Cantering in Cowboy Capital

2024-02-29
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/ Bandera, Texas
Cowboy captial
Cantering in Cowboy Capital

A visit to Bandera, near San Antonio in Texas, is enough to tell you why it is called the Cowboy Capital of the World (Photos: India Outbound/ Varsha Singh)

No visit to Texas can be complete without a day out in the ranches, exploring the country with the cowboys. Rancho Cortez near San Antonio offers an ideal introduction to the life in the wild west.
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Let me start with a confession. I am as big a fan of cinema as you will ever come across. Right from my childhood, I have been fascinated by cinema, irrespective of the language, country or genre. As long as it is good cinema, I have seen it or want to see it. In terms of Hollywood, I have been an absolute devotee of actor-director Clint Eastwood and especially his Western films. I had accordingly decided that whenever I got an opportunity to visit the United States, I would definitely head to the wild west and see the life of a cowboy up close.

And earlier last year, when I got to know that I would be attending IPW, the leading travel trade show in the United States which was being held San Antonio, Texas, I was on the cloud nine. Not only was this going to be my first trip to the United States, but it was going to be in Texas. So, I began imagining the sights and scenes of the wild west, with rugged landscapes and everyone moving about on their horses, complete with their cowboy hats, leather boots and of course the guns in their holsters.

I wondered if I would see these scenes right from the moment that I landed at San Antonio airport. But landing in San Antonio and attending IPW Convention 2023 over the trade show over the next four days, I could not spot a single sight of what I had imagined. It was then I realised that I needed to get out of the cities and head to the countryside. I realised that Texas was a large State, but fortunately for me, I did not have to go too far.

Just about 85 km north-east of San Antonio lies Bandera, that is said to be the Cowboy Capital of the World. I immediately booked a stay with a comprehensive and immersive experience at Rancho Cortez, a family-owned ranch in Bandera. Since I did not have much time to find public transport, which could only be a Greyhound, I asked the ranch manager to arrange for a pickup, which she happily agreed to. On the last day of the IPW Convention, it was very late night in the night when I returned to my hotel room as we all went bar hopping after a reception, held at the San Antonio Memorial, or Alamo Cenotaph, that recreated Texan history. Despite the lateness of the hour, I was anything but sleepy as I was already imagining myself as a cowgirl, riding horses on the ranch.

Country roads take me home

Next morning with my bags packed I was all set to live my long-cherished dream of living the life of a cowboy/cowgirl. The moment the room telephone rang to announce the arrival of my transport to the ranch, I sprang into action and literally raced out of my room with my rather large bags in tow, hoping to see if not a limousine, then at least one of those outsized sedans or SUVs that one always sees in Hollywood films.

At Rancho Cortez, besides riding, one can also learn the cowboy language

But, much to my amusement, I found a Mini Cooper waiting for me. But I was happy and indeed ecstatic as this would  be my first time in a Mini Cooper, though my bags were perhaps as big the car! But undeterred, after immense struggle, I and my driver, who was also a young lady, managed to fit the bags in the car. I sat in the front right next to the driver.

To my surprise, the driver, KD Cortez, was the ranch owner’s daughter and continuing our talk about life in the ranch and broadly about the Texan countryside, we began our journey to the Cowboy Capital of the World. Though we took a bit of time to get out of San Antonio, the drive to Rancho Cortez took about 90 minutes. Enroute, KD and I discussed everything, from politics to life in Bandera and her passion for horses. It was during this time that I found that KD was a professional horse rider who had participated in several national level competitions.

Set in a secluded part on the outskirts of Bandera, the roads approaching Rancho Cortez were bereft of any other vehicles or even sign of life. Yet, the excitement within me was approaching a crescendo as I was about to step into a real Texan ranch for the first time and was about to live my dream, of being a cowgirl, even if just for a day. Entering the ranch, we drove to a small cottage not far from the main gate. The cottage served as the reception of the ranch and where we met Donna who cheerfully welcomed me and quickly explained the rules of the house to me.

She also briefed me about the schedule for the day ahead, which was packed with several activities, including horse riding, a wagon ride to feed the cows, and of course, lassoing. As it was barely 11:00, I was eagerly looking forward to an action-filled day ahead. I was taken to my room, set in a manor with a few other rooms. The room was simply furnished, with a large bed dominating it.

