Let’s go to Uruguay! Says no one, ever. But in January 2017, four of us took the Buquebus (pronounced Bookie Boose) ferry across from Buenos Aires to Uruguay for a few days of exploration. One of our party, Jon, had spent some of his teenage years during the 1960s in Colonia Sacramento, staying with his dad. What was Jon’s dad doing in Uruguay? The answer was hazy, something to do with either the U.S. Agency for International Development, or possibly the C.I.A. Half joking, Jon said that “the revolution started six months after Dad left each country.”
In Uruguay, Jon’s dad married a local woman and had a couple of kids. Teenage Jon was not well supervised while there; he ran wild, engaging in typical teenage shenanigans. When he got kicked out of his dad’s house, he returned to the United States and had never been back to Uruguay – until now.
We crammed into a tiny economica rental car and drove from the ferry dock in Colonia to the end of the road in Uruguay. It’s not a very big country. On a map, it’s a grape wedged in between a giant cauliflower (Brazil) and a zucchini (Argentina). We stopped over for two days in the nation’s capital, Montevideo, where Jon’s half-sister, Karen, lived. The two of them barely knew each other, as their dad left Uruguay when Karen was five, moving on to another wife and family in Korea. But Karen cheerfully showed us around the city, narrating some of its history in surprisingly good English, and walked us through an outdoor mercado where we bought some handcrafted jewelry and tee shirts.
Karen suggested a parrilla (grilled meat) restaurant for dinner. Dinner was served late in Uruguay – like, way late, 9:00 pm, or later. I thought I would starve to death before they served us. Then, as we sat at a picnic table, the waiter brought a lazy susan piled high with all kinds of barbecue – beef cheeks, kidney, blood sausage, spare ribs, and well-done sirloin. Exotic eating is supposed to be part of the fun of foreign travel, but the organ meats were a struggle to swallow, so I filled up instead on the side dishes of grilled vegetables. After dinner, we walked to an ice cream parlor on the Rambla (waterfront path) where a double scoop of chocolate gelato rewarded me.
The next morning at 5:00 I went for a run along the Rambla. A lovely orange sunrise over the South Atlantic was witnessed only by me and a couple homeless guys curled on benches next to the water. The rest of the city was sound asleep, having stayed up past midnight the night before.
Departing the urban area, we drove through countryside as green as Ireland. Cattle grazed, and fields of corn and alfalfa, groves of apple trees, and grape vineyards lined the roadway. A couple hours later, we departed the highway at the town of Rocha. Six miles up a dirt road in the Rocha Mountains (which were really hills, not mountains, to this Rocky Mountain dweller – elevation of only 1400 feet) we arrived at an organic estancia (working ranch) called Caballos de Luz – Horses of Light.
We passed two days on the farm, riding horses across the rocky hills and nearly starving on vegetarian fare. The couple who ran the place, Lucy from Austria and Santiago from Brazil, had bonded over their shared love of horses, and spent the past nine years living on 400 acres off the grid. Lucy told us the small settlement in the region had begun as a commune, but in recent years everