I awoke bright and early to go on my cabalgata (horseback ride), with the company Rancho Cactus. I was scheduled for a three-hour ride, passing near Quitor and through the optimistically-named Valle de la Muerte (Valley of Death). I arrived at Rancho Cactus a little early and noshed on French toast and fresh apple juice. Once the other riders (two pleasant people currently living in the U.S.) arrived, we piled into a truck for the short drive to the stables.
We were outfitted with helmets and leather leg-protectors (I’m sure they have a technical name, but I don’t know it. Edit 12/04: my brilliant grandmother says they are called “chaps,” and I believe her!). Then, we were assigned horses. Since I had slightly more riding experience, I think I got the trickier horse: a handsome dark chestnut horse named “Turnelo.”
We rode out through the pueblo streets, which gradually broadened and became more rural. On the way through the pueblo, my horse spooked a few times. I had read Temple Grandin’s Animals in Translation a few months ago; an excellent and thought-provoking book. In this instance, it spurred me to wonder about exactly what was troubling my horse and why. My best guess was that my horse had a fear of barking dogs, but of course my brain functions differently than Turnelo’s, so the patterns I recognize may not be the same hyper-specific stimuli he notices. Quite interesting to consider.
We began climbing a rocky, lunar hill, which granted us a beautiful view: the blotchy green of San Pedro, lines of white-roofed houses in the town outskirts, and distant snow-capped mountains. Once we reached the crest of the hill, we saw that it had a sharp drop-off on its other side; we watched another riding party passing by, far below, miniscule. We paused here while the guide told us about a nearby memorial to indigenous people killed by Spaniards.
At times, we walked along ridges with sand so fine that every horse-step kicked up a white cloud, so that it looked like their feet were smoking. My horse liked to start trotting at inappropriate moments, to my glee: I much prefer spunky bright horses over those who follow the trail with perfect orderliness.
Near the end of the ride, we reached an open, flat sandy area. Without warning, my horse broke into a gallop, closely followed by the others, all of whom recognized the beginning of the home stretch. I had my camera in my hand, so I focused on riding a galloping horse with only one free hand. Nevertheless, I was exhilarated and blissful and alive. When I signed up for the ride, I had hoped that we might get a chance to canter for a few inches, if we were lucky — and here we were with acres of open sand and free rein (no pun intended) to gallop as much as we desired.
Our group of horses halted to cross a paved road, and the horses walked for a bit. Then, our guide asked us if we would like to gallop again. I replied, “Oh man, I would love nothing more in this world. I can’t even tell you how happy this makes me. Please, may we?” — of course, in Spanish, this came out as, “¡Siiiiii!” This time, my camera was tucked into the saddlebag, so I had both hands free. Turnelo immediately took the lead, even passing up the guide and his horse. We alternated paces between fast trot and full-speed beautiful flying gallop, until my stomach muscles ached with every jolt. We soared across the sand until we reached the edge of the pueblo. Ah joy!
Once we reached the village, we slowed to a walk-trot: I was convinced that we should walk, because my stomach muscles were made of pain; Turnelo was convinced that we should trot because, dangit, we were almost home! I think Turnelo won.
When we reached the stable, I dismounted smoothly. The guide told me, “Muy bien!” As I packed up my things to leave, he also told me several times that I had done increíble, incredible; he had seemed gratified at my glee about the gallop. I’m not sure if he was just being nice, but I still felt ever-so-proud that I might be a decent rider.
After the ride, I was more tired than I ever have been ever before, so I headed back to the hostel and napped like a dead turtle for an hour. But it was a wonderful, well-earned sort of exhaustion, and I would do it again in a heartbeat. The only drawback of the morning was that my previously-pristine camera’s viewfinder got scratched up from something on the inside of the saddlebag, in a 1″ diameter circle. A pity, but it still functions fine.
After I had rested a little, I wandered into San Pedro for errands. On the way back, I stopped to look at the Iglesia de San Pedro de Atacama — a beautiful old adobe church, with sparrows flying up and down from the rafters. The ceiling appeared to be made from cactus-wood, and there was also a variety of extremely colorful religious statues, a giant cracked metal bell, and several stands of fanciful woven flowers.
My hostel, I have discovered, is home to a variety of creatures. There is a calico kitty who hangs out on the patio sometimes. Missing my own cats, I went to pat her, and she immediately flopped over onto her back and splayed her legs every which-way. An endearing substitute cat. On the less cuddly front, there are spiders in my room: big juicy ones, who always seem to be missing legs, and who inevitably crawl up the wall about five inches from where I’m sitting.
Once again, I took far more photos than I can load this post up with. If you’d like to see more, look at today’s date on my Flickr.