Endless fields of beef pasture, as well as corn-, wheat-, soy-, and alfalfa fields remind me of the North American Mid West – of what used to be the prairies. There used to be the pampas here; we still have vague memories from our first South American trip in 1978, memories of rough and wild low-bush terrain, where gaucho horsemen herded cattle, aided by dogs. I remember our then dog Linda eyeing those active and capable dogs with envy: they looked so free and independent. Now, gauchos are only existing as a romantic icon to be impersonated in dress but not in lifestyle. Giant machines working the monoculture fields make the South American cowboys obsolete. The romance of the landscape is gone. A reason, or even an opportunity to stop and linger is minimalized. After driving for hours on end through the Argentinian landscape, the pampas in Uruguay compare as more preserved: cows and horses often roam fields covered with wildflowers and blooming bushes and at times the pampas grasses; the many (cursed) dusty Uruguayan roads are frequently used by horsemen – many of them keep up the gaucho image by wearing typical berets. Horses are popular in Uruguay, and throughout the region, rodeos are a regular Sunday event and gaucho dress-up is celebrated.
At the end of a great summer in the Netherlands, we arrived back in Uruguay by the second week of October. Our camper had survived our absence well, so we could immediately drive from the storage to Chacra Holandesa – our favorite campsite in Atlantida – to stock up on supplies and find a fresh set of tires that could carry us over expected rough Patagonian roads. Finding the right tires was a bit of a challenge and financial shock, but it feels good to start the last leg of our South American trip in top condition. In the meantime, with the help of Jan, we found out where, that Sunday, we had an opportunity to visit one of the local rodeo events.
Migues is a small town, not too far a drive away from Chacra Holandesa. Jan, the campsite owner extraordinaire, advised us to take the scenic road, which of course, had to be a dusty dirt road – one of the many in Uruguay. Once in town, it was easy to see where the action was. We paid a fee to enter and park on the rodeo grounds. As we made our way to the center field, we heard the announcer introduce and praise a parade of beautiful horses and showy riders. From their perch, two musicians beside the announcer filled the pauses with song and guitar. From the field perimeter, I saw three posts planted not far from center stage. Horses got tied to these posts, blindfolded, and mounted under loud and rapid (for me incomprehensible Uruguayan-Spanish dialect) commentary, probably about the horse, its owner and background, and the rider who is going to attempt to stay one minute on that unbroken bucking animal. The process looked brutal. The horses looked nervous. To reduce a panic, they got blindfolded, while getting short-tied to the post, then saddled, pushed and shoved into the right direction – often with the aid of other horses – and mounted by a guy wearing huge spurs on his boots. When everything was in place, the horse was untied, blindfold removed, and whipped, to start a one -minute challenge for the horse to get rid of the rider. These riders were good: most managed to stay on, wide-legged while waving a kerchief, rocking back and forth on the horse for the full minute. Then they were lifted off the horse by one of two horsemen safeguarding the ride, the other leading the horse back to the pen. One of the horses close to my point of view resisted from the get-go. Several times the rider was thrown off, even before the horse was untied. More assistants had to come and help get the horse under control. When the horse was finally let go, it threw the rider off within seconds. This horse was a wild one, with a beautiful muscle tone and will power. On the field there were two men with clip boards, holding scores. I don’t know what the criteria were to win something, but for me, this last horse was a winner.
During a break, we followed the crowd around us to check out the food and retail section. The public flaunted Gaucho regalia: (silver-studded) leather belts with finely decorated daggers caught most of my attention. Gaucho berets, riding pants and leather boots completed the look for most of the audience, even little kids. Decorative riding equipment and gaucho regalia could be purchased in some of the booths. Traditional mate cups and their metal straws, the bombillas, are a popular product as well – you never have too many of those… and the food: can’t be anything other than meat… or ice cream…or churros, filled with dulce de leche.
The day after we found and purchased our new tires, we left for Argentina by way of Uruguay’s lush wine country along the Rio de la Plata. Historic Colonia del Sacramento is a must see in Uruguay, and our first stop enroute to the border. As a former Portuguese outpost and strategically located opposite Buenos Aires across the river, the small colonial town has narrow cobblestone streets and intimate shady plazas which, in a land that does not have many charming towns to speak of, makes the place special enough to draw tourists and an Unesco World Heritage recognition. Parking was easy along the waterfront. We explored most of the old town during the quiet siesta time and picked a restaurant along the river for an early dinner. Then an evening sunset walk before bed. It was quiet in town.
When we visited Uruguay in 1978, these types of cars dominated the traffic scene.
With limited data access, we are now dependent on Wifi generosity. Here Thijs used Wifi from the restaurant where we ate before.
Not far from Colonia, we stopped at the public beaches of Carmelo. After an early lunch, we were casually accompanied by a sweet dog on our stroll along the beach. For a moment I thought we had another pet to join us on our adventures, but as we reached our camper, the dog was in front of a parked car ahead of us, so we climbed inside unseen. I looked out to see if he missed us and was relieved to see he already befriended someone else. Maybe he just likes to walk with someone.
Our truck was not allowed in the old town part of Carmelo, so we followed the detour, and emerged on the other side of town. Just a little further down the road was supposed to be an old historic store, Almacen de la Capilla, that tickled our interest, so we took the short drive over a dirt road to reach first the Capilla(=chapel), followed by the old corner store, surrounded by the Cordano Vineyards. Inside the store it was clear that the two businesses belonged together, and on a lovely terrace in the back there was an opportunity for winetasting. I made some surprising discoveries here: I didn’t know a Muscatel wine could be rose, dry and delicious, and I didn’t know I could enjoy a sweet Muscatel – this one was sparkling with a hint of citrus. Their Chardonnay was a nice mineral-dry, and their Tannat, the popular Uruguayan red wine, was full bodied. Finally, the licor de Tannat tasted like Port wine, like an after-dinner candy. The owners of the place invited us to stay at the winery for the night, which we accepted: it was a beautiful, quiet place, and when we went for a sunset walk around the vineyard, their dog casually accompanied us.
Our last destination in Uruguay was the border town of Fray Bentos, also known for having produced mountains of canned corned beef. We arrived too late for a tour of the old beef processing plant – turned museum. After reading more about it, I had no desire to see this old slaughterhouse, where in its hay days, until the 1960s, 5000 people worked to transform 400 cows per hour into cans of corned beef, which was then shipped to Europe and around the world. Thijs however wanted to know more about it and came back with some pictures. I’m glad it did not show a blood bath, just old machines and offices. In the meantime I cooked and processed my veggies, so we could cross the border the next morning without getting into trouble for importing raw food. We were ready for Argentina.