Haciendas by Horseback

Think Mexico. Do you conjure up images of waves breaking on sandy beaches and gleaming resorts where tanned guests in sunglasses swim in aquamarine pools and hang out at the tiki bar, tropical beverage in hand? Is that what comes to mind?

Think again. You’re picturing Mexico’s showy side, the relax-and-let-your-cares-blow-away side of Mexico—fun for a few days, perhaps, but ultimately shallow, like a pretty girl or a young stud constantly primping in front of a mirror. If you stay there too long, you’ll find yourself feeling shallow, too.

The real Mexico is not on the coast. It’s deeper. It’s in the rodeo ring, at the tequila bar, on the haciendas. It’s horses and cowboys, gastronomy and pottery, warm friends and cool rivers, dusty pick-up trucks and bumpy dirt roads. These things are the real Mexico.

If you want to dig beneath the surface of the remarkable culture that lies south of our border, then you have to look beyond the beaches. You have to dig deeper. Welcome to a story about the heart of Mexico.

I wanted to learn about Mexico’s heartland on the back of a horse. I’d discovered a haciendas-by-horseback package on the Internet that made me itch to jump in the saddle. Set in the rolling hills northeast of Guadalajara, the itinerary offered a taste of adventure, history, and culture with a little luxury to seal the deal.

But I had two problems. First, occasional trail rides were about the extent of my horseback riding experience. My husband, Peter, had ridden more, but both of us were decidedly rusty. Our solution was to take lessons prior to the trip, so we’d be more confident on our mounts in Mexico.

The second problem was I didn’t have enough time to devote to the normal five- or seven-night package I saw advertised. Peter and I wanted to spend some time visiting other cities in the region.

“No problem,” said Juan Alfonso Serrano, owner of Hacienda Sepulveda, a luxury boutique hotel in Lagos de Moreno and outfitter for the haciendas-by-horseback rides. Juan Alfonso is happy to customize itineraries based on guests’ needs. After much emailing back and forth, we ended up planning a three-night stay packed with hacienda visits and shorter trail rides. Not quite the intense horseback riding adventure I envisioned but, in the end, better suited to my experience level.

The package includes airport transfers from Leon, but instead Peter and I flew into Guadalajara, rented a car, and drove the 2.5 hours to Lagos through the highlands of Jalisco. I was struck by the raw beauty of the landscape: rolling hills, pines, oaks, eucalyptus trees, and lots of livestock grazing on the golden grasses. At an elevation of a mile-plus, this semiarid plateau enjoys a mild climate with daytime temps ranging from 50°-85°F and lows at night 35°-50°F. During our early December visit, the weather couldn’t have been more pleasant.

The first hacienda on our itinerary, and where we would stay that night, was called El Ahito, located at the end of a five-mile dirt road surrounded by hundreds of acres of ranch land. In their heyday haciendas were like little villages. Besides housing the owners and their extended family, haciendas also accommodated workers and their families, as well as the animals needed to work the land and feed the folks who lived there. Haciendas usually had a church, a bank, a bar, and a store, were mostly self-sustaining, and offered a safe environment and a secure livelihood for the community.

During the revolution of 1910, armies led by Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapatathe took land away from the hacienda owners to give to the people. Many haciendas were burned and looted. In ensuing years, hacienda owners struggled to maintain their properties and make them profitable again. El Ahito, we learned, had survived by dividing up ownership among members of an extended family.

Jorge Serrano, Juan Alfonso’s cousin and part owner of El Ahito, welcomed Peter and me and introduced us to his Swiss girlfriend, Lena Kissling. After we dropped our bags in our simply decorated bedroom, Jorge led us to the kitchen table for a taste of local tequila, a special homemade brew which derives its fine flavor from being aged in nearby caves. “An old family recipe,” said Jorge. Lena served snacks and then dinner: pork, rice, beans, and a vegetable I’d never tried before—chayote—served with melted cheese. Yum.

Peter and I grew very fond of Lena and Jorge over the next few days. They’d met in Wyoming, working on a dude ranch, and fallen in love, united by their passion for all things equine. Here at El Ahito, Lena and Jorge spend their time breeding horses and cattle, doing leatherwork, and hosting visitors seeking a taste of authentic ranch life.

Unpretentious, no-nonsense, down-to-earth—all these adjectives describe this bi-cultural couple. Jorge, for example, shared cowboy stories and homespun wisdom, such as this advice for training horses: “Ask little, expect nothing, reward a lot.” This also applies to children, he said with a grin. Another quip: “In this life it’s better if you have friends than money.” Si, especially in today’s turbulent times.

One morning we went for a trail ride with Lena and Jorge. As the sun sparkled down from a cloudless blue sky, we rode in companionable silence past cactus-studded landscape, dotted with cattle and pregnant mares. Jorge offered occasional advice on how I could improve my riding. Lena, on the other hand, went a little deeper: “It’s about the relationship you have with the horse,” she said. “You have to trust the horse, and the horse has to trust you. You become partners.” Again simple adages like this—horse sense?—have deeper meanings as we ride through life.

