WHAT’S IT LIKE…leading horseback adventure tours in Nicaragua??
It is an adventure. Guiding a tour on horseback can be challenging by itself, but leading it through the jungle, in a country where you don’t speak the language, with guests who don’t know how to ride and riding on rescue horses is the pinnacle of challenging.
The ranch is located outside of San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua. San Juan del Sur has more of a reputation as a party town for backpackers and surfers than as a Western-themed cowboy town. The town is small and friendly, very easy to get around in for expats, but the ranch Christine and I worked at was set about 20 minutes outside of town.
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Once out of San Juan del Sur, the locals spoke little English and, although they were always extremely friendly, they were a little skeptical of seeing outsiders so far off the beaten path, the polar opposite of the in-town vibe.
The horseback tours were about 4 hours long from leaving the gate to coming back into the barn. The work started a few hours before guests arrived with catching, grooming, and saddling horses, packing for the short trip, and setting up the ranch. The tour led off through the jungle and dry riverbeds looking for howler monkeys, sloths and other wildlife.
Half-way through the tour, we arrived on the beach and each person was given the chance to run their horse up and down the sand through the waves a few times while the entire trip was photographed by Christine. After the beach, we headed back to the ranch where celebratory shots of rum were passed around and the horses were cared for and turned loose.
Positives: We had constant interaction with people from the smaller, local villages by living outside of town. This let us see a whole different side of Nicaragua that most only get a chance to glimpse.
Riding a horse through jungle trails let us get up close and personal with the wildlife of Nicaragua and see some fantastic views. Caring for, training, and riding the horses on a daily basis is great for any horse person and helped us stay entertained in an otherwise secluded location.
The most entertaining part for me was also the most unpredictable: the guests. People who came to ride were from all over the world and had very different reactions the horses. We would have one group of seven people that included experience levels from someone who had stood near a horse once to a girl who grew up in the saddle.
Watching people interact with their horses (and the horses react to our guests) was hilarious. I guess the natural reaction for people who have no horse background is to equate horses to other animals that they know, like their dog, but horses are so very different. Christine in particular kept nuzzling her horses when they had their ears pinned back…I tried to manage the situations as best as I could, but when a horse runs off with guests from the beach into the trees (or onto the set of the tv show Survivor!! Yup, it happened.), there is only so much you can do but hope the guest is ok.
The most rewarding part for me on tour was riding next to people for four hours and hearing all about their lives and travels. It never fails to have at least one member of each group that has some fantastic story of a past adventure to entertain everyone. I loved having so much time to get comfortable with these guests and hear their odysseys.
The reason I would recommend an experience like this one to others is the incredible connection that can be established when you live in a small community of locals. We were very fortunate to have a staff of 10 locals to work with on a daily basis. The 7 Nicaraguan men that helped to take care of the horses, do general maintenance, and guard the property made every aspect of my job there better. The care and joy they put into each and every task makes me blush with shame every time I recall complaining that I was over-qualified for any job in the States. I was enthusiastically invited into homes for meals and introduced to their kids like I was a new member of the family. We learned to joke and communicate with just hand gestures, head nods, and broken words, becoming lifelong friends because of the lack of communication skills, not in spite of them.
I had the unique opportunity to teach one of the guys, Ariel, to drive which was comical and dangerous considering my inability to employ the Spanish language. In a fantastic display of determination Ariel showed me he could master a 5-speed faster than I could figure out how to conjugate verbs. For all of the amazing things we experienced in Nicaragua, working with these locals was hands down the highlight of the endeavor!
Negatives: The job of guiding horseback tours was only a part of the overall job of being a Ranch Manager and that had long hours and stressful decisions, but that is for another article. The guiding itself had difficulties in pairing rider’s abilities with horse’s attitudes and hoping that said horses would be on their best behavior.
Although Christine and I could fumble our way through Spanish, the lack of communication skills caused more than one embarrassing situation for us. I accidently gave away the ranch’s piglets once while trying to be sarcastic in Spanish. Negotiations for being allowed to pass through a local’s land were also misunderstood, which led to being locked in a pasture while on a tour. Oops.
One of the toughest things to get used to was the ABUNDANCE of things that crawled, everywhere, EVERYWHERE! Discovering scorpions in our pants was something to be expected each morning, legions of ants invaded our outdoor bathroom at will, and snakes could be found napping next to our bed (seriously, that happened). We expected some of this but never to the degree that became our daily reality. I still jump back every time I dump out my backpack because I once inadvertently smuggled a scorpion from Nicaragua to Guatemala in my bag and barely won the battle that ensued after his last desperate charge up my leg!
Housing, Transportation and Money: First I think I need to clarify that the job we accepted was classified as an internship and we were not paid. We were given a small cost of living stipend and received tips from guests. However, we could afford to stay because room, transportation, and food was covered.
Getting to Nicaragua was actually paid for by our employer for the most part. We were wired a set amount of money that she was willing to put toward our plane tickets, it was up to us to make that amount cover anything and all extra cost was on us. We easily met the set amount with bargain flights and using obscure hubs from Kona, Hawaii to Managua, Nicaragua.
While on the ranch we had full access to food, which was great since Christine was the cook. The ranch had a Jeep Wrangler and a Toyota pickup to use to run to town or the beach. When in town it was on us to pay for any meals we decided to have there.
How did we find it? Living in Hawaii is a fantastic life, especially if you can work on the ocean every day. That being said, a person can still get restless when they are not traveling. One day in a fit of boredom, Christine did a routine job search while just playing on the internet. She looked up jobs abroad on a seasonal job site called coolworks.com.
The job was listed as Management Couple of a Horseback Adventure Tour and Guest Ranch in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua. I had been missing working on horses and she was willing to learn about them. The ad required a cook, a horseman/woman, some Spanish, and it had to be a couple. We fit perfectly into all of those categories, so two interviews and a month later, we were on our way to Central America!
Disclaimer: All opinions in this article are my own and do not express the opinions of others or my employer. Also, this is an article about my experience working for one employer and will probably vary for others during different times, with different people and with different companies. Use your head.