Tourists don't know where they've been, travellers don't know where they're going.

Paul Theroux

When you travel, always remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable.


Before diving deeper into Uruguay, I want to introduce you to something of an institution in South America and Guillermo’s favourite beverage. Mate (pronounced MAH-teh). It is very popular across the region. Particularly in Argentina and Paraguay, but especially in Uruguay, where up to 10kg of yerba mate is consumed per person annually!

So what actually is it? Mate is an infusion, made from the leaves of the yerba mate plant. Traditionally it is made in a hollowed out gourd, however today’s “gourds” are made from a variety of more modern materials. The gourd is filled three quarters full of the yerba mate leaves and then filled with hot water (not boiling, but at about 70-80 °C) and then allowed to steep. It is drunk through a metal straw, directly from the gourd without straining.

It is a common social practice to drink mate with friends, and it is a familiar sight to see people going about their daily business carrying a gourd and a flask containing hot water to top up the infusion. Back in Colonia locals were almost the odd ones out if they weren’t carrying their mate kit with them.

It became the norm to see Guillermo regularly throughout the day with his gourd and metal straw in hand, offering a taste to anyone willing to try. We tasted it. It is a bit like a strong green tea I suppose, but much more bitter. I think it’s probably an acquired taste, but I personally didn’t have enough to acquire it.

But back to Uruguay itself…

The Estancia Panagea is a working cattle ranch, located deep in the Uruguayan countryside and miles from anywhere. To get there was probably the most convoluted journey between two stays that we had during the course of our year away.

The first bus was from Colonia to Montevideo and the second from Montevideo to Tacuarembó. Tacuarembó is a small town in the north of Uruguay. They obviously don’t see many visitors. We felt like a bit of a novelty waiting in the bus station after being dropped off for the final leg of our journey, a minibus to the Estancia itself. It was obvious that we were the only travellers there.

Juan, the owner of the estancia, gaucho and local vet was picking us up in person. I had expected the ranch to be fairly close, but we spent probably 30 minutes bouncing along pock marked tarmac until we finally turned off onto a gravel road. I assumed it was the drive up to the ranch, but no. Another 15 or 20 minutes went by until we finally turned into a field and parked up near a low house. The Estancia Panagea.

A little bit of introduction

The estancia is a 970 hectare working ranch, and as it turns out, about 40 km northwest of Tacuarembó.

Alongside the 1,100 cattle, 1,800 sheep and 74 horses you can see rhea (the South American version of the ostrich or emu) and ibis (nature’s alarm clock – they disappear during the day but roost in the trees at the ranch overnight making a right royal racket at dawn).

Juan runs the estancia with his Swiss wife Suzanne and his gaucho Bilinga. And the ‘help’ of their paying visitors. The blurb says that you can get involved in the day to day life and running of the ranch which could include riding and helping with the daily chores around the farm. More of that in a minute.

We were warmly greeted when we arrived by Suzanne and shown our rooms in the house. The rooms, and house, were simply furnished and very welcoming, reflecting the personalities of our hosts.

Then Juan called us outside for a briefing.

Let’s just say that he doesn’t really need lessons in straight talking. In fact, he could write the manual.

He told us that statistically, about 2 in every 10 people hate their time on the ranch. If you’re one of them, he said, then tough. It’s only three days so just go read a book. He probably said go read a bloody book, bloody being his choice word. Among his guests at least.

He also clarified the situation about lights and electricity. The ranch is completely off the grid but there is a generator. “It will come on as it gets dark and it goes off at ten. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing, the lights go out.”

And as far as food, the kitchen had a wood fired stove. We were welcome to use it to cook our own bacon and eggs at breakfast (by candle light in the dark as it happens). They would provide lunch and dinner, but we were expected to help prepare food. Whilst lunch was provided, we didn’t have to eat it if we didn’t like what was on the table. The same for dinner. And lunch and dinner the following day. But by the third day we’d “bloody well eat it, because we’d be bloody hungry by then!”.

The last part of our briefing related to activities the next day. Whilst I had assumed that chores around the farm would be near the house, they weren’t. The chores would be in a field in some far flung corner of the ranch. And the only way to get there was on a horse. So, we needed to be up for breakfast at 7:30 and to meet outside behind the house to get our first lesson in how to saddle up our steeds. Saddle them? It was clear that the three days here really would be mirroring day to day life. There were some pensive faces around. None of us were experienced horse people and most had never really ridden a horse before at all.

Still, what could possibly go wrong?

Breakfast was fantastic. The best breakfast we had in South America by far. And Bilinga’s wife Raquel, who did most of the cooking, had made the most delicious apple cake. Then it was outside to choose some gaucho boots, trousers and jacket (boots essential, others optional) and then off to meet the horses.

