Living the Gaucho life

Trip Start Aug 26, 2012
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Trip End Dec 22, 2013


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Flag of Uruguay  ,
Sunday, November 24, 2013

Taking a taxi to the ferry terminal through early morning rush hour traffic in Buenos Aires was a bit of an experience not unlike taking a cab in New York City. After checking our luggage in, going through immigration and boarding the ferry we had a 3 hour ride to cross the Rio de la Plata to our destination of Colonia del Sacramento. This is the oldest town in Uruguay, founded by Portuguese settlers from Brazil in 1680 and was an important centre for smuggling British goods across the river into Spanish colonies during the 17th century.  In 1995 the town was named a World Heritage site by UNESCO and is the only one in Uruguay, because of the examples of narrow cobblestone streets, colonial buildings and the reconstructed walls of the Barrio Historico (the old town).  Once we arrived on shore our hotel was meters from the port and after quickly dropping our bags off we set out for a tour around the town.  Unfortunately the weather wasn't the greatest as it was very windy and cloudy,  and I think set the mood for the day for most of group in the sense that they didn’t see the point of stopping here.  Granted it’s a sleepy little town with not much happening day or night but the history and being able to visually see the old colonial buildings still in use today, is the draw to coming here.  After our orientation tour which basically showed us all the highlights of the town, Yasmina left us by the Iglesia Matriz, the oldest church in Uruguay to do our own thing for the afternoon with plans to meet for dinner at El Drugstore, a funky eclectic place.  Dinner was still a long way off so Barry, Kath, Felicty, Alica and I found a great little café called Moscato Café (www.moscatocafe.com ) and had coffee and empanadas that were fresh made, identified by the wait time and the fact they were piping hot.  Not sure what to do next with the rest of our afternoon, we decided we would wander around and try and find a place to have a beer and on the way made some stops for some pictures of many beautiful old buildings. Finding a place we sat down and the pleasure of each others company turned into many beers and before we knew it was time to head for dinner.  Despite the fact that El Drugstore is in all the guides and has a good atmosphere, the service was less then spectacular.  It seemed to be a big chore for the wait staff for us to be there and the menu is a real mish-mash of items, from Italian to Japanese making it hard to choose and in the end the food really wasn’t anything to write home about.

Next morning we were moving on with a 3 hour bus ride to Montevideo, Uruguay's capital and the country’s largest city. The guys in our group were convinced that our hotel (Hotel Los Angeles) used to be a brothel based on the décor of the place and while indeed tacky you just have to focus on the basics; cleanliness and security which it did pass.  Since I had been in Montevideo less than four days ago I opted out of going on the orientation walk and had planned to find a café to do some blogging.  But at our group meeting to discuss logistics for the evening and the next day, it was suggested by Yasmina that we go to Azabache, a popular Salsa club which doesn’t start to happen until 1am but suggested  we pool our money to  buy some supplies to have drinks before we go.  So I volunteered to do that while everyone went on the walk but was graciously accompanied by Rob from the UK who I think secretly just wanted to make sure I bought the right kind of alcohol. Throwing my original plans to the wind Rob and I head out and tried to catch up with the others as I knew the general direction they were going and for sure the final destination; the Mercade del Puerto, originally a market and now a gaggle of restaurants serving meat, meat and more meat.  Since it was drizzling we quickly walked down the main drag of Av 18 de Julio to reach Plaza Independencia, the main square showcasing an enormous statue of Jose Artigas, the father of independence and countries greatest hero.  One thing we missed as I learned in talk with others in the group is that underneath the monstrous statue of Jose Artigas there is a mausoleum where Uruguayans famous and finest are buried.  I pointed out the things I knew to Robin from my previous visit including the clearly visible Canadian Embassy but he seemed none impressed.  After pointing out the Palacio Salvo, once South America’s tallest building and I think the most gorgeous, the Palacio Estevez which was the government house until 1985 and then the prestigious Teatro Solis we moved on past the old city gate and made our way through the small quaint Plaza Constituicion and Plaza Zabala before reaching the end of the road at the Mercade del Puerto.  Inside we made a couple of loops trying to find the rest of the group but when we couldn’t locate them we figured maybe we beat them and decide to settle  up at one of the bars, have a drink and watch the door for them.  Eventually they did arrived and most went to eat while Janet joined us for a drink.  As we were soaking in the atmosphere, a group of Jordanian men came in carrying a couple of Jordan flags and started singing and chanting in honour of the soccer game being played in town tonight.  The game was an official qualifying match for the World Cup, but Uruguay had already secured a spot and even if Jordan won it wouldn’t change things.  Janet, Robin and I had somehow managed to pass the afternoon including a very late lunch before having a bit of a rest before the evenings activities.  Yasmina was able to secure two tickets to the soccer game for Alicia and Barry, and a few others were going to go early to see if they could buy some tickets.   Those of us not interested in going to the game did go to check out the atmosphere around the stadium and found a really friendly family café/bar with a TV that was showing the game.   We stayed to watch most of the game, leaving just early enough to catch a cab back to the hotel before the crowds from the game appeared and caught the very end of the game from the hotel lobby.  In an effort to kill time until 1pm a few of us started a little early on the drinks because if I went to my room and lay down I wouldn’t get up again.  However the wait was worth it and when we arrived to the club, things were in full swing and we watched in awe at the amazing dancers doing the salsa so flawlessly and effortlessly.  By about 2pm, a 15 piece band was set up and they were playing all sorts of music until the wee hours of the morning I imagine, as they were still playing when we left at 3am. 

