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Dec 2017

Colombia’s Horses

Posted by / in Blog, Featured Posts, frontpage, Horse Riding Holidays, South America, Tavistock Travel Agents, Traveller's Tales /

Over the years I’ve horsed about in most of the countries in South America and no-where is the horse culture so all-pervasive; even in the cities everyone seems to ride, or used to ride, or has an uncle with horses. The two dominant breeds are the Colombian Criollo and the Paso Fino.

Colombia criollo

Criollo mare; 15hh. Note the breast plate and crupper – the land is seriously steep. Hooded stirrups and seat-saver and unusual reins. Lovely to ride and a real hard-worker.

Colombian Criollo.
What has happened here? The Argentine Criollo and the Chilean Criollo are robust working horses 15hh to 16hh. The Colombian variant is a poor cousin; same heart and soul, but narrow in the withers, shorter and with less bone all round – more pony than horse. I am generalising, and I did see some lovely criollos, but the majority are disappointing compared to their relatives further south on the continent. The thinking locally is that breeding has gone astray and no blood from Europe or North America has been added to the soup that is the Colombian Criollo.

Colombia Paso Fino mare

7 yr old Paso Fino mare. Delightful to ride; delicate, soft and gentle, but utterly hyper!

Paso Fino.
Now here’s a thing! The clue’s in the name and the Colombian Paso Fino is very fino. Delicate things with small feet and ballerina’s legs. But can they ever go! You ride them long, with a very shot rein and ease your weight back in the saddle, and they go nineteen-to-the-dozen, practically running on the spot! It’s an amazing feeling. They wind themselves into a muck sweat and prance along like sewing machines. In fact they have four paces, all similar, all frenetic and all examples of the triumph of style over practicality; burnt out within an hour. They turn on a sixpence, listen to your slightest weight change and carry you along like you’re king of the world. But why do you want a horse to do this? It’s all about the show, and that isn’t my cup of coffee at all. I wouldn’t have missed riding one for the world, a generous opportunity from a gallant and generous host, but box ticked and I won’t be bringing one home.

Colombia Paso Fino stallion

Stunning Paso Fino stallion. 15 yrs old and won just about everything going. Hugely powerful and a gentleman to ride, like sitting on the bonnet of a F1 car!

Maybe there’s a clue in the stud book name of the two 2016 breed champions, “Tormento de la Virginia” and “Seductor de la Virginia”. There’s no doubt dogs get like their owners; I wonder if horses are really reflections of frustrated aspirations?

Interestingly the Pasos in Peru are much heavier and I see there’s even a Hotel in Cusco that offers mountain riding on Paso Fino, which was never what they were intended for. They were for the owners of plantations (sea level, not high in the mountains) to ride around their estates looking ‘the part’ glass of claret in hand, and never spilling a drop.

Now that Colombia is returned to the international fold, Colombian Paso Finos are wiping the board in international competitions held in the Americas, which is a huge source of national pride.

Colombia disco

Dog day at the disco!!

What to ride then?
Having dissed the two main national breeds …. meet the AngloArabs. That’s a bit of a catch-all name for a breed, and seldom is it a straight forward TB/Arab cross. The ones I found in Colombia are Shagya / Arab / Criollo (primarily) but there’s TB and Quarter hose in there as well. The result is pretty damn good! Decent size (15.2 to 16 hh) and just lovely to ride. Easy on the aids, responsive and really fit. The story of this herd and its trials and tribulations through the Colombian troubles, is a tale in itself, and too long to tell here. What you have now is a horse superbly adapted to its environment, which is precisely what you need. Colombia has massive valleys, ferocious ascents, rain, wet ground and stunning views. It also has long, long trails of a sandy-clay mix, perfect for making progress, and a network of secret mule trails, brilliant for exploring with a horse. These Colombian Anglo Arabs don’t blink at anything, be it steep, or soggy ground, or a rocky section of mule track, they just get on and do it. To illustrate their no-nonsense attitude, we inadvertently rode through a pasture with a mature Criollo stallion in residence. There were 3 of us on 5 horses (we needed a spare and some supplies) so we had our hands full. It could have got quite nasty with a prancing stallion bucking and farting, hooves everywhere and determined to mount something. Anything. We came through without a scratch and everyone stayed cool. But I can name a lot of horses at home where that little tale wouldn’t have had such a Disney ending!

Colombia: anglo-arab

Coffee break: the car park.


So where to ride?
I have about ten trails in mind! Only 3 have made it to paper so far, and will be on the website imminently. The others still need feasibility work carrying out. For example, the Orinoco plain has real potential: miles and miles of grassland, amazing wildlife such as anteaters, armadillos and pink dolphins in the rivers. But they also have an endemic bat that nocturnally sucks horses’ blood and causes viral anaemia; a disease that is also carried by local mosquitos. Yes, the gauchos have horses, but an estimated 80% are anaemic and couldn’t handle a multi-day trail (they change horses daily and are, shall we say, ‘forthright’ with their aids). A solution can be found, but not sure what just yet. There’s another juicy trail opportunity that goes from lowland river to coffee farm heights, but it hasn’t been ridden …. yet. And yet another that goes into a national park, explores the “Paramo” (high altitude wetland that is strictly protected) and is currently a trek on foot – Shanks’s Pony! All have amazing potential but that’s the thing about Colombia at the moment, after decades in the naughty corner, the country’s emerging, it’s all here, but the dots aren’t joined up. And that’s the attraction; Colombia is raw, eager to welcome visitors and decidedly unsophisticated (excluding the very cosmopolitan Bogotá). Brilliant! Now’s the time to come and explore, either mounted, or by self-drive, or fly from destination to destination (as I did) using the remarkably cheap and efficient internal network.