And another frank briefing.

You don’t walk behind horses because they “bloody kick”. And if you get kicked, it’s not the “bloody horse’s fault, it’s your bloody fault”. Always stand 30 cm away from your horse, because if it’s stands on your foot “it bloody hurts”. Because they’re “bloody heavy”. And it will be “your bloody fault for standing too close”.

OK, got that.

Next we had to learn how to saddle up. Nobody was going to do anything for us. And we’d all get it wrong because none of us would “bloody listen”.

First check that there are no twigs or thorns on their back. To be fair it would be pretty uncomfortable if 100 kg of me was pushing a thorn into the poor horses back. Then you put on two blankets followed by the saddle. The saddle, from my recollection, was smaller than we would use in the UK and the stirrups left much longer. The saddle is held firm by the larger of two girths, itself anchored by a leather strap or webbing that is pulled tight and then tied in place. It needs to be “bloody tight” Juan said or it will slip. As he gave the strap a huge pull and tightened the girth around the horse’s belly his house gave out a snort and looked at him with what I can only assume to be horse indignation. His ears flattened and he didn’t look especially happy.

The final touches were to put a sheepskin over the saddle which was in turn secured by the second, smaller, girth. And to fit the bridle. Easy. Just persuade the horse to open its mouth so that you can shove a bit of metal into it, and then pull the bridle over its ears to secure it. Don’t horses bite? You certainly wouldn’t want to be doing this if you had any kind of fear of horses.

Then it was our turn.

So I bucked the trend, I remembered the sequence. Actually I think most of us did. Juan’s tactic of being straight and arguably a little abrupt does actually reap rewards for him. People do listen. And it all went well until it came to tightening that large girth. I think this was a common problem for us all, but I couldn’t tighten it enough. But help was at hand. Bilinga and Juan were checking everyone’s handy work so Juan made sure the saddle was secure and gave the thumbs up. Then he said “get on”.

Now I’ve only ridden a horse once before in my life. And it didn’t go that well. So it’s fair to say that I was feeling quite apprehensive about the whole thing. In fact, if there had been an option to tag sheep or vaccinate cattle without getting on a horse I might well have ducked out. But I wasn’t going to read a book so I grabbed the bottom of the horse’s mane (deliberately left long to use as a grip to help mount it) and the back of the saddle and hauled myself into place.

So far so good. It was surprisingly comfortable actually. The sheepskin was soft, and with the long stirrups it all felt quite relaxed. Which was more than I was feeling.

Our instruction for riding was quite short. Gauchos ride in quite a relaxed way. Long stirrups, reigns left slack and held in one hand only. Pull left to go left, right to go right and pull back to stop. But not too hard. The bit is different in Uruguay. As you pull on the reigns it pushes hard into the roof of the horse’s mouth. Which they don’t like, so pulling too hard isn’t necessarily a good thing. And to get them to go you need to “give them a bloody kick”. Don’t tickle them, let them know who’s in charge.

So we set off to ride about the ranch for two hours. Slowly, walking only, no trotting, cantering or galloping. Like that’s what I had in mind! Staying in the saddle would constitute success for me. As for Helen, I was obviously concerned for her but once we set off I was so preoccupied with riding (staying on) myself I didn’t have time to worry about her too much.

After about 60 seconds Juan’s voice shattered the quiet. “Don’t pull the bloody reigns, don’t pull the bloody reigns!”. One of the group, who hadn’t ridden before, had go into difficulty (I didn’t really see what had happened). So Juan quickly went to her aid and took control, calming the horse down (if not the rider who’s pulse must have been racing ) and then leading her for the rest of the morning. Fortunately that was the only real excitement during the morning ride. It rained, we walked around the vast rolling countryside but I didn’t really notice much of it. I was still too nervous to really enjoy what we were doing.

Back at the ranch (I’ve always wanted to say that for real…) we unsaddled our mounts. “When I say take everything off the horse what bloody bit of everything don’t you understand?” The horses all ran off. Probably to talk about the idiots that they’d been caring around all morning and planning some pranks for us for after lunch.

Lunch, eaten outside (although it was damp, it wasn’t cold), and another simple, tasty, warm and filling meal. In these ‘down’ times, Juan showed his true character. Warm, friendly, and interested in chatting. He would get out a bottle of wine and share it around, and everything was totally relaxed.

The afternoon plan was for us to herd cattle. Yes, after our extensive training, we were ready to ‘help out’ and try our hand at being real gauchos.

