Sunday, June 16, 2024

Cabalgatas: an old Mexican horse riding custom holds fast in Zihuatanejo

As an avid horsewoman who lives on a rescue horse farm in Canada and rides nearly daily, I always look for the same opportunities when living in Mexico for the winter. Thankfully there are a few stables around to satisfy my addiction to these beautiful four-legged creatures.

There is also an extensive community of other like-minded locals who live in Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo and the outlying areas of Pantla, Petatlán and Barrio Viejo, to name a few. Some of them are ranchers and farmers, but many are everyday people who share one thing in common: a love of horses.

This community comes together once a year — and sometimes more on special occasions — to showcase their horses in annual parades known as cabalgatas.

In its most basic form, the word cabalgata can mean a ride on horseback, whether for transportation or simply to enjoy nature. But in this case, it refers to parades on horseback that occur in Mexico, as well as other countries in Latin America.

The largest one in Guerrero occurs annually in Acapulco, but locals here formed an association about eight years ago to continue the tradition and create interest and excitement for tourists — Mexicans and foreigners alike.

Cabalgata in Zihuatanejo
A veterinarian checks a participating horse prior to the parade.

From the moment I saw my first parade held in Petatlán a few years ago (and managed to hop a ride on the musician’s float so that I was actually in the procession), the pageantry of the event enthralled me.

Dressed to the nines in their cowboy finery, the women gorgeous in similar outfits or at times wearing beautiful flowing dresses, I knew I wanted nothing more than to ride alongside the other caballeros. Riding one of these well-cared-for horses was immediately a new bucket-list wish.

My dream finally came true when a friend named Liliana Huitrón, with whom I ride frequently, invited me to join her on the five-kilometer trek from Ixtapa to Zihuatanejo. (I knew then that there had been a reason I’d packed a fancy cowboy shirt in my Mexico suitcase this year!) So, I arranged the details with one of the organizers, José Manuel Guzmán Rosario, a tour guide and entrepreneur with Guzmán Tours of Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo.

My requirement when riding is simple: safety is always a priority. I wanted a healthy and extremely calm horse accustomed to the fiesta-like atmosphere that a parade entails. Guzmán assured me that I would not be disappointed as his cousin’s horses were pros at these events and adept at handling any unforeseen situation that might arise when traveling along a busy highway.

The event started in Ixtapa in a large lot across from the Ixtapa Palace hotel. To say it was a party would be an understatement. Several people offered me mezcal shots to fortify me for the ride ahead, which I accepted, not wanting to appear rude. Unfortunately, the rest would have to wait until I arrived safe and sound at my destination; I am a lightweight with alcohol at the best of times.

Riders and their horses started to arrive around 11 a.m. Some had traveled a fair distance, from as far away as Guanajuato and Michoacán as well as various parts of Guerrero.

Cabalgata in Zihuatanejo
The parade heads out from Ixtapa.

In addition, for the first time in this cabalgata’s history — probably due to an unfortunate incident where one horse collapsed and died on a similar ride less than a month ago — a vet was on hand to check the health of each horse.

Again, there was music and food and a definite festive air. Zihuatanejo Mayor Jorge Sánchez, his wife Lizette Tapia and this year’s pageant queen and princesses, welcomed the crowd along with other dignitaries. There were plenty of visitors from Canada and the United States who took photos while enjoying the show, including a heart-stopping gymnastic rope show by crowd favorite Bernardo López Muñoz, aka “The Cheese Man.”

Everyone was super friendly and welcoming, and Huitrón and others paved my way to being accepted as the only foreigner to ride.

My mount, Apache, a beautiful and docile gelding, was exactly the horse I had requested. Nothing seemed to faze him, a sentiment echoed by his owner, Orlando. He also loved to dance and surprised me by doing a cha-cha-like move as soon as the band struck up, which completely disarmed and delighted me.

I spent some time talking to other riders, whose pride of ownership in their horses was evident. The saddles alone on some of them cost a small fortune, made with the finest leather and adorned in silver.

After about two hours of merriment and making new friends, it was time for the nearly 230 horsemen and women to ride out. The streets from Ixtapa and the overpasses to Zihuatanejo are lined with people for nearly the whole route. People roared up and down the highway on ATVs providing refreshment to the riders, a welcome respite after the heat. In all, it took about 2 1/2 hours to reach our final destination in the neighborhood of Las Salinas.

At the end, weary but excited, I slid down off my saddle and bow-legged my way to the bar for a well-deserved beer.

Check another item off my bucket list!

The writer divides her time between Canada and Zihuatanejo.

Have something to say? Paid Subscribers get all access to make & read comments.

What Mexico’s indigenous government can teach us about tradition

A little known branch of the Mexican government is uniting indigenous people across North America and giving new life to traditional practices.
Little girl standing in a doorway blowing a kiss

A secret to happiness in Mexico, and maybe in life: A perspective from our CEO

Mexico News Daily CEO Travis Bembenek shares how a mindset shift can improve happiness, not just in Mexico, but anywhere.

Mystical Mexican memes to move the morose

Get your biweekly fix of Mexican jokes, translated into English by our resident meme mistress.