Cattle and sheep ranching!
A thoroughly enjoyable introduction to life on the ranch in northern Uruguay. The hosts – Juan and Suzanna – are warm and welcoming, the accommodation is comfortable and the food amazing! It doesn’t matter if you can’t ride as the horses are excellently trained, and Juan gives you all the tuition you need. I loved this place for its wide open spaces, the unhurried pace of life and the feeling of really being at one with nature and the landscape.
By the time I reached the Panagea Estancia I was starting to wonder what I’d let myself in for! The 3 night stay on an Uruguayan ranch was part of a 17-day tour exploring Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil; the South American leg of my round-the-world trip in 2017.
It was day 83 of my 97-day trip and quite frankly I was tired. Over the course of the previous three months I had been staying in some – shall we say – challenging accommodations (anyone who has stayed in a Teahouse in Nepal will know what I’m talking about!). An incident the previous week had left me with a sprained ankle and a cough/cold and I was in need of some home comforts.
The thought of staying on a farm with mooing cows and crowing cockerels waking me up at some ungodly hour was not appealing, and I seriously considered whether to skip straight to my next destination. I’m so glad that I didn’t as this ended up being one of the highlights of my whole trip!
We traveled from Uruguay’s capital Montevideo, situated on the south coast. A 5 hour bus journey took us to a town called Tacuarembó, the capital of a region in north-central Uruguay. We were picked up by our host Juan Manuel Luque who took us off into the wilds on a bumpy hour-long drive deep into the countryside to his Ranch.
N.B. If your visit is not part of an organised tour, you will need to get yourself to Tacuarembó and Juan will pick you up from there.
I had been having visions of sleepless nights in a drafty farm house, surrounded by a muddy yard filled with noisy animals. The reality couldn’t have been more different! There was no sight or sound of farmyard animals, apart from the friendly dogs, who rushed up to say hello. A bit weary from our long journey, we were given a wonderfully warm welcome by Juan’s Swiss wife, Suzanna, who kissed us on the cheeks as if we were long-lost family.
The house was cosy with a great log fire and comfy armchairs, the beds had lovely warm quilts (as it is winter in June in South America and most mornings we woke up to freezing temperatures) and the kitchen, although basic, provided everything we needed.
It takes a little bit of time to get used to the pace of life at the ranch. In order to boil the kettle you have to collect wood, make a fire beneath the hole on the iron hob and then wait … for quite a while. Juan is always coming out with little sayings and there is a particularly apt one above the hob: “Do you want faster? Go to McDonalds!!”.
There is no mains electricity but as you get up when it gets light, and are outdoors for most of the day, it’s of no real consequence. Juan puts on the generator for a couple of hours every evening after dinner. As it was quite cold, we stoked up the fire and tossed a coin to decide which DVD to watch. Afterwards the generator is shut down, and the evening is finished with a beer and chat by candlelight before settling down to a nice peaceful sleep. Bliss.
I have to say that the food I had here was the best throughout my whole trip! The fare was simple, hearty and the flavours were amazing. Maybe the fresh air and knowing you’ve done a good day’s work gives you an appetite, but I will never forget the stews, beautifully seasoned meat cooked over a fire, salads, beans and rice, and wonderful puddings that Suzanna made for us (one day we had chocolate mousse – not sure how this was done as no fridge!).
One day a few of the group stayed back and made empanadas, which made a yummy addition to our dinner that evening, which was mostly cooked on this homemade BBQ.
Learning to ride
As I was feeling a bit poorly I thought I’d rest the first morning, but seeing everyone saddle up gave me the spur that I needed and at the last minute I changed my mind and jumped on the back of a horse. Actually, it wasn’t quite as simple as that … first of all you have to get the right trousers on, then boots, then helmet, and then there is a the complicated process of putting layers of blankets and bits and bobs on the horse so that the saddle sits on securely.
