I’ve done a fair amount of gushing already about my time in San Juan del Sur. I fell in love with this breezy little beach and surf town, and put aside plenty of time for research — yes, let’s call it research — into all the many ways to keep oneself entertained there.
Yet I have saved the best for last. Not only is what follows the best day I had in San Juan del Sur, it’s one of my favorite memories from this entire trip. And that memory is playing cowgirls and pirates with the crew at Rancho Chilamate.
It all started with the earliest wake up call I had in San Juan del Sur, a 7:30am pickup from the center of town. As I scoured the eerily silent streets for a Diet Coke, I saw a blonde in a cowgirl hat approaching and concluded that my ride had indeed arrived. Despite the early morning hour, Noelani was bubbly and sweet and I quickly felt a Stage Five Friend Crush brewing.
In the twenty minute drive out to the ranch, we discovered a shared affinity for all things aloha (Noelani is a Hawaii native), karaoke, and ocean. As caffeine cleared the cobwebs from my brain, I started to get the feeling it was going to be a great day.
Driving through the gates of Rancho Chilamate, I was greeted like an old friend. Heather, also known as Blue, was so down-to-Earth it took me a moment to register that she was the owner of the beautiful ranch in front of me. And her crew, cowgirls Amanda and Heather and cowboy Nick, were equally disarming in their charm.
I took a grand tour of the property and immediately regretted I wasn’t calling one of the four cozy guestrooms home for a night. Who wouldn’t want to wake up to that pool, or linger over dinner with this crowd?
I arrived at Rancho Chilamate with zero expectations. I knew that their rides were ranked number one on Tripadvisor for things to do in San Juan del Sur and I knew that I loved unique horseback riding experiences, but I hadn’t asked any questions or done any research beyond that.
So imagine my delight when our first order of business was suiting up in a fully stocked cowgirl closet, and doing a photoshoot in front of those gorgeous blue doors.
They had me at dress up time. And professional photographer.
Next, we met our horses. My partner for the day was a beauty named Bruno, who I’d been matched with after answering questions about my personality and riding experience. Our group was perfectly sized — five riding guests and three ranch guides, and we meandered contentedly through dirt roads and wide open valleys towards the beach.
There’s no mane-to-tail riding at Chilamate. The horses moved organically, and I felt connected to Bruno as we tested out different gaits and took turns saying hi to different riders and horses. I realized right then and there I could never go on another stale trail ride again. Not after this.
We crested a ridge in the valley and suddenly, I was staring out at the sea. The horses knew exactly what to do.
At this point, we dismounted and everyone took a break — the horses relaxed in the shade and we toasted to our journey with cervezas and warm goodies baked by women in the local community. It had only been a few hours but I felt like I was surrounded by old friends. When cowgirl Heather revealed it was her birthday, I was genuinely thrilled to be spending it with her.
And then, it was time to really ride.
After a demonstration and a thorough briefing from the cowgirls, I swallowed my nerves and tried something I’d always dreamed of but didn’t know if I’d ever actually do.
Bruno and I galloped down the beach, over and over again.
Running with a horse, and feeling the full power of his speed carry me across the sand, was one of the most exhilarating things I’ve ever done. I felt a white noise of adrenaline coursing through my brain and when we slowed to a trot there was nothing I could do to stop my beaming.
Back at the ranch, I still couldn’t wipe the grin — nor stop babbling about the morning and thanking everyone for such a special experience. Perhaps to keep the momentum going — or perhaps to shut me up, at least temporarily — shots of rum were offered all around.
I’ve been horseback riding all over the world, and I’m grateful to have had some unbelievable rides in places like Iceland and Costa Rica. But I’ve never left the saddle smiling as wide as I did at Rancho Chilamate.
And a big part of what made the morning so special? The people I shared it with. By the time we were throwing back rum shots I was ready to ditch the blog for a pair of cowgirl boots and move myself right to San Juan del Sur. So I think you can imagine my reaction when one of the girls asked me if I had plans for the afternoon, and if not — would I like to join the whole crew on a catamaran cruise?
Um, yes, I think I can clear my schedule of answering emails and filing my nails in order to join the seaside birthday celebrations of one of my newest BFFs and future ranch roommates! It was like I played like the good times lottery and hit the jackpot.
Photo via Adventurous Kate
After a quick stop in town to grab a bikini and Kate — who responded with impressive chill to my frantic “SOS DROP EVERYTHING FORGET WORK WE’RE GOING ON A CATAMARAN SEE YOU IN SEVEN MINUTES” text message — we boarded the appropriately named Must B Crazy and got straight down to quality control testing a few more bottles of rum.
Kate and I had actually been eying up posters for Nica Sail and Surf all week, and had planned to treat ourselves to a day out on the ocean eventually. But we couldn’t have dreamed up a better afternoon to be out there, or a better group to be out there with.
After sailing through the San Juan harbor, we made our way out to a secluded private beach. Tossing a bag of beers overboard, the captain told us to swim to shore and go wild. And wild we went.
Swimming in the turquoise sea, sipping on free-flowing rum drinks, frolicking on the most beautiful beach I’d seen in Nicaragua, and laughing with an amazing group of new friends? I don’t think life gets much better.
But then we got back on the boat, where the captain had prepared fresh ceviche from the fish he’d caught on the way out, plus what appeared to be a bottomless bowl of gourmet guacamole. So actually, it turned out, life could get even better.
As the sun set and we made our way back towards San Juan del Sur, the group starting making a game plan for the night ahead — a night that, unsurprisingly, would be filled with even more good times and great laughs. But me? I was quietly reflecting on the day behind us, confident it was one I’d remember for a very long time.
‘Till next time, San Juan del Sur.
Rides with Rancho Chilamate are $69-79 depending on the time of day. Tour departure times are based on the tides to allow for the largest, flattest beach possible. The total tour lasts five hours, with about three hours in the saddle. Beautiful professional photos are posted on Facebook for free and available at full size sans watermark for purchase. A portion of each ride goes to a community development fund. I received a free ride in order to review it for this site.
Cruises with Nica Sail and Surf cost $75 and last from 1pm to sunset. Beers, Flor de Caña cocktails and snacks (in the form of ceviche, fresh guacamole and chips) are included.
While splurges, both excursions are excellent and clearly, in my opinion, worth every córdoba.
Such gorgeous photographs Alex! Especially the equine centred ones. I’ve always been pretty intimidated by horses but I think with such an amazing scene and caring staff I may be able to get over it!
If there’s anywhere that you would, this would be the place. Loved up, healthy horses and a passionate and fun ranch crew. It’s the perfect place to face your fears 🙂
Your photos blew me away! I just might quit my job and book a one-way ticket to San Juan del Sur. Those horseback riding pictures are stunning! Epic! Whoever took your pictures of you on the horse deserves a big high five!
I’ll meet you there Kristin! And yes — I absolutely adore and cherish these photos!
Love this post! I’m a noob if it comes to horseriding. Is it only for people with experience? Because the time I rode a pony when I was six won’t count as experience I think.
Jessica they would love to have you and any other beginners! They’ll match you with an appropriate horse and make sure you get the attention you need and are comfortable the whole time. I think it would be a great first(ish) experience!
Awh that’s great, thanks for the amazing tip!
That’s a pretty great value for horses and a professional photographer!! The black and white picture of you on a horse in the water is my favorite 🙂
I think so as well! Really, the photos are priceless. I squealed the day they appeared on Facebook!
I have bookmarked this ranch – it sounds right up my alley! Let’s hope I get there sooner than later. Thanks for sharing 🙂
Let me know when you do Leigh! It’s amazing!
So beautiful! I’m actually going to Nicaragua soon and I’m planning on stopping in San Juan Del Sur for a couple of days after reading your blog. Unfortunately, both of these activities are well out of my price range – I might splurge for Sunday Funday haha. If I like San Juan del Sur, I need to return when Im not such a broke ass 20 year old. Love the amazing photos though and Im glad you had so much fun!
Thanks Rachel! Whatever you decide to splurge on, I’m sure you’ll have an amazing time in San Juan!
Did I mention I want to be back in Nicaragua? And that San Juan Del Sur was first on my list? As soon as you mentioned this in your Photo of the Week, I knew I had to do it! Playa Chiquita was a great place for my first time on a horse and galloping a horse on the beach sounds terrifying but oh so amazing at the same time. Plus the country girl in me reallly want to play dress up! 🙂
Yes! Both Rancho Chilamate and Playa Chiquita Riding have the most important aspect in common — healthy happy horses! Which made me love both.
I couldn’t stop smiling as I read this post, your joy shines out! Is there anything better than one of those unexpectedly perfect days? Fabulous.
I love when that comes through in my posts, Francesca! You couldn’t give me a bigger compliment — thank you!
Yep, this pretty much sounds like the best day ever. That horseback riding experience sounds awesome. I can actually feel your excitement through your writing. I love that they actually dress you up and do a photo shoot. That’s kind of amazing 🙂
Wouldn’t it be great if ALL tours included a dress up portion? No? Just me? I would enjoy that 🙂
Amazing photography. You magically transform your blog into a paradise with amazing photos, design and of course, a good story. If a documentary or reality show didn’t materialize, you really deserve a book, not a small one but a semi large one. 🙂 Amazing to see your pictures and stories in full print.
Thank you Julia 🙂 I love thinking of Alex in Wanderland as a paradise of its own!
I’ve never been a horse girl, but not that I’ve done a few horse treks while traveling I secretly want to gallop too!
If you ever get to Nicaragua you’ll have your chance! I don’t know when I’ll get the opportunity again but I hope it’s soon.
The last time I was sitting on a horseback wasn’t actually a horse, but a mule in Quilotoa, Ecuador. It certainly wasn’t as glamorous as this, as I nearly died of a heart attack every time the mule got too close to the mountain cliff, ha ha. It sounds like an amazing experience. I would love to ride a long a beach one day too. Why is it, that all girls want to do that?
