Santa Fe, Panama is just a 1,5-hour drive from Santiago. I expected Santa Fe to be a small local town, flat and maybe a hill or two like we had seen before on our way from Panama City to Santa Fe. Santa Fe definitely is a small local town but not flat, it's in the middle of the mountains. As we were ascending the mountains on horseback, I started to realise why Elizabeth and Martin chose to settle down with their horses in Santa Fe.
This blog post is written by Stine Andersen
Elizabeth and Martin are a couple and own a farm just outside Santa Fe. Unfortunately, Martin wasn’t able to be there when we went to visit but Elizabeth was a fantastic host. Just from spending a day with Elizabeth, we were sure we would have loved Martin's company too! It was probably for the best he wasn’t there, cause else they would have never gotten rid of us. On their farm they have 8 trail horses (including a mule), 3 dogs (2 of them come along on the rides) and a pig named Rosie. Rosie might also count as a dog, as she used to live in the house. They used to have little Rosie’s but that’s a story only to be told if you go to visit Horseback Panama.
Elizabeth was born in Zimbabwe but moved to Botswana at an early age. When she was 15, she traveled to New Zealand to study and later she was offered a job in Panama. Here she met Martin, who was born in South Africa. The story of how Elizabeth and Martin met is quite unique, so make sure to ask about it. It will leave you with a big “Wait, what, how”.
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Elizabeth and Martin started Horseback Panama in 2016 after spending a few years by the Caribbean coast in Bocas Del Toro. Horseback Panama offers one-day trails as well as a 5-day package trail ride. Their one-day trails vary from 2 hours up to a full day of riding. We did a full-day ride with Horseback Panama and it did not disappoint! We were picked up by horse at our hostel at 8am by Elizabeth and her local groom. I rode Calypso and my friend got to ride Niño. Elizabeth told us they were both forward going but with Calypso a little more strength was needed to hold him back. As we started riding, I began to understand what she meant. Calypso is no beginner in the trail riding game. He is Elizabeth's guiding horse and knows exactly where to canter and where to stop to enjoy the views. When we came to the first spot where Calypso was used to cantering, he started dancing around and walking sideways. The energy levels were all up! As I loosened the reins to signal him to go, he went from 0-100 in no time and the stamina of this horse was incredible! I couldn’t help but smile. Riding Calypso brought me straight back to where this whole traveling adventure began. Back to 2018 and my days as a horseback riding guide in Chile. Calypso was a clone of the horse I used to guide on. His name was Mysterio and he was an ex-race horse. He was my all-time dream horse and if I could, I would have brought him home with me when I left Chile. Unfortunately he was sold to a neighbour and soon put down... Realising I would never get to meet this unique horse again left me a little sad but meeting Calypso made me regain my faith that there are more special horses like him.
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As I try out rides I like to try as many horses as possible. Horses always react differently to different riders. So after the guide has told us about the horses I like to form my own opinion. Elizabeth's horses are mixes of Paso, Appaloosas and Quarter horses. My friend tried Elizabeth's greenest horse and she was an absolute sweetheart. Esperanza is a newbie in the game but she was behaving tremendously. She had a look around due to insecurities once or twice but no spooking or looping around, acting like a youngster. She obviously needs to build up some muscle and stamina but in a few years time she will be an amazing trail horse!
I tried Capitan as well. A bit of a professional in the business but forward going and always up for a galloping race against his mate Calypso. (He doesn’t win but he’s got the spirit.) It was really great to see how you could mix and match the horses within the group. We did have a little issue in the group dynamic but that was Red trying to show he was a big boy and didn’t belong in the back of the group. Red is Elizabeth's mule. Red is 4 years old and he and his best friend Esperanza are the youngsters. I rode Red for the last two hours of the ride. When we started riding Elizabeth was telling us about Red and about how she would break in the horses and how she broke in Red. She always starts training her horses bitless and later when they become more enthusiastic, she introduces them to the bit. Sometimes she won’t do it at all. As Red is a mule, he is unbelievably strong! He is tiny but the power of this little mule is surprising. She started riding him bitless but had to introduce him to the bit instantly as he would go wherever he fancied. Elizabeth described riding a mule as, I quote, “riding a toddler with ADHD.” I got on Red and it went really well. After about 10 minutes Elizabeth asked me how it was going and I turned my attention away from Red, looked at her, and said “he’s really good.” The same second he started looking around left and right, speeding up downhill to make it to his friend Esperanza and generally not really minding the rider that was on top of him. When I pulled the reins, he tried to disagree. Red was a joy to ride. I love horses, and now mules, with a big personality and a little bit of ADHD. For being a 4-year-old mule, he was amazing.
The trail will take you to some stunning views of Santa Fe’s landscape. Looking over the valley was incredible. On the mountainside across from us, you could see hundreds of trails going everywhere. Elizabeth told us she never gets tired of exploring the area and I can definitely see why. Riding on the trails, you have them all to yourself! There’s no one else around and it doesn’t feel like there’s a town just down the hill. Riding our horses along one of the mountaintops we later rode down through a small community. We visited during Semana Santa (Easter) and everyone’s families were home for the holidays! Get-togethers in Latin countries just have a different vibe to them. Everyone sitting on the front porch and the kids running out to the streets to see the horses – and gringas – ride past. There is no end to greeting families and wishing everyone a beautiful day.
After about 3 hours of riding and sharing life stories we stopped for lunch at a local organic finca. The finca is owned by an elderly couple who offers lunch for guests. 90% of what you eat here is from their own garden. Besides that, the husband will happily give you a tour of his garden which is FULL of plants and flowers. Ending up in the vegetable garden you will be introduced to the coffee trees. After explaining the life cycle of the trees, you go back to the house and here he will show you how to process the coffee beans. Everything is done by hand and it was really interesting to watch. You will get a cup of their coffee and afterwards your lunch will be served. Lunch was like a homemade meal - just what I needed after being away from home for a long time!
We did some river crossings and this was a lot more fun on Calypso and Capitan than it was on Red with his short legs. The horses were amazingly well behaved but still with enough character to tease each other once in a while.
Also read: Dancing horses in Colombia: the Paso Fino
It was really good to see a well-established horseback riding place where Elizabeth and Martin can work together with something they both share a passion for. The horses are mostly Elizabeth's work but Martin is always happy to help out if there’s a horse that needs a first-time rider with some long dangly legs, or just for company. They work close together with the local community and this is something that makes the place a lot more attractive to me. They help each other out and someone is always up for a chat. Elizabeth said herself that it was really easy getting into the community. She even took part in an endurance race with three of her horses. The locals were not convinced when she showed up but she ended up cantering for 6 km, on Calypso of course, and won 1st, 2nd and 4th. Safe to say, she’s got some fit trail horses. Sometimes local communities can (understandably) be a little unsure of foreigners and tend to keep to themselves. However, if you are an open-minded person and show interest in their culture or ask for advice, you will be able to make great friends. Sometimes Horseback Panama arranges a day of working with cattle. Here you will get to work alongside the locals as they bring home their cattle to vaccinate and check up on them.
Horseback Panama takes both beginner and experienced riders. They have some great horses for beginners such as Mr. Grey. A huge grey horse who will happily introduce beginners or nervous riders to horseback riding. They like to keep their groups small, so about 2-4 riders, but can do bigger groups if needed. They also take solo travellers which isn't possible everywhere. This is also great as the guide is female and I know that some female travellers will highly value this. The weight limit is 85kg.
Also read: Horses on the Galapagos Islands
The best time to visit is between December and May, as it is the dry season in Panama, but rides are offered all year round. If you are traveling with non-equestrian friends or family members there are a lot of other outdoor activities such as hiking, waterfalls, night tours, birdwatching, river tubing, chocolate tours and you’re only 1,5 hours from the Caribbean coast!
If you’re in Panama I definitely recommend you setting time aside for Santa Fe and a horseback ride. It’s a great way to experience the diversity of Panama and being welcomed with open arms by a local family for a wonderful lunch. And hopefully you will get the full experience and meet the whole team of Horseback Panama. We will definitely have to go back for my friend to reunite with Esperanza and for me to recall my memories with Calypso. And meet Martin and Rosie this time.
If you have any questions about Stine's experience with Horseback Panama, feel free to send her an email or a message on Instagram.
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