Rancho Chilamate: Its Soul Shines through the Details

Rancho Chilamate Eco Ranch & Horseback Riding, San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

We endeavor that our life and activity in Nicaragua continually respects and benefits our local community and environment. – Rancho Chilamate

Yearning to escape the busyness of town, I excitedly accepted Blue’s invitation to join Rancho Chilamate’s horseback adventures on an early morning ride to Playa Escamequita.  The 7:30am departure offered a glimpse of San Juan del Sur often hidden from hungover backpackers and sleepy tourists.  On my 20 minute drive south, local fisherman and farmers were already hard at work while children dressed in blue and white uniforms made their way to school.

The Reserve

Holding true to its eco-friendly anthem, Rancho Chilamate is situated within the heart of Las Fincas Reserve. And the Reserve is simply extraordinary.

Since its conception, over 90,000 indigenous trees have been planted by hand to reforest and preserve over 450 acres of pristine tropical dry forest, an eco-system critically endangered in Western Central America.  Awarded the Gold Standard by both The Rain Forest Alliance and the CCBA (Climate, Community & Biodiversity Alliance), the Reserve is home to numerous species of plants and animals including sloths, parrots, monkeys and of course…horses.

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The Family History

Rancho Chilamate is the realized vision of Blue Van Doorninck and Jamie Lake.  With little to no knowledge of the Spanish language and never having been to Nicaragua prior to 2007, they found a piece of land in Las Fincas de Escamequita, designed and built their dream home.

Shortly afterwards they started a business hosting professionally photographed horseback adventures like no other in the country.  A grass roots style business that took off like wildfire.  They quickly rose through the ranks of Trip Advisor’s recommended activities to do in San Juan del Sur as the #1 uncontested winner annually, with almost unanimous votes of excellence.

In the fourth quarter of 2013 Blue took over the reigns solo and transformed what used to be their private residence into an active Eco Guest Ranch.   Soon after, “With blind faith and a couple of bags,” Kate and Alex Spooner moved from England to Nicaragua to join the Rancho Chilamate family during the transitional growth. The Spooner’s appetite for adventure and fiery enthusiasm are a welcome addition to the neighborhood.

Rancho Chilamate Eco Ranch & Horseback Riding, San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

The Eco Guest Ranch

Boasting over 8,500 square feet of tile, wood and stone, the Eco Guest Ranch was built by local hands using regional resources.   To start with, the entire construction crew was hired from the nearby villages of El Carizal and Escameca.  Building materials were all sourced from Nicaragua and local oxcarts delivered the wood and sand.  The iron work, doors and windows were installed by a neighboring carpenter.  The wooden beams were hand-cut by chain saw, the cement holding them together was mixed by hand and it’s recycled sun-baked clay tiles that line the roof-tops.  As advertised, the entire ranch is truly and proudly “solar and horse powered.”

The entrance is defined by a pair of 13 foot antique blue doors which often get used as the beautiful backdrop for pre-ride photo-opps.  The exalted ceilings in the dining hall immediately lift my attention to the walls that have been artfully decorated with exotic paintings, aged photographs, ancient artifacts and musical instruments. A blood red velvet couch, perfectly positioned beside the book exchange shelf, invites the weary traveler.  Authentic cannon balls serve the purpose of door-stoppers.  A cowbell hangs from the wall to alert guests to meal times.  One corner has an antique pirate style treasure chest so old that the nails holding it together are made of wood. A 12 foot long hardwood dining table at the center of the room looks like it has stories of its own.

My imagination runs wild.  Rancho Chilamate is alive and its soul shines through the details.

The guest ranch consists of four rentable rooms, a casita and the owners barracks. El Romanitco is the most luxurious room offering a beautiful iron cast framed king size bed, antique furniture, colorful artwork and saloon style doors leading to a 1/2 barrel cowboy shower; named for the privacy of its backside balcony with hammock.  El Pirata and El Sueno each offer a queen bed, private entrance and bathroom in parallel Chilamate design quality.  El Nido offers 2 bunk-beds (4 pax sleeping capacity) a private outdoor shower and plenty of horseshoe hooks to hang your cowboy hat.

