On our first of several outings to Sierra de Mahomas, Princessa could hardly contain herself. The truth is, I could hardly contain her: as soon as we were on the dusty dirt road headed to the Sierra, she knew. With a nod of assent from our accompanying gaucho, I pointed her in the right direction and loosened her reins . . . and she was off. I pretended to be in charge but we both knew who was really in command. Thank goodness she was smart and sure-footed, and no wild animals made their way onto the trail to startle us because we were going very fast.
Not everyone chooses a vacation at a South American estancia for the horse riding. About half the guests at estancias we have visited do not ride at all. They want to get closer to the pulse of the land by seeing ranch life close up. To make sure that happens—because it does not happen everywhere—verify that the place you choose has a family living on the premises and a herd of cattle. The gaucho mystique, like the cowboys of the American west, is linked to cattle; without the animals, you are seeing farmers or innkeepers, not gauchos.
My personal penchant is that if you are going to a place punctuated by cattle and herded by horses, why not ride? And what a ride at times during our stay at Finca Piedra, a one-thousand-hectare estate in San Jose, Uruguay. The estancia is 90 minutes by car from Montevideo, Uruguay’s capital, and 80 minutes from Colonia, Uruguay, a UNESCO world heritage site well worth visiting for its own merits. (We traveled by ferry from Buenos Aires, Argentina, to Colonia across the Mar del Plata River and it was an easy trip, unlike the riding we were about to do.)
The heart-stopping, dust-generating cattle drive came on the second day of our weeklong stay. Granted, Tango, Toby, and Arachannes were doing all the work. They were the dogs, not the two gauchos who accompanied us. Actually we accompanied them – canines and cowboys. The latter were yelling, “Vaca vaca vaca (cow, cow, cow),” and urged their horses close to the laggards and strays in the herd, to keep them moving forward to a new pasture. And we, the seven guests, were watching the gauchos and trying to do what they were doing without getting in the way. But it didn’t take more than five minutes to realize who was really running the show.
Tango, the leader, was a tiny white mongrel with a Napoleonic air and legs so short “it looks like they have been half sawed off”, my husband decided. Toby, about twice his height (which is to say, still not much), had about 50 percent border collie blood and 100 percent border collie herding instinct. Arachannes was twice Toby’s weight and bulk and acted as the brawn to the brains and ability of the other two. It was like watching a quarterback, halfback, and fullback working together to score.
We were lucky in that our stay coincided with one of the several days a month that chief gaucho Pedro Bentancour moves the herd, enabling us to participate in an abbreviated version of a cattle drive. So we were able to observe the dogs, horses, and gauchos in action. These events are not full-fledged productions like those depicted in Hollywood westerns, but if you choose to go riding during those periods, you wind up with a saddle’s-eye-view of the action.
Finca Piedra has 500 head of Hereford cattle, a few kept to produce milk and cheese, but most sold for meat. Meat production calls for fertile cows, and one morning during our stay the local veterinarian came over to check the status of the females at the estancia. One by one, they were herded through a narrow pen, over which the vet hovered with his hand encased in a rubber glove. He checked them manually in a way that did not appear to be especially comfortable for the cows. The fertile ones passed muster; the spinsters were destined to join the young males on a one-way trip to the local meat processing plant.
The fortunate Herefords sometimes share pastureland with 250 Corriedale sheep and 20 Criollo horses trained by Pedro to satisfy the needs of both gauchos and guests.
The spectacle of livestock is supplemented by a small farm of autochthonous animals: ñandus (a local breed of ostrich), carpinchos (the Uruguayan tapir), and more generic ducks, geese, hens, and rabbits. Guests can come along to collect eggs, but not from the ñandus; the male is very protective of his mate and will wave his wings aggressively when anyone gets too close. I was able to hold the baby carpinchos, but you have to be careful with them too; their fur is as sharp as steel bristles and their webbed feet end in little curved claws.
The ranch also has beehives yielding excellent hibiscus honey. A visit to the hives with the local beekeeper in full spaceman regalia can be arranged about once a week. I wanted to ride over to see them on horseback but was persuaded that this was NOT a good idea... for horse or rider. So I made the visit on foot, keeping a scrupulous distance between me and the bees.
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