Thankfully we didn’t have to depart until midday the next day and so got almost a full 8hrs rest before tackling our travel day which was a taxi back to the bus station, and then a 4hr bus ride to a town called Tacuarembo, pretty much smack dab in the middle of the country.  Here we were met by a man named Juan who was the owner of the Ranch we were staying at for the next 3 nights and at first meeting I was a little taken a back on how quiet and reserved he was for someone who runs a backpackers hostel at his Ranch.  However that opinion would quickly change.  After we piled all our bags on the roof of Juan’s van all 15 of us piled into the van and managed to fit in like sardines for the hour journey on dusty and bumpy roads to his Ranch named Panagea (www.panagea-uruguay.blogspot.com ).  The scenery from the van passed the time and aside from many sheep and cows, saw a few wild ostriches and a couple of pink flamingos in the distance.  Happy to have finally arrived at the ranch and after peeling myself out of the van we were lead around to the front of the ranch and warmly greeted by Juan’s wife Susann who is from Switzerland but has been living in Uruguay for over 13 years, after meeting Juan while they were both doing some world travel.    After being given our room assignments we had a few minutes to chill out until Juan called us over to the fire pit to  discuss how things at the Ranch work and this is where my opinion of him did a three sixty.  He has been providing accommodation for Intrepid groups for years and obviously has received feedback both good and bad and his sense of humour in the way he talked about the feedback was classic.  His opening line was "Statistically 1% of you will not enjoy your time here, I’m sorry but there is nothing I can do about that" and it went on from there with a statistic that there is a higher ratio of bathrooms to people then on a A-330 and some house rules delivered in a funny but serious way.  Juan was definitely warming up to us and vice versa.  After our briefing we were then served an amazing dinner buffet style and if this was any indication, we were going to be feed very well over the next three days.  Following dinner we lounged in the various areas of the ranch, some creating their own wine club, others of us not needing much of an excuse to have some drinks.  It was not a late night though as the next day most of us had signed up to do as gauchos do and work on the ranch. 

After breakfast we donned on our loaned gaucho pants and boots and headed down to the corral were there where 16 horses waiting for us and we had a lesson from Juan on how to saddle the horse.  Lucky of unlucky the horse he demonstrated on was assigned to me after he had learned I had never ridden a horse before. Once everyone was assigned horses and they were saddled, the ladies were assisted by the gentlemen to get on their horse first and once everyone was on, we were off for a ride around the property to make sure we were comfortable on the horses and Juan was comfortable with us being on the horses.  My horse named Plata (Spanish for silver as indeed she was) was so gentle, slow and very easy to manage which was perfect for me.  However a couple of times Juan’s helper came behind us and encouraged her along at a little fast pace just to keep up with the group as she didn’t seem to want to do that for me when I kicked her.  That was the morning done but after lunch we were back in the saddle and this time we went a different way to a pasture where Juan had his sheep and we were to round them up and herd them back to the corral in the ranch.  Not before a very strict and statistically but funny lecture for Juan about our role and jobs in this activity.  In reality, I think we were just along for the ride as Juan, his hand and his niece did most of the work, along with our horses who instinctively knew what to do.  Regardless it was a thrill to be there seeing the action and listening to the sheep and lambs “baa’ing…all the way home”.  Once the sheep were in the big corral we then had to transfer some into the smaller pen where Rob and I were in charge of injecting de-worming medicine into the sheep’s mouths as the others captured and held them while we could. After that we had to let the sheep out one gate and the lambs another as it was time to separate them; sad to watch and hear.  The lambs once released were free to go to the nearby pasture but the sheep were taken back to the pasture across the road from where we retrieved them.  What a great way to spend the day and aside from our herding help we did actually do some real work on the ranch.  Dinner and the evening was sent rehashing the funnier parts of the day and wondering what was on tap for the next whilst the drinks were flowing and the wine club was accepting more and more members.  Next morning we were back to saddling our horse and I was upgraded to a horse named Nube (Spanish for cloud) that might be a little more lively then the one I had the day before.  Then it was off to the pasture again to round up the cattle and herd them back into the corrals near the ranch.  There were so many cattle and they were grazing in two different places that we had to make two trips to round them all up.  We may have helped in the herding marginally more than the day before as there was that many more cattle and we had a better idea of what we were doing.  Still much of the herding was done by Juan and his helper and it was memorizing to watch them work with these animals with very little effort. After lunch it was back in the corrals to take on a couple of tasks that involved a lot more human and muscle power then de-worming the sheep.  In batches we would use big long sticks with white flags on the top to coax and prod some of the cattle into the entrance of a holding pen where the guys remained and would have the job of sending the adult cows out the exit and into the chute where us females were in charge of spraying repellant to combat the flies and then let them out of the chute via a gate once spraying was completed on each cow.  Once all the calves where left in the corral they were then channeled into the chute where Juan could then check all the male calves to see how their castration scars where doing and apply more salve to help with the healing.  This process went on for about 5 batches of cattle before we were all done and was amongst a lot of moo’ing from mothers and their calves until they were once again re-united.  One exception to this routine was one calf hadn’t been full castrated and had to be pulled out of the chute, and tackled to the ground so Juan could finish the surgery. Thankfully all the men were busy holding the calf down and did not see the operation take place.  After a much needed water break as it was a very hot day, our final task was to return all the cattle back to pasture and then afterwards Juan took us for a ride on the other side of his property.  Along the way the horses stopped for a long drink in the natural puddles where Rob’s horse deciding to go in for a bit of a swim forcing Rob off the horse and landing knee deep in water. It was another amazing rewarding day and another wonderful dinner and an evening of enjoying each others company, made it all the better.  Our final day on the ranch involved no work but if we wanted, we could saddle a horse and go for a ride which about half of us did.  And this time I was on my third horse and unfortunately didn’t catch this one name but was livelier than the other two and once we were all saddle off the group of us went.  But oddly enough without a sense of purpose and wandering around aimlessly (actually the horses were leading us where they wanted to go) riding wasn’t as much fun as it had been the past two days. So after about an hour we ended back at the ranch as the horses lead us there, and  I decided to call it a day from the riding but others continued after a water break.  Instead I enjoyed chilling in one of the many hammocks hanging in the yard around the ranch and watch Juan at the fire cooking up at least 8 different kinds of cuts of meat and sausages for our final meal together.  Since it was a Sunday and typically a day of rest and family, Juan and Susann had his sister’s family join them and us for lunch which was a nice way to finish up our time at the ranch.  My time here was such a unique experience and I think a definitely highlight of the tour.  I would love to come back one day and spend more time here, especially working as a ranch hand for a time. Ahh…is the gaucho life for me??
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Comments

Don MacInnes on

Thank you for allowing me to follow your journey.I enjoyed photos, also really enjoyed your writings, wishing you the best and interested where do you go from here. Take care and THANKS !!!!!!!

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