A new destination in Costa Rica offers the ease, enchantment and adventure to exceed your horse girl expectations.
At the barn, things are at once familiar and completely foreign. Horses flick their ears about and make life difficult for the errant fly with swishing tails and slight twitches of the skin. They have the same soft noses and are just as warm to touch. They are the same as the horses I’ve known my whole life … but not.
The horse before me cuts an entirely different figure from the Thoroughbreds of my East Coast youth and the Quarter Horses of my American West adulthood. He’s lean in a “fighting weight” sort of way—an athlete in his prime. He carries himself proudly, even as he awaits the other horses being saddled: Neck arched, chest and ears forward, barrel tightly framed and hind legs ready to work beneath a taught, muscled hindquarter.
Compared to the feet of my horses at home, his are a touch longer—by design, I learn. In fact, I’ve been learning since the moment I arrived in Costa Rica. La piscina is the pool. Cassava is a potato-esque yuca plant that’s served at most meals and it is delicious. Sloths are excellent swimmers(!), and even the most luxury products in the world cannot compare to the smell of the real Ylang Ylang flower, which grows in abundance here at El Lugar, where Howler monkeys showcase their agilities amid the lush jungle canopy and sometimes rumble the air with their roars.
Costa Rica is the place
In Spanish, el lugar is “the place,” and it most certainly is. Located within a two-hour drive north from the Costa Rican capital of San Jose, El Lugar Resort is a jungle oasis—a yet-to-be discovered treasure among Costa Rica’s many offerings.
The reasons for planning a trip to Costa Rica are many. To start, it’s a relatively easy trip. From Dallas or Houston, flight time to San Jose is right around four hours—about the same time it takes me to fly to the East Coast to visit family. Spanish is the first language, but you can just about bank on being able to lean on English when needed, like at the airport, if you choose to exchange dollars for Colones (I was able to use a credit card almost everywhere, but local currency did come in handy for tipping), and when picking up your rental car.
Tourism ranks among the country’s top three industries (along with agriculture and electrical exports), so the people—or Ticos—are well-versed in assisting travelers from across the globe. At the beginning of conversations, I was often asked if I preferred to speak Spanish or English. Sadly, my grasp of the Spanish language has diminished greatly since my high school studies, so I requested English regularly and without issue.
With a vehicle secured and the Waze app already uploaded to the phone, our tropical horse girls getaway was underway. Me, a one-time hunter jumper turned cattle-rancher-in-training, and Katie, a former youth barrel racer and current cow horse / reining enthusiast, are well-versed in equine adventures, but hadn’t dipped our toes in international travel in decades.
Delightfully, navigating a vehicle through Costa Rica proved completely manageable: Speeds are determined in km/hr, but you do get to drive on the right side of the road and stop signs look the same but read Alto. We headed out of the city. Destination: Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí in the Heredia Province.
Say it with me: Sarapiquí
In conversations with the many friends who’d previously traveled to Costa Rica—it’s a politically and economically stable country, making it a great, safe Central American destination for couples, families and solo travelers alike—none had traveled to Sarapiquí. Costa Rica truly offers something for everyone: Beach hounds, surfers and offshore anglers have their choice of Pacific and Caribbean coastlines; geothermal wonders manifest as hot springs and live volcanoes; 29 national parks beckon and, throughout the country, the wildlife viewing is a bucket list unto itself. (Have I mentioned the sloths?! We happened upon a baby sloth on our river boat tour of the Sarapiquí River, and it was simply awesome.)
There are in-country destinations that are perfectly primed for high-season crowds, and then there is Sarapiquí, where the vibe remains local and the Pura Vida pure.
Sarapiquí is also the home of the just-opened El Lugar Resort, where guests are privy to all the amenities that make international travel easy and enjoyable. Accommodations were impeccably designed, catering equally to Costa Rica’s unique culture and environment, as well as the discerning tastes of world travelers. Open-air fitness areas and spa services simultaneously offer relaxation and rejuvenation, and the onsite restaurant offers authentic and flavorful Tico cuisine, often featuring foods grown right on the property. Should you forgot to pack something, the staff is readily available to deliver any supplies you might need.
And for the equine enthusiast, El Lugar also offers El Encanto—a horseback riding experience open to resort guests and day visitors alike, with horses and terrain to cater to all levels of rider and non-rider.
The enchanted equestrian
Katie and I mount up and settle into our traditional riding saddles. Mine offers me a deep, comfortable seat behind a horn, like on a Western saddle. My horse, a gray stunner, is eagerly responsive to cues, and I spend a few moments asking for circles, to move forward, to stop. I don’t have all his buttons figured out, but we establish a more-than-adequate working relationship by the time we ride out across the campo.
My horse moves unlike any horse I’ve ridden before, and it’s thrilling. Bred to move with “action,” the Costarricense de Paso—Costa Rican Paso—is the national horse of Costa Rica. In the same way El Lugar offers luxury and authenticity, the Costarricense breed combines work ethic and elegance. Whether crossing lush, rolling pasture, climbing steep jungle trails or forging through chest-deep river waters, my horse moves willingly forward. He is all heart in a dream-horse package of good looks, under-saddle pleasure and work-horse mentality.
On our ride, we are accompanied by equally impressive horsemen: our guides. The lead wrangler manages the 100-horse herd at El Encanto. He’s gracious with my poor attempts at conversational Spanish but, regardless of linguistic preferences, it’s clear as day that he speaks horse better than most, so I watch him for clues. As is the case with master equestrians, his body language reveals little, but he offers a deep well of calm confidence, which I value greatly as we cross a long and narrow, steel footbridge high above the river. When we reach the security of firm ground again, he flashes a big smile, proud of his horse and this rider, both.
El Lugar also employs Alex, their full-time naturalist, and he is an invaluable resource on our ride. Alex brings the magic of El Lugar to light. All around us, the farm and the surrounding jungle is teeming with life but, without Alex’s keen eye, most of it would have gone unnoticed by me and Katie. With his help, we spy several types of Toucans and other avian treasures, learn about the Braulio Carillo National Park which shares its border with El Lugar, and discover what it is to be enchanted by the pure scent of a freshly picked Ylang Ylang flower.
The place in our horse-girl hearts
Katie and I have since returned home—she to Colorado, me to Montana—to our families and our work, and there are days when Costa Rica feels a world apart, but not El Encanto. The experience of mounting up and riding out, the thrill of riding a new kind of horse through a Jurassic-like, jungle-scape, the awe of witnessing a world previously unknown … that, we carry with us.
We left the States excited, but also a little fearful. We left El Lugar well fed and well rested, mind, body and spirit nourished in ways we never anticipated.
Now, when we talk of returning to ride with El Encanto, we know we’ll leave home with the same calm confidence our wrangler had in the saddle. Because El Lugar is the place for us.