I volunteered to ring the wake up bell at 4:30 am, so when my alarm clock catapulted me from my warm bed I quickly dressed, and hurried down stairs.
The horses were saddled, and ready by 5:30, although we didn’t actuallly leave La Bellota until around 7 o’ clock; not exactly the time we planned on but when is Mexican time accurate?
The morning was crisp, and cool. Everyone thoroughly enjoyed the early hours of our ride as we traveled across the western side of the ranch, and over to the gate which connected us to our neighbor, Don Federico, and his ranch, Agua Caliente. Once on Don Federico’s land we headed due west towards the Guadalupe Valley.
I looked across the mountains towards the highest peak in the distance which rested peacefully on the Necua Indian Reservation. Raul pointed it out to everyone, and proudly informed us we were to ride to the top, and far beyond, but once at its peak, we’d be able to see all four corners of La Bellota. I gazed out into the horizon; how small, and far away it looked, but as I scanned the sprawling landscape before me, I felt a gentle peacefulness growing from within, and a quiet respect for the vastness which eagerly awaited us.
When we arrived at the home of Don Federico, he, and his wife Lupe welcomed us with warm smiles, and vigorous handshakes. Don Federico’s wife had a glorious breakfast ready for our group which consisted of tamales, beans, eggs, coffee, and plenty of homemade flour tortillas!
When it came time for dessert I was so relieved when she brought out her specialty which she is widely known for: strawberry, crème, and chocolate empanadas. By the way, an empanada is a type of turn over filled with anything you want to put inside. She makes the most delicious empanadas that are the perfect combination with coffee, a cold glass of milk, or the finishing touch to a fabulous meal.
Soon after breakfast we decided to push on. We still had eight hours to ride before we reached Real Del Castillo. Don Federico’s son, Frederico Jr. was our first guide while riding on his ranch, and on the Necua Indian Reservation.
Before heading out, we took the opportunity to water the horses in the Guadalupe River, and of course we thanked our gracious hosts for the wonderful meal. With our tummies pleasantly full, and our minds fully caffeinated, we mounted up, and promptly headed out with Raul, and Federico Jr. in the lead. Within 20 minutes after leaving our gracious hosts we crossed onto reservation lands. It was mountainous terrain, and the steep ascent Raul had mentioned earlier was quickly upon us.
I was third in line from the front, and as we zigzagged up the hillside, at each opportunity, I glanced back at the others to see how they were doing. Everyone was quietly concentrating as they guided their horse up the steep trail, but judging from their easy-going nature, and relaxed composure while in the saddle, it appeared as if they were content with the first half of their Gold Mine adventure.
When I turned my attention back to the trail, I did so just in time. A large rock sat directly in the path of my horse who suddenly decided to leap over it instead of going around it. Of course if I had paid attention I could have prevented this sudden leap. Fortunately, I managed to grab hold of his mane, and lean forward just as he hoisted himself up, and over the precarious obstacle which blocked the trail.
It’s amazing to see, and feel firsthand the strength, and agility of the horse. On their résumé as excellent working ranch horses I might also add they shape shift on occasion, and act as mountain goats, or deer when the occasion arises.
Once at the top of the Necua Indian Reservation, Raul’s observation was indeed true. We saw all four corners of La Bellota, which consists of 2,800 acres just as Raul said we would. The scenery was spectacular. There was nothing around us for miles except the beautiful mountains which surrounded us; a pristine, and timeless land completely covered with immense granite boulders, thick Manzanita, Juniper, Sage, and Buckwheat. We passed by one of these boulders which had a name all in its own; The Dolphin Head, and it really looked like one too.
Our group made its way down into Canyon Corral de Cota. Here we found small meadows covered in green grass, oak groves, leafy Sycamores and clear mountain streams. I think it was one of the most beautiful areas of the entire trip.
While still in Canyon Corral de Cota, around 3 pm we ate lunch under the oak trees. I made bean, and cheese burritos the night before, and Don Federico’s wife was so kind to load us up with empanadas for the trail. Raul made coffee over an open fire while we rested, ate and napped a bit. We were there for about an hour when Raul reminded us we still had 4 hours to go. When he didn’t see any enthusiasm to leave right away, and quite honestly it was because we were all so comfortable, and a bit tired, he went on to inform us that if we stayed there longer, we would most likely set up camp at Real Del Castillo in the dark. That got our attention!
The other option; if we left in 10 minutes we’d make camp in plenty of time to set up, and relax before night fall. We all looked at each other rather passively, I guessed each person probably contemplated the thought of getting back into the saddle, or maybe they took a few moments to review the pitfalls of setting up camp in pitch dark.
I for one, did not want to get there after dark. Mainly because I was cooking that night, and the idea of cooking for 10 people in the dark was not at all appealing. I jumped up, and quickly started to collect the trash, and coffee cups. While doing so, I said to everyone, “That’s all I need to know, let’s go.” and go we did.
After our lunch break we made excellent time. By 5pm we were at the top of the Sierras of Real Del Castillo. This is where we met our second guide, Erick Lencioni whose ranch was on the premises. Erick spoke fluent English, and with his easy-going nature he quickly made us feel right at home.
At this point we were at 2,400 ft. and the only way down to our campsite, and to Real Del Castillo was through a narrow, well-worn, and weathered trail called, The Wall.
While at the trail head, Raul advised everyone to lean back in the saddle as we descended to help the horse balance our body weight. He also made sure everyone had the reins ready to pull the horse’s head up, if it stumbled over loose rocks on the trail.
Raul gave me a signal that I was to fall in behind him, and I quickly took my place in line. My horse Galleta, and I had traveled many miles over all sorts of rough terrain, and the rest of our horses too. Aside from the butterflies in my stomach which now felt like Kamikaze pilots, I was confident Galleta, and all the horses would get down the trail with no problem at all. I was also glad to have fallen in line right behind Raul.
Before our descent Erick confidently explained to everyone the trail was well-marked, and not to worry. Raul also added, “If the horse looks relaxed, then you know everything is fine!”
We began to move forward, the trail head now in plain sight. I leaned back in my saddle, heels down, with a firm hold on the reins as we carefully inched our way down the steep hillside. A couple of times we came to some rocks that looked like large steps, but dear Galleta, bless his heart, stopped, surveyed the situation and cautiously placed his feet in the safest spot, as I guided him to smoother ground.
While I sat perfectly still in my saddle, I watched him, and waited to assist if I could, but by the way his ears stood straight up, I knew he was paying as much attention to the trail as I was. Finally, when we were near the bottom, I heard Erick tell Raul in Spanish that we had passed the worst of it. That was good news indeed!
At that moment, I saw a flash of cinnamon, brown zoom past me along the hillside, and then someone shouted “Hey, a rat!”
I tried to get a better look, but as the tiny, fuzz ball of a creäture shot underneath my horse’s legs, I lost sight of it when it dashed across the trail, and disappeared into the bushes……………….
To be continued. Find out what amazing little, creäture accompanied us on the trail in Part II !