Colombia mules & donkeys

Mule train: heading home unloaded

Summing it all up
I never felt threatened, anywhere in the country, even for a second. Colombians possess a natural warmth and welcoming spirit of hospitality. Colombian fruit has to be tasted to be believed! I tried a dozen, literally, that I can’t name and didn’t recognise. I haven’t actually left the country yet, but can’t wait to come back! Besides, I learnt two new knots from the gauchos, and that says it all!


Colombia knot

Colombian gaucho quick-release knot.

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Dec 2017

Probably the best pub game in the world: Tejo

Posted by / in Blog, Featured Posts, frontpage, Horse Riding Holidays, South America, Tavistock Travel Agents, Traveller's Tales /




Colombia: teja

The thunderbox: innocent little triangles of gunpowder awaiting the mechas.

Tejo is a wonderful Colombian pub game: little triangular sachets of gunpowder called “mechas” are placed on a heavy iron ring that is held in situ on a slab of damp clay about 18” square. Competitors stand about 10 m away and lob cast iron weights (680 g) from a heavy-duty set of scales at the mecha. When you get it exactly right the mecha is crushed between static ring and descending weight and goes off like a firecracker. Simple! Brilliant little game and surprisingly tricky! Works better with beer.

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Dec 2017

Colombia Calling

Posted by / in Blog, Featured Posts, frontpage, South America, Tavistock Travel Agents, Traveller's Tales /

Mark has just returned from Colombia; here’s a taste of what he found.

Colombian fruit

Colombia is a fruit-lover’s paradise. I don’t even know the names of half these fruit!!


Colombia pawpaw

Colombia: pawpaw with mellon balls ….. brilliant!!

Five for one: that sums up Colombia, visit one country and you are given four others for free. In a nutshell, or maybe that should be ‘in a coffee bean’ you have the inaccessible and wild Pacific Coast which is a mission to reach, wild and wet when you get there but full of hidden gems (whacky lodges, breaching whales and psychedelic birds); the Caribbean coast which is ‘mellow’ personified; the Andes, which are served up in three glorious high altitude strips, that include the Coffee Triangle; the Llanos, land of the gauchos, which is the grassy flatlands that form half the country’s land area and stretch from the Andes way out to the Venezuela border in the east and include the evocatively named Orinoco floodplain; and the Amazon Jungle that runs along the border with Peru. Five completely different zones.

You can’t do it all, not unless you have half a year free. And even then I’m not sure you’d do it justice; let’s begin with a coffee, because that’s what the place is so famous for. But first a lament: I’m writing this in Bogotá airport waiting for the London flight, and am devastated to say I have seen 3 Starbucks here in this, the country that knows more about coffee and how to serve it, than just about anywhere, so why the Starbucks? Why? A little part of my soul shrivels when I see examples like this of globalisation: the whole pleasure of travel is to experience the differences, and revel in the unexpected, to explore and discover. Dismounting my hobbyhorse … there are more varieties of coffee within the Arabica genus than you would ever believe. I thought Mocha was a fiendish combo of coffee and cacao, but it’s a coffee breed all on its own and yes, it does have overtones of chocolate. And that’s what’s emerging in the Colombian Andes, coffee degustation tours. Half a dozen different coffee bean varieties are lined up, roasted for varying durations, ground to varying degrees and barista-ed up in a variety of styles to bring forth the subtleties. Wine tasting in France eat your heart out! This is hands-on and full contact. I was served an expresso that tasted of oranges! Just amazing. And of course to do this on horseback adds a whole other dimension (a work in progress).

Colombia, where the coffee comes from

Colombia, where the coffee comes from

Colombia has been on the naughty step of world tourism for about three decades, so it’s in its infancy now. The country as a whole, and individual hotels, tour operators and guides are desperate for travellers to return after so long. I found Colombia consistently warm and welcoming and I didn’t feel at risk or threatened once. You see plenty of backpackers and even flash-packers, but just a fraction of the numbers of Westerners that you encounter in Ecuador or Peru. Colombia has a PR problem, which is unjustified now, but that’s the way reputations work: it takes a long time to restore confidence.

I notice the cruise ships are docking along the Caribbean coast and ‘doing Colombia’ in 72 hrs. Great for the local gift shops, but that’s not travel and doesn’t create a flow of tourism dollars from the West down to small hotel owners, local guides, drivers of 4X4’s and mule-skinners. Colombia needs the West to return. So if you’re independently minded and like the good old pioneering spirit, now’s the time to go, before the flood!

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