Traveling with a Horse Circus in Guatemala

An epic view overlooking the mountainous landscape of Guatemala as seen when travelling the country with a horse caravan

Traveling in a caravan with a horse circus in Guatemala is not really what you’d expect to see deep in the jungle. One adventuress shares her experiences as a gypsy riding in a caravan from place to place with pack horses and hula hoops. Their mission? To bring smiles to people’s faces wherever they go.

Author: Hebe Webber

The Calling

“Attention all Nomads! We are seeking adventurous, spirited souls to come join us on our journey deep into the jungle, deep into our natural wild selves. We are a community travelling by horse and giving a creative show to the local communities in order to experience cultural exchange. Every caravan is different because it is the tribe who makes it. Our quest is to gather riders, artists, healers, movers, makers, and creators of any kind and of any background to form a unified tribe.”

Mounted on a horse and ready to ride further through Guatemala in our horse caravan
Mounted and ready to leave on a riding day in the city of Cahabón. Photo Credits: Hebe Webber

These are the words that echoed in my mind, urging me to follow them to the source. The dream began 5 years prior when I heard the tales of a friend who had ridden with this very community in Mexico. As the years passed, the calling stayed. Until one day I could no longer ignore it. I followed it through Latin America until I had landed in the very place my dream existed: Guatemala.

Finding the Caravan

It is said that if someone can’t find the caravan… well, then they aren’t meant to be in the caravan. With this challenge accepted and in mind, I set off on a 2-day rickety bus journey into the centre of the country. I arrived dusty, tired and determined, to a small town by the name of Senahú. At this point in time, the caravan had been on the move for 3 months. This meant, that most likely it would continue for another 3 months before the rainy season set in. This had both complications and benefits: being that the flow of life in the caravan was already set, the challenge being to find my place in this flow with a group that had already travelled together for months. I pondered this as I sat on the edge of the town square, the only foreigner in sight, contemplating my next move.

The horse caravan in crossing a bridge over the Cahabon river in Guatemala
Crossing the Cahabon river. Photo Credits: Hebe Webber

I wandered slowly towards a tuk-tuk driver, hoping that if I asked for the “gringos con caballos” he’d know where to go. There couldn’t be that many foreigners with horses around. Just as I opened my mouth, I heard someone calling my name. Confused, I looked around. Nothing. Then I heard it again. This time I saw two girls, walking through the fruit market. Tattooed, pierced and shaved heads, there was no mistaking the foreign accents. The caravan had found me.

My New Family

After hitching a ride on the back of a truck, we arrived at the camp. The camp was set high on a hill, in the steep tropical mountains of the area. After being introduced to my new family, I set up my tent, took a deep breath and looked around. I was here, on the caravan, with the Nomads. My dream was now reality.

The community tent is set up high on a hill with the horses grazing around it in Guatemala
The location of the camp when I first arrived. You can see Big Daddy high on the hill surrounded by the herd. Photo Credits: Hebe Webber

The next morning when I woke, I was full of questions. How did it all work? How did we find the next place to camp? What were the horses like?

In the weeks that followed, my questions were answered. In the simplest terms, the caravan works on the outstanding kindness and hospitality of the Guatemalan people. We found our camps by scouting ahead of time, speaking with local “dueños” (owners) either by phone or simply hitch hiking to the closest town we needed to camp, looking for “fincas” (farms) with “potreros” (fenced grassy areas). We then went door knocking to find the dueño and explained who we were, our purpose, and if it was possible to stay on their land. And more often than not they agreed, out of pure kindness, that our community of 15 horses, 2 dogs and 9 people could stay as long as we needed.

