Uruguay: Horseback on a Far Shore

Chris Welsch  Minneapolis Star Tribune  April 19, 2004   Copyright Minneapolis Star Tribune

We had been riding east for three hours. The sun felt like a warm hand resting on my left shoulder. The wind-driven waves of the Atlantic roared as they rolled into shore. Wisps of sand trailed up the beach ahead of us, carving sinuous curves that mimicked the cirrus clouds in the sky.

I pulled up the reins and turned the horse around. I wanted to savor all 360 degrees of this view.

For as far as I could see, there were no buildings and no people, and there hadn't been any of either for more than 10 miles. A simple, eternal juncture of elements met in all directions around me: sand, sea and sky. 

I turned the horse -- a stout buckskin gelding -- back around and nudged his sides with my heels. He stepped into an easy gallop, hoofs pounding the sand. The other riders, still far ahead of me, were distant points on the endless beach. 

There have been a handful of times in my life when I've begun to feel nostalgia for a situation even before it came to an end. This was one of them: On horseback at what seemed like the far end of the world, with several more hours in the saddle ahead. In the evening, the prospect of a big dinner with new friends in a stone castle. All in a South American country that I had heard hardly anything of two months before: Uruguay.

It was an unexpected invitation from a friend that led to the trip last December. 

Eight years ago, I'd traveled to Mongolia with Boojum Expeditions, a horseback travel outfit run by Kent Madin and Linda Svenson. Despite an 18-day diet of mutton and rice and six days bouncing around in the back of a Russian personnel carrier, it was one of the best trips of my life. We lived like nomads among nomads and got to see the country the way most Mongolians do, from the back of a horse.

When I called him back, Kent admitted that he had never been to Uruguay and that he had never met the woman who was promising to organize the trip. He'd never seen the horses, the hotels, or met the gauchos who would lead us. That last fact might have been the most discomforting. Gauchos are South American cowboys who carry long daggers called facones tucked into the back of their sashes. They are known to use them as often for settling disputes as they do for castrating bulls. 

Just the same, Kent said, he had a good feeling about Uruguay. "It has the potential to be a lot of fun." 

This kind of trip is what's known in the travel industry as "an exploratory." Which in other words meant no guarantees. Kent was only inviting past clients and friends -- people he knew could eat mutton and rice for three weeks and still have a good time. 

Anyone brave enough to go would get a bargain rate ($1,450 for a week on horseback with all meals and lodging) and a chance to travel where few North Americans had been before. If it was a good trip, we'd be able to say we were there first as we blazed the trail for other travelers. If it was a bust, the week would be an expensive and exotic way to make ourselves miserable. 

I said yes, and a couple months later, on a warm spring December day in Uruguay, still reeling from 20 hours in airplanes and airports, I was climbing onto a sheepskin-covered gaucho saddle in the state of Rocha. 

We'd all arrived the night before and had a chance to meet each other. There were seven paying customers, including me. Kent Madin hadn't changed much. He once was a runner-up in a contest to choose a new Marlboro man. With ice blue eyes, broad shoulders and a strong chin, he still looked the part, but his choice of headgear was unconventional. He sported a dusty black pork-pie hat tied on with a string, which added a sort of film noir flair to the rest of his cowboy duds. 

The Uruguayan organizer was Valeria Ariza, 25, a diminutive woman with a flowing mane of blond hair and sharp brown eyes. A champion show jumper, she wanted to channel her love of horses and the outdoors into an outfitting business. She was fed up with her office job in Montevideo. She had organized a few smaller-scale expeditions, but this was her first full-scale horseback trip.

Finally, there were three gauchos. Joselo Veiga, stocky and bearded, owned the horses. He looked like a young Gabby Hayes. He brought along his angelic-faced son, Jose Luis, 11. Joselo's friend, Raul Bermudez Pereyra, rounded out the crew. Astride an edgy, raw-boned mare, he was the epitome of cool in mirrored, wrap-around sunglasses that topped off his blue-and-white cape, knee-high boots and black beret. True gauchos, Raul and Joselo carried facones tucked into their sashes. 

