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 Tacuarembó 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.
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.
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.