The hrse caravan making its way through Guatemala on a dirt road.
On the road somewhere, me mounted on Changa, leading Chinook. Photo Credits: Hebe Webber

The Indigenous People of Guatemala

To pass through or stay in each aldea (village) we also needed the permission of the COCODEs, who are the local indigenous authority, formed as a part of the peace agreement put in place after the civil war ended in 1996. This involved organising a meeting and discussing our reasons for entering the aldea. We also had to consider the type of road we were riding on, terracería (dirt road) being the preferred option as there was less and slower traffic. With all this in mind and organised, the caravan would move its way slowly from place to place sharing circus performances, music and selling handmade chocolate as a way of sustaining the tribe and experiencing cultural exchange with the Guatemalan people. This year the caravan was bound for the south, towards Honduras, the dream to one day reach Argentina.

The horse caravan makes its way through the jungle
Terracería through the jungle. Photo Credits: Hebe Webber

The Horses

The horses were both a constant challenge and reward. We had a barefoot caravan – using hoof boots instead of metal shoes. This meant that every person had to learn to trim their horse’s feet to fit the boots. The determination and “can do” attitude of each and every person in the caravan will always amaze me -many of the them had little to no horse experience before the caravan, and here they were trimming feet and packing horses like they’d been doing it all their lives. The horses were all of various breeds, sizes, colours and of course personalities, most of them originating from Mexico. We each held responsibility for one horse or more, riding one and packing the other.

A horse loaded up with some gear and most importantly some Hula Hoops. All part of our horse circus caravan
Cheval with Hula Hoops. Photo Credits: Hebe Webber

I was lucky to end up with the horse of my friend, who’d ridden with the community 5 years earlier. His name was Myka, a small grey gelding, who’d been the star of my dreams for so many years. Being the horse who had been in the caravan the longest, a pleasure to ride and easy to handle (though occasionally a grumpy old man), he quickly found his way into my heart. The horses were all geldings and we had everything from a tall, quiet blanket appaloosa to a small, fat pony with “little-man” syndrome.

Steven the Escape Artist

This story would not be complete without a mention of Steven, an older white gelding who was our resident escape artist. Cunning and intelligent, he could open any gate, wooden, wire or electric, and take all his 14 friends with him if he so felt. Whenever we arrived in a new place it was always his first move to promptly go and check every gate for escape potential. Even if there was plenty of grass, he still did it. Like he was telling us “I could leave if I wanted to.”

The horse which always escaped: Steven to the left. Here together with Payaso on the right.
The man. The myth. The menace. Steven on the left, Payaso on the right. Photo Credits: Hebe Webber

Big Daddy

The communal tent that was the centre of our camp went by the name of Big Daddy. Our haven, our home, where the family came together to cook over fire, eat, sleep and share music and stories. When meals were ready the family was called together by means of a giant conch shell, which was blown three times like a horn. Often before meals we would sit and sing an om song, to give appreciation for our food, our family, bringing calmness and presence to the space.

A pony named Capítan is carrying parts of the community tent
Our pony, Capítan, ready to go with Big Daddy strapped on his back. Photo Credits: Hebe Webber

When a decision had to be made it was done collectively, seated in a circle passing around a wooden talking stick entwined with the hair of past caravan horses, each person staying silent while the one that held it spoke their mind. Once the stick was passed around and all were silent, it meant there was no longer anymore to say and the decision had been made.

Living in a Zoo?

Often our camps became a focus of interest for the townspeople. It was a challenge not to feel like an animal in a zoo, when a crowd of 30 would sit on a fence and stare at you for hours as you went about your daily life. But you grew accustomed to it, sometimes making friends and understanding the curiosity of the people; was that not the same reason you were here in a foreign country?

For many of the villages it was their first experience of white people. They were both intrigued and scared by us, giggling and averting their eyes if we waved and said hello, but lighting up if we said it in their native language. The ladies in the local tiendas (shops) always asking after what we ate, how we lived, and why weren’t we married yet! Our whole world was foreign to them -a tribe of women and only 1 man, sleeping outside, the life with the horses, circus performances. But what we did share was the human experience, and a smile is the same in every language.

