“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, one 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.
We spent the first night at Hacienda Pensaqui, an oasis nestled among humble villages. There we enjoyed a delicious meal and local Andean musicians. Chamber maids lit warming fires in our rooms, turned down our comfy beds, and slipped a hot water bottle between the sheets for good measure.
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.
Our first day of riding began on narrow track overlooking a gulch lined with eucalyptus trees. We climbed ever higher until the bustle of the villages fell away and we could see Lake Pablo glistening in the distance. Soon we were greeted by Santiago and his charming wife at their ranch overlooking the valley far below. We arrived 45 minutes after their mare had given birth to a foal who was struggling to take his first steps. Santiago led our band of merry ladies up still higher on a track he had cleared in the primarily untouched highland forest behind his home. The clip of hummingbirds diving into dangling blooms of bright red penstemon was all that could be heard. A profusion of yellow blooms crowned the Arnica trees and purple lupine decorated the lush green tree tunnel of mountain bamboo. When we returned, the foal was standing on wobbly legs. Santiago beamed with the pride of a new father while we enjoyed a tasty repast of cheese puffs and guacamole prepared by his most gracious wife.
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. We gathered and sipped wine 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.
I awoke to sunlight streaming through my window and looked out at gardens bursting with blooms; horses tacked and ready. “Hola” came from smiling children waving from rooftops as our procession passed through their village. We rode through manicured plots of green, purple and gold that created a patchwork quilt nearly covering the mountainsides. Pigs, sheep, and cattle grazing along the way, and committees of barking dogs charging out to guard their territory became commonplace. Once back on high ground we cantered through undulating fields of wheat glowing in buttery sun. I had the tingling sensation of being fully alive. This, I thought, is the real gold of Ecuador!
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.
For this intermediate ride you must be able to ride at all gaits and be in control of your mount at all times. Our group was comprised of seasoned riders with the exception of one athletic woman who had taken riding lessons for six months. Sally offers shorter rides for families and less experienced riders. This four-day ride from hacienda to hacienda can be done in conjunction with a three-day trek on the flank of Cotopaxi, the highest volcano in Ecuador. That stretch provides a tremendously thrilling ride across wild, sometimes desolate terrain, with striking views of the snow-capped volcano.
All of these rides are possible because Sally has made friends with landowners who let her cross through their fields. She has won the respect of local horsemen who assist her as guides, and learned the ways of the people and their language. There are no markers on the trails or country lanes. Only Sally and the guides she has trained know them well enough to lead riders from hacienda to hacienda. Her horses (mainly a blend of warm blood lines and Arab crossed with Ecaudorian “Criollo descendants of the Spanish Conquistadors stock) are well-conditioned for the terrain that involves steep climbs in altitude up to about 12,000 feet. Absolutely bomb-proof, they are unfazed by charging dogs, cattle on the path, wild winds, or the occasional motorbike. Sally keeps a constant vigil on riders and horses, checking tack often to assure a safe journey.”
Side Bar –
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, Argentina and Uruguay. For details go to www.RideAndes.com
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, California Riding Magazine and numerous travel publications. Learn more about her novel The Cowgirl Jumped Over the Moon at www.LindaBallouAuthor.com