Old Cattle Trail to Casanare
Trail ride 8 days, 7 nights; 4 days riding.
The amazing thing about Colombia is the variation in habitats which range from permanently snow-capped mountains to tropical jungle, and everything in between. This trail follows the old cattle drovers’ roads from the alpine meadows of the Andes down to the vast tropical plains that border the Amazon Basin, riding through an astonishing variety of environments on the way.
Day 1: Arrive in Bogotá
We will meet your flight and drive you from Bogotá’s very modern airport to the hotel in town. Dinner in the hotel and meet your fellow riders.
Day 2: Bogotá to Sisga and ride to Machetá
Set off after breakfast for the drive (1 ½ hrs) to Moxgua (which looks like a bad hand at Scrabble, but is in fact the name of the farm where the horses live). Nearby is the Sisga Dam where the ride begins. We ride towards the Paramo. The Paramo is a niche ecosystem above the treeline but below the snowline, at about 2,800m. The plants and animals that live here are real specialists, capable of coping with freezing snow in winter and cooking sun in summer. It’s excellent country for grazing and dairy farming.
To get cattle from these remote grazing grounds to population centres and markets, the pre-colonial inhabitants of the Paramo built drover roads, often lined with stone paving, to cross the wetter areas. These royal roads (“Camino Real” in Spanish) were seized by the conquistadores and maintained so they could move their armies quickly, and they remain in pretty good condition. We follow this network of drover roads, gradually descending into the warmer Tenza Valley. Lunch is a picnic including some delicious local fruit (some of which doesn’t even have a name in English).
We’ll reach Machetá by early evening (maybe just after dark) where the horses are hosed down, fed and turned out into the paddock (you’re welcome to help if you wish). The hotel is on the bank of the Guatanfur River and, as is frequently the case in this area, has its own thermal pool, bubbling away at 28°C which is absolute bliss after a day in the saddle.
Riding: 9 hrs.
Day 3: Machetá to Chivor
This is Colombia’s coffee zone and after yesterday, which was a long day in the saddle, we kick the day off with a visit to a local coffee plantation. The host walks us through the process beginning with the beans and how they’re harvested, dried and graded on the farm. Some beans are exported ‘green’ others are roasted on the farm and the coffee that’s produced is aromatic and silky-smooth. Secrets of the trade are revealed, but many more are closely guarded!
Mount up mid-morning and head off along the camino real to Tibirita where we stop for a picnic lunch. It has to be said that the Catholic Church was well established in Colombia during the colonial period. The legacy today is that every village has an immaculately maintained church, and the towns have mini-cathedrals! The churches are ornate, bedecked in gold and in use daily. Regardless of your religious persuasion, you ought to set foot inside a couple and the church in Tibirita is a good place to start.
In the afternoon we follow the Guatanfur River downstream towards Chivor, famous for its emeralds. The horses are stabled at the edge of town in a paddock surrounded by forested mountains.
Riding: 5 hrs.
Day 4: Chivor to Sabanalarga
This morning we turn towards the plains ‘Los Llaneros’ which stretch from here all the way across the border into neighbouring Venezuela and the Orinoco River. Llaneros literally means ‘herder’ which is I guess exactly what a cowboy is! The Llaneros live on the plains, the ‘llanos’. The rugged mountainous slopes give way to huge grass fields, the trees thin out and the rivers enter their meandering phase. We rendez vous with our Llaneros guide and enter a different world. We need to ford several rivers, some just knee deep, others require the horse to swim a short distance, so be prepared! Wear clothes that you don’t mind getting wet and make sure your camera isn’t in your saddle bag (unless it’s in a waterproof sack). The good news is that the river water is as warm as a bath! It’s a great way to end the day and adds an exciting dimension to the ride.
We arrive at a farm on the plain and attend to the horses (who don’t need hosing down this evening!) and join the host for a typical Llaneros supper. The evening continues with ‘Joropo y
música llanera’ traditional Llaneros music and dance, played on four-string guitar, banjo, mandolin and of course, maracas! All very lively, agile and foot-stomping. And if you fancy trying a real hammock, correctly hung, tonight’s your chance.
Riding: 8 hrs.
Day 5: Sabanalara to Monterrey in Casanare province
The traditional breakfast here is … a steak. Maybe a step too far for most of us! But it’s there if you want it. The country this morning isn’t a dead flat plain: the ground undulated and some ascents are quite sharp; little coppices are here and there, reminiscent of the Kopjes in East Africa and there are places to ‘make progress’. Picnic lunch on the way and we should be in Monterrey by mid-afternoon. And this is the end of the trail. Give your horse a final hose-down and we drive the last 15 mins to the hotel.
Riding: 6 hrs.
Day 6: Cowboy skills
Cattle farming in this part of Colombia is little-changed from 300 years ago and the working horse remains the most precious ‘tool’ in the gaucho’s armoury, even on this 12,000 Ha ranch. Our host and his crew will demonstrate the traditional cattle working skills, many of which translate naturally to cavalry skills. Indeed, many Llaneros formed cavalry regiments on both sides of the divide, fighting for the conquistadores and for the freedom fighters against the conquistadores. Exactly what we see will depend on the season and what tasks the cattle require. We also have the chance to head out into the more remote areas of the ranch to see the wildlife (caiman, ant-eaters, wild boar etc) and birds; and have a specially adapted platform to do so. Lunch at the farm and transfer to the hotel in the nearby town of Yopal for overnight.
Riding: 0 hrs.
Day 7: travelling day, return to Bogotá.
Before we leave the Llanos there’s time to visit an interesting tack shop: Yopal has a heritage of artisanal saddleries that specialise in raw hide. We’ll visit one of the best and if you fancy kitting out your horse at home, now’s your chance! (Bargain prices too!) The drive back to Bogotá would take forever, so we fly back (45 mins) arriving in time to check in to a city hotel, relax and get ready for the flight home.
Day 8: depart / onward travel.
Transfer to the airport included.
Riding holiday in Colombia: Details
Min 2 and max 12 riders
Suitable for strong intermediate and advanced riders
Weather will be warm throughout except for the first day riding which may be cooler due to the altitude. Rainy season is April and May; Oct and Nov.
Included in the price
Airport transfers (return)
• 2 nights Bogota
• 5 nights in hotels/ranch house along the trail
Land transport as detailed
Fully guided trail ride
Horse and all tack; twin saddle bags
All meals from supper on day 1 to breakfast on day 7
Luggage transfer by car throughout the ride
Cowboy skills demonstration, Casanare
Lunch and dinner on day 7
The thing that struck me during my recce ride in Dec 2017 was just how welcoming and genuinely hospitable Colombian landlords are. All the inns, haciendas and country houses we use during this ride are owner-managed, and they all take great pride in their properties and cuisine.
We can easily cater for vegetarians, but if you enjoy fish you will love the local river fish “Mojarra” and trout. Beef and pork are Colombian institutions! And the real surprise is the fresh fruit: we can guarantee that you will encounter table-tops of fruit, the majority of which you won’t recognise, but all of them juicy and delicious.
Coffee is of course ever-present and surprisingly flavoursome and mild. Tea is less widespread but there are heaps of infusion teas. The local beer (lager-type) is good and there are plenty of opportunities to stop for a sharpener or two during the afternoons. You will also have the opportunity to meet the local fire water “Aguadiente” which is similar to a mild version of Ricard.
The big thing missing from this ride is the coast! But you can’t do it all! If you can spare an extra two or three nights then head to the Caribbean coast, which is “mellow” personified.