Loca Luna: Crazy Moon and the Volcano
She was beautiful. Luna, a lovely bay mare, with a keen intelligent face, complete with star, and a spring in her step. As the most experienced rider of the three of us, she was given to me. It wasn’t until I was in the saddle that Mario, our guide, told me that they like to call her Loca Luna. Oh, and just so I should know, she was in season… I now suspect that Marni and Steve were more astute than me, had heard her name, and had feigned any experience in the field of horse riding whatsoever. For myself, I’d had a few lessons, and done a bit of riding a bit here and there. I was enthusiastic, but I was definitely no expert.
At that point, I didn’t know a lot of Spanish. I could order beer, book a room or a bus ticket. I could count to twenty.
I even knew that Loca Luna means Crazy Moon.
But I chose to ignore this fact. After a cramped few days of travelling in a bus, exploring the volcano, which rises above Baños, on horseback seemed like a great idea, and I wasn’t going to let anything spoil that.
Baños de Agua Santa, to give its full name, is a sleepy-looking town near the north of the ‘Valley of the Volcanoes’ in Ecuador.
It is a popular destination for Ecuadorean families, and has now become a huge draw for travellers who want to take part in more extreme activities, like white-water rafting. But then, back in 2001, it was a bit of a non-descript town, in a stunning setting, surrounded by snow-peaked volcanoes, lush green forests, and meadows slashed by high tumbling waterfalls.
My most recent riding experience had been in Argentina, a few months earlier, charging across the pampas with a bunch of gauchos. But I had never been introduced to that particular horse by name, and to be honest, don’t remember much about him. What had grabbed my attention was the saddle: a deep armchair of tooled leather, with silver buckles and rivets. I finally realised just how John Wayne was able to ride for days, searching the wide prairie and desert, without seizing up. Having only having experienced the ‘English’ style saddle, where you perch on top of a polished leather surface like a monkey on a bar stool, these Western saddles felt like cheating. It was riding, but with no effort needed to stay on board. And none of that nonsense with the reins – just pull right to go right, and left to go left. Pull back to stop. I did not complain, and careered over the flat grasslands feeling as safe as if I was on a wooden rocking horse in a nursery.
At Baños, we were already at altitude, and had arrived during the rainy season. Tungurahua (Quechua for ‘throat of fire’) is an active volcano, rising to over 16,000 feet. It had previously erupted in 1999. Some days following our departure, there were tremors, causing huge mudslides in the area, and the volcano continues to be active.
We set off, the four of us on eager horses, happy to be out in the fresh air and sunshine. At times the horses were knee deep in mud as they clambered and lurched up slippy tracks, taking us to green meadows and past rushing waterfalls. Much of the lower slopes were filled with trees, which gave some coolness in the sun, but the meadows below were covered with wild flowers. When the clouds lifted, the views were stunning. The horses were beautifully cared-for animals – always a concern when you go trekking on your travels – and were sure-footed and responsive. We felt completely safe. We met no one else on the volcano.
We did some trotting and a bit of a canter, and even managed a gallop when the land levelled out. And I marvelled at the flowers which were growing profusely, which also grew in my own garden at home. It was a perfect day.
After a morning of riding, we ate our packed lunches at the Mirador La Cruz Bellavista – as the name suggests, a giant cross set in the hillside, with a beautiful view. We then started to head back down the volcano to the field where we’d met the horses. The altitude, fresh air and exercise, as well as the food, had made us sleepy, and we were planning to visit one of the spa baths for which Baños is famous.
(As well as my knowledge of Spanish words as detailed above, I also knew that Baños was both the word for bath and for bathroom in Ecuador. The town was named for the spa baths filled from the hydrothermal springs, rising from volcanic depths. It was not named for a profusion of bathrooms.)
We eventually left the soft greenness of the grass and trees and turned onto an unmetalled road. This is another way of saying that it was not tarmac. It was essentially hardened mud, studded with small stones and the odd rock, strewn with gravel. Dusty in the dry season, muddy in the rains, it was rock hard and uneven, no matter what time of year.
For Loca Luna, this seemed to be a signal to reveal her true character. She began to prance and picked up speed, acting as skittish and flighty as a teenage girl on her first date. Marni, Steve and Mario continued at a more sedate pace on their horses. Eventually, Loca Luna told me that she was having none of this ambling along, and broke into a jog-trot. I tried to pull her back, slow her down, but she grasped the bit and pulled into a canter. I dragged on the reins, pulling back, but she began to fight me, twisting and shaking her head, shimmying her body. I quickly realised that she was in control, and that she was giving me only two choices.
I could continue to try to fight her, and she would probably fling me off without a thought. The hard-packed road did not look inviting, we were already travelling at speed, and no hard hat had been provided.
Or I could acquiesce to her superiority, and give her full control, and hope for the best.
I took the second choice, and I like to believe that decision probably saved my life. Or saved me from picking gravel out of my skin for days to come.
As she stretched into a gallop, I held tight to the pommel of the saddle, to the reigns, to her mane. I squeezed my knees, thighs and calves tightly. I am not ashamed to say that I pleaded with her not to throw me.
But Loca Luna knew what she was doing. She was heading home to her lush green field where she could roll and munch grass and relax – her own spa afternoon. And she was getting there just as quickly as she could.
I glanced down: the road was a blur. The trees and vegetation at the side of the road swooshed past. As the road descended, we picked up speed. By now I was praying that we would not meet any vehicles. We didn’t; but I truly believe that if we had, Loca Luna would have simply vaulted over the top of them.
My fingers were cramped and numb from holding on. I had no feeling in my legs, and at one point lost – and regained – a stirrup. There was nothing elegant about my style as I hung on for dear life and tried to enjoy it. Perched like a jockey, praying for a soft landing seemed to be the most that I could do.
At last, she slowed down, covering the last few yards to her field at a sedate lady-like walk. She wasn’t even sweating, just flicking her tail and tossing her head. I did not look or feel quite so calm. The man waiting for us simply laughed as he helped me down; my legs were trembling slightly. He shook his head in admiration as he patted Loca Luna’s neck, quickly untacking her.
His admiration was not directed at me.
Marni and Steve showed up a good 20 minutes later, laughing hysterically at my wild ride.
But I had galloped down the side of a volcano on a mare called Loca Luna, and lived to tell the tale. And that was enough for me.