Page 2 — Trying Isolated Farm Life on a Uruguay Estancia
Story and photos by Tim Leffel

After we return to the horse pen and do the saddle procedure in reverse, I'm dirty and a little sore, but happy I got through it with no embarrassment. Dinner tastes "job well done" delicious.

"The power comes on at sunset from a generator and goes off at 10:00 p.m. exactly," Juan Manuel reminds us as the light starts to fade. "There's a DVD player connected to the TV, but don't spend an hour arguing about which movie to watch because it will stop halfway through and you won't know how it ends."

If the power goes off and you need to find something, light a candle. Crisis averted."

"He used to have signs up everywhere with lots of rules," sighs his wife Susann. "I finally convinced him to take half of them down so you could look in some direction and not see instructions."

A few signs remain though. One says, "No, we don't have Wi-Fi. Talk to each other!"

There's a Latin America soccer championship going on during our visit, so we settle into chairs and sofas to watch it live on one of the two channels reaching the house antenna. While the match is still tied at 1-1, a distant hum ceases and the TV flickers off. Time for bed.

Our sleeping quarters are basic but the beds and pillows are comfortable. I get the kind of restful sleep that only comes after a day of honest physical labor that works muscles not used to being worked.

Uruguay corraling sheep

Sheep Herding by Horseback

We awake to the sound of a couple dozen ibis birds twice as large as the ones that live in the tropics—and twice as loud. After breakfast we put on clothes that will take on bad weather and head out to herd sheep in a misty landscape. The closer we get to the sheep, the more the field smells like wet sweaters.

The sheep move slower than the cows did and need more shouting and prodding. Contrary to all the sayings about people blindly moving together like sheep, it turns out these woolly creatures are fond of running off on their own. It takes us a couple hours to get the whole herd from one field to another and eventually into a corral. It's vaccination day today, so they're all going to get a jab. The young ones get theirs as soon as we're able to separate parents and kids. There are more adults and they're harder to grab, however, so that has to wait until after lunch.

Uruguay sheep vaccination

After lunch, some of the group heads out to go vaccinate the adults. After a look out the window at the rain coming down, I skip out on that and read a book. When I see the others return a few hours later, I'm grateful for my choice: they're covered in dirt and worse. Holding scared sheep still so they can get jabbed with a needle, on a rainy day, where they've been doing their business for hours, is a dirty job. My tour mates are smiling with the satisfaction of camaraderie and the proper finishing of a task, but I'm getting that nagging feeling again that I'm not naturally inclined to this kind of work.

Instead I sit contently with my book next to the huge stone fireplace in the dark living room of the dark farmhouse. The few clumps of forest on this land of grass are what keep this place fueled. There's a solar hot water panel, but otherwise they need wood for heat, wood for the stove, and wood for the makeshift grill outside.

Susann Outdoor cooking Uruguay travel

Eventually the sun comes out and we end the day with a game of basketball on the outdoor dirt court and homemade backboard. "You need to loosen your muscles up," Juan Manuel says. "Sitting on a horse all day can really tighten up your legs."

When we sit down to dinner together, we open some wine and dig into grilled meat, sausages, bread, and potatoes—the kind of meal that makes sense in this landscape. "I go into town once a week to stock up," Juan Miguel says, "We fill up the truck with what we need, including our wine," he says with a smile. "Plus we trade with other farmers to get butter, bacon, things like that. We have some chickens for the eggs."

Goodbye to Green Acres

Uruguay Estancia travelI think back on this farm stay from a year ago often now as we isolate and avoid crowds in this new pandemic environment. I can imagine our hosts greeting the social distancing advice that followed the virus spread with a shrug. The only change in their lives would be a lack of boarders at their Panagea guesthouse who need help just getting onto a horse. That one income source is gone for them right now, but then again, so is the need to teach ignorant foreigners how to do what seems like second nature to them.

On the last full day as we ride out through the fields and to the top of a ridge though, I trot up to Juan Manuel and see him hunched over in the saddle, intently looking at something in his hand. I'm surprised to see a smart phone. "Sometimes there's a signal up here," he says, "and I can pick up the football scores."

Even a farmer needs some news of the outside world now and then it seems. As we ride away the next day in a van and then a bus, we again roll past field after field of farm animals, just an occasional smoking chimney on a farmhouse breaking up the expanse. I feel a tinge of regret leaving the simple life behind. This is a life where time is measured by moon cycles and calf births rather than election cycles, daily scandals, and how many e-mails have been processed.

Apparently my skills are more matched to the world I occupy normally though than the world I just got a taste of. My phone doesn't fill up with football scores as we approach a town with a cell tower. It fills up with hundreds of e-mails and messages asking for a response. The gentleman farmer's life will have to wait. Maybe forever.

If You Go:
When it's safe to fly to South America again, Intrepid Adventures has many reasonably priced small-group tours in the region, including one that includes a stay at this estancia in Uruguay. Check all the options here.

Editor Tim Leffel is an award-winning writer who lives in Mexico. He is author of several books, including The World's Cheapest Destinations, Travel Writing 2.0, and A Better Life for Half the Price. See his long-running blog here.

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Related Features:
Wining, Dining, and Cattle Driving in Uruguay - Claudia B. Flisi
A Horseback Trek in the Andes with the Argentine Men of the Mountains - Madelaine Triebe
Hunting Wild Boar in the Brazilian Cowboy Country of Pantanal - Madelaine Triebe
Cow Patties, Claws, and a Camel at a Mongolian Homestay - Julia Hubbel

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