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Playing gauchos in an estancia in rural Uruguay


Sailing from Buenos Aires, Christina and I crossed the expanse of the deep red Rio de la Plata and disembarked in the charming old town of Colonia del Sacremento, Uruguay. Three and a bit hours north by bus through open, lush, very wet countryside took us to Mercedes, from where we hoped to find our way to Estancia La Sirena, the Mermaid Ranch.


We spent an afternoon and a night in this quiet city. Not a tourist in sight. Not a word of English within earshot. A comparatively prosperous city by the banks of the Rio Negro and surrounded by cow country. Mercedes has some lovely old buildings, one of the earliest churches in Uruguay (1690), pretty grid-lined streets, and a grand central plaza formed the backdrop for our strolls. Added interest came in the form of the flooding of the Rio Negro. The water level had risen by something like 8 metres, covering up beaches, parks and streets close to the overflow. A disaster for much of the local population no doubt, but this didn’t seem to dampen the local kids’ excitement as they explored their new water-park.

By-passing the direct but now underwater road, a 30km taxi ride through the countryside took us to the gates of Estancia La Sirena, our home for the best part of a week.

Estancia La Sirena

We were met by rolling hills intermittently covered in scrub-land, woods, wheat and barley, and interceded by the wide flow of the Rio Negro, at least doubled by an inundation of flood water pouring down from southern Brazil. From the river, via its ups and downs, the land slowly rose to a hill. Atop the hill was the ranch house.

Some two hundred years ago, during a time of significant turmoil, a wealthy man was drawn to the hill by its natural defensive attributes and clear vantage point of the surrounding area. He built La Sirena on its summit: half country mansion, half minor castle. The estancia combines, on the one hand, high walls, a watch-tower, a well and underground store rooms, and, on the other, graceful verandas, grand rooms with high ceilings and outer white-washed walls. A beautiful yet imposing building.

From the second we arrived, we were welcomed into the family. Sometimes you meet people who immediately put you at your ease, and Lucia and Rodney were such people. First things first, Rodney took us on a tour of the old house and grounds, relating the history of the place and explaining his passion for the ranch and the flora and fauna it contained. So infectious was his excitement and knowledge that we soon came to share some of this passion.

Swallows swerved and looped from the rafters. Two widower ducks dawdled around giving guests a fright as they tapped on unsuspecting windows and the muts, Felippe and Taboo, constantly investigated, adding energy to even the height of day (and a fright to the odd chicken).

In between time out on the horses, our time was spent relaxing and helping out around the ranch. It was a great opportunity to soak in the beauty of the place, and I spent hours staring out over the surrounds.

To the north, jacaranda trees in bright purple blossom shaded the lawn as the land dropped from the house, past the old stables, to a herd of horses in the field beyond. The land then stretched, in green and gold of crops, to the forested banks of the bursting Rio Negro. My favourite view in the heat of the day.

To the west, tall eucalyptus towered over La Sirena and were home to dozens of noisy green parrots who shared their experiences at the end of the day with many a squawk, before one by one hopping into the large nest of entangled twigs to see away the night. These trees framed another field for the horses, before the land fell out towards the horizon, Mercedes, and the river.

The crowning spectacle was the setting of the sun, which we savoured with refreshment. Every day was different, but no less spectacular. On one day, a golden ball fell from a clear sky of fading blue and red ember. On another, an angry sky of multiple storms, lifted up in swirls of black and chucked down deluge from within. Remarkably, the sun had a clear, narrow path in which to dip and, at the same instance as it fell, the sky was alight with the repeated discharge of forked lightening. Unbelievably, these powerful images were within a whisker of each other on the horizon. With the sun just departed, multiple bands of cloud each turned a different shade of red and orange, some acting as barriers, protecting the lasts blue of open sky behind.

Rarely have I seen such impressive sunsets. I could not take my eyes away.

Estancia La Sirena, Uruguay

Wannabe Gauchos

Wake up, prep the horses, set off western saddle for hours around the ranch, eat, sleep, another long ride, eat and, knackered, more sleep. One hell of a way to pass each and every day of our stay.

Neither Christina nor I have ever spent such a prolonged period on the saddle. It was a great sensation to feel more and more comfortable at the controls of these stocky work-horses. As we always rode the same horses, you could feel an affinity slowly emerge. By the end of our time, I felt more at home on a horse than I have ever done (or probably ever will).

Estancia La Sirena, UruguayFrom the saddle we saw so much nature. On the surface, the cattle country seemed quite sparse but, as Rodney showed us, the glory was in the detail. A multitude of different birds, interesting trees, large lizards and, of course, the ever-nervous cattle about which there was so much to learn.

Some paths took us through patchy grass-land, filled with strange prickly weeds that climbed to almost head height. Others took us through close-knit woodland, where ducking and diving from branches was a quickly learned skill. All our journeys took us to marvellous vista points and eventually the momentarily glutinous Rio Negro.

The experience was enhanced by getting our hands dirty with minor gaucho duties – checking the fences, searching for escapees from the herd and, of course, looking after our horses pre and post ride. It was fantastic.

Great company…

While we had come to ride, and did plenty of that, La Sirena offered so much more.

We were lucky enough to have great company in Rodney and Lucia, as well as in the varied other guests. On our first night, the place was full – which meant a dozen people – with friends of the family from Montevideo and Argentina. A great event, with wine flowing, a big barbecue and Lucia playing local songs on the guitar with singing accompaniment from every corner. On another night, there were just three of us, leading to red wine induced deep conversation. A really nice mixture.

It was so interesting listening to Lucia and Rodney, who shared a wonderful combination of attitude and experiences. She, a former Davis Cup tennis player, energetic, full of talent and friendliness. He, a former football and polo-player of some merit, full of stories from a life spent on different estancias and imbued with an invigorating, optimistic and adventurous spirit. Their passion for the environment and nature was particularly striking, as was their perspective on their country, its politics and unsure future.

Needless to say, we were very sad to leave. It seemed fitting that another ground-trembling storm came in from the West as we left. We said our goodbyes, gave our humblest thanks, and rode off to Montevideo in a torrential rain-storm.

Estancia La Sirena, Uruguay

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