The Circus

My first circus performance was in the street market of Senahú. All eyes were on us as we wandered through, looking for a space to perform. A crowd gathered around us, the children laughing and talking excitedly. I could feel my heart beating out of my chest as my friend announced our presence to the “damas y caballeros!” (ladies and gentlemen). There was 3 of us, one girl and I performing hula hoop tricks while the other sang and played her accordion. We took turns dancing with the hula hoops, spinning them in the air performing tricks to the cabaret-like melodies of the instrument. All the while I was hoping my facial expression did not show the nervous wreck I was inside.

A photo taken after a circus performance. Hula Hoops and an accordion made up an attraction on this day in the market of Senahú, Guatemala
After our circus performance in the market of Senahú, you can see the magnificent accordion! Photo Credits: Hebe Webber

During our breaks, we passed around what we called our “Magic Hat”. This was to collect “propinas” (tips), food, water or anything else we were offered by the townspeople. On this particular occasion we were offered bread, some soft drink and a few quetzales (Guatemalan currency). As we moved from place to place in the market people often followed, the children running after us, daring each other to reach out and touch my arm or hoop. I felt like our presence alone was a circus performance.

The Daily Routine

Riding days usually began at 4am, with the intent to be on the road once the sun had risen. It was on these days I felt that the purpose of the caravan was one, horse brothers and human family moving together to find our next home, sharing in both the challenges and amazing adventures these days usually entailed. On one particular occasion, we had to pass through a main town, only realising once we’d set off that this day happened to be market day. The town was bustling and full, roads lined with street venders selling all manner of fruits, vegetables and grains. Thick traffic of pedestrians, cars, tuk tuks and motorbikes squeezing and beeping their way through the town.

The caravan on the road, somewhere between Senahú and Belen. The tropical mountains of the area were extraordinary. Photo Credits: Hebe Webber

With no other option, we passed through the centre of the market with our line of 15 packed horses. I could feel each one of us hold our breath as we wound our way through the market, all silently praying the horses behaved themselves and didn’t knock over or eat anything. It was a sight to see -I’m certain the entire market suddenly froze and watched as we passed. Us wild foreigners mounted on horses, carrying hula hoops, drums and guitars, clad in colourful clothes, some of us with eyes the colour of the sky, hair the colour of straw and skin like milk; others with the curls and piercings or tattooed skin -like nothing the townspeople had ever seen in their lives. We all laughed and sighed with relief when we’d passed through the town without incident yelling “Yes to the day!” and “We’re doing it live!”

A Special Way Of Living

There was never a dull moment in the life of the caravan. Whether it was circus performing in a market, roasting cacao beans over the fire and selling chocolate in the street or riding the horses to the tienda 200m away just to buy chocolate coated bananas. Sharing meals and smiles with the local people, the kids yelling our names as we wandered through the town. The silent moments of contemplation, as we sat in a river to escape the midday heat.

Escaping the midday heat with the horses by having a bath in a river togehter
A quiet moment of contemplation with Myka, escaping the midday heat. Photo Credits: Hebe Webber

Holding It All Together

When an almighty storm came, the wind lifting up Big Daddy from underneath, pulling the posts out from the ground. Our home collapsing around us we all ran around naked in the dark trying to hold it up, yelling instructions at each other over the clashes of thunder. Hammering the posts back in with the side of an axe, barefoot, the rain pelting on our backs and running into our eyes. And the mess that ensued; Pots, pans, saddle bags, clothes and tools scattered in every possible direction all over the floor, us all naked laugh-crying in a heap next to the fire as we stared at the soggy mess our home now was.

