Seeing the soul of Uruguay

Old-timey portrait of Chris with his trusty horse and faithful dog

While many tourists know Uruguay for its beautiful beaches and the coastal city of Montevideo, the interior of the country is home to rolling hills and picturesque ranches. The tradition of the gaucho (cowboy) goes deep in to Uruguay’s history when the land was first settled by European immigrants. Today gauchos still work the ranches of southern Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, and Argentina. Looking to learn more about the gaucho lifestyle, we stayed for six days on the beautiful Panagea ranch in Tacuaremb√≥ Department, Uruguay. This is not a tourist ranch with a few token animals and basic follow-the-leader horseback riding. This is a working ranch where you quickly learn to saddle your own horse to head out to the fields to herd cattle and sheep.

Bilingue gathering the horses for our morning ride

After an afternoon lesson from the owner, Juan, and a quick ride to see some of the countryside, we tucked in to what would be the first in a series of memorable meals. Juan’s partner Susannah, despite nursing a four-month-old baby and working with a kitchen equipped only with wood burning stoves, cooked delicious stews, meats, breads and vegetables consisting of food mainly farmed on the ranch. We got to know our fellow gauchos-in-training that night during the two hours of electricity provided by a gas-powered generator, and retired to bed when the lights went out. The next morning would start with breakfast at 6:30 am followed by our first ride of the day at 7:30. Juan reassured us that we would be awakened plenty early by the hundreds of ibises who nest in the trees around the house. Sure enough as the sun was rising the next morning a tremendous squawking roused us from bed.

Kristin taking a break from sheep drenching

Our days followed a vigorous schedule: riding in the morning to round up either a flock of sheep or a herd of cattle, lunch and a quick siesta, then an afternoon ride to move more animals. Two afternoons we gathered sheep in one of the pens, separated the lambs from the older sheep, and dosed the lambs with an anti-worm vaccination (this process is called drenching). This required bringing the sheep from a large field into a small area, wading into a squirming pack of sheep, and plucking out the lambs by the stomach to haul the unwilling patients for their medicine. The lambs were funny though; while they panicked when we were shouting them from one pen to another, as soon as they were picked up they just went limp. We spent another two tiring afternoons splashing around in ankle-deep manure dividing male from female calves. Waving white flags to chase the cows in to a small pen, we then had to avoid getting our feet stomped on while we doing this dirty work. As a reward for our labors we went swimming in the nearby river before downing cold beers in anticipation of another amazing meal.

Hummingbirds buzzed the feeder sunny afternoons

The first two days on the ranch we shared the chores with a tour group traveling from Rio to Buenos Aires. Once they departed, we got to know our hosts Juan and Susannah better as they had fewer responsibilities. Juan’s family has farmed this ranch for the last 70 years. He explained that when the beaches of Uruguay became a popular tourist destination, he decided to open his ranch to tourists because he wanted to show them the true soul of Uruguay. We immediately appreciated his sentiment. His ranch is beautifully situated on rolling hills crisscrossed by rushing rivers and spotted with stands of eucalyptus trees. The sheep and cattle share the land with his horses, dogs, and the huge variety of birds we admired when riding through the grassy fields. We had originally planned on staying four nights, but we couldn’t leave this paradise of fresh air, hard work, and good company so quickly so decided to stay an additional two nights.

Herding sheep across a stream

Our last night was marred by the arrival of a violent thunderstorm accompanied by a small tornado. When riding back towards the house after our last afternoon ride, we could see ominous clouds boiling over the ranch. Lightening began to flash with strobe-light frequency as the storm bore down. Over two inches of rain fell in less than an hour while the winds whipped the poor ibises out of the trees. When the storm broke after dinner we headed out to survey the damage. Confused ibises looked around on the ground, surrounded by branches and fallen trees. We think in the dark they couldn’t see well enough to fly back in to their customary nesting trees. In the pitch black we could make out one tree leaning against the roof of the house. We all headed quietly for bed and woke the next morning to scene of destruction. Many of the large old trees surrounding the house had been ripped from the ground, one puncturing the roof over a bathroom. Our car very narrowly escaped being crushed by a huge branch, surviving with only a small dent to the hood.
Four feet to the right and no more caballo

Juan solemnly handled the destruction as he took a quick survey of his lands before helping us load our belongings in to the car. We were leaving that morning with the remaining three tourists. Because of the rains the rivers had flooded the roads on the quicker route to Tacuarembo, so we had to take a muddy long-cut through ranches to get to the city. Putting our faithful car caballo to the test, we skidded through huge mud puddles and up rutted roads, towing Juan’s truck out of a couple of tough patches. We were very sad to leave the ranch but are already plotting our return, maybe coupled to our date with Tom and Kelsey for Carnival in 2011. Staying on this ranch was definitely one of the highlights of our whole trip through Latin America.