A Ride in the Jungle
Exploring the Mayan Ruins in Cozumel on Horseback
Riding on horseback through the jungles surrounding El Cedral, a small village which boasts an ancient Mayan shrine dating back to 900 AD, several places to buy homemade blankets at $3 each and a little store selling soda pop out of a cooler, we spot an iguana perched high in a wild mango tree and numerous underground caves where the Mayan Indians used to live.
My children and I have opted to view Cozumel, an island off the Yucatan Peninsula best known for its underwater diving and the quaint but oh-so-tourist savvy town of San Miguel which attracts 50 percent of the country's cruise passengers, making it the third largest destination in the Caribbean and the fifth in the world, in a different way. Over the course of several days, we drove our rented Volkswagen car (pre caffeinated) to the various rancheros, which advertise horseback riding.
My son, Evan, had never ridden a hors, and though daughter takes horseback riding lessons, this is a completely different type of riding. No helmets required and sandals are okay. My daughter, ever so attentive to details, points out that her riding instructor would be horrified.
Evan is slightly taken aback when, after mounting a graceful white horse, he is informed that her name is Bullito or Spanish for bullet. Will she take off like a shot, he wonders?
Not to worry. The horses we encounter on Cozumel seldom break into a trot, let alone a cantor or gallop. They are used to carrying somewhat wary tourists and our guide, Francisco Torres, sets a slow pace. The horses seem to know only one direction--the way back to the stable. My son is relieved.
Single file, we make our way past farmsteads and have to pull to the side of the road as a small herd of cows come ambling towards us, obviously thinking they have the right of way. We see a slice of Mexico that usually just goes by in a flash from the car window. A right turn takes us away from farms, chickens and cows and onto the plains with its stands of palm trees and pampas grass. At our first stop, Francisco helps us off our horses, tying them to the trees just like in the old movies. Thin sheets of Tzekel, calcareous rock covered with a thin layer of soil, dot the landscape. We descend into holes in the Tzekel which turn out to be quite roomy underground caverns where the Mayans lived, carving small holes in the ceilings for smoke from their cooking fires to escape. It's actually quite roomy and the ceiling to ground stone columns create natural barriers that seem to separate the cave into rooms.
Back on horseback, the jungle starts to close in and we're traveling through dense trees and vines, listening to the calls of the birds and hearing the occasional wild animal rush away from us. Francisco pulls down a wild mango for us to sample, telling us that his Mayan ancestors (and his parents back in the Yucatan) ate nothing but fruit and fish, both foraged from the land, and lived well into their 80s. "No processed food," he says and for a moment we're not experiencing primitive Mexico, but up to the moment health flashes as trendy as anything we'd get in the U.S.
Now the horses hurry up, past banana, guava and zapote trees and into swamplands filled with red and white mangroves as we get closer to the stables, open air affairs built of tree trunks that have not even been processed through a lumber mill. Francisco offers to take our photo on horseback and we three vaqueros move our somewhat recalcitrant horses (they're home and they want us off) together for a group photo.
The experience is so unique that the next day, my kids opt to leave the pool mid morning and travel to another ranchero pinpointed by a hand painted sign in front of a dusty unpaved road, this one promising a ride not only through the jungle but also along the beach. These horses are also "point-ems," determined to get home in an ambling fashion. We travel an old deserted cobbled roadway where the only person we pass is an old man who sits alongside the road with his two dogs. He waves and chats to our guide, Eduardo, in Spanish. Why he has bought his chair and his dogs to this point, so far from any houses, is unknown to us, but he seems content, sitting in the sun as his dogs lay by his feet.
Soon we're on a small sandy path running through the woods from which we can, in the distance, catch a glimpse of the blue Caribbean Sea. Seagulls and herons fly overhead and brightly colored birds sit in the trees lining the beach. Eduardo, noticing the camera strung across my pommel, motions that he will take a photo of us. Unlike Francisco, Eduardo does not speak English and so we will not be in for any tips on healthy Mayan food habits.
Along the shoreline, hundreds of bumblebee jellyfish, so called because they are the color and size of bees, clog the waters. Our horses seem unconcerned as they splash along the water's edge. In the distance, we can see a few fish leap out of the air and even farther, several large cruise ships steam towards San Miguel. We are glad that we chose to see a different Cozumel.
El Cedral is located off the southern end of the coastal road just as it curves east and is marked by a large yellow archway and brightly painted sign. Also along the coastal road are numerous hand-lettered signs advertising the small rancheros where horses and tours are available. The average cost was $20 to $25 per person for about an hour-long tour. Several agencies, such as Apple, also arrange tours, but for a higher price.
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Jane Ammeson writes about travel, food and personalities. Her work has appeared in Home & Away, Northwest Airlines World Traveler Magazine, the Chicago Tribune, the Grand Rapids Press, the Courier Journal, Fifty Plus and Chicago Life Magazine.
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