Ooof, that sounds like me coming out of the Colca Canyon on a mule. I practically had to just close my eyes! So scary!
Gorgeous pictures, it looks amazing. I love how you manage to transport the feelings of this perfect day. Makes me start dreaming 🙂
Enjoy the daydream, Susanne! I’m doing the same right now… would love to have a time machine and go back to this 🙂
I’m a little scared of horses and this even looks fun to me! (well, maybe not the galloping down the beach part!) So much of the success of a day like this depends on the people and it sounds like they were the best!
There was one girl who chose not to gallop… and she still had a great time!
Wow, looks like a dream day of fun!
It was indeed… I couldn’t have dreamed it better myself!
YeeHaw! So much kick ass rolled in to one. I’ve been horseback riding twice and enjoyed it much more than I thought I would. Some of my fav days are when one surprise leads to another. Thanks for saving this til the end!
It wouldn’t be fair to any other posts to put them after 😉
This is basically the opposite of a horseback riding experience I had! We galloped, but it was not intentional! Some branches got stuck in the horse’s tail and spooked him, and he took off! Everyone was ok though, except maybe the branches. 🙂 Despite that, I LOVE horses and horesback riding, and this totally just bumped San Juan del Sur up my list!
The same thing happened to me when I was horseback riding in Panama. Definitely not as enjoyable when it is not planned for! So glad I got to try it for real.
This sounds like the best day ever!! I especially liked the part about your text message to Kate lol
I have definitely mastered the art of the frantic, non-emergency emergency text message!
This sounds like so much fun! I love these types of travel experiences that leaving you feeling completely and deliriously happy. I can’t remember the last time I rode a horse, and I think I need to change that ASAP!
This would be the perfect place to do it, Ashley!
OMG…. I MUST go to San Juan del Sur and do this horse riding adventure!!! Did you canter along the beach or was it an actual gallop?
Hmmm… maybe I need to check with the cowgirls to be sure but I am quite sure that we were going full speed and galloping!
I love this post so much! The horseback riding part especially! Have you been riding a lot before or how did you manage to stay up on the horse? 😀 I feel like even after I had proper horseback riding lessons for half a year, I wasn’t able to gallop comfortably 😀 Maybe that’s just me..
I’ve been horseback riding probably half a dozen times in the past two years, but the instruction really helped as did the experience of the horses. I guess I just felt in my gut that I could do it, and I did! 🙂
Gosh! If this doesn’t give you wanderlust you’re hopeless. Thanks for adding ANOTHER incredible location to my list! Gah, if I don’t get there in the next year… Haha!
Aw, thanks Megan! San Juan del Sur was on my bucket list for AGES… so glad it lived up to my high expectations.
DAAAMN Girl, that looks like the most amazing day!
It really was 🙂 Almost like a dream!
I love this Alex and I love the freedom of galloping on sand. I’ve only ridden a few times (mainly in Wales, UK), and even though I had a really sore bottom as I only ride every few years, it was worth every penny! And that sailing cruise. How lovely! ‘Love it. 🙂
Oh my gosh I was SO sore the next day. Thanks goodness for yoga or I would have been stiff for days! It was well worth it though 🙂
You look like such a natural! What an awesome day.
I felt like one too 🙂
Looks like you had a fantastic time and the photos are beautiful (both the color and black and white). The pictures of you horse-back riding are awesome! Loved reading about your experience.
I will absolutely treasure those photos! Thanks Brooke 🙂
Normally I don’t get excited about riding horses but you had me at dress up time, too! Throw the beach in and I’m sold.
Pretty much any activity involving dress up time wins me right over 🙂
What an incredible day!
Seriously has my wanting to step straight through my screen and use this blogpost as an itinerary xx
Go for it Amy 🙂 All the planning is done for you!
Love, love, love your blog Alex! I stayed a couple of nights at Rancho Chilamate last year and haven’t been able to stop raving since. I live in Costa Rica and couldn’t agree more about the horseback riding at the Ranch – I’ve ridden all over the world but there it was just so special, and Blue is the original cowgirl if there ever was one!
Funny fact – the pic you have of the painted skull…I painted it while I was there with some left over henna as a thank you to Blue! I don’t think I even got that good of a photo of it. Such a small world 🙂
Thanks for bringing me back with this post, I look forward to reading more!
Wow, it is indeed a small world! Email me if you want me to send you that picture of your painted skull full size 🙂 Ah, Rancho is just amazing isn’t it? Next time I go back to Nicaragua I’m totally spending the night… or two!
Sorry just now getting back to you – I’ll send an email along, it would be awesome to have! (and THANK YOU for offering!!) It is an awesome place – would be such a fun place for a blogger retreat… So many amazing moments worth photographing/writing about and Blue could teach less experienced photographers (you’ve obviously got it down)…fun stuff!
Thanks for reminding me of this bliss! We galloped at that same divine beach some years back and loved every moment of it! Those horses were a blast, so far away from any other stables in Nicaragua. Loved your pictures!
Thank you! This is one of my favorite memories from Nicaragua. So good!