Gauchos take Kate Kellaway on a week-long trail ride along Uruguay’s stunning coast, and teach her how to herd cattle on a working farm
Our guide stood in front of a map of South America and pointed to Uruguay, squeezed next to Brazil and tiny in comparison. «Look, it is heart-shaped,» she said. Patting herself on the chest, she added: «We have big hearts here.» It was a line that from the wrong lips would have sounded contrived, but five days into one of the most wonderful riding experiences of my life, what Rosa said was incontrovertibly true. Uruguay, as well as being heart-shaped, is beautiful – a green and uncrowded land (with a population of only 3 million). This is South America’s undiscovered country, its best kept secret. And it is a perfect destination for horse riders.
Every Uruguayan trail ride comes with at least two gauchos to organise the horses (reliable, forward-going criollo crosses) and to readjust saddles (rough affairs, topped with sheepskin), stirrups and cinches. I had pictured these guys as casually scuffed cowboys. But our gauchos, Alexis and Fabian, were dandies. They dressed immaculately in stylishly baggy riding trousers – bombachas – secured by belts into which silver knives were stuck at dashing angles, and they had a repertoire of rakish hats. (I have returned with a hopeful wardrobe of boots, hats and sashes, all too improbably colourful for English riding.)
Watching the gauchos ride was one of the great joys of this trip. It was like admiring apparently effortless dancing. In particular, I noticed – and marvelled at – the tremendous stillness at the heart of their horsemanship, as if riding were not actually about movement at all.
Before settling on Uruguay, I enjoyed many luxuriously indecisive months, wondering where in the world to go, studying Ride World Wide’s excellent brochure. And in the end, I chose Uruguay because it is the ultimate coastal ride – and I adore riding by the sea. Also, I wanted to go somewhere right off my map.
The coastal riding exceeded even my dreamy expectations: the thrill of those hours spent riding on wide empty Atlantic beaches in Rocha Province, and by the Laguna Negra further north (where the water is an inky blue and where I swam after a hot morning’s riding) will stay in my mind forever.
By the Atlantic we sighted two whales. The first seemed to greet us in a momentary salute; the second was a melancholy spectacle – vast, dead, stranded on the beach. But for me, the greatest thrill of all was the sight of hundreds of sea lions basking on rocks. And I loved being introduced to armadillos too (said to be lucky). What extraordinary beasts they are, with their armoured vulnerability – like warriors that have forgotten how to fight.
Inland, the landscape was sometimes sinister (rather as I imagine Coleridge’s Xanadu), randomly dotted with palm trees, with rivers running across it like threads of mercury. Sometimes vultures gathered above us like bad news. Yet the weather tended to be warm and forgiving, saving its dramatic storms for the nights. One afternoon was exceptionally hot, though, and I watched as one of the gauchos, Alexis, reached into his saddlebag for a bottle of water, took off his hat, poured the entire contents of the bottle over his head and then stuck his hat back on. I wondered whether I dared do the same, until the weather changed.
This was a trail ride, and we were staying in good, comfortable hotels and working farms (estancias) where the idea was to work with the gauchos and «help». This, the part of the holiday I was looking forward to least, I enjoyed most of all. One estancia, El Sauce, was run by a charming and cultivated Uruguayan (who jokingly dubbed himself Don Juan). He explained that he had «120 horses» and, with a twinkle in his eye, added: «Something for everyone.»
Easy-going laughter is characteristic of this country. Uruguay is defined by its calm, its spaciousness and its amiability. Montevideo, the capital, where the holiday begins and ends, is a safe, sympathetic city – ideal if you are a woman travelling on your own. But of course, on this holiday, you are not on your own for long and the experience of riding together is bonding. I am sure most groups end up feeling friendly and connected – ours (there were 10 on our trip – the maximum permitted) certainly did. But it is essential to be fit before going on such a trip. There is a lot of fast riding and you are on horseback for between five and seven hours a day.
The second, less serious, advice would be: don’t automatically disdain mate, the gauchos’ drink of choice. It is definitely one for committed tea drinkers – it tastes like overbrewed Earl Grey and steams away in a small cauldron. You suck it through a silver straw. Rosa cheerfully explained that Uruguayans are a nation of addicts. I have an unopened packet of the stuff on my mantelpiece right now. I keep wondering whether it is safe to brew up a pot – if only to transport myself back to Uruguay
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