Trying Isolated Farm Life on a Uruguay Estancia
Story and photos by Tim Leffel

A writer who abandoned farm country for urban life and travel spends some time off the grid on a cattle and sheep estancia in South America.

Uruguay travel story

"Here you will eat gaucho food," Juan Miguel says. "If you don't like it you can eat nothing. Then maybe after a few days you will be hungry and decide gaucho food is pretty good.

If you don't like something, I don't care. Channel all your disappointment and frustration to your tour leader."

This is the welcome speech from the owner of the ranch we are experiencing for several days and nights in Uruguay. We will be staying off the grid on his estancia: no cell phone signal, Wi-Fi, or daytime electricity. We will sleep in a house that's a dot in a vast expanse of cattle and sheep pastures in the middle of nowhere.

Our days will involve making breakfast over a wood-fired stove, riding horses for hours, and going to bed when the generator-fed power goes out at 10:00 p.m. on the dot. We face two options: adapt or be miserable. Since this stop is three days, not a lifetime, adapting seems like the easier choice.

"You signed up for a stay at a real estancia and that's what you're getting—the real thing," Juan-Miguel continues. "If you hate it here, blame yourself for not reading the tour description."

Uruguay Juan Manuel guide

The Romantic Vision of Life on a Farm

I never lived or worked on a farm, but that life was always close to my field of vision where I grew up in rural Virginia. About a quarter of the kids in my elementary school were Mennonites. They talked about tractors with the enthusiasm the rest of us displayed when talking about TV shows. They didn't have a TV, or a car, or even electricity in their homes. Many of my classmates stopped coming to school after sixth grade, others after eighth. Their parents put them to work on the farm after they learned enough to read, write, and do financial math.

When I got to high school, the biggest club was the Future Farmers of America. Their dark blue corduroy jackets were the most common kind of outerwear in the hallways.

Uruguay Estancia bootsMy limited experience with the kind of work they did erased any vision of wanting to follow their path. My parents once subscribed to a share in a community farm. They would drag my sister and I there to pick cucumbers, tomatoes, squash, and string beans. I hated every minute of it: the blazing summer sun bearing down, the dusty heat, the bugs, and the constant crouching. My parents got to listen to two kids whining regularly from the first 15 minutes on, every time we went. After two summers, they didn't renew.

I left that redneck farmland region after college, racing away like a convict escaping prison. I moved to a city 10 times bigger than the largest one in our county. Eventually I got a job transfer to New York City, a place about as different as where I grew up as a Mennonite horse and buggy is to a limousine.

I got married to a woman who said she "could never live in a place that was 20 minutes away from a supermarket" and we embraced a life of urban living and world travel. I had no romantic notions of farming until I visited rural Czech Republic, Romania, and Bulgaria. In those places it seemed like nearly everyone had grape vines, a wine cellar, and jugs of their own hooch. "Hmmm, maybe I could be happy with a little farm," I started to think.

Later I visited haciendas in Mexico where the gentleman farmers told other people what to do while enjoying a life of leisure sitting on the terrace drinking tequila. "Well that doesn't look so bad," I thought. But then that gentleman farmer would saddle up a horse with a few quick motions and ride off to check on a broken fence somewhere, showing at some point he had learned a thing or two about how these places function.

I set out on my farmer experience in Uruguay to see if I was in any way cut out for this kind of life. We would saddle up horses, herd cattle, and help with farming chores. I would know soon enough if I were a closet cowboy or just a fish out of water.

First Impressions of Uruguay

My introduction to Uruguay a day earlier was not what I had hoped. My Intrepid Adventures group arrived in Colonia from Buenos Aires after crossing the huge Rio de Plata river that looks like a sea. It was rainy and gray when we arrived and it stayed that way the whole time. I felt like the city was conspiring against me. "Go ahead and try to get a photo to put in your stupid article," it seemed to be telling me. "It's a waste of time. Stay inside and then leave."

As I wandered the streets in my raincoat and waterproof shoes in an attempt to be a travel writer, there was little warmth to be found. Most of the shops seemed to be closed, as if they'd given up on anyone wandering in. I pictured myself by a fireplace in a cozy pub with a glass of local Tannat, but the closed doors were telling me to go back to where I came from—or move on.

The tour leader corralled the group together for a dinner at a restaurant in the historic area. It scored high on the funky décor, but that creativity definitely didn't extend to the kitchen. After a meal of tough steak and bad wine—in a country that normally excels at both—we ventured back into the rain for a sullen trek back to the hotel. During the night, the power went out in the whole city. We all dressed, packed, and brushed our teeth using what light came through the window or from headlamps, then met in the lobby to depart. The morning greeting for everyone was, "Sorry, no coffee."

Although the hotel was only six blocks from the bus station, we needed to summon taxis because of the deluge. The bus station was equally hostile as we waited to depart, with two stores open. One was a fashion shop selling dresses in styles that may have been popular 30 years ago. The other was a convenience store with a few packets of dusty cookies and an empty ice cream freezer caked with several inches of white frost.

Most of us spent our hours on the buses to the farm telling people halfway around the world we could not be reached for days. Not that there was much to see outside anyway as we rumbled through the rainy countryside. Endless cattle pastures were broken up by barbed-wire fences, this going on for hours at a time. This is one of the most progressive, safe, and environmentally conscious countries of the world, but half its population of 3.6 million lives in the capital city. Away from the coasts, it's a land of gauchos.

Uruguay old wagon

Helmets, Horses, and Wide-open Spaces

We rise and shine early to start our first full day at the estancia, getting into the farming groove.

"If you want some eggs, make some eggs," says Juan Miguel. "If you want some toast, put bread on a hot surface until it gets brown. Don't get a new coffee cup every time and then leave three of them lying around hoping some magical servant will pick them up and wash them."

Juan Manuel Luque's grandfather bought this 2,400-acre farm and didn't move far from it after settling in. He learned to fend for himself and rely on neighbors for occasional help. Juan Manuel wanted to see beyond the hills though, so he traveled the world when he could and eventually got married to a Swiss woman he met along the way: Susann Schnurrenberger. They certainly defy the stereotype of country bumpkin farmers, speaking six languages between them and living in a house filled with books.

They oversee an estancia with around 1,100 cows and 1,800 sheep at any given time, making a living by selling the animals off when they reach the proper age, along with sheared wool along the way. Their land is a series of fenced pastures and corrals. They have more than 70 horses on site as well, all named by their two daughters. To get the horses to a state of being docile enough for city slicker visitors to ride, the owners pass them off to pro gauchos who break them over 4-5 months.

The horses still show plenty of personality though. As we ride later, we find that there are two that must always be next to each other. Some always want to follow, never leading. Mine doesn't need to be out front, but close. If another horse starts to get too far ahead, mine speeds up. If another gallops past, he breaks into a gallop as well. If there's a creek though, we will stop. Terremoto's name means "earthquake," but he's hard to move when he's thirsty.

We spend a fair bit of time at first learning how to properly saddle up a horse before we can ride. "We're going to show you how to do it," says Juan Manuel, "but this is not an amusement park ride. Pay attention and learn because you'll do it yourself every other time." We learn which layers go in which order, how to insert the bit for the reins, and how to tighten up straps so the saddle won't slip off. Each time I think the straps are as tight as they can be without cracking my horse's rib, the head gaucho comes over and tightens them several more notches.

Uruguay horses

"Whoa—don't walk so close to her back!" Juan Manuel shouts at one of the other riders. "One kick from that horse and you'll be on the ground with broken bones," he says. "And we're a long way from a hospital." He hands us helmets to put on our ignorant heads in case we fall. Only the gauchos get to wear cowboy hats.

We spend the first morning just riding through the pastures, up and down gentle hills and through a Eucalyptus forest. We are getting used to the horses and them getting used to us.

After a hearty gaucho lunch though—beef stew with a salad and homemade bread—we get to work. We spend the afternoon herding cows, making a U-shape and moving the animals toward a gate. "This is a real ranch, not like what you see in the movies," Juan Miguel explains. "There's no need to race around and stir up dust. Just keep moving slowly, together, and guide the animals to where they need to go."

Eventually we move them into a corral, the goal being to separate the young calves and click an identification tag to one of their ears. There's a lot of angry and scared mooing as the mother cows complain and the little ones react with fear. Then as we separate the adults from the calves and move the older ones outside the corral, the volume and anger both increase, the cows sounding like an angry protesting mob as we hit them with bamboo sticks to move them away from the youngsters. The calves go down a narrow fenced corridor and get their tags in the ears one by one. At the other end, they exit to go find their mother and the high-decibel protests gradually subside.

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