One perk of working in a predominantly Catholic country is everyone gets the Thursday and Friday before Easter off. I thought this would maybe be a quiet, family-oriented long weekend, but boy was I wrong. Despite its tie to the religious holidays, this “Holy Week,” or Semana Santa as it is called in Spanish, is more like a big party. Costa Ricans flock in huge numbers to the beach on both coasts to down the local Imperial beer, set up large speakers to blast music, and enjoy the last bits of the summer sunshine.
Given the hours it takes to get everywhere in this country (everyone will say “oh it is a close drive, only 2 hours!” but that is before taking into consideration the never-ending traffic and constant accidents that close roads for hours), we decided to use the extra few days to check out the Caribbean coast.
We were told the eastern side of Costa Rica was different from the Pacific, despite being about equidistant from San Jose, so I was excited to experience the more reggae-inspired culture, the spicy and coconut-based cuisine, and famed beaches.
As someone who starting riding horses basically once I could walk, I have always wanted to do a beach trail ride where I could gallop along the water and splash in the waves with a cool ocean breeze around me. In our research for this weekend’s activities, we stumbled upon Caribe Horse Riding Club that coordinates a 2-day tour that includes riding the along the beach and through the jungle to a remote eco-lodge only accessible by boat or horse. It sounded adventurous and amazing. We were in.
The trip was already off to an eventful start when we woke up to rain. The rain here is no joke, not the drizzle of Oregon but hard, relentless rain. We drove up the gravel road to the stable and misunderstood the parking directions stopping the car in a field. “Well say goodbye to our car,” Brice exclaimed. “With this rain and mud, it won’t be getting out.” Not to fear, the Caribe Horse owner and our guide for the weekend, Jimmy and his employees ran over to help. With Brice, Jimmy, and two other guys pushing the car for about 5 minutes, we were finally able to get it out of the mud. Crisis averted.
Now the real fun began. On the horses we went – mellow Rex for Brice and a feisty Polar for me. For Brice, who has only ridden a horse a handful of times in his life, he was excited and a little nervous of what lay ahead. For me, perhaps if I knew more of what the ride would entail, I would have also been nervous despite my extensive experience riding horses for years.
We left the barn and straight into the mud and pouring rain. Good thing we had our rain jackets. The trail down to the beach was through the jungle in thick mud. I immediately felt bad for our horses who had to slop down the trail, avoiding branches and trees. But the horses acted like it was just another day, as it was. Jimmy shared it rains a lot in this area, all year round, so this is just their normal commute.
But this also meant the horses would at times start galloping to make it up the slippery trail. With Brice shrieking occasionally behind me, I kept turning around to make sure he was still on the horse. “Just hold on tight to the mane, Brice and Rex will do the rest!” These horses were champs.
Finally we made it to the beach!
Thanks to the early hour and raindrops, there was no one out yet, just us and the beautiful waves. Polar didn’t like the idea of separating from the group but I had to fulfill my lifelong dream at least for a moment. So I tapped my heels against his side and off we went, cantering down the sand and a huge smile on my face. Bucket list item accomplished.
The fun on the beach couldn’t last though. Like I mentioned above, the beaches get swarmed over Holy Week. As we entered the town of Manzanillo, hundreds of people were swimming in the water, playing soccer and blasting music. Oh shit, this is going to be bad, I thought. “Caballo! Caballo!” kids screamed, running up to the horses, almost under their legs, or trying to kick a soccer ball at us.
Rex could care less, luckily for Brice. Polar on the other hand was unhappy about the situation, kicking and ready to bolt at any moment. It was the most scary part of the ride for me by far. Oddly getting off the beach and walking the horses down the paved road through cars and food stalls was easier.
After 20 minutes or so, back to the jungle and the adrenaline-pumping mud we went. I couldn’t decide if this was better or worse than the chaotic crowds on the beach. Fortunately to calm our nerves slightly, Jimmy pointed out numerous animals, which were more active due to the rain – bands of white-faced Capuchin monkeys, howler monkeys that make horrendously loud grunts all night long, and spider monkeys, which are the largest of Costa Rica’s monkeys.
The best was a sloth rolling around in a tree. At last we saw one moving!
After what felt like days, we finally arrived at Punta Mona, our stop for the night. We were wet, filthy, hungry and excited for a breather. It was like we stepped into a different world once we got off the horses and arrived at this hidden commune tucked between the ocean and jungle at the edge of Gandoca Manzanillo Reserve.
It was like a hippie, adult-summer camp. We were given a short tour of the property and told about the solar panels that provide the area electricity only a few short hours a day, the running water powered from rainfall and the garden growing various herbs, vegetables and fruits.
With about 10 full-time volunteer staff, mostly Americans in their 20s and 30s, who live there year-round, they have built a unique community for themselves. Another 20-30 visitors come in from around the world to participate in yoga retreats or permaculture farming conferences. Outside the regular chores of maintaining the plants and cooking communal vegan meals, daily activities abound like that evening’s prayer circle.
While I was all about the vegetarian lentil stew, Jimmy and his wife Oriana, the other co-owner of Caribe Horse who joined us for the evening, made sure we had more food just in case, grilling up some outstanding freshly caught fish. We stood out even more with our seafood, beers and noisy conversation.
After a few hours, we headed to our private cabana stuffed, tired, and taking in the crazy different environment that surrounded us.
The next morning, after some nerves the day might entail another heart-pounding ride, we set off again. Fortunately the rains had subsided a bit and the path was mostly uphill, so the trails were not as rough.
Once done, we gave the horses much deserved carrots and our shoes and jackets much needed hosing off.
We drove up the road to Puerto Viejo to the beautiful Sueño Grande B&B. Back to clean sheets, warm showers and a soft bed. It was a welcome change from the previous two days, but talk about a unique, memorable experience.