The bedcover caught my eye as it reflected the Hispanic heritage of the area. With small pieces of furniture for storage and of course an attached washroom, the room had all the basic necessities needed for a comfortable stay. Having set my belongings in the room and gone around to get a feel of it, I was about to head back to the reception to begin my exploration of the life on a ranch, when, suddenly, the skies opened up and it began to pour. As I was stuck inside the room, I had no alternative but to rest and regain some energy. As soon as the rain stopped, about an hour later, I stepped out in the muddy terrain to grab some lunch. By then, the heavy rain had given way to a light drizzle, so I ventured out to the stables to see if the activities could commence.

Fortunately, I saw that the first group of horse riders was already there getting instructions. I was the last one to join a family of four that had come to the ranch for the day visit, which is one of the options available to visitors. With my helmet safely on my head, I mounted Lucy, a pure white mare. Our trail leader told us to keep a tight grip on the horses as they tend to go off track and towards their favourite pastures rather than following the group. And sure enough, no sooner than we had quit the stables and left on our trail that some of the horses began to test the will of the rider by wandering off the track.

I could keep Lucy in check, but just ahead of me, the horse that the mother in the family of four was riding began to veer off the trail. As she seemed reluctant to gently kick the horse to prevent it from going off trail, our group leader assured her that a gentle kick does not hurt the horse, but just communicates the direction it should head in. While on the ride through the valley that the trail passed through, we came across a mix of sights. The one sight that struck me was a large field that appeared to be completely yellow as it was densely covered with yellow flowers.

The rain had brought a sense of freshness to the air, making it pleasantly chilly and I took deep breaths, trying to take in as much of the pure and unpolluted air as I could, as within a couple of days I knew I would be headed back to the smog-filled Delhi. After about an hour of exploration of the valley, we returned to the stables and as the rain had left my clothes wet, I went to the room for a quick change. When I returned back to the stables, the sun had come out and I saw a young girl, part of the same family that had come on the trail, trying her hand at lasso.

Rancho Cortez

A day at the ranch is full of activities, from riding and lasso to exploring the countryside and feeding the animals

Watching her for some time, I too joined in and the trainer taught me how to do it. Though he made it seem like a child’s play, I could not really get the hang of it despite several attempts. Just when I was beginning to do it half-decently, we got called for our next activity, feeding the long-horn cattle. Mounting a golf cart, we headed out towards the fields again, this time headed for the area where the cattle were grazing lazily. As we approached, some of the cattle watched us, with their watery-eyes, from a distance, but some others came running towards us and one with immense horns seemed to be charging the golf cart.

Our guide, another cowboy, told us to keep our hands inside the cart and not to feed them while we were still moving. Then, we got off. Though seeing cattle up-close is not something new for any Indian, especially someone who has spent her many school vacations in the familial village near Varanasi, I was left astounded by the sheer size of the horns of some of the cattle, especially one, which seemed to measure more than a metre with each horn. More than feeding the cattle, I was happy to observe them and especially their horns of various shapes and lengths, closely. After sometime, we headed back to the ranch.

Once back on the ranch, I went around to explore the area a bit and saw the various facilities and parts of the ranch, essentially strolling in the nature, with a gentle breeze pleasantly blowing. Soon, it was almost time for another unique experience, a bonfire in the ranch, complete with the mandatory country music. The cowboy who fixed the bonfire and lit it up, soon came back with a guitar and began crooning some melodious songs.

Rancho Cortez

Besides seeing cattle with astoundingly big horns, Rancho Cortez completes the cowboy experience with a bonfire, while the accommodation pays homage to the local culture

After the bonfire and dinner, I went back to my room to catch some sleep. The next morning, after breakfast, I was originally meant to leave the ranch and head to my next destination, but I requested them to let me have another horse riding session on the trail since one of the sessions had been washed out due to the rain the previous day.
Fortunately, they readily agreed and I was back on Lucy for yet another trail, this time, with another family.

I enjoyed this trail even more than one on the previous day as even while riding, I began to imagine scenes from Eastwood’s movies and re-enacting some of them in my mind. As I packed my bags and got in the Mini Cooper again with KD, this time headed back to San Antonio city centre, I had mixed emotions. While I was sad to be leaving the ranch so soon, but I was also glad and thankful to the powers that be that at last, I had become a cowgirl. Even if for a day.

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