turn I was surprised by the warmth and generosity of the people. One incident that will stay with me forever was meeting a lovely man en route to San Miguel de Allende. We made a ‘beer stop’ around midday in a tiny village on a riverside. This gentleman had offered us shade in his garage/workshop and we all sat together, drank, chatted and relaxed. But suddenly we realised there were tears in his eyes. Angel explained that he had been very lonely before we arrived, as few people now pass through these villages, and he was so happy to now have friends from (in the case of our group) all over the world. I was quite overwhelmed.
That afternoon the terrain, already undulating and gentle, opened out into wetlands; floodplains created by the overflowing Laja river just before the city of San Miguel de Allende. We passed farmers herding cattle to drier pastures and children riding ponies bareback along dirt tracks. There was a peaceful tranquillity in the air as the soft light of the late afternoon sunshine set a warm glow over the surroundings, and the waters glittered and sparkled. We let our horses gallop along the wider tracks, leaping small puddles and jostling for position. Angel’s horses are amazing; not only much-loved and in beautiful condition but SO fit. My little horse marched me 200km without tiring once and at the end of each day I would cuddle her and tell her how wonderful she was and she would understand (and I am sure agree!). Angel treats his horses like royalty; after all, they may be working animals but he wants to see them enjoy their work…and they do. He also works mainly with mares which is unusual in this part of the world, but he loves these horses and has a special, respectful way of training and appreciating them – mares as we know respond well to respect. He even bought treats for our horses and produced them at a picnic so we could feed them ourselves.
On reaching San Miguel de Allende the horses were due to stay in the town’s very own rodeo arena. To reach this we had to cross a major highway. High vis was donned and, to my amazement, Angel and the boys waved flags by the side of the road and the traffic, all six lanes of it, stopped to let us pass. I was taken aback by this as I could not imagine anybody stopping for riders crossing the M1! Drivers smiled, waved and waited patiently for us to cross. After bidding our horses good night we drove into town to our luxurious hotel, right in the centre of the city.
After breakfast we set out for what would be our last ride and we were all a little sad about this as we have become very attached to our horses. We clattered through the cobbled suburbs and out into the open countryside. A decent gallop blew away the cobwebs and put smiles on everybody’s faces. Today we were riding to view the Indian chapels the surrounding villages. There are more than 200 of these viceregal chapels dating from the 17th and 18th centuries. They were built by missionary friars to attract the native Chichimecas to Catholicism. These small, simple buildings contain strange portrayals of saints, crosses and religious themes, all created in very individual styles. The Indians could hold prayer meetings in these chapels with their mixture of Indian and Catholic styles, and for this reason they are considered authentic Mexican treasures of syncretism.
A magnificent lunch was waiting for us as we rounded the corner of a particularly fine chapel with walls of bright fuchsia and a large, shaded courtyard with views across the surrounding countryside. We settled the horses in the shade and sat down to the most delicious roast pork dinner, tender and flavoursome, accompanied by tasty, local red wine. We all toasted each other, and the wonderful horses who had brought us here, and a long, lazy lunch ensued.
Riding back we were all a little subdued, knowing that soon we would have to say goodbye to our horses. When the moment finally came there were some tears but we left them in the knowledge they would now have a well-deserved rest and a big dinner! On returning to our hotel we rewarded ourselves with a dip in the pool and a margarita before a night out on the town. The following day we would have the opportunity to shop and sightsee in both San Miguel and Guanajuato before our farewell meal and journey home.
One of the best things about this trip was the balance; Angel has worked hard to make sure there is not only plenty of excellent riding on horses you want to take home with you, there is also genuine historical merit in the route he has planned. In fact in 2012 he received the National Tourism Ministry of Nature Tourism Award from the president of Mexico! The ride meanders through mountains, forests, desert, rolling hills, cities and villages whilst all the time interacting with the locals. Angel and his team made us feel so welcome in Mexico; it is a vibrant and colourful country with such wonderful people and nobody could possibly showcase this as well as they do. It is for this reason I think this tour of central Mexico on horseback is a very special trip.
For more information and to book:
Webpage: Central Highlands Adventure
Telephone: 01767 600606 (UK); 1-437-371-2822 (Canada); 1-888-420-0964 (USA); +46 (0)8-58176336 (Scandinavia)
Account by Danni Whittman