Texas, United States: Where to have that American cowboy, dude ranch experience

When the tortilla throwing competition is announced, I almost turn and run right out of Bandera. "Grab a tortilla and throw it to your partner," enthuses our cowboy-hatted hostess. I laugh nervously and try to casually slide away. She, however, is having none of it. "Get into it, y'all," she cajoles, nudging me into a line of kids and other equally awkward adults. With no other choice, I reluctantly frisbee a tortilla to my partner. She catches it and tosses it back; I clap my hands around it when it returns. Somewhere around toss five I realise that, good lord, I was actually having fun.

Texas, to be sure, has a whole lot more to offer than bootscootin' and barbecuin'. There are underground salsa clubs, industrial sites-turned restaurant hubs, and historic mission complexes in Spanish-accented San Antonio. There's delectable Mexican food and NASA's headquarters in Houston, recently voted America's most diverse city, and some of the world's best vintage shopping and quirky bars in Austin, the "live music capital of the world".

But to come to Texas and not do the dude ranch thing? That'd be a damn shame. Texas has been famous for these ranches, created to give city folk a taste of cowboy life, since they arrived in the state in the 1920s. The first Texan dude ranch was, in fact, here in Bandera, a prairie town about an hour's drive north-west from San Antonio. It bills itself as the "cowboy capital of the world" since most Texan dude ranches are clustered around it, including the site of our tortilla toss, Mayan Dude Ranch.

What first catches my eye when we arrive at Mayan Dude Ranch is the family tree at reception, adorned with photos of all 50-plus members of the Hicks family, who have run the ranch for 66 years. This charming touch might have been the reason why, when I am handed my room key with a handwritten tag reading "Pistol Packin' Karnikowski", I find it endearing, not cringe-worthy. It might also be why I eventually enjoyed the tortilla-tossing.

There is something about the homely feel of the place that turns cheesy to charming, something that puts me in a good mood. So much so that when a trail ride is suggested I, usually not a huge equine enthusiast, agree. I pull on my cowboy hat, jump astride a chestnut stallion named Star, and follow the plaid-shirted ranch-hand through meadows covered with yellow and purple wildflowers to explore the 141-hectare ranch.

Bandera town itself, a five-minute drive from the ranch, is like the set of a wild west film. As we stroll the main drag, we pass a rusty windmill, old horse saddles casually tossed over bannisters, and a store with four metre-tall cowboy boots sitting on its roof.

We wander into the 108-year-old Bandera General Store, filled with western paraphernalia and a superb selection of vintage cowboy boots, then head downstairs to Arkey Blue's Silver Dollar, the oldest continually operating honky-tonk in Texas. We admire the sawdust-covered floor and the cowboy-hatted locals toe-tapping to country tunes, and find Hank Williams' name carved into a wooden table, which is said to have been whittled by the country legend himself.

By the time evening rolls around, we are in full cowboy mode. Back at the ranch we eat barbecue, drink beer and dance to country music played on the bar's jukebox. It has been as cliche as a Texan day gets, sure. But aren't some of the best travel experiences exactly that? Later, as I drift off to sleep in my cosy wooden cabin beneath a wagon wheel headboard, I decide that, yes, they certainly are.

TRIP NOTES

Nina Karnikowski travelled as a guest of Travel Texas.

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FLY

Air New Zealand flies to Houston up to five times a week, via Auckland, from major Australian airports. See airnewzealand.com.au

STAY

Mayan Dude Ranch has one, two and three-bedroom cottages for $US170 a night including all meals, two daily horseback rides and other activities such as fishing, hiking and roping and. See mayanranch.com

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