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PUERTO RICO HERALD
Cabalgatas: Pub Crawls a la Criolla
By Natalia de Cuba Romero
April 11, 2003
Copyright © 2003 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.
The last time I managed to dress utterly appropriately for an occasion was probably my First Communion, but rarely do I blow an outfit as badly as I did on my first cabalgata two weeks ago. From fashion mistakes to technical errors, I missed my big chance to dress up like a Puerto Rican cowgirl AND I made life uncomfortable for myself.
Cabalgata means a horseback ride. But quite apart from the sedate one-hour $30 beach ride you might do on vacation, a cabalgata in Puerto Rico is a daylong family event that spans all social classes. It is a democratization of the paseos on horseback that the plantation owners did in the old days. It is a reaffirmation of the age-old relationship between the jíbaro mountain folk and the horse. It is a celebration of the Puerto Rican paso fino. And line your stomach and brace your liver, because cabalgatas are often raucous pub crawls on four legs.
I was invited to this cabalgata in Aibonito by Tito and Frieda Matos, owners of Hacienda Niña Bonita and among the island's biggest promoters of the paso fino lifestyle.
The paso fino is descended from the first horses to arrive on the island with the Spanish. It is the only breed in the world born with the flirty four-phase gait that other show horses have to be taught. With three hooves on the ground at all times, the ride is smooth, and the small size means that you can easily get your legs around the back and hold on.
Virtually anyone can ride a well-trained one; even someone with very little experience, like me.
This occasion was organized by the Asociación Puertorriqueña Criadores Caballos de Paso Fino de America, Inc. (aka Los abiertos) to promote an equestrian event to be held in Aibonito the following week. Mayor José Alberto "Bertito" Díaz - like most Aibonito natives -- is a dedicated paso fino man and under him, the municipality sponsors up to ten cabalgatas a year to benefit various organizations and to bring riders from all over the island to patronize the town's restaurants and bars.
As soon as I arrived at the Coliseo parking lot, I knew I'd messed up my fashion day. Baseball cap: Wrong. I should have had a white straw hat with a band. Sports bra: Good move. Sleeveless T-shirt: Wrong. All the ladies were spiffy in their starched white blouses showing just the right amount of cleavage. Blue jeans: Almost okay. Except that mine stopped well above my ankles. Which brings me to -- Tennis shoes, no socks: Dumb, dumb, dumb.
There is a reason that cowboys wear bootleg jeans and real boots underneath. After just minutes on the back of my faithful steed, Canarita, my bare ankles were rubbed raw on the stirrups. Not to mention the slippage factor of 200 horses letting manure fly.
From 12pm-2pm riders showed up, locals on horseback and others dragging trailers full of horses. The lead car blasted ranchera music, folks began dipping into their coolers for beers and whiskies. Then we were summoned by a rider with a headset microphone and the mob was off with a police escort controlling traffic.
This was a roadway cabalgata, so the distinctive taka-taka hoofbeats of 200 pasofino horses was deafening. The reward for getting up the forested hill was a stop at El Cantinflas Taco Place at the corner of Roads 162 and 7718 where we tied up the horses and everyone to the bar for drinks, tacos and conversation. And so the afternoon went. Folks came out of their houses to admire the horses, children waved, people with horses in their backyards hastily saddled up to join us. The town put on a big kettle of chicken soup at one stop, free hot dogs at another. After a couple of rides, I surrendered Canarita to one of the kids and sat in the carriage to rest my bleeding ankles.
The view from the front of the cabalgata was impressive, like a return to the Puerto Rico of my grandmother. Sweaty horses, white cowboy hats and smiling faces as far as the eye could see. Tiny tots rode in front of proud parents. Teenagers flirted from horse to horse. All generations were represented. Rich and poor joined by a love of the equine species. The drinks lubricated, but didn't get out of hand. Only one person fell off his horse. For the horse enthusiast and the lover of Puerto Rican lore, cabalgatas are truly a unique event. Just remember to wear boots.
The Aibonito event ended at nightfall with a full meal for all the participants at the Coliseo parking lot. There are cabalgatas virtually every weekend on the island. Some are just a group of friends out on a lark. Others, like those organized by Tito and Frieda Matos, are private club events on haciendas with catering van bringing up the rear and setting up a buffet at every stop. Aibonito hopes to make cabalgatas a tourist attraction. For more information on paso fino horses and participating in cabalgatas, visit www.ninabonita.com or call 787-724-5530.
This year's World Horse Congress will be held May 1-3 at the Condado Plaza Hotel. For more information call Los abiertos at 787-258-5300.
Natalia de Cuba Romero is a freelance travel, food and arts writer. Her column, "Sights, Sounds & Tastes of Puerto Rico", appears weekly in the Puerto Rico Herald. She can be reached at NataliaHerald@centennialpr.net.