Could I remember the saddle etiquette again? Yes, but I still couldn’t get the girth tight enough. It just felt wrong to pull the thing so tight that the horse would snort at me. And I didn’t want to end up covered in horse bogies either. In the saddle again we headed back out into the vast landscape that is Uruguay’s backcountry.

Our task. Ride out to where the herd were grazing. Round them up and then drive them back to the the farm where we’d send them through the tick bath to get rid of any ticks they may have picked up.

The reality was that Juan and Bilinga could have driven the herd back in a fraction of the time that we were out. But there is a but.

Juan had said to us to ride with passion. I’m not sure what that means for somebody with two hours under their belt, but he also said that you get out of things what you put in. Our jobs were to a) keep the herd together and b) keep them moving in the right direction. So I tried to ride where I thought I should be to keep the cows in check, and when the odd cow or two tried to make a run for it I tried to cut them off or cover somebody else.

Just to clarify a couple of things. We weren’t riding nose to tail, like you would on a hack in the UK. There were no tracks to follow, we rode across plains, down hills, through rocky creeks (lean back on the way down, and forward on the way up the other side, and don’t worry when the horse speeds up, that’s what they do) and between trees through little copses. And while horses do follow each other, we were free, and encouraged to ride side by side, which we did, and chatted as we rode alongside the herd.

I’m sure the amount that I actually contributed was minimal, but trying to carry out my job had two consequences. I felt involved, there was a purpose to being on horseback and I did get a little bit of a rush when I felt I’d achieved something useful. However small. Secondly, because I was preoccupied with cattle, I sort of forgot about being on a horse. Not all the while, but for periods. And suddenly I felt a bit less nervous, and started to enjoy myself.

Finally, putting the cows though the dip to get rid of ticks was fun. It involved getting up close and using a very threatening flag to scare the cows into diving into a deep narrow channel.

Surprisingly, after a day in the saddle, I didn’t feel particularly sore. Admittedly we’d not done anything too taxing, but I recalled that an hour and a half sitting on a camel left me nursing a sore for a couple of weeks after. Dinner was again warming and hearty and after there was a consensus to watch one of the hundreds of DVDs that Juan has in his library. And dead on 10, the lights went out. So out came the candles and we all went to bed by candle light.

Woken early by an ibis alarm, (the birds, not the budget hotel chain…) and up for an early breakfast in the dark we were all ready to saddle up again by 9:00 o’clock.

But first our day two briefing.

Now after a day, you all think you’re “bloody experts” said Juan. And today the horse won’t do what you want it to and you’ll blame the “bloody horse”. But it’s not the “bloody horse’s fault, it’s your bloody fault”. And because you all think you know what you’re doing, statistically one of you will fall off.

So we set off to move yesterday’s herd back to another part of the ranch. We’d walked down a hill, and my horse had decided to drink from the little pool he was standing in. You know the old saying ‘you can take a horse to water’? Well take mine anywhere near water and he drank like a fish.

Anyway, just a few meters ahead there was a sudden commotion. Guillermo was on the floor and his horse was running madly around, its saddle under it’s belly. It was well spooked, and suddenly turned and galloped straight back toward the rest of the group. All the other horses became agitated, mine started to follow (I thought I might be taking an early bath), but Helen’s was starting to trot off up the hill when Juan’s voice bellowed out again. “Pull the bloody reigns, pull the bloody reigns!”. Hearts were beating a bit faster but all was under control and no harm done. Guillermo wasn’t hurt, and Bilinga set off after his horse at a gallop. I’ve no idea how he caught it as it wasn’t happy at all, but a short while later after we’d set off again Guillermo rejoined us on his horse as though nothing had happened.

Having found the herd, nothing else of any real note happened. The weather was much nicer, sunny and warm, and we started to tackle more adventurous stream crossings, with steeper banks, mud, rocks etc. but the horses just seemed to know what to do. Lucky one of us did!

Lunch, again, was amazing and the wine came out too. Off to one side, in a field, a basketball hoop had everyone running about, and the badminton net got a bit of use as well. Not sure where the energy for all that came from, but it typified the chilled vibe on the ranch.

The afternoon would be a little more involved though. Rather than herding cows, we’d be rounding up sheep. Not just rounding them up though, Juan wanted volunteers to catch the young lambs once they were penned.

Sheep are definitely harder to round up than cattle. They do keep trying to make a run for it, and try as I might, I couldn’t get my horse to move quickly enough to head them off. No good saying anything though because it was obviously ‘my bloody fault’. I did try though, and it was rewarding again to feel that at least I’d tried.

