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The Cabalgata: Costa Rica's Hidden Cowboys

Photography and essay by Annika Beaulieu

Published August 2020 by 

More than 1.5 million tourists flock to Costa Rica each year to experience the creme de la creme of tropical paradise. Yet tucked away in the hills above these emerald beaches littered with surfers and honeymooners a 150 year old tradition persists hidden from view.  Nestled in a picturesque valley that separates the coast from the Talamanca mountains, hundreds of leathery skinned cowboys make the annual pilgrimage down a dirt road to the tiny town of Caña Blanca with over 1000 horses in tow to participate in the cabalgata - a 20 km ride through the valley of San Juan de Dios.  The dust kicked up from thousands of hooves and trailers is suffocating but the food, music, and wet bar manage to distract from the blistering heat, lulling you into a state of nostalgia where the old Costa Rica of caballeros and caballeras still reigns supreme. 


Carlos Castillo Mora has been participating the annual ride since he was 12.  He grew up just a few kilometers away on a cattle grazing farm with his 14 brothers and sisters.  Back then there was no road, just a trail one could travel by donkey or horse up to the tin roofed cabin where his mother made tortillas from fresh ground corn.  They lived off the land and walked an hour each day to the one room school house. He attended until third grade which is about when most of his schoolmates began to take work on the farm more seriously. 


Today the trail to his mother’s house has evolved into a bumpy dirt road that is passable most, but not all, of the year. Carlos spends his days building beautiful vacation homes for foreigners from Canada and the US who have slowly populated the area in the last 20 years.  He is an expert in exotic wood finishes and solar water heaters.   But Carlos’ passion is his cows.  He keeps roughly 25 at a time on the land surrounding the old school house which now functions as a stall for his heard when the heavy rains come.  Whenever a calf is born he tends to the mother day and night, rain or shine, and then lets his daughters take turns naming the babies.  


The ride offers Carlos a day of interrupted cowboy bliss. There are no Canadian snow birds here, just horses, guaro, and ranchera girls. He and his buddies proudly swap stories of saving baby calves born in impossible circumstances or purchasing rare horses at a great price. For Carlos the cabalgata is the social catalyst that allows the old way of life to persist amidst and ever changing world.  Today he his 12 year old daughter will ride with him for the first time.  His stoic demeanor cannot fully conceal the pride he feels as he hauls Samantha up onto her horse.  It is,“como podemos compartir nuestra cultura a los jovenes.” (How we can continue to share our culture with the young people.)  


The Cabalgata traditionally commemorates a famous battle or historical event; a tradition dating back to the Roman Empire.  In Costa Rica the cabalgata of Caña Blanca commemorates the decisive Battle of Rivas in 1857 in which Costa Rican soldiers beat back and defeated William Walker; an American, lawyer, journalist, physician, and mercenary who attempted to seize large portions of Central America and establish his own personal english speaking colony.  Walkers’ story is fascinating to the point of utter disbelief littered with insane details like the time Walker was convicted in California of conducting and illegal war in Mexico.  But he sure was stubborn.  Undeterred he headed back south,  eventually conquering Nicaragua and legalizing slavery.  For Costa Rican’s the Battle of Rivas is their Beaches of Normandy moment where at the last minute they banded together and managed to save all of Central America from the tyranny of a crazy gringo.


Today, there is hardly any reference to the Battle of Rivas at the rancho where young couples, old men, and young families have gathered to participate in the ride.  Perhaps the only remaining nod to Walker is the noticeable absence of gringos present at the event. While a number of hotels and resorts offer cabalgata experiences whereby tourists follow a guide on horseback, Costa Ricans guard their local tradition from touristic traffic.  Announcements for the ride circle through private WhatsApp chats and a hand painted sing in Spanish on the side of the road. In spite of its low key advertisement, people flock from all over Perez Zeledon to Caña Blanca sometimes as many as 1500 horses in tow.  


When you first lay eyes on the scene it is impossible to escape the overwhelming presence of cowboy hats, boots, tight jeans, and ladies in rockabilly shirts tied up in a knot just above the waist.  It feels like a kind of old wild west fashion show where people take pride in keeping it real ranchera.  The kitchen bustles with men and women preparing casado (a traditional rice and beans dish) along side a vat of chicharron (fried pork) the traditional way over an open fire. The makeshift bar in the old corral serves cerveza and chill guaro (a local gin served with hot sauce) to a packed clientele of cowboys. Women and children sell raffle tickets for various prizes consisting of rope, food grain, beer, and a handful of brand new riding saddles and bridles.  In the sunbaked parking lot riders tend to their horses, warming them up for the big ride while trading stories and local dramas.


The emphasis is on participation more than show.  Costa Ricans are know for being understated yet a few still take pride in trotting around the camp with a shinny muscular steed performing a paso fino - an impressive four beat gate in which the horse appears to be dancing.  Black stallions, painted pintos, and silky palominos grace the otherwise unadorned parking lot impatiently circling as they wait for the ride to begin. In classic tico fashion the start time for the ride gets pushed back 30 minutes, then another 30 minutes, then another… until finally the announcement is made over the speaker phone “Ya!”  Hundreds of riders trot their way from the lot up to the trail as a cloud of dust envelopes anyone on foot.  The cabalgata begins and the riders make their way into the majestic valley of San Juan de Dios for a chance to remember, forget, or just enjoy a special piece of Costa Rica that time and tourism has not yet captured.

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