Galloping Under the Influence in Colombia
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this adventure comes right out of your favorite storybook.
Nighttime. Rum. Music. Dancing. More rum. Horseback riding.
Put them together and what do you get?
a) The premise for The Hangover 4
b) Your mother’s worst nightmare
c) A Colombian cabalgata
Partial points for answer b, but the correct reply is c. (Zach Galifianakis on a horse. Really?)
I learned of the cabalgata from a friend in Cali who had tried it several times. “Are there helmets?” I asked hesitantly after he proposed a ride. He shook his head. “How about a lesson? I haven’t been on a horse in a while.” Again, he shook his head.
Less than 24 hours later we were on our way to Pance, a town on the southern outskirts of Cali, Colombia, famous for its cabalgata operators. We came to a farm called Los Tres Potrillos, where dozens of stable-bound horses surrounded a round central gazebo. Inside the gazebo were tables, a dance floor and a bar — though most customers had brought their own alcohol.
I clenched the reins with one hand and grasped a bottle of rum with the other and trotted out into the night.
Drinking, along with music and camaraderie, is central to the cabalgata, explains Potrillos owner Alexandra Franco, but wasn’t recommended. “Fortunately we haven’t had any serious accidents,” she said, before recounting a fatal accident at a neighboring place a few years back. “You must always respect the caballo,” she underscored. “Always.” Gradually, more participants arrived: a large group of 20-somethings celebrating a birthday, and a few single guys out for a colorful Saturday night. Everyone was assigned a horse and Franco suggested I pay the extra $7 — for a total of $22 — for a more controlled horse.
Most of the Colombians didn’t require the additional expense; riding — the predominant form of transport since the time of the Spanish conquistadors — had long been woven into their blood. “Horses hold a special space in the hearts of the majority of Colombians,” says Julio Pardo, director of A Caballo por Colombia, an operator specializing in weeklong cabalgata excursions. Although cases of mistreatment have engendered calls to ban the activity, the tradition, says Pardo, remains part of celebrations and tourism brochures in Colombia and other Latin American countries such as Mexico, Argentina and Chile.
At 10 p.m. the music was lowered and Pardo directed us out. We had a few minutes to get acquainted with the horses, and then our group of 30 was sandwiched between two guides at the rear and one in the front with a speaker strapped over his shoulder. True to Colombian cabalgata form, I clenched the reins with one hand and grasped a bottle of rum with the other and trotted out into the night. Under a star-filled sky we trespassed small hills, rock-strewn paths and gentle streams; a mix of Baruteca music, laughter and the occasional cry of panic acting as the soundtrack of our journey. For the most part we moved slowly and harmoniously, but there were a few opportunities to kick your horse into gear and gallop through dark, empty fields.
No cabalgata is complete without some local delicacies, and fortunately, there were small, makeshift kiosks along the way churning out amazingly fresh pork and empanadas. By the time we returned to Potrillos, our bellies were full and our spirits enlivened. I parked my horse, relieved to have made it back without incident, and eager to do it all again.