Next we visited Rancho San Cayetano, a working hacienda that also offers an equine therapy program. Owners Juan Alcazar Najera and Pita Fernandez fed Peter and me a hearty Mexican breakfast. Then Juan, known as the local horse whisperer, gave us a demonstration of horse training. Using gentle techniques and a coaxing voice, Juan encouraged a young palomino to run in tight circles around him, just one of the maneuvers that will ultimately determine whether this horse is good enough to compete in the rodeo.

Rodeos, called charreadas, are big in this part of Mexico. While Peter and I didn’t get to view one, we watched another trainer, Juan Zermeño, perform typical events, such as walking backwards and spinning the horse in a tight circle. When done correctly, the horse’s pivoting hoof never leaves the ground and just spins around. The most fascinating event we saw was when Juan pulled his horse from a full-on gallop to a complete stop, prompting a lengthy skid with the horse’s hind legs straight out in front of him and the horse practically sitting back on his haunches. Incidentally, these horses weren’t in any pain or discomfort during these maneuvers. Bred and trained to compete, these horses worked hard to please their trainers—and Juan is one of the region’s best. I believe if he touched his horse with one finger, it would know what he wanted it to do.

La Labor is a well-maintained hacienda and home of Don Jesus Varga, a graduate of Texas A & M, who makes his living raising Swiss cattle. Jesus showed Peter and me his trophy room, its walls covered with ribbons, awards, and photos of his prize-winning herd. Another room contained Jesus’ collection of saddles, chaps, sombreros, and tack. Beautiful leatherwork, both embroidered and engraved, decorated this astonishing collection.

Mexican charro saddles are characterized by large saddle horns, used to wrap lengthy ropes around for rodeo events. As I rubbed one saddle horn, covered with soft material, I asked Jesus what the fabric was. “Bull scrotum,” he said without missing a beat. OK, so now I know what bull scrotum feels like, soft and slightly furry.

Jesus invited Peter, Jorge, and me to join him, his wife, and some friends for lunch, so after a tequila or two in his cozy bar, we adjoined to the stately dining room where ten of us dined on delicious homemade dishes. I felt so welcomed by these people, who were anxious to share Mexican culture. It’s as if they recognize that many Americans have a stereotypical view of our neighbor to the south, and these warm people wanted Peter and me to experience their home, their stories, and their gastronomy.

One day Jorge and Lena joined Peter and me for lunch in the lovely Colonial town of Lagos de Moreno at Restaurant la Rinconado, which, according to Jorge, serves the best food in Lagos. He was right. I had a dried chili pepper stuffed with ground beef and cream cheese. Peter tried the chili rellenos with shrimp in a light cream sauce. When the owner heard I liked lamb, she ordered the house specialty: lamb marinated in lime and garlic and steamed for five hours. Served on hot tortillas, the tender lamb was a taste sensation.

After lunch, we went shopping. I decided I would embrace my inner cowgirl and get a pair of proper riding boots. I’d also heard prices for leather goods were extremely low. After checking a local factory, which was out of stock, Jorge took us to a little bootmaker’s shop, where both Peter and I bought gorgeous boots for about $35 a piece. Mexico continues to be a bargain destination, especially when you stray away from the tourist areas.

Peter and I stayed two nights in Hacienda Sepulveda, a member of Mexico Boutique Hotels. The restored hacienda has been transformed into an oasis of style and comfort. Rustic décor combined with luxury amenities create a unique setting, where you can easily lose touch with the modern world. Our room featured brick floors, an ornate desk, and a large comfortable bed. At night staff would light a fire in the woodstove, and the room would become cozy and warm. Large shutters opened to reveal a lovely view of the gardens, which Juan Alfonso said was a popular venue for outdoor weddings.

Besides its gorgeous accommodations, Hacienda Sepulveda has a full-service restaurant, bar, stables, meeting rooms, and a spa. There’s also a swimming pool available in the warmer months. Peter and I enjoyed both dinner and breakfast in the on-site restaurant, Mamalena, named in honor of Juan Alfonso’s mom, and loved the charming ambiance and hearty food. I splurged on a spa treatment and discovered that Mexican massages are intense! But I loved every minute of pummeling, pounding, slapping, and kneading. My therapist didn’t speak much English, but she knew the language of massage and spoke it beautifully with her hands.

While at Hacienda Sepulveda, Peter and I enjoyed two trail rides. One evening a short ride took us past waterfalls and through tall grasses in the waning sunlight. We passed a family gathering cornhusks from a recently harvested cornfield, and the children looked up and smiled as we sauntered by. Another morning under a shining sky, we rode for two hours up and down hills past beautiful vistas. I knew that this was a memory I would always hold onto: the soul-satisfying pleasure of viewing the world from a horse’s back. Up there I felt connected to Mexico’s past and its rich heritage, as well as to its present, the real Mexico personified by the warm, wonderful people I met.

When I said goodbye to Jorge, Lena, and Juan Alfonso, I knew I would see them again. For not only did I discover the real Mexico, I fell in love with its alluring beauty and heartfelt hospitality.

For more information about the Haciendas by Horseback package, please visit www.horseridingmexico.com or www.haciendasepulveda.com.mx. You can also email Juan Alfonso at jaserrano@haciendasepulveda.com.mx. The 6-day package (five nights) is $1350. A 7-night package is also available.