12/16/2013 12:35 pm ET Updated Feb 15, 2014

Cowboys vs Pirates: A Weekend in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica

I try not to tell people our horse got bitten by a snake and died -- it tends to put some people off the idea of visiting us here. "Hmm, can't we just go to Cancun and not be bitten by snakes?" It also put me off horse owning for a minute, even though one of the reasons we chose to retire here is that Costa Rica is a horse-y country.

But now I want another horse -- because I don't want to miss another opportunity to ride in the Rasta Tope.

A tope is a horse parade; at Costa Rica's biggest, El Nacional Tope, thousands of riders take their horses down the main street of the capital, San Jose, and the party is on. Here in tiny Puerto Viejo we had about 100 riders.

OK, so I still haven't learned Caribbean time; the parade's posted start time was 12; at 1 o'clock horses were still coming in by the truckload, the pitmaster had just flipped the pork and sausages, and most folks were only on their third beer.

The many cowgirls gripped their beers in freshly manicured hands. And while several chose to ride in bustiers (!), they all saddled up in paint-tight jeans, with many just slightly more made up than Lady Gaga. Men sported more traditional cowboy wear. The rasta cowboys flew long dreads in the back, and tightly shaved sides; perhaps cowboy hats don't fit over a full set.

At 2 o'clock horses are still arriving and it is now an official party with two competitive sound systems: Mexican ranchero music with a cowboy yelling into the mic every few minutes vs. reggae from a white van with a photo of an alligator on the side. We're told by a long time resident that the parade will go down the one and only road into town, and so there we stood, drinking beers, admiring the horses and varied cowfolk, waiting for... something... to start.


At 3 o'clock the riders start moseying out, in what's best described as loose groups; and not down the one and only road into town, as advertised, but along the beach. We giddy-up down the road on our bikes (like mooks) to head 'em off at the river.

As the sun dipped down below the jungle tree line, the riders cruised the beach. There were little kid riders and old timers, too, and several riderless horses as well. The parade was escorted by the reggae van and the Truck of Many Coolers, so no rider would have to go too long without a frosty Imperial beer. I would have bought another horse on the spot.

At the edge of town, the riders did get back on the road, so the traffic looked like this: five horses, huge bus with the driver attempting to turn left, two horses, golf cart, ten horses, little kids on bikes yelling at horses, three horses, very confused tourists in a rental car trying to find their eco-lodge, reggae van, beer truck, 20 horses, police truck with two bored cops riding in the bed... and so on.

Of course, the paso fino (the locally favored horse-prancing step that makes the horses look like they graduated from the Ministry of Funny Walks) was in full effect.

The riders must have finally emptied the coolers because as we headed for home, every bar we passed had horses tied up in front, like western saloons. I am so going to ride in the Rasta Tope next year.

While the horse parade would have been enough excitement to last a while around here, the very next day saw the launching of Pirate's Point: the Barge In Charge, conceived of and built by one Popeye O'Brien, who owns the local ex-pat bar, The Point. Picture a floating bar, where you can hang out in the middle of the bay, sun bathe, drink beer and even walk a plank. Sweet.

After weeks of construction the barge was finished, painted in glorious pirate black, and sat just a teasing 60 feet from the sea. And now everyone, customers, locals and tourists alike, gathered on the beach to help out, cheer on, or simply witness the launch.

This was a true Costa Rican event in many ways. The man with the backhoe went M.I.A. Popeye insisted that the barge, which looked Noah's Ark-sized to me (I expected to see a pair of sloths clamber aboard) could be pushed to the water with just manpower. Cue the grumbling...

But lo! Someone knew of another man with a backhoe, just up the beach. The hoe hit the sand to a chorus of cheers, and then a 30 minute discussion broke out between backhoe guy, Popeye, another man who had appointed himself foreman, and the 100 or so bystanders who knew nothing about a backhoe but who were equally insistent that they knew the best way to get the job done.


After a run to the bar for more beers (see, a true Costa Rican event), the tugging and pushing began. As the backhoe pulled the barge to the water, 30 guys and a few women pretended to pushed from behind, while others inserted downed palm trees under the barge as rollers. Foot by foot the barge advanced to the ocean (cue mass cheering!)... until the rollers rolled away and the barge came to grief in the wet sand at the ocean's edge. Another conclave by the panel of experts, another round (or more) of beers.

Finally it was determined the backhoe would now push, while the men dug out the front. But dusk was falling, and this close to the equator, dusk is an eye blink... and then it gets really, really dark.

Determined to make way, the now mostly blotto band of would be buccaneers steeled the backhoe, everyone lined up on the sides of the barge for a final push, and the waves, at last, deigned to reach out and escort the galleon safely to sea.

While enough beer had been downed during the day's labor to have filled a canal and floated the damn thing across the beach into the ocean, success demanded still more libation... and a toast: To piracy and it's many shiny rewards!

If you're anywhere near Puerto Viejo... don't miss it.