At home on the range in Uruguay

Fancy life as a gaucho? The ranches of Uruguay are the place to come over all cowboy, from horseriding to cattle-herding to eating huge amounts of meat…

3 mins

Perched on horseback, I listened to the prairie sing its own song. The rumbling cattle hooves, bellowing moos and metallic groans of American windpumps were the orchestral arrangements. The gauchos – South American cowboys – were the conductors, their yelps of encouragement drifting across the bottle-green plains.

Life in the saddle had got under my skin. Before arriving on the ranch I’d fretted over whether I’d be able to handle a working horse; I imagined ending up in the chuckwagon brewing coffee for the real cowboys. Yet in five days I’d progressed from novice rider to being able to pirouette my steed like a ballerina to chase down breakaway cattle.

My stint as a gaucho began on a working ranch in northern Uruguay. A growing number of Uruguayan estancias (ranches) are swinging open their five-bar gates to tourism, many offering high-end accommodation. The 20 sq km Estancia Panagea, however, offers wannabe rancheros a much earthier, hands-on experience.

The five-hour bus journey northwards to Panagea from capital Montevideo exemplified why Républica Oriental del Uruguay flies under most travellers’ radars. With the exception of southern Uruguay’s booming coastal resorts such as Punta del Este – frequented by partying crowds of the rich and famous – the country doesn’t possess the flamboyant highlights of neighbours Brazil and Argentina. Away from the towns, it’s a conservative nation where 140,000 sq km of unremitting pastureland fashions a hypnotic landscape featuring cattle, sheep, horses and, well, more cattle.

Estancia Panagea lies one hour west of Tacuarembó, a quiet city famed as the (disputed) birthplace of Carlos Gardel, the king of tango. Arriving there, I still wondered whether I’d have more success learning to dance to ‘La cumparsita’ than rousting cattle.

“It was my grandfather’s ranch, I was born here,” explained Panagea’s owner, Juan-Manuel Luque, as he collected me and fellow greenhorns, Americans Dan and Nicole, from Tacuarembó Bus Station. “In 2001, the Argentinian financial crisis and foot-and-mouth was affecting farming so we took a different approach to survive,” he said.

With the aid of his Swiss wife, Susannah, he incorporated tourism. “For three years nobody came. Then two English ladies arrived by mistake and since then word has spread.”

Their homely hacienda is secreted within an evergreen copse with gardens fussed over by iridescent hummingbirds. There’s generator power for two hours per evening, no mobile phone signal and no internet. The only world that mattered during my stay was a horizon-busting pasture stocked with 2,000 head of cattle and 1,000 sheep.

“You’ll be part of the dynamic of the ranch,” Juan-Manuel said as we arrived and lunched with the other guests, two Québécoise cowgirls. “You stay in our home, live like a gaucho and do exactly the work we do.”

This hinged on learning how to ride properly, as I’d be spending up to six hours a day in the saddle. Fortunately Juan-Manuel takes time to teach guests the rudiments of western-style riding. Kitted out in borrowed knee-length riding boots, Stetson and bombachos (baggy gaucho pants), my equine education began down at the corral.

“There are only three things you need to know,” Juan-Manuel began. “First, the gaucho bridle is different, so take both reins in one hand and ride with a loose grip. Second, if you need to stop, tug the reins towards you. And third, remember that the mistakes are always yours, never the horse's."

Simple really. And I was happy to discover that western saddles were softer than British ones, and overlaid by sheepskin rugs that counteracted saddle-sores.

“Never gallop,” Juan-Manuel barked when we eventually mounted up. “Cowboys in movies may gallop everywhere but your horse must work all day. Save its energy for when it’s needed.” It seemed an inopportune time to ask if I’d get to swing a lasso...

Pushing marbles uphill

My first foray as a gaucho should’ve been a sackable offence. Estancia Panagea may be moderately sized by Uruguayan standards, but the agoraphobically open plains left me feeling that if my horse bolted we might just gallop off the edge of the world. As it proved, trying to put Juan-Manuel’s instructions into practice and stay aboard a feisty horse at the same time ensured I either lagged behind or lurched uncontrollably ahead. We were tasked with herding 300 sheep back to the homestead, but droving the animals across the prairie was like pushing marbles uphill with a pencil. They scattered everywhere.

The horses we were riding were Uruguayan criollos, descendents of 17th-century Spanish stock. This smallish breed has stamina yet can turn on the afterburners when needed. Alas my first steed, Oscuro, turned on the afterburners when not needed, so I traded him for Viento, meaning ‘wind’ – fortunately more moderate breeze than typhoon.

Like a budding Roy Rogers and Trigger, we got along famously. Increasingly at ease on horseback, I settled into the ranch’s daily rhythm. Woken at dawn by squeaky lapwings and squawking ibis, we’d ride out after breakfast to wrangle livestock. A lunchtime asado (barbecue) – ironically never featuring beef due to a lack of refrigeration – was followed by siesta. Then we’d work throughout the afternoon before a communal dinner topped off with a traditional gaucho nightcap of grappa with honey.

Other new skills arrived quickly...

I soon learned to drive livestock along fence lines to enforce their direction as well as how to brand cattle, de-worm sheep and wrestle calves to the ground for inoculation.

There were also magical interludes to our daily routine: watching rheas haring across the prairie like cartoon roadrunners; fawning over a newborn calf taking its first unsteady footsteps into this very certain world.

But life wasn’t all work and no play as we made several excursions to see bone fide gauchos at work. The term ‘gaucho’ derives from an indigenous Indian word approximating to ‘vagabond’, reflecting their former, more-nomadic existence.

Juan-Manuel guessed there were 50,000 working cowboys remaining in Uruguay.

We were taken to a neighbouring farm to watch gauchos frenetically shearing sheep, the wool’s greasy lanolin mixing with the men’s sweat and tattoos. One explained how they roamed the farms like gypsies during shearing season, sleeping under the stars on swags, eating barbecued mutton and dehydrated galleta bread, and drinking herb maté tea from cow-horn cups.

On another excursion to Tacuarembó livestock auction, unbroken and spirited criollo horses sold for a few hundred bucks alongside more familiar Hereford and Aberdeen Angus cattle. I marvelled at the gauchos driving livestock between holding pens – and felt decidedly lightweight as they careered at speed, one hand twirling their brightly coloured ponchos while their silver facon daggers glinted in their scabbards.

“What makes a gaucho?” I asked Juan-Manuel on the drive back.

“Of course we dress alike and live on horseback,” he explained. “But it’s our manners and values: we call it gauchada – it means ‘to do good deeds’.” Bravery, chivalry and hospitality are virtues the gaucho has long been idealised for in literature and folklore.

My final cattle drive proved challenging: moving fiercely protective mothers and their hapless new calves, which had no idea how to be herded. With whoops of “Vamos!” and “Vaca!” (Cow!) we drove them to the farmstead to be dipped.

When the herd was under control, my mind wandered meditatively in the saddle, lost to the blockbuster plains where powder-puff clouds flounced across the azure sky. Yet by now I relished the thrilling explosion of energy when a breakaway occurred, affording me the chance to swing Viento around from behind the herd and give chase.

“You have chemistry with your horse,” Juan-Manuel said that final afternoon. I rode out of town (OK, on the bus) on cloud nine.

From Bard to barbecue

“Our wealth was built on meat and wool,” explained my avuncular guide, Alberto Torelli, when I returned to Montevideo the following day. His very Italian-sounding name reflected the capital’s strong European heritage and demeanour.

In 1611, Hernandarias, the governor of Asunción (in modern Paraguay), released cattle onto the Uruguayan prairie. They flourished and this fertile land sparked a tug of war between Portuguese, Spanish and, briefly, British ambitions as the production of cowhides, wool and beef became the El Dorado the conquistadores never found.

Beyond Uruguayan independence (1828) the country became one of South America’s richest, not least during the World Wars when exports to Europe included homegrown Fray Bentos ‘bully beef’, to feed the troops. Rural wealth attracted waves of Spanish and Italian migrants including skilled craftspeople, who bequeathed Montevideo's rich architecture.

Nowadays Montevideo’s late 19th-century and Art Deco heritage exudes careworn grandeur. The city’s temperate climate and 23km of River Plate beaches, knitted together by a paved promenade, create a desirable place to live.

Montevideo’s architectural treasures are concentrated within the very walkable Ciudad Vieja, westwards from La Plaza Independencia – which is dominated by a leviathan statue of gaucho and ‘protector of the nation’, José Gervaiso Artigas.

On Independencia, Alberto took me to the striking Teatro Solís. Beyond its imposing colonnaded frontispiece, this 1856 building ambitiously mimics Milan’s La Scala. “Wait until you see this,” said theatre guide Ignacio, lighting up the sumptuous auditorium of bronze-leaf and velvet-seated boxes. The light from a vast chandelier illuminated a ceiling mural of illustrious composers and playwrights, including Shakspeare [sic]. It’s spelled wrong, I nit-picked. “No, no,” countered Ignacio, “it was deliberate, because only God can create perfection.”

Equally lavish is the Legislative Palace on Avenida 18 de Julio. Italian architect Cayetano Moretti’s 1925 interior boasts world-famous Carrara marble, 24-carat gold-leafed Byzantine ceilings, Venetian glass chandeliers and a Pompeian library of inlaid Italian walnut wood. “In those days we were the Switzerland of the Americas. Now we’re just the Uruguay of the Americas,” Alberto sighed.

Post-tour it was time for the inescapable comida gaucha lunch – Uruguayans are lascivious carnivores. Alberto and I ducked into Mercado del Puerto by Montevideo Docks to dine within the shell of a prefabricated railway station shipped from Britain in the 1860s. It was bound for Chile but was never delivered so became an indoor foodhall crowded with restaurants.

Vegetables? Pah! Waiters approach diners by asking, “Que carne?” as if no other food-type existed. The Mercado’s atmosphere sizzled with barbecuing suckling pig, ‘baby beef’, mollejas (sweetbreads) and blood sausages. “Some days you cannot see the sky because of the asado [grill] smoke over the city,” joked Alberto.

Settling into the saddle

Eastwards from Montevideo the yawning River Plate Estuary meets the Atlantic Ocean as Uruguay curves into Brazil’s Rio Grande do Sul. The beaches of Rocha State are wild and picturesque; from coastal lookouts I caught glimpses of Punta del Este’s incongruous hotel skyline.

I paused overnight at Cabo Polonio, a remote hippy colony where the resident beatniks are far outnumbered by sea lions. But my goal was just inland: alongside the silky Laguna de Castillos, I dusted down my Stetson to test my new-found equine skills at Estancia Guardia del Monte.

This 7 sq km property is a working ranch but more upmarket than Panagea, and more dependent on tourism. The charmingly aristocratic Alicia Fernandez-Vergara opens her classical 18th-century hacienda’s doors for horseriding and birdwatching within the surrounding Unesco Eastern Biosphere Reserve. Her beautifully old-fashioned guestrooms, with teak furnishings and stone fireplaces, recall halcyon days, and open onto a tiled patio courtyard trellised by grapevines. The pick of Alicia’s treasure is a Danish Aga salvaged from the wrecked British steamship, SS Gainford, which sunk nearby in 1884.

After breakfast I explored the ranch’s curious ombú forest – a tree-sized herb capable of growing 18m high and said to be the world’s largest plant species. I then saddled up with Luca, the resident gaucho, and Paula Perelli, a keen local rider.

We rode out across marshy pastureland, squelching our way through hyacinth-crusted bogs that slopped above our stirrups. The birdlife was startlingly diverse, with showy performances from scarlet-red churrinches and pink roseate spoonbills.

My new steed, Patron, handled like a dream – thus downsizing poor Viento to the memory of first-pony infatuation.

After a lunch of homebaked bread, we trotted non-stop for 7km. I was thrilled to now be competently trotting without bashing my coccyx to oblivion – in fact, scarcely noticing I was astride an animal that I’d only recently considered a weapon of my own destruction. Instead, my attentions had been hijacked by the marvellously Dalí-esque forest of butia palms we’d ridden to see. The palms run in a mysteriously linear corridor for many miles and stand freakishly proud of the otherwise flat plains.

“It’s said this forest was created by indigenous coastal Indians eating, then spitting out, butia fruit pips as they retreated from the invading Spanish,” explained Paula.

The palms began to resemble lollipops as they silhouetted against a smouldering sun turning molten lava. Another mesmerising landscape in a country demanding time to seep into the soul, I thought, as I turned my horse towards the ranch and rode off into the sunset.

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