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.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Achieving tranquilo

After a hectic week in Buenos Aires figuring out the details of shipping our car and ourselves back to the United States, we were ready to hit the road again. We have three weeks to explore Uruguay and will divide our time between hot springs, a working ranch, and the beach. First stop, camping at the Guaviyu hot springs in Western Uruguay. We wouldn't be exactly roughing it, as many campgrounds in this southern part of South America have Wifi, electrical outlets, hot showers, restaurants, parillas (grills) and/or swimming pools. Uruguayans take their camping seriously and raise camping to a higher art form. When we rolled in to Guaviyu, some people were watching TV in tents just a little smaller than a San Francisco studio apartment. Gangs of lime-green parakeets flitted from tree to tree squawking enthusiastically. We popped up our camper and chilled out for a sunny afternoon reading in the shade and trying to remember how to play Poker.

Parakeets hiding in the trees

There are two activities that the people of Uruguay take even more seriously than camping: the art of the parilla (grill) and the pleasure of maté. Every noon and evening the delicious smell of burning wood and sizzling meat filled the air of our campground as meat artists grilled huge portions of cows on giant parillas. The cows in southern South America must be very happy, because we have been eating some of the most delicious, tender, and inexpensive beef of our lives. Two huge T-bone steaks cost around $4, enough meat and sausage for 4 people can be purchased for around $6. And Uruguayans are purists when it comes to their parillas: no gas grills, no lighter fluid, no charcoal. Just dry leña (wood). Another pleasure here is the ritual of drinking maté. Yerba maté looks like loose-leaf tea and is made from the leaves and twigs of a species of holly. It is dried and then drunk as a potent infusion. A dried hollowed-out gourd serves as the cup. The gourd is filled with yerba maté, small amounts of hot water are poured over the yerba maté, and then the drinker sips the liquid through a bombilla (straw) with a filter at the end to keep the yerba maté pieces in the gourd. People here walk, drive, and work with their mate gourd and handy thermos of hot water so they can sip away at this bitter beverage all day. For a great video on how to make mate, see Kelsey's blog post on maté, complete with instructional video.

Chris grillin' like a villain

After a spectacular sun-rise thunderstrorm, the next day we explored the huge complex of swimming pools filled with naturally heated 37C/98F mineral water. Talking with a grill-meister working in one of the restaurants near the hot springs, he asked us where we were from and how we liked Uruguay. When Chris responded that he liked how 'tranquilo' Uruguay seemed, he replied 'Si, es muy MUY tranquilo aqui' (Yes, it's very VERY laid back here). And he's right - between the kids splashing in the warm water, the families sitting around talking for hours, and the groups of bathrobe-clad adults wandering around with their maté gourds and thermoses, this place exudes tranquilo. We quickly fell under the tranquilo spell and somehow five days slipped by effortlessly. We head north-east tomorrow to spend four nights on a working ranch, trying to get to know the life of the gaucho (cowboy).

Demonstrating the art of mate

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Homeward bound - on December 30th 2009

Launch party with cul-de-sacs, Nicaragua, January 2009

We marked a milestone in our travels this week: we know when the trip will be 'done'. We will arrive back in the United States on a not-so-direct flight from Buenos Aires to Panama City to Houston to Miami around midnight on December 30th.

Beers at the Waikiki in Panama City, April 2009

After spending a food-, wine-, and Sopranos-filled week with Kelsey and Tom at the lovely beach resort town of Pinamar, we headed north to our ultimate destination, Buenos Aires. We spent a week in Buenos Aires doing a little sightseeing, but mainly running around the greater Buenos Aires area trying to figure out how to ship our car back to the states. Through our Drive the Americas website I had two good leads on potential shipping companies, and one of them, Multimar, offered a good price and good timing. Their next boat was leaving for the states on December 13th, and the car would delivered to Tampa Florida for under $1,300. Relieved that we found an economical option, we booked a spot on the good ship 'Pluto Leader' and then tried to figure out the necessary paperwork. Since Multimar typically helps exporters ship hundreds to thousands of cars, they didn't really know what paperwork would be necessary for one used car being shipped by its owners. After visiting the aduana (customs) in two locations in Buenos Aires and 70 miles away at the port where our ship would sail, we finally found out that (supposedly) we don't need any special paperwork. A very different process than the maze of bureaucracy we had to navigate in Panama to get our car to Colombia. We'll see if it's all so easy when we arrive at the port and try to put our car on the ship on December 6th. And of course I will post full shipping details on Drive the Americas once the process is complete.

Sailing from Panama to Colombia, April 2009

We also marked a much sadder milestone during our time in Buenos Aires: we said goodbye to Tom and Kelsey. While we have been saying hello and goodbye to them throughout this trip as we meet up and then travel separately for different periods of time, it has always been a comfort to know that we will see them somewhere in our near future. With both of our trips ending in Buenos Aires in the next month, it finally came time to say goodbye for an indeterminate period of time. While we are discussing a reunion in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for Carnival in 2010, it will still be much too long of a time before we can share some red wine over a sparking parilla. They have been one of our favorite parts of this trip, and while we are still traveling in Uruguay for a couple of weeks before returning to Buenos Aires for our last weeks in South America, the trip definitely feels like it is winding down.

Caribbean beaches of Colombia, May 2009

Stay tuned: while we won't be seeing Tom and Kelsey in person for a bit, the four of us have a new website in the works...we will announce it here when it formally launches.

The end of the raod in Ushuaia Argentina, October 2009