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Cowboy up at Bandera's Rancho Cortez

Dude ranching, family-style, in Bandera
Written by Cynthia J. Drake. Photographs by Will van Overbeek.

DudeRanch817Even the quality of light looks different here, I think, watching as my boys amble down from a rusty wagon, whooping and hollering among the horses, donkeys, and a lone pot-bellied pig at Rancho Cortez in Bandera.

Fitness Camp

Rancho Cortez also offers a Fitness Camp, with stays ranging from one day to two weeks. The focus is on healthy eating and exercise, and available activities include nutrition classes, water aerobics, hiking, and horseback riding.

Rancho Cortez is at 872 Hay Hollar Road in Bandera. Rates depend on activities and range from $89 for a half day to $225 per person overnight. Call 830-796-9339.

At sunset, the ranch is washed in golden light, sparkling on the green pastures and hay bales. Our ranch hand, Dakota Mayhall, has lit a campfire for us in a giant pit, and the task of s’mores-making is well under way.

We have spent the day pretending to be cowboys, and soon it will be time to round up the kiddos and hunker down for the night.

Rancho Cortez is a 250-acre guest ranch situated next to the 5,500-acre Hill Country State Natural Area. After spending time in Louisiana, East Texas, and California, Larry Cortez and his wife, Mary, moved to Bandera—known as the Cowboy Capital of the World—with their children, Katherine (K.D.) and Anthony, opening the ranch in 2002.

Visitors can come for a few hours or spend the full day here, and the ranch has room for about 90 people to stay overnight in bunkhouse-style accommodations or Western-themed cabins, so it’s perfect for retreats, children’s camps, and family reunions. Our cabin has one main bedroom for us, plus an alcove with two sets of bunk beds for our boys.

But the experience really begins upon arrival: After making the journey down Hay Hollar Road, past rolling hills and Longhorn cattle, you arrive at the gate and your cell phone promptly loses its signal. That’s part of the draw, employees say.

“Many of our guests are living in cities, and the kids don’t have the chance to get out and run around and be kids,” Cortez says. “We want people to come out and see a little bit of what Texas is about, outside the traffic.”

Because of the relaxed pace, there isn’t really a set itinerary at Rancho Cortez. Upon check-in, office manager Cheryl Belcher gives us safety waivers to sign if we want to ride horses, and she lets us know about trail rides and meal times. But everything apart from that is up to us.

There are hiking trails, a game room, outdoor and indoor pools, hot tub, playground with swings and a slide, and, of course, animals aplenty. Our boys immediately size up the playground before moving on to an area stocked with lassos, which they use to pretend to rope cattle.

Two-year-old Crosby is intrigued by the horses in the riding ring, but when it comes time to climb into the saddle, he defers to his 6-year-old brother, August. I walk August on horseback in the ring as he gains con-fidence, and soon we are told it’s time for our trail ride.

Mayhall puts August on a chestnut-colored horse named Ace, while I’m on a blond-maned brown horse named Pancho. August rides up front with Mayhall while I watch, slightly nervously, from the back of the pack.

The leisurely one-hour trail ride proceeds relatively peacefully, punctuated occasionally by a few jokes from Mayhall about getting lost. The horses know the way, anyway. Another rider points out a fox darting across our path. Well-mannered and docile, the horses all fall in line and negotiate the terrain with ease, moving up and down rocky limestone inclines.

August smiles back at me, and I take a moment to exhale, appreciating the landscape: green hills and sun-washed white earth against blue sky. It feels like we’re light years away from Austin.

After a quick post-ride swim, we hear the dinner bell ringing (yes, an actual dinner bell), so we head to the dining room for our meal, for which we’re more than ready.

Gregarious cook Denise Strange, one of several ranch cooks in charge of daily meals, has prepared an irresistible feast of comfort foods, including smoked brisket, macaroni and cheese, roasted chicken, cornbread, ranch-style pinto beans, and apple cobbler.

Strange says fresh, high-quality ingredients are important to her, and you can sense that she puts special care into her cooking, from the mint-orange infused water to the chocolate chip cookies she packages up and sneaks to me after dinner for the boys. They have eaten more than I have ever seen them eat. “Must be the fresh air,” I say to my husband.

We go on a sunset hike, catching stunning Hill Country views before we wind down with s’mores and bedtime stories. August takes great pleasure in stoking the campfire. He seems to have settled into ranch life just fine.

Cortez often regales groups with cowboy yarns around the fire. “I have numerous stories, but the ones I like to tell are about the Texas cowboy and how he originated, how most of the young men worked on ranches from daylight to dark seven days a week,” Cortez says. “Everybody will be talking around the campfire, and I’ll jump up and say, ‘The cowboy isn’t dead, he’s still alive today. And it begins in your DNA and in your heart.’ I’ll pick a young man out of the audience, and I’ll say that a cowboy is a man who takes care of his family. Riding for your brand means taking care of your family, taking out the garbage, studying in school. It’s a fella who takes care of his land, tips his hat to the ladies.”

Cortez says he, too, considers himself a cowboy, and he takes a lot of pride in his ranch and the employees who work so hard to make it run smoothly.

On our last full day at the ranch, we have another trail ride and one more thing that excites my little cowboys: a chance to feed the Longhorns.

Mayhall drives us all out to a pasture on an off-road vehicle, opens a gate, and a dozen or so cattle come running over, some of their horns stretching 5 feet across. “This is like Jurassic Park!” August says, giddy at the chance to see the iconic creatures up close.

Yet when it’s time to head home the next day, August breaks down crying. “I miss Ace,” he tells me. “Please can we go back right now?”

Cortez says that experience is common. “When kids have to leave and they start crying, how much bigger of a compliment can a person receive?” he says.

Predictably, away from the gates of Rancho Cortez, our cell phones come back to life, and our schedule starts filling up again. But for two cowboys and their parents, life won’t be quite the same until we’re back in the saddle again.

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