The Uruguayan landscape as seen from the window of my bus from Montevideo was not dramatic or spectacular, but verdantly green, dotted with lush trees, including placid palms. All very restful for the jagged city soul. At a very brief glimpse this seemed like a very rural country and US statistics (www.state.gov) bear this out, suggesting that almost a quarter of Uruguay´s GDP comes from agriculture and agro-industry, and over two thirds of all exports.
I´d met Bob and Stacey, a friendly Californian couple, as we were dropped off the bus at Cerro Colorado to await our collection from the estancia (which was a little delayed, as internet and phone connections had been cut for the last few days due to persistent storms). Arriving at the estancia (ranch) of San Pedro de Timote (http://www.sanpedrodetimote.com.uy/sanpedro.html) was like arriving at an oasis after emerging from the tranquility desert of Buenos Aires (as fond as I am of BA; it is not a restful place). A whitewashed arch emblazoned with the estancia´s emblem leading onto a Moorish-style courtyard greeted us as we lurched down the pitted track from the main road and to the right was a wide-fronted, well-kept building maintained in its original style – this was the former farmhouse-turned hotel where we were to wallow in comfort over the next few days. The grounds also contain a chapel, a school and lots of outbuildings, now variously used as conference venues (Pearson, are you reading?!), games rooms, swimming pools and staff accommodation. There was lots of dark wooden flooring and deep fireplaces kept constantly fed so that they flamed and crackled hospitably in all the public rooms.
It wasn´t long before the three of us were hoisted up on the back of three visibly well-fed horses for our first cabalgata (horse ride) by Alberto, a sturdy gaucho who had been born and raised on the estancia. He´d been to school there and had worked there for 40 years. Alberto (or Beto) was accompanied by Theo, a young gaucho-in-the-making and brother-in-law to Francisco, the hotel´s suavely dressed manager with fantastic leather riding boots. Never having ridden a horse before, I was more than a little nervous, but Alberto was having none of it. He shoved me up onto the broad back of Dakota, a nice looking chestnut horse who was generally very well-behaved but who over the next few days displayed a tendency to show his own mind at times. I was under no illusion about who was in control: we followed the trail (mostly) because Dakota deigned to, not because I led him there. At one point on the second day he decided the trail was too muddy and veered off to drier ground under the trees of a lovely wooded park laid out by the French-born Argentinian architect and landscape designer, Carlos Tauys, who designed many of Buenos Aires´ parks. Unfortunately Dakota didn´t consider his passenger and my right knee got painfully pressed between the horse´s plump flank and a tree. Still, no harm done, and I surprised myself by enjoying my debut horse rides.
Later it emerged that Alberto had not even been listening to my protestations, as he didn´t think I spoke Spanish and he didn´t speak English, except to shout ´stop´every now and again in an unexpectedly sing-song tone. At the end of our first ride, a beautiful foray into the peaceful fields of the neighbouring estancia, during which we saw a cluster of flightless yandu (big ostrich-like birds) and enough flying birds to make a twitcher´s year, he asked me if I´d enjoyed the cabalgata and then registered surprise that I could speak Spanish and that I´d never ridden before, both facts which I thought would have been obvious.
As well as being an expert horseman, Alberto was the proud possessor of a detailed knowledge of the estancia´s history, which he shared with us during a tour of the house and grounds. San Pedro de Timote had been created by the Jesuits in the 1740s but became an estancia in 1854 when it was taken over by Pedro Jose Jackson, of a famous estanciero family. For the last 100 years it has been associated with another family of pioneering ranchers, the Gallinals, most recently with Dr Alberto Gallinal Heber. By coinicidence it was rhe 100th anniversary of his birth when I was there and when I missed my connection back to Buenos Aires from Montevideo, I decided to use my unexpected free hours to visit the gaucho museum. It turned out that amongst the shining, ornate stirrups, oversized spurs and carefully crafted whips they were hosting a tribute to the good doctor, including lots of old photos of San Pedro de Timote. Dr Alberto (and it´s just occurred to me that today´s horse riding Alberto may have been named after him: I wish I´d thought to ask while I was there) was something of a renaissance man – lawyer, rural landowner and manager, politician, public speaker, opera singer, artistic, active Christian and nature lover. His abiding passion was the rural environment and the problems of the peasants: he set up the Movement for the Eradication of Unhealthy Rural Housing (MENIR) to help with what he saw as one of the most pressing issues. He inherited the estancia of San Pedro and financed various works and social programmes in the area.
Between horse rides, we were plied with four meals a day, including a delicious merienda (afternoon tea) complete with scones, cakes and lashings of dulce de leche (the caramel-like sweetened condensed milk that is the national obsession). After merienda and before dinner on the first evening, Theo took us on a ´night safari´, during which we were towed in an open-sided cart by a tractor on the lookout. We saw a grand total of two armadillos and a skunk. Desperate for a photo opportunity for his kids, a young Argentinian father leapt over the side of the truck and into the bush, cutting his head above the ear on an overhanging branch and chasing the armadillo out into the light of Theo´s torch at high speed. The kid got the shot, but it didn´t strike me as the most eco-friendly approach.
On the second night, in lieu of the night safari, which hadn´t been a great success (or the Night Rider as I like to think of it), Theo organised a bingo game in the library, a dark and gloomy room lit by a crackling fire and full of old books of a gloriously eclectic variety, from Spanish and English classics to bound collections of boxing magazines. Bingo seems to be quite popular over here: I was treated to a game on a long-distance bus the other day, with the co-driver rattling out the numbers through the intercom. An interesting diversion as we cruised through the Argentian lake district, though I´m sorry to have to report I didn´t win. On the estancia, Christina, an aspiring beer garden owner from Atlanta (she doesn´t drink beer herself) won both games, claiming a bottle of wine for each, which she generously shared over dinner.
After a couple of days of sheer indulgence I was sad to leave – San Pedro is the sort of place you could easily hole up in for months – but the falls of Iguazu beckoned and I think if I´d taken advantage of the cuisine there for too much longer I´d have ended up a few sizes larger: as Bob said to himself sternly, ´From now on I´ll be limiting myself to only one dessert per day!´
If anyone would like to see the pics, they´re on Picasa at: