Tall tales and true from the Mexican desert

It is embarrassing – mucho embarrassing – to tumble from your horse, face down into the fine soils of Mexico.
Pancho’s got nothing on this old gringo thought the ranch hands.
For there is nothing wrong with the horses or riding gear at Rancho Pitaya, just a rider who’s not quite the full bottle today.

This is the story of a ride through the hills of cactus-strewn hills way down south in Mexico. This is a story that went a touch awry from the moment when amigo Phil banged and yelled at the bedroom door at San Miguel Parador – a magnificient old hotel in downtown Oaxaco.

“Senor! Senor!” He yelled in passable Spanish. “Senor, it’s five past eight.”

We made the pick-up in time but I missed breakfast and made do with a cup of coffee at the ranch some 40 minutes later.

And then it’s off with Phil on Spirit and the dehydrating mug on Pequin with ranch owner and guide Mary Jane Gagnier leading the way. She knows the district and, as a long-distance endurance rider, knows her horses.
So we ride up and over limestone ridges. There are cacti galore, a desert orchid here, ferns there, yucca and native cane.

Some cactus are flowering, some are eight metres tall and hundreds of years old. The dog trotting behind us chases lizards in and out of the scrub.

“It’s not all about reliving the days of the Cisco Kid for Oaxaca offers  a ton of other enchantments”

There’s lantana and prickly acacia. It’s hot, maybe 40 degrees, and the hills overlooking the valley farmlands are wild country.

It’s a Mexican horseback experience, walking, trotting and cantering, to be savoured; the creak of the saddle and soapy smell of horse sweat.

It’s just that after four hours in the saddle without drinking enough water, this gringo misses the (dis)mounting block and falls from the horse in unedifying fashion back at the ranch.

Veteran horseman Phil doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry … until a bout of Corona sipping on the shaded veranda of the bunk house when it’s all tall tales and true.

Rancho Pitaya is a most hospitable ranch with a couple of horse-riding options. We went for an overnight stay and two days of riding. For $US390 ($513) each, that included the rides, a twin-share bedroom, meals and beers; a decent price for an outing with a difference in a charming and very real part of the world.

It’s not all about reliving the days of the Cisco Kid for Oaxaca – capital of Oaxaca, Mexico’s southernmost state – offers a tonne of other enchantments from ancient and colonial buildings to colourful arts, fine chocolates and fried grasshoppers. There’s eye-catching and hand-made clothes from surrounding villages and top-class restaurants with exotic dishes.

Some regard this area as the most Mexican of Mexico.

It was first home to ancient Zapotec and Mixtec cultures (archeological sites can still be explored) followed by the Aztecs in the 1400s and then the Spanish in 1521.

Today it’s a feisty and handsome World Heritage-listed town of festivals, street parades, markets, mariachi bands, great arts and foods which each owe something to this centuries-aged mix of cultures.

And it’s not all beautiful plazas, old churches, music, fire crackers, tequila and ice-cold Dos Equis beers.  

There’s that rough and tumble countryside outside the city, old villages with old and simple ways, mules pulling farm carts, mescal distilleries and, about 10 kilometres out of town, the world’s fattest tree – El Árbol del Tule, a cypress with a 42-metre girth.

For while enthralling Oaxaca may not be the most polished of places it offers a host of fresh sights, sounds and smells, down-to-earth experiences,  right through to tumbling into the dirt from a horse. Maybe.

 Oaxaca is about seven hours flight from Los Angeles via Mexico City, one-way prices around $700.

Visit horsebackmexico.com and visitmexico.com/en/oaxaca