Now I’ve only ever ridden horses to get from A to B for an hour or two (apart from 3 days riding a camel, but that’s another story …). Therefore it was slightly daunting to think that I would not only have to concentrate on not falling off the horse while it was moving, but actually herd cattle and sheep at the same time!
I needn’t have worried, Juan’s horses are extremely well-trained and calm and he matches your temperament and experience to the horse. Riding Gaucho-style is different to western riding in that you hold the reigns with one hand – probably because the other is needed for the lasso! After some basic instructions we started our first tentative steps up to the far paddock and I was pleasantly surprised to find that I felt completely safe in the hands of my horse – well, most of the time.
A note in my journal says: “…my horse was very well behaved, although it kept trying to eat grass when we stopped!”. It was a bit disconcerting, one minute you would be sitting in the saddle holding onto the reigns and then suddenly the horse would lunge it’s head down to the ground and you almost ended up being thrown over the top of its head! This was something we had to watch out for – as well as them trying to take a sneaky drink in the creeks – so the order of the day was to keep moving, and keep hold of the reigns!
We were taught how to form a horizontal line behind the cattle, which incidentally weren’t dairy cows but fully grown bulls, and herd them from one place to another depending on what needed to be done. We of course had Juan and one of the Gauchos to help that first morning but by the afternoon we got the hang of it.
We had two jobs that day, the morning saw us herd a small group into a pen close to the house. Juan’s beef is of the highest quality and he either sells them for meat or for breeding. In the afternoon we had to collect some cattle from two different paddocks and bring them together in a third as someone was coming to buy them the following day. It was a bit of a mission, but with Juan’s careful instruction and patience we managed it.
The dogs were invaluable, they nipped at the heels of the slowcoaches at the back and generally kept things in line. The smaller dog was still quite young and learning the tricks of the trade. He actually bit some of the cattle’s hind legs that afternoon and was sent to the doghouse for a while to reflect on his behaviour. He was very cute though and I loved him!
There are other jobs to be done, such as checking on the health of the animals. The group of cattle we had taken down to the pen close to the house needed to be inoculated. The following morning we had to get them to file one by one through an enclosure so they could be given their injections.
This was quite stressful as we couldn’t do this on horseback as it was an small space. It involved a lot of waving and shouting and working together to get them into line and we were relieved when they were all through.
It was not only cattle that received inoculations, the sheep also received attention – as we found out later that afternoon…
Feeling confident in our new-found abilities, that afternoon when we were told we were off to herd sheep we felt a bit blasé about it. Worms are a common parasite with sheep, there are various different types and if they are not treated the sheep could die. Our job was to round all of them up and bring to the small paddock near the house so that they could be wormed.
Compared to cattle, we soon found out that sheep are a nightmare to herd! You may have watched sheepdog trials on TV and thought that sheep all stick together but the reality is that they all have a mind of their own. They were all spread out in a vast paddock that stretched into the distance, and it took ages to find them all and get them moving in the right direction.
Some of the sheep were quite weak (from the worms) and fell down, which meant that someone had to get off their horse and help them to stand and encourage them to keep walking. We came across a lamb all by itself, she had got separated from her mother and could barely walk. No one was getting left behind on our watch so this little lamb got a lift to the paddock on horseback.
Just when we thought things were going well, for some reason one of the sheep decided they didn’t want to go the way we were herding them and made a mad dash for freedom. The other sheep, seeing that one had run away then decided they would run away too, and suddenly there would be 50 sheep all running in different directions! You can imagine how long it took to keep rounding them up and get them cross country into the paddock. It was actually a lot of fun and I have great memories of that day.
The next day they were all wormed and released back out, and a happy ending was in store for the little lost lamb who was reunited with her mother.
This was a very unique experience and one that I would definitely recommend. I loved the gently rolling landscape, the vastness of the sky and the feeling of freedom and being at one with nature. It was so good to meet Juan and Suzanna, experience their genuine and warm hospitality and be part of their lives for a few short days. I would love to go back and stay a little longer – and learn to ride properly Gaucho style!