Monday, November 30, 2009

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 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.

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.


  1. Another great installment in update of your journey. As my envy continues to grow of your experiences, so does my appreciation of your great ways of sharing it.
    I can certainly see how this was one of your favorite portions of the expedition...beautiful land, meaningful hard work, and simple pleasures that can mean the most gratififying moments of reflection. (I'm growing more restless here in my good ole suburban home in Houston all the time with these pictorials and narratives.)
    Way to go! And thanks again for sharing...

  2. You're very welcome. And it's a little hard to believe the trip will actually end on December 30th. While I feel ready to head back home, I think I might feel differently when we actually arrive at the airport to get on our flight back to the US.

  3. Hey, you are right. The life of the Gaucho is very interesting and most people just think that Uruguay is a beach only. That same thing happens with Argentina, people is fascinated by Buenos Aires (which is a really nice city) but the country side of Argentina has a lot of history. Last year I rented an apartment in buenos aires because I had been told that knowing the city was a "must". I had a great time but then I went to the province of La Pampa and spent two entire days riding a horse and living a cowboy life. I don´t regret it and I hope I can do it again.

  4. well for me is the other way around i currently live in houston, and i can't believe i found this article is really gratifiying seeing people. form america going for this kind of experience.
    i am from uruguay and this really draw a smile on my face, thank u for sharing.

  5. I stayed on the same ranch last August. I was really enthusiastic about it. I have lived in various cities across Europe over the past few years but I grew up on a farm in Ireland. Granted that the farm I came from was an industrial one and very modern in comparison to the ranch, I still knew what I was getting myself in for. I didn't go with high expectations as I was prepared to rough it for two days. It didn't bothered me that electricity was limited or that there was no hot water. I never complained. Despite that, the owner took a dislike to me very quickly and was not afraid to show how he felt. I have never been made to feel like that. I presume he treated me in this way because I am gay (I am not a raging queen and I did not regale him with tales of my sex life). I don't care about his personal feelings towards gay people. He has a right to feel how he feels. However when you run a business and provide a service, you are supposed to provide the same service to all paying customers. This was the worst experience of my life and I would urge people to chose a ranch with more humane gauchos.


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