Despite the masterfully designed sleeping quarters, the ranch was intended for outdoor communal living.  I followed the path of thoughtfully laid beach rocks to the outdoor patio filled with several options for relaxation.  If it’s quiet time you seek, try the Jimmy Hendricks coffee corner, named for the almost life size painting of the legend in the backdrop.  The hanging chairs, blue rocker bench and coffee table made of salvaged beach wood are almost irresistible.  The palapa covered living room offers additional couches and hammocks with a view of the horse stables.

Whether you want to take a dip in the pool, or lounge in chairs on the sundeck, quality time spent in the courtyard is an absolute must. And not to worry, the entire ranch is wifi accessible.

Rancho Chilamate Eco Ranch & Horseback Riding, San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

The Boot Room

Passing through the swinging saloon style doors, I enter what is famously known as the boot room.  I’m told to pick out a hat, a bandana and a pair of boots for the ride.  Three lines of cowboy hats hang from hooks made from recycled horseshoes and an ox cart yoke.  Beneath it there’s a retired church pew re-purposed for trying on boots.  An antique amour holds a colorful array of bandanas to suit any personality.

I’m joined by three other riders who are also gearing up.  We choose our costumes and make our adjustments but it’s Blue, the expert photographer, who has the final say on our outfits to ensure we are best suited.  I now feel ready to play the part of a cowgirl on the ride of a lifetime.

Rancho Chilamate Eco Ranch & Horseback Riding, San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

The Ride

We stroll across the meadow to the stables where we’re greeted by our trail guides and saddled horses.  Blue carefully designates a rider to each horse matching riding experience with expectations.  I am impressed by how well she knows the horses’ tendencies and personalities.  I am matched with Conejo, a feisty horse who likes to run in the water and occasionally gallops like the rabbit he’s named after.   As if sensing my building nerves, Blue ensures his obedience.

Once everyone is situated on their saddles and riding instructions are thoroughly covered, we start off down the dirt road. As we approach the first of five river crossings, we’re encouraged to dig our heels in and lean back on the down hill.  Through head high grassy fields and past 150 year old Guanacaste trees filled with Congo monkeys, we lazily make our way to the ocean in awe of mother nature.

We take a beer break on the beach before re-saddling for a gallop through the white water.  It is time to kick the horses into fourth gear.  Blue tells me to get her boots wet.  The horses know exactly what to do.  My adrenaline soars as my cowgirl dream of riding on an undiscovered beach comes true.  Every article of my clothing is soaked and I’m smiling ear to ear.  Blue’s lens has captured every minute evidencing the adventure. By the looks on my comrades faces, they shared a similar thrill.

As we make our journey back to the guest ranch we comment on how different we feel than when we started. Maybe it’s the freedom.  Maybe it’s the adrenaline. Whatever it is, it’s the type of experience that makes you check in with your soul.  We say our good-byes to our horses and head back to the guest ranch for a traditional rum shot to celebrate the adventure and ease the creeping saddle soreness.

Rancho Chilamate Eco Ranch & Horseback Riding, San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

Giving Back

As if the ride wasn’t already worth every córdoba it cost, a portion of the proceeds go directly to a local community development fund.  From spay and neuter animal clinics to children’s class photos and Christmas bucket distribution, Blue and her team are dedicated to serving the community in which they live.

What makes Rancho Chilamate so special?

It’s the people at Rancho Chilamate that make the experience so special.  The ranch hands and trail guides are friendly, knowledgeable and energetic, making even the least experienced rider and farthest-flung visitor feel very much at home.  And Blue is truly one of San Juan del Sur’s most treasured spirits. She’s a pioneer, a visionary, an artist and a cowgirl with a heart of gold.

If you have only one day in San Juan del Sur, book a ride with Rancho Chilamate and pencil in some quality time at the Eco Guest Ranch.