Costa Rica- Cabalgata Behind the Scenes

As an elderly woman whizzed by me, galloping at an alarming pace in her black dress pants and high-heeled patent leather shoes, I gripped by reins and giggled. She was delicately balancing a purse on her forearm, not exactly riding attire. My horse Perla, the perfect “bomb proof” mount, was fearless amid the motorcycles, trucks blasting Latin rhythms and hundreds of people rowdily riding on horseback. I was trekking through farms and forests outside of the small town of Los Lirios, Costa Rica in a Cabalgata, a wild local horse festival.

If you’ve ever experienced a state fair or rodeo, you have some idea of the atmosphere at a Cabalgata. Hundreds and sometimes thousands of Costa Ricans congregate for horse riding, horse competitions, live music, food, livestock auctions, and dancing. You pay an entrance fee to ride in the Cabalgata and that money goes to the help the local community, so you are riding and partying for a good cause. From November to August, Cabalgatas take place in various towns throughout Costa Rica. If you like people watching, this is prime territory. Before the ride, I indulged in salty meat on a stick and sweet cotton candy, as Monica my local guide, showed me around.

Many people were tailgating, barbequing well seasoned meat and vegetables on portable grills. Kids played amusement park games, adults sang karaoke in a beer hall, and of course, local riders proudly showed off their horses. As I walked down a dirt trail to meet our horses, a beautiful white stallion pranced alongside me. His neck was arched, as his feet stepped high in the air to the beat of the live music. The crowds were beginning to ride off. Today’s route would take us across neighboring farms, stopping at various pit stops to eat and drink along the way.

We were filming the Cabalgata for our PBS travel television series Equitrekking, and because of the nature of the event, everyone in our film crew had to travel on horseback to capture the action. Using a luggage strap to secure a high definition camera around his neck, our middle aged, but agile, photographer took off at a trot. My heart skipped a few beats, noting the price of each camera, microphone and tripod that we owned, as we tied the equipment to each other and the backs of saddles and ventured off. Our crew is usually late and today was no exception.

Traveling in foreign lands, we’re always attempting to find a destination. Modern GPS has been helpful, but isn’t always accurate. We call our GPS Matilda, and she literally takes us everywhere. We’ve discovered that she prefers the scenic route. In Ireland, she ran us down roads so tiny that trees scraped the sides of our rental car, only to find that we were traveling parallel to the main highway! In Costa Rica, running late for the Cabalgata meant that we were in the middle of the crowd from the start. To best film it, we needed to be in front, so we could catch everyone going by. Thus, our crew began a mad dash to get ahead, swerving around laid-back participants, as we headed down the main highway en route to the first farm. From there, we’d be off the main road and truly immersed in the action of the ride.

If you are squeamish around crowds or horses, the Cabalgata is not for you. I pulled my reins tight and tensed up, as a motorcycle and then a runaway horse raced by us, nearly knocking me out of the saddle. Monica, who’d attended Cabalgatas since childhood, was unfazed. As we trotted up a hill towards our shaken, but exhilarated film crew, who because of the amazing horses they were riding, were just fine, Monica explained her favorite part of the festival. Cabalgatas bring entire communities together. Everyone, regardless of social status or class, gathers to ride. I smiled as I took it all in, enjoying the views from the saddle on my truly unique local ride.

Darley Newman is the host of the Emmy Award-winning Public Television series Equitrekking®, which takes viewers on horseback riding vacations around the world. Equitrekking is broadcast on PBS stations and on international networks in over 30 countries.

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