Have you ever dreamed of galloping across the top of the world beneath the bluest of skies plumped with billowing clouds? Imagine green and gold spires poking through those clouds and a wild wind whipping your spirits as you canter on with a racing heart. Now, breathe in crystalline air as you fall in sync with the rhythm of your horse’s hoof beat and let your mind go sailing. Thanks to Sally Vergette, this ride is waiting for you in the northern highlands of the Andes in Ecuador. Possessed of sparkling energy and deep love for the horses she provides, Sally loves sharing the less-traveled “paremo”-the unique Andean grasslands of the high country.
The journey from hacienda to hacienda along the slopes of sacred Umbabura Volcano begins in the Otavalo valley, once the last strongholds of indigenous peoples famous for their weaving skills. Our group of nine equestriennes stopped at the Otavalo Marketplace where we bargained for ponchos and scarves for the ride. The scent of pigs roasting and the colorful displays of handcrafted goods, not to mention bargain prices, made for an exciting bizarre.
In 1540 Spanish conquistadors came to this land of extremes in search of gold. With just 2,000 soldiers they conquered the Incas and native tribes living in the tranquil valleys framed by majestic volcanic peaks. The conquerors were granted huge plots of land by the Spanish crown. Lavish haciendas with elaborate gardens, elegant furnishings, paintings, sculptures and murals sprang up across the land. After 300 years of tyrannical rule, the Spanish were ousted and Ecuador claimed its independence. Today these haciendas are being restored and serve as gracious quarters for travelers.
We cantered on to even higher ground where the troubles of the world melted away like lemon drops. Thick fleece saddle covers kept us comfortable riding for six hours. By five o’clock we were trotting along cobblestone lanes through another village to our quarters at Hacienda Cusin where we gathered by a fire burning in the cozy den. A three-course meal was served on a table graced with roses and fine china, and the evening spent in gentle conversation of a time gone by.
We descended on a narrow heart-thumping trail through the colorful tapestry of industrious people leading simple lives close to the land. A mist hit us, followed by a few drops of rain, and then a rainbow arced over the pastoral scene. At the end of this spectacular day we rode through the gates of La Merced nestled in the cleft of a mountain sheathed in pine. Prize-winning Andalusian horses munching on knee-high grass let us know we were close to Spain in spirit. After a ride over the ranchlands with views of three peaks in Columbia, a fun romp through a pungent eucalyptus forest brought us home.
This is not a nose-to-tail ride. You are free to break ranks and find your own path. The dry volcanic soil and wide grassy paths provide perfect footing for the horses. The temperature hovers around 75 degrees F with a chance of showers on any given day. Riding is inherently a dangerous sport. To avoid mishaps, you should condition yourself for what is one of the great riding opportunities in the world. Since she began organizing rides in Ecuador in 1996, Sally has branched out to guide rides in the mountains of Brazil, Chile and Uruguay. For details go to www.RideAndes.com
If You Go: Plan to spend a night in Quito to adjust to the altitude and enjoy touring Old Town. Hotel Sierra Madre is an inexpensive, charming little hotel with a Spanish flavor. It is clean, comfortable and close to good eateries. Very helpful English-speaking staff are on site 24-7. A driver can be arranged to transport you to the airport about an hour from downtown Quito.
This is a guest post by Linda Ballou. Nothing pleases adventure-travel writer, Linda Ballou, more than seeing gorgeous country from the back of a good horse. Her articles have appeared in Equus, Horse Illustrated, Western Horseman and numerous travel magazines. Her new adult novel The Cowgirl Jumped Over the Moon was written while she was recovering from a riding injury that ended her days in the jumping world. Like her protagonist, she has come back to ride again and has enjoyed international rides since her accident. Learn more about Linda at www.LindaBallouAuthor.com