I had to get away. I needed to leave the stress of my job, and the bitter cold of New Jersey behind and just go. I had called Cross Country International the week before, and found a space on a ride in Costa Rica the next week. As I hung up I thought, where is Costa Rica anyway? How can it only take 4 hours to get there?
When I got off the plane, the hot air hit me like it does when you open the oven to check the Thanksgiving turkey. Wham. The sun made me squint, and the heat made me take shallow breaths. I was in the tropics.
I was met at the plane by Raffa, a tall, friendly man who speaks good English and is the kind of man one instantly trusts. Since he was taking me on the most exciting experience of my life, that was important.
We drove for about half an hour and arrived at the Sugar Beach Hotel. The hotel is right on the Pacific Ocean and is surrounded by banana trees, all sorts of birds and is visited at night by giant sea turtles. And yes, the sand really is like sugar.
Shortly after checking into the hotel, I headed for the beach and dived right into the ocean. The water was warm and crystal clear - and I finally could believe I was in the tropics.
But I was here to ride!
I didn't have long to wait. The horses arrived with Tina, our warm and extremely funny Swedish guide (who had grown up in Costa Rica) with her wonderful band of helpers. I also met more of my fellow riders, who came from many countries.
I was introduced to my mount, Gemini, who stands only 15.2 hands tall but is as regal and proud as any 17-hand Hanoverian. Gazing into his eyes, I could almost believe that he knew his ancestors had come to Central America with the Spanish 400 years ago.
We set off -- walking and trotting at first to get acquainted with our mounts -- along one of the many trails in the sparsely populated province of Guanacaste. This area, on the West Coast of Costa Rica, was formed 60 million years ago by volcanic eruptions that left behind the magnificent mountain range through which we rode.
When we reached the beach, one of 17 we would explore during our stay, we cut loose in a superb gallop along the sand, with surf curling at our feet and erasing our footprints behind us.
Gemini was as smooth as the proverbial silk, and seemed not to mind my less than perfect leg position. Above the wind whistling past my ears I could hear the sound of the surf, the muffled thunk of hooves striking soft sand, Gemini's breathing, and my involuntary yelps of delight. I knew this was an experience that would stay with me the rest of my life.
Finally we slowed, and I became aware of my surroundings -- monkeys jumping from tree to tree and a flurry of wings as flocks of large birds left their perches, protesting our intrusion. I managed to get my camera out in time to capture the avian exodus. Talk about perfect days!
While our guides were preparing our picnic lunch, Jorge from Spain, Lisa from Chicago, Lois from Belgium and I dismounted and took off our saddles. We remounted bareback, plunged into the surf, and swam out several hundred yards. It was a new experience for us but obviously not for our horses, who seemd to enjoy the swim as much as we did. I couldn't believe that after years of lessons in a ring ("Heels down, Daniel, and shorten your reins.") I was actually swimming with a magnificent horse in the Pacific Ocean!
We emerged from the surf, had a fresh-water shower, and sat down to a wonderful lunch of teriyaki chicken, tomato and rice salad, bean salad, bread, papaya, grapes, pineapple, bananas, and pineapple desert. I had one of the ice-cold local beers. It went down fast and easy. Lovely.
After lunch, our guide turned us away from the beach toward the rainforest, where we were met with new sounds, sights and smells. Under the tall canopy of the trees it was cool and dark and teeming with life. Parrots and other birds of all colors and sizes watched us with slight interest. Monkeys went about their business with barely a glance. Trees and plants that I kept in pots in New Jersey grew to massive size around me. A cousin of my puny office potted palm stretched more than 50 feet high, with a six-foot trunk.
When I turned in after my first day on the Costa Rica trail, I realized how much there is to life that is exciting and delightful - and how much I loved riding.
Best of all, I realized I still had four more heavenly days with my friend Gemini. We would gallop on more beautiful beaches, swim in more warm, clear waters and explore more dark, mysterious rainforest trails. At the end of each day I would dine and sleep in another memorable hotel. I would get to know my guides and my newfound riding friends. And the cold winter of New Jersey would be temporarily forgotten.
The best time to visit Costa Rica is November through July. Saddles are English and Australian type. Other activities include swimming, golf, sightseeing, hiking, fishing, scuba diving and rainforest canopy tours. Non-riding companions are welcome.