Por: Juan Abelardo Carles Rosas
Fotos: Carlos E. Gómez, Noelia Vittori
The complex is completely surrounded by very tall and leafy tropical trees, making it difficult to imagine that we are less than twenty minutes by highway from downtown Panama City. A group of people is eating lunch under an enormous palapa, while young riders demonstrate their equestrian skills. This is the Club Ecuestre Castilla de Oro, one of the oldest in Panama, and the spectators are horse breeders from around Latin America, here to present regional governments with joint proposals for stimulating growth in the industry.
For someone with little knowledge of the world of horses in Latin America, it seems odd that Panama would host such a meeting, when South American countries (Perú, Colombia, Argentina) or México are more traditionally associated with horses. But this country again proves itself worthy of its “crossroads” label. For example, Panama does not produce wine, but it offers an unrivaled variety of wines in the region. Even though Panama is not known for its horses, interested visitors can enjoy many equestrian facilities and experiences, depending on their time and inclination.
That is what brings us to Castilla del Oro, one of the equestrian facilities closest to Panama City. Located in the Villalobos area on the edge of town, it offers an outdoor competition field (262 x 197 feet); two practice fields: one covered (197 x 217 feet) and one outdoor (197 x 164 feet); sixty-five stables for clients; forty-eight stables for guest rental; horse baths; feed storage; and riding tack.
The origins of this club are quite historic, as indicated by the name, one of the first names the Spanish Crown granted in Panama. “We opened twenty-one years ago near the ruins of Old Panama City (the original site of the city), in the installations used by the Cavalry Squadron of the former Panamanian Defense Forces,” remembers Heraclio Barletta, one of the club’s owners and trainers. The club has been in its current location for about six years. Riders can begin to train here at the age of four, and the club has produced participants in the Youth Olympic Games in Singapore (2010), as well as several Central American and Caribbean Games.
Castilla del Oro also offers opportunities for those who would simply like to get a feel for the world of horses, especially visitors who are just passing through. “We welcome tourists for riding classes. We provide tack, a helmet, and the horse; all a person has to do is show up in jeans and a shirt. We even have family classes. The only thing people need to do is call us to schedule the appointment,” says Barletta.
If you have more time, you can leave the outskirts of Panama City in search of other equestrian tourism options, such as the Club Ecuestre Coronado, located forty-five minutes west of the city along the Pan-American Highway, in the tourist resort of Coronado. Coronado has a wider range of attractions for horse lovers. Here you will find sand, grass, and dirt fields, as well as a paved track for Colombian paso horses, which are judged on the sound they make when trotting. There are also demonstrations of Peruvian and Spanish paso (gaited) horses, polo facilities, roping fields, and the La Carreta restaurant, where diners can savor meals while enjoying equine shows.
The club’s nearly two hundred stalls house horse breeds that include enormous Andalusians, Austrian haflinger ponies, and burros, which are rarely seen nowadays. Each animal is obviously privately owned and visitors cannot simply go into the stalls to pet the horses, but just walking through the stables, built in the style of the southwestern U.S., and admiring the horses is a wonderful activity.
As in the rest of the world, breeding horses in Panama is closely linked to traditional rural life. Less than one hour from Coronado along the Pan-American Highway is another fascinating example of what can be achieved through love for this tradition. At Penonomé, visitors turn south toward the fishing village of El Coco and head to Hato San José, owned by the Araúz Guardia family, which has been devoted to these noble animals for four generations.
The property stands in the middle of the plains of Coclé that extend toward the Pacific Ocean, surrounded by a grove of elephant ear trees that date back more than two centuries. To the untutored eye, the facilities could pass for a sort of equestrian Disneyland: although the stables (large enough for three hundred animals) and the exercise ring where they hold cutting (separating an individual from a herd) demonstrations, rodeos, equestrian competitions, and training for horses and riders, are a normal size. There is also a modest arena —actually not really so modest, considering that it is private— that reproduces a smaller-scale bullring, used for equestrian competitions and training horses.
“We handle several breeds of horses: Spanish, paso fino equines, horses for harness racing, gallop, and Colombian-style trocha, as well as quarter horses for cattle wrangling and roping, pintos, Arabians, and some Costa Rican criollos,” says San José manager Rodrigo Castillo. While walking around, I realize that each building has a name. María Raquel, daughter of owner Jorge Araúz, explains: “They were named in memory of some of my father’s favorite horses. The farm belonged to my grandparents, and although my father did not inherit it and had to purchase it later, the farm kept the name of Hato San José, after our family’s patron saint.”
Jorge Araúz is known in Panama for the marvelous show in which, mounted on a specially-trained Spanish horse, he “dances” the traditional Panamanian punto, accompanied by a lady in traditional Panamanian dress. Hato San José provides tours of its facilities and, although the owner does not perform his famous show, the tour and a meal are complemented by horseback rides and an equine exhibition in the plaza and exercise ring. Hato San José is located in a picturesque area, so it can easily be included on a tourist circuit covering the Valle de Antón and colonial towns of Penonomé and Natá.
If horses are your passion and you want them to be the sole focus of your trip, we suggest you go directly to Chiriquí (in the Highlands), about 217 miles farther west. This is a region of steep mountains, rushing rivers, and multi-hued vegetation growing in sloping valleys on land fertilized by ancient eruptions from the now dormant Barú Volcano. These conditions have attracted some of the best stud farms in the country.
One of these farms is Haras San Miguel. “My father, Carlos Eleta Almarán, always loved horses. He bought this land more than fifty years ago and began to build his dream. He was later joined by his brother, Fernando,” explains his daughter, Raquel Eleta de Arias. Carlos Eleta dreamed of creating a perfect place for breeding the best race horses. He seems to have succeeded, since his horses have won races in Panama and around the world, and many of them have attained legendary status.
Today he has about 100 racehorses in training, fifty-seven brood mares, thirty-four foals and forty more on the way, and eleven stud horses of the finest lineage. Haras San Miguel provides every convenience for visitors interested in learning about horse breeding. Facilities include a cafeteria, dressing rooms, parking lots, and VIP rooms. Other stud farms in the area, such as Cerro Punta and Cinthia, are also open for visits.
There are actually many horse-breeding operations scattered across this narrow land: we have mentioned only the ones that seem to represent the most diverse and consummate expressions of this art in Panama. They are not the only ones, however, and after visiting and experiencing our recommended sites, you may wish to disappear into the Panamanian countryside to discover horse farms and trails where it is still possible to see farmers on the backs of their faithful, indefatigable criollo horses, or visit a town celebrating the feast day of its saint with an equestrian parade to honor the saint that has guided the townspeople for generations. Humans and horses have been connected since the dawn of civilization and although they are no longer linked by necessity, they are still bound by passion.
Although they do welcome visitors, none of the recommended sites is specifically designed for tourism, so it is a good idea to contact the venue in advance to schedule a visit.
Club Ecuestre Castilla del Oro
Tel. (507) 238 9943
firstname.lastname@example.org / Heraclion@gmail.com
Club Ecuestre Coronado
Tel. (507) 240 1434
Hato San José
Tels. (507) 997 9324 / 997 9306
email@example.com / firstname.lastname@example.org
Haras San Miguel
Tel. (507) 770 6340