The Tourist and the Cowboy

A horseback ride into the Cuban countryside took a detour I'll never forget

The drive to be special is such a peculiar addiction. At 22, I thought traveling in India would make me special. In 2015, when I hit 60 the same year U.S.-Cuba relations loosened up, I was convinced going to Cuba would do the trick. Maybe I wasn't quite as adventurous as I had once been, but whenever I said, "I'm going to Cuba," which has been rarely visited by Americans until now, my friends' faces assumed a look of awe, and I felt a sheepish little thrill.

The delusion of specialness became embarrassing when I booked a horseback ride into the countryside outside the small city of Trinidad, southeast of Havana. A few days after Christmas, Trinidad was crawling with tourists, and about 90 percent of them had decided to montar a caballo, just like me.

I have always loved horses. When I was six, my parents let me take riding lessons. I kept at it until I went away to college, passionate for the sensation of flying over a jump, fascinated that I could bond with an animal ten times my size.

Riding the trail in Trinidad was more like bouncing around on a rocking chair. Opi, my trail guide, must have been amused as I explained to him in my halting Spanish, "I used to ride horses when I was young, so I have a bit of experience."

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Opi smiled faintly. He was maybe 35, with ears that stuck out wide, a stiff brown brush cut, a worn Ralph Lauren T-shirt printed with polo ponies. I asked about his name. "My real name is José Luis," he replied in Spanish. "Not a very interesting name, so I'm called Opi. I'm the only Opi in Cuba."

He rode slightly behind me, urging my gentle horse, Guaracho, into a bone-jangling trot. As a child, I had ridden with an English saddle that allowed for posting, an up-and-down movement that takes the jolt out of trotting. I resisted the urge to post, knowing it would look silly on a Western saddle, and tried to figure out how cowboys absorbed the bounce.

Conversation was eliminated, as I concentrated on handling the horse's trot. We passed several groups of tourists on horseback, and I felt unspecial, watching them jounce along just like me, trail guides flicking the horses' haunches with a quirt to make them trot, as Opi was no doubt doing to Guaracho.

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After 15 minutes of winding through dusty farms, we arrived at a thatch-roofed restaurant and tied the horses to a fence. The proprietor served me a glass of spectacular fresh-squeezed sugar cane juice with lime. He said I could pay on the way back, when he would be serving chicken dinner, but I explained that I had brought only enough money for the ride, plus a few pesos. I paid him for the cane juice, and we went back to the trail.

Minutes later, we stopped at a café, a rudimentary structure of planks, the smell of burnt coffee in the air. Opi said I could dip into his fee, and he would come to the guest house for the rest later. I supposed he was required to supply customers to the café and restaurant, and I began to feel I had been loaded onto a tourist conveyor belt, designed to squeeze money out of me at every turn.

Five attractive Italians were grinning at a curly-haired Cuban who sat pounding a club into a wooden receptacle, grinding coffee beans as he sang in a ringing baritone. This song had been handed down by the Cimarron, slaves who had escaped into the mountains from the coffee plantations and set up their own farms, growing the pure coffee he was about to serve us.

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I felt cynical about the performance. Yet the Italians, who later bought four pounds of coffee beans, were having fun. Why couldn't I? What was wrong with entertaining tourists, most of them probably bored by the trail? I grudgingly agreed to buy two cups of coffee for myself and Opi, who was sitting with his back to me, talking and smoking with his friends. One of them was wearing chaps, which the men discussed soberly, touching the thick leather and evaluating the fit.

Another brief ride, and we reached the footpath that marked the entrance to a national park. Opi took my horse and told me it was a seven-minute hike to a waterfall, where I could stay as long as I liked. The waterfall proved to be a thin ribbon pouring over bare brown and yellow rock into two deep green pools of brilliant, clear water. At a shack near the waterfall, beer and soda were for sale. Several dozen Europeans, mostly in their twenties or thirties, sat on the rocks or swam in the pools. I took off my shoes and pants and plunged into the lower pool, refreshed by the luscious water but still grouchy about the inauthenticity of the tourist experience. Or was it just that I was one of a crowd, only older and less glamorous?

When I returned to the horses and detached Opi from his circle of friends, I was determined to get him to talk. A few minutes down the trail, turning around in my saddle, I asked if he had a wife and kids. He came up beside me and listed the ages of his three children: 6, 7 and 14. "Ah, soon she'll have a quinceañera," I said, referring to the big party thrown for Latin American girls when they turn 15.

He nodded and said, "I'll take you to my house on the way back. You can meet my family."

Opi's wife works in a restaurant in town. He owns five horses and raises vegetables on his little farm. I asked if horses were also used to work with the cattle, and he said yes—so the men really are cowboys. We passed a field of flowering calabaza, or squash, and he said they were planted in September, when the rains came. The rest of the year would be too dry to get them started.

I felt like a human being again, not just a tourist. When Opi fell back to talk to a friend, I sneaked out my camera and took a few pictures of the trail. We stopped at a neat brick house with a tin roof. As we dismounted, two gorgeous little girls ran out to hug him. The sulky 14-year-old stalked up and kissed him on the cheek. In the yard, his mother shook my hand and chattered incomprehensibly for a few minutes, until we remounted the horses.

"Next time you come to Cuba," Opi said, "you come here and visit me." I was flattered but wondered if he takes every customer to his house. Then I remembered the owner of the restaurant saying we would stop by for chicken dinner on the way back. Opi had taken me by a different route so we could visit his house.

Maybe I knew something those young tourists didn't know. Maybe I was special, after all.