Finally, we were ready. Joselo clucked his tongue and shouted "vamos." We turned our mounts toward the sea and set off.

Way down south

Uruguay is overshadowed by its two huge neighbors: Brazil to the north and Argentina to the south. Uruguayans have most in common with their southern neighbors. Spanish is the national language, and the largest part of the population is of European descent -- mostly Spanish and Italian. Uruguay is roughly the size of North Dakota, with which it shares a distinct lack of mountains and an obscurity nearly as widespread as its territory. 

When I asked Valeria whether Kent had found her or she'd found Kent, she replied, "What do you think? Of course I found Kent! Who am I? A woman in the butt of the world, Uruguay. No one knows we're here!"

We rode down to the sea and for three hours followed a long, empty beach, backed by sand dunes until we arrived at a fishing village called Cabo Polonio. It was an odd accumulation of colorful shacks and huts that almost seemed as if they'd drifted up from the sea. Much of the wood was salvaged from shipwrecks or drift, and many people had fashioned doormats from coiled lengths of arm-thick marine rope. They stepped out onto their porches to say hello as we passed by.

Valeria explained that Cabo Polonio has only 50 residents, and it occupies land that is part of a sea-lion and sand-dune conservation area. It has no electricity or plumbing, and it is zoned to stay that way: Most Cabo Polonians like their isolated, quiet life by the sea. They didn't want big resorts, cars or other modern accoutrements. 

We met a sunburned old man curing white slabs of shark meat in big concrete tanks: He explained that there are no refrigerators, so any meat that they want to keep for more than a day has to be salted, smoked or dried. 

At a small hotel we ate a big, fresh seafood lunch and then sat around on the veranda, listening to the ocean. Then we rode again. As the afternoon sun threw long shadows, we crossed a mountainous field of dunes, some 200 feet high. Finally, we came to Barra de Valizas, a broad river mouth, where we dismounted and unsaddled the horses. With the help of a fisherman who tied the halter of one horse to his dinghy, we drove the horses into the river and the fisherman led them across it.

A van and driver picked us up to take us to our hotel farther down the coast; the gauchos stayed with the horses by the river. We would return to them the next morning, and continue our way down the coast.

Uruguayan rhythm

Thus went our days: Ride on the beach. Eat. Ride on the beach some more. With some odd adventures thrown in to keep things interesting.

One day, after our morning ride down the beach, we drove inland to an estancia -- a ranch -- called Guardia del Monte, Guard of the Forest. The 2,500-acre spread is small by Uruguayan standards, but special for a couple of other reasons. One of them is that it contains one of the only ombu-tree forests in the world. As we drove down its long gravel driveway we could see these cartoonish trees with fat broad trunks topped by a tangled spread of branches.

The ranch-house itself was gorgeous, with stone walls overgrown with long sprays of blooming bougainvillea. The lady of the house, Alicia Fernandez de Servetto, gave us a tour, explaining that the ranch was built in the 1800s and much of its construction materials came from shipwrecks on Uruguay's treacherous coast. The French tile roof had been ballast in the hold of one ship. The giant woodstove in the kitchen was pulled from the remains of the English ship Gainford, which sank in 1870. The columns holding up the arbor in the courtyard were sections of mast from another foundered vessel.

Alicia served us one of the best meals of the week. It was typically Uruguayan -- an asado. That means meat cooked over a wood fire and coals. In Uruguay, the grill itself is a brick or stone fireplace with slanted iron grating suited to roast a whole sheep. The meal consisted of grilled lamb, fresh giant green beans, boiled potatoes, deviled eggs, fresh bread, an Uruguayan version of coleslaw and for dessert, caramel flan. The lamb was crispy, tender with a wonderfully salty flavor. "The lamb grown here has a special taste because of the grasses they eat in the salt marshes," Alicia said. "It is special to this place."

