The chance to experience an actual working ranch with real life gaucho cowboys was too good for me to resist on my South American tour. I learnt how to ride a horse and lasso like a gaucho in Salta, north Argentina a few weeks before arriving at the ranch in Uruguay and fortunately took to it like a natural, or so I was told! One handed, saddleless, body leaned back and relaxed even at a high speed gallop (the speed and adrenaline junkie in me loved this despite being told by the cowboys not to risk it) but off I went!
The Panagea Estancia (ranch), although vast in square distance across the plains of northern Uruguay is so off the beaten track it’s an hour’s off-road drive from the nearest town of Tacuarembó, which in itself is a mighty 4 hour bus drive from Montevideo, Uruguay’s Capital in the south. So, by the time you pull up at the sleepy grounds and charming accommodation of Panagea, there’s no doubt you are in the real heart of this beautiful country. The surrounding sounds of horses, sheep, cows, hens, dogs and birds on arrival instantly sets you in farm and ‘back to nature’ mode.
Costing approx. $60USD per day I stayed for 1 week, the accommodation consisted of comfortable shared rooms (approx. 3 beds to a room), with no internet or electricity besides 2 hours via a generator each evening, so this is a truly rustic experience. A cosy living and dining area comes complete with an open log fire, rocking chairs, sheep skin rugs and hanging bull skulls. Outside, an open charcoal fire, hammocks and a make-do badminton court which Juan, (the owner and real guacho cowboy) likes to challenge his guests to a game on most nights! But my favorite touch? Flags of the world hand painted along the outside of the house and a grand collection of gaucho cowboy hats hanging from the porch wall. This is a place where people from all over the world are celebrated and the full gaucho experience is encouraged proudly.
The key to this unique farming experience is charismatic local gaucho Juan Manuel Luque and his wonderful Swiss wife Suzanna, who own and live on the ranch providing all farming expertise, accommodation, food and welcoming warmth.
Juan is a hilarious guy but does take his farm and the work very seriously so this isn’t a place to hang out and swing from the hammock all day. If you’re there, you’re there to work like a gaucho and help this family sustain their living in exchange for their hospitality, accommodation and hearty meals. With groups of around 10 people at a time you are also expected to help Suzanna with food prep at lunch and dinner which of course, along with their 2 young children is a great pleasure and a fabulous way to get to know the family, their way of life and the local cuisine.
After initial lessons, you’re ‘matched’ with a horse according to your riding ability and confidence level, mine was ‘Kaiser’, a beautifully natured beast. You’re taught how to saddle up (and down) gaucho style with nothing but layers of sheep skin, leather and rope.
Each morning we’d ride far and wide negotiating the rough grounds of the plains as we went. Wind in hair and beautiful morning sunshine, the vast green landscape as far as the eye can see is breathtaking. Cattle herding was our main task, moving herds across miles of land to an area where the calves would eventually be penned and nose tagged – this is to stop them suckling and growing any bigger, ready for market. I had a specific job to do; keep the pen gate down with a rope and lead weight pulley system while nose clipping took place and releasing them back to their parents as soon as it was complete. It was loud, distressing and messy but a big job well done once complete.
Lamb castration is also part of the ranch experience, herding hundreds of the little fellas into large pens, they’re picked up by all 4 hooves and placed on their backs on a block of wood. Juan with a small machete in hand, castrates them effortlessly before they were placed back on their feet, bloody and disorientated. I found it emotional to watch. Happily, my role was to reunite them with their parent sheep, herding them into a neighboring pen.
What’s amazing is how quickly you become skilled at herding, by the end of the week we were confidently able to gallop off solo to fetch escapee cattle and swiftly usher them back to herd strange whistles and all! Baring in mind this is horse riding true gaucho style with no saddle and only one hand to control the horse reign, this felt like quite the achievement. Getting an approving thumbs up from Juan always warranted a self-high-five!
The long mornings working on the ranch were rewarded with hearty lunches of fresh cuts of beef, lamb and pork all cooked on the outdoor charcoal fire by Juan and an array of colorful vegetable and bean side salads made up by Suzanna. We’d sit around the fire reflecting on the mornings work, swing in the hammocks and enjoy hard cheese along with a tipple of red wine (this is the South American way!) After 2-3hrs we’d refueled and rested fully for the afternoon shift back out on the ranch.
Dinner is a similar affair but usually indoors around a large wooden table by the time sun sets. Alcoholic drinks are available at a small additional cost that you pay for with cash at the end of your stay directly into Juan & Suzanna’s honesty box.
I left Panagea ranch proudly exhausted, enriched with new skills and feeling a renewed connection to nature. Most importantly for me, this was Uruguay at its heart. Understanding how this family live, earn a living and even eat, welcoming with such open arms complete strangers in to their home taught me about the innate warmth, acceptance and trust of the Uruguayan people. This was a real experience of the real lives of a real Uruguayan family…and for what other reason do we travel?