Ready to go on the first day. Behind the western saddle all my belongings are strapped to the horse
Changa with my pack ready to go on my first riding day. You can see my hula hoop and tent strapped behind the big western saddle. Photo Credits: Hebe Webber

Or after a long day of scouting for a new home and finding nothing, treading with heavy steps back home to break the news; then suddenly rounding a corner to be greeted with an extraordinary sight. The landscape stretching out before you, sunrays filtering through the clouds highlighting every mountain and valley, an eagle whirling its dance through the air. The sky on fire as the day came to an end, the colour palette of reds, purples and oranges casting a glow across the landscape, when the sun and moon seem to greet each other. And in this moment, you knew that everything would be okay.

Great Challenges

And of course, there were the days, that after 10 hours of riding on a seemingly endless road, in 90% humidity and over 35 C degrees, you felt through the sweat, dust and tears that you couldn’t take another single step. When all the packs fell down off the horses and it felt like the sky was too. Dragging yourself the final miles only to find we had no food, no firewood and no fence for the horses. Awaking the very next morning, exhausted beyond belief, to cries of “The horses are out!”

The horse caravan on a dirt road in the heat of the day on their way through Guatemala
Halfway through our hardest riding day. 37 degrees, 10 hours, 30km. Through the ears of the appaloosa Changa, and Myka in front. Photo Credits: Hebe Webber

I’m sure every horse person can understand the sudden moment of panic when one hears these words. The days when the horses didn’t want to be caught, when you got kicked, bitten or trodden on and you wondered why you were there in the first place. When we found a snake inside Big Daddy and everybody lost their minds.

The community tent "Big Daddy" set up in a picturesque spot in a grassy field
Our home, Big Daddy, in a grassy (snake filled!) field outside the town of Cahabon. Photo Credits: Hebe Webber

Our Small Community

Living in a small community, like the horses, was a constant challenge and reward. It brought to light all corners of everyone’s personalities, and laid them on the table to be seen. To work together as a family unit, provide for everyone, and keep the peace in challenging situations was not always easy. The caravan was not only a journey of physical distance, but of emotional understanding.

A selfie taken on horseback on a hot and long riding day. In the background you can see the rest of the horse caravan traveling through Guatemala
A quick sweaty riding day selfie. The grey gelding Chinook, carrying our home Big Daddy in a chaff bag on his back. Photo Credits: Hebe Webber

The openness to express yourself, in both good and bad ways, and to work through these personal challenges with honest reflection from your family, was a learning experience I’ll never forget. But the perspective that we all gained will stay with us forever. The horses too, as all horse people know, are a mirror to our souls and will always reflect back to you what is truly happening inside. I have never learned so much about myself in such a short space of time, as what I did with the caravan.

Endless Rewards

But for all the challenges we experienced, it was worth it. For the sense of love, of family. For the ability to overcome seemingly impossible situations, always with the motto “No problems, only solutions.” For the connection to our horses, the love and challenges they brought us. For the lessons I learned that I will keep with me for life. For the smile when you think how far you and each of your new found family have come on a journey of epic proportions both inside and out. When you think of your horse brothers, your friends and the miles you walked together. The Guatemalan people whose lives you changed and they yours. For experiencing something extraordinary, something different. And that knowing all this, you would do it again.

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Do you feel the call? Want to join the Nomads? The 2019 caravan will begin again this OCTOBER, seed camp near Panzós, Alta Verapaz Department, Guatemala. Find out more about the event.

Want to sponsor the Nomads or find out more? Contact Nomads United Love South!

Read what other adventuresses have to say about their amazing and inspiring experiences in South America.

Published by Krys Kolumbus Travel

Krystal Kelly is a California girl on a Quest to see every country. She is a professional equestrian adventuress and has worked internationally with horses since 2010. Since then she has worked at professional competition and riding stables in Egypt, Italy, Romania, India and Bhutan! "I love travelling and I love horses and I am very blessed to be able to do both of my passions for a living!" She now has her own company, Krys Kolumbus Travel where she strives to empower women to travel and provides resources, tips and online courses to encourage women to travel SOLO to unique destinations. www.kryskolumbustravel.com www.krystal-kelly.com

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