We spent the afternoon on a long lazy ride on her ranch, bird-watching in the salt marshes and cantering between the weird ombu trees (which, we were told, actually aren't trees at all, but overgrown herbs).

A minor sting

We based ourselves at a rustic but comfortable hotel in Punta del Diablo for three nights. Despite Valeria's inexperience, the logistical glitches were few and far between. Kent and I shared a room. On the first night in the hotel, we left the window open so we could see the stars and hear the ocean. But there was no screen, and mosquitoes made the night an unpleasant one. I woke up with about 20 bright red dots on my face, most of them on my forehead. It was only then we learned that the small plug-in device left on our bedside table was a mosquito repellent.

Other than that minor annoyance and the irregular presence of hot water at the Hotel Punta del Diablo, the trip was one wonder after another. One day we rode through a national park, toured a botanical garden and spotted a capybara (the world's largest rodent) in the forest preserve. On another, we rode up to the stone battlements of Fortaleza Santa Teresa. There could not have been a better way to see a relic of the conquistadors than to approach it just as they might have, after a long day of patroling the coast for the Portuguese enemy on horseback. The best part of each day, however, was spent in the saddle, with lots of time to enjoy the scenery and refine our horse-skills; Valeria was a skilled and enthusiastic teacher. 

The last two nights we spent at the Hotel Fortaleza de San Miguel, built in the 1930s but with the same sort of ancient stone-masonry techniques as the fort. It looked like a Spanish castle. Manager Ramon Curbello greeted us in the ostentatious dining hall with a short poetic speech.

"This place has a special energy," he said, standing in front of the massive hearth. "The stone of these walls is 127 million years old. I have the idea that this place is for more than just vacation. It is a place to learn the truth about yourself. We are all made up of atoms, which are empty. Just spheres holding information. This stone, the air, us, all atoms. Our intentions can change the world around us, as long as we're not attached to the outcome."

That gave us something to talk about at the gourmet dinner he served, after which we played golf on the strange, three-hole course he'd built in front of the hotel. We shared a few rusty old irons and contemplated the sayings of Deepak Chopra, which were engraved on wooden signs scattered around the grounds. 

We sent balls in many directions, and it took us almost three hours to finish the three holes. It was dark when we finally gave up about 9 p.m. Thanks to Curbello's advice, none of us was attached to the outcome, and we all won.

That night as we got ready for bed I asked Kent if he thought he'd do the trip again. "Yep," he said. "I think we've got a winner."

Big world

My favorite day on the trip was the longest: We spent more than eight hours in the saddle and rode more than 30 miles. We never saw another human being; we never saw a building. Just the sea, the sky and the sand of the endless beach.

By this time, I'd grown to like my horse and understand his quirks. Joselo had told me he didn't have a name, so I called him Pokey. He nudged me with his head each morning when I scratched his ears, and it might have been my imagination, but he seemed to raise his eyebrows in agreement with whatever was on my mind. It was a joy to be on the same, reliable horse for several days running. For the first time in my irregular career as a rider, I felt comfortable and balanced cantering and galloping. 

I came up alongside Valeria Ariza, who herself looked very blissed out in the sun and solitude of the day. I said that this was amazing. I didn't think there were places like this left in the world.

"What I really like about this is that after two hours of riding, riding, riding with nothing but beach and all this vastness around you, you start to feel very small," she said. "It's hard to find words to tell how nothing can be so beautiful."

Chris Welsch is at welsch@startribune.com

In Mongolia we provide a range of travel services.  In the capitol, Ulaan Baatar ( Ulan Bator) we have our own local tourism company, Khovsgol Lodge Management Company with full time English-speaking staff.  We can arrange all forms of travel in Mongolia including jeep and overland travel, support services for film and video production, and specialized private itineraries.  We cover the Altai, Gobi and all regions of Mongolia.  Activities include fly fishing, mountain biking, rafting, horseback riding, equestrian interests, culture, history, dinosaurs.