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Santa Teresa, on Costa Rica's middle Pacific Coast, lures surfers and others entranced by the vibe of this laid back beach town. But there's a side of it many visitors never get to see. Most people fall under the spell of white sand, coconut palms, cobalt blue sea and stellar waves, never leaving the beaches. And I must admit, if you’re staying at fabulous beachfront resorts like Pranamar Oceanfront Villas and Yoga Retreat, it’s easy to want to stay there forever.
Still, there are many things to do in Santa Teresa that show you the marvels and beauty of Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula. On a recent sunny Saturday morning, while on vacation in Santa Teresa Beach, my visiting family and I drove the rugged road 15 minutes north to the tiny fishing village of Manzanillo. From there we ascended up into the coastal foothills to the sprawling 4,700-acre ranch Hacienda Ario. The family owned, working ranch encompasses rolling foothills, fertile river valleys, primary and secondary tropical forest, mangrove forests and beautiful, desolate beaches along the Pacific Ocean of the Nicoya Peninsula.
At Hacienda Ario, well-cared-for horses graze in verdant pastures. Five are saddled up waiting for us at a little building that houses gear and bathrooms. Our bilingual guide, Karol, pleasantly greets us and introduces us to our cowboy, Douglas, who is busy readying the horses.
For my nieces Adeline, 8, and Katelyn, 10, this is one of the things they most want to do during their first vacation to Costa Rica. Raised in Southern California around horse ranches, the girls have been riding since they were ages 4 and 6. In fact, they are the most experienced riders in our group. One by one we are matched with a horse that meets our riding experience. My 8-year-old niece Adeline gets a pony named Perla and is thrilled.
All of Hacienda Ario’s tour horses – along with the herd of 80 or so more on the ranch – are raised with natural horsemanship, a philosophy of working with horses based on the horse's natural instincts and methods of communication rather than fear or pain. Their horses are healthy, calm, well-trained and active. They use comfortable Western-style saddles, and as in most of Costa Rica, the horses had halter-style bridles without bits.
Far from a routine, standard trail ride, Hacienda Ario guides tailor and adapt each tour based on participants’ experience and abilities. Given that most in our group were beginner riders our guides chose a leisurely route along sparsely traveled ranch roads and trails.
For the next three hours, we rode along lovely, shady, tree-lined dirt roads, across grassy pastures and the occasional small stream. Douglas, who along with his father, grandfather, and all of his siblings had worked with horses his entire life, taught us about the various trees and tropical birds we saw along the way. At one point, we saw a large family of howler monkeys sheltering from the hot sun in the arms of an expansive Guanacaste tree.
A short side trail led us out onto the grassy crest of a hill to see dramatic vistas over miles of undeveloped countryside stretching all the way to the coast. When we got to a large river crossing, we hesitated a moment before plunging in along with Douglas and Karol, reassured by their encouraging smiles. The water barely came up to our horses’ knees in the deepest part.
After a quick five minutes further, we pulled up to the local cantina La Perla for a cold drink and a much-needed stretch. Back in the saddle again, we were off to see a giant 100-year-old cenízaro tree (Samanea saman) in a vivid green field. Nearing the end of our ride, we came out onto a breathtaking empty beach that borders the ranch. Two other Hacienda Ario cowboys were escorting a small herd of Brahman cows along the surf line. We rode past a small coastal mangrove forest, through a few ranch fence gates, up a grassy incline, and suddenly we were back at our starting point.
Our group was tired but elated at the unforgettable experience. “This was one of the best horseback riding tours we have ever taken anywhere! It was a controlled ride yet we had complete freedom,” said my sister Mary after the tour. “Karol and Douglas were excellent guides in their personal attention and professionalism. I highly recommend Ario Tours as one of the best things to do in Santa Teresa.”
Hacienda Ario is an eco-horseback riding tour founded on the commitment to sustainable land stewardship and conservation for future generations. Small group or private tours, held daily, let you experience the beauty of Costa Rica and connect with nature and local culture at the same time.