Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Playing Gaucho´s in Uruguay

An hour across the wide, red Rio de la Plata from BA lies the charming old town of Colonia. Three and a bit hours north by bus past open lush countryside lies the town of Mercedes. A taxi ride from there into the countryside lies what was our home for four days. Estancia La Sirena (Mermaid Ranch).

Before I go into details I wish to give a hint that coming here was probably the best decision we (or in this case Christina) made on this whole trip...


We spent an afternoon and a night in this quiet country city. Not a tourist in sight. Not a word of English within earshot. A comparatively prosperous country town by the banks of the Rio Negro and surrounded by cow country. Some lovely old buildings, one of the earliest churches in Uruguay (1690), pretty grid-lined streets and a grand central plaza formed the backdrop for our strolls. Added interest came in the form of the flooding of the Rio Negro. The water level had risen by something like 8 meters, covering up beaches, parks and some parts of the streets close to the over-flow. A disaster for much of the local population no doubt, but it was entertaining to watch the kids playing in their new water-park.
A circa 30km ride through the countryside, by-passing the normal now underwater road took us to the gates of...

Estancia La Sirena

Rolling hills intermittently covered in scrub-land, woods, wheat and barley are interceded by the wide flow of the Rio Negro - at least doubled by an inundation of flood water pouring down from southern Brazil. From the river, via its ups and downs the land slowly rises to a hill. From this vantage point you can see for miles around. Some two hundred years ago, in a time of significant turmoil, this natural attribute of the hill – that you can see people approach for miles around – lead to a wealthy man building what is now La Sirena on its summit.Half country mansion, half small castle. The estancia has on one side of its character thick, high walls, a watch-tower, a well at its core and under ground store rooms in case of attack, and on the other side, graceful verandas, grand rooms with high ceilings and outer white-washed walls. A beautiful yet imposing building.
From the second we arrived we were welcomed into the family. Sometimes you meet people who immediately put you at your ease and Lucia and Rodney are such people. First things first, Rodney took us on a tour of the old house and grounds, relating the history of the place and explaining his passion for the ranch and the flora and fauna it contains. We came to share some of this passion.
Swallows swerve and loop from from the rafters. Two widower ducks dawdle around giving guests a fright as they tap on unsuspecting windows and the Energetic muts (Felippe and Taboo) are constantly investigating, adding energy to even the height of the day and a fright to the odd chicken, while two widower ducks dawdle around giving guests a fright as they tap on unsuspecting windows... they freaked the hell out of me...Bonita Vistas...

To the north, jacaranda trees in bright purple blossom shade the lawn as the land drops from the house, past the old stables, to a herd of horses in the field beyond. The land then stretches in green and gold of crops to the forested banks of the overflowing Rio Negro.

To the west, as the day ends, we sit with refreshment and good company. Tall eucalyptus tower over us and are home to dozens of noisy green parrots who share their experiences of the day with many a squawk before one by one hopping into the large nest of entangled twigs to see away the night. These trees frame another field for the horses, before the land falls towards, far in the distance, Mercedes and the river. The crowning spectacle is the setting of the sun. Each day different, but no less spectacular. On one day a golden ball falling from a clear sky of fading blue and red ember. On another, an angry sky of multiple storms, lifting up in swirls of black and chucking deluge from within. Remarkably the sun has a clear, narrow path in which to dip and simultaneously to its majestic fall we witness the repeated discharge of forked lightening. Unbelievably, these powerful images are within a whisker of each other on the horizon. Once the sun is gone, each set of clouds turns a different shade of red and orange, some acting as barriers, protecting the lasts blue of open sky behind.

I apologise if this all sounds a bit verbose and over the top, but, for me, there is very little to compare in grandeur or to be so deserved of superlatives then a sunset. No doubt living in a place when I see them rarely heightens the sensation, but rarely have I seen such impressive ones as from La Sirena. I could not take my eyes away.

A day in the life of a wannabe Gaucho...
Each day the same. Wake up, set off western saddle for a few hours around the ranch, eat, sleep, another long ride, eat, sleep. A nice way to spend some time. During the eating parts, we were lucky enough to have great company in Rodney and Lucia and the varying guests who were staying. On our first night the place is full – which means a dozen people – with friends of the family from Montevideo and Argentina. A great event, with wine flowing, a big barbecue and Lucia playing local songs on the guitar with singing accompaniment from various corners. On another night there are just three of us. A really nice mixture..
It is so interesting listening to Lucia and Rodney, because of their experiences and attitude. She a former Davis Cup tennis player, energetic, full of talent and friendliness. He a former football and polo-player of some merit, who has spent most his life on different estancia and has an invigorating, optimistic and adventurous spirit. In particular his strong pro-environmental thoughts struck a chord with me – a theme of this trip it seems.
They are both from old Uruguayan families and gave us some very interesting perspective on the country, particularly pertinent when a potentially seismic election was coming on the Sunday. Joining many other parts of South America, Uruguay is swinging to the left.
It is though the long rides which will stick in my memory longest. Neither Christina nor I have ever spent such a prolonged period on the saddle – in Christina's case in her whole life put together. It was a great sensation to feel more and more comfortable at the controls of these stocky work-horses. As we always rode the same horses, you could feel an affinity slowly grow and by the end of our time I felt more at home on a horse than I have ever done.
From the saddle we saw so much nature. A multitude of different birds, interesting trees, large lizards and, of course, the ever-nervous cattle. Some paths took us through patchy grass-land, filled with strange prickly weeds that climb to almost head height. Others took us through close-knit woodland, where ducking and diving from branches was a quickly learned skill. All our journeys took us to marvelous view points and eventually the momentarily glutinous Rio Negro.
I really fell for the place. On the surface, this countryside does not promise much, but as we witnessed over the the hours in the saddle, and as Rodney showed us, the glory is in the detail (much like British countryside, where at a brief glance you would not guess at all the fascinating creatures lurking in every hedge-row). Taking part in some minor gaucho duties, like checking the fences and searching for vaco's, enhanced the experience.
Needless to say we were very sad to leave. It seemed fitting that another ground-trembling storm came from the West as we were to leave. We said our goodbyes and gave our humblest thanks and rode off in a torrential rain-storm from the Estancia that had touched us so much....

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