By now, I was comfortable enough on the horse (incidentally his name was Unicornio) to actually appreciate the fabulous rolling countryside we were riding through

When we arrived at the pen, much yelling and hollering was needed to get the sheep into the enclosure (the two dogs that followed Bilinga faithfully were of much greater help tan us green gauchos). Once the sheep and lambs were penned Juan elicited a bit more information about what we’d be doing with them.

This afternoon’s mission would be to catch the lambs and to hold them whilst Juan tagged them, docked their tails and castrated the males. Some of the sheep were lame. They had injured legs and/or feet or had been caught by foxes etc. so we had to catch these too so that Juan could treat them with antibiotics.

Another thing I never really expected to be doing, but with the ‘in for a penny’ mindset I got in the pen with the sheep.

Actually there were two pens, an outer one where the flock was held and an inner one where we did the catching. Helen and another of the team were catching hold of lambs in the outer pen and throwing them into the inner enclosure. Now they are actually slippery little things, hard to get hold of, and protected by their mothers. The girls did a great job, and little lambs kept dropping in around our feet, bleating loudly from being separated from their mothers. Then it was our turn. Grabbing the poor little things, we held them upside down by their legs, front legs in one hand, back legs in the other, and held them still for Juan to do the business.

First he clipped their ears, taking two semi circular chunks of ear from one side and one from the other. This is a mark unique to this ranch, and is monitored by the government. Then, for the females he docked the tail by using a tool to fix a wire tightly around the base of it, cutting off the blood supply. Apparently the tail drops off in about a week. For the males, then same process, except instead of its tail, the wire was tightened around his testes. Nice.

The lambs didn’t seem to be hurt by this. The only blood was from their ears, (I did actually get their blood on my hands), and when Juan dropped them into the ‘done’ enclosure all they seemed worried about was finding their mum again. They do make a lot of noise.

It was a bit more challenging though trying to catch and pick up a fully grown sheep! Once we had pinned them down, Bilinga would take control for Juan to treat them. I knew that these things have to be done down on the farm, but it was really interesting to actually be involved in the work. I genuinely felt that I got properly involved and it was actually really satisfying.

The evening produced more laughter with us indoctrinating Helen into the delights of Jenga and as for Juan, we introduced him to the tactical delights of the card game ‘Shit Head’ that Julia had introduced to us one evening in the High Altiplano.

We had just time enough for one more ride in the morning. Rounding up more sheep.

After just two days in the saddle I couldn’t quite believe what I’d done, where we were riding and the places we’d been. Saddling my own horse was something I hadn’t expected, but by the end I had got to grips with tightening the girth enough to hold it fast. I even managed to elicit a couple of snorts and evil sideways glances from my steed.

I’d found myself walking along rocky stream beds, standing in deep pools of water (so that Unicornio could satisfy his insatiable thirst) and wandering through vast vistas. By our last morning I really could appreciate the landscape. It was very different to other parts of South America we’d visited being flatter and more rolling. But it had its own beauty. I could really understand why Juan would want to live and work here. And why, being so remote, it might be quite enjoyable having rookie gauchos visiting his home.

A shower and final lunch would see the end of our gaucho experience. Having been apprehensive at the outset, it had turned into one of the highlights of the trip. Challenging, rewarding, educational and fun. Despite his straight talking Juan was genuinely friendly and without him I’ve no doubt I would still be living with my former apprehension.

But the adventure wasn’t quite over. Juan was due to drive us, in his minibus to the Uruguayan border. We were to cross back into Argentina where we’d catch an overnight bus to the Brazilian border where we would cross over to our next stay in Foz do Iguaçu.

Half way through the three hour journey as loud knocking started coming from the back corner of the bus. A flat? If only, a wheel baring had failed. We tried to limp along, but after a short while the brake fluid boiled due to the heat generated and the brakes seized. That was the end of our trip in the minibus. Fortunately we had plenty of time to spare, so a replacement bus was summoned. Except it wasn’t big enough for all of us and our luggage. So we drove off leaving two of the guys behind with all the bags to wait for another bus.

Credit to Guillermo. We still all arrived with time to spare, and right on time we hopped on the coach that would deposit us in the last country of our trip, and I was having mixed feelings about that. Whilst I was looking forward to seeing the falls, Rio and the Brazilian coast it meant that our journey was nearing its end.

Still, another night on a bus to look forward to, and then in the morning we’d get the chance to compare the mighty Iguazu Falls with the Victoria Falls we’d seen at the start of our journey many months previously.

And how many people can say that?

Estancia Pangea B&W Gallery

The estancia is one of those places that could easily have come from a different era, and some of the photos seem timeless in black and white. Well I think so anyway, so here’s small gallery of B&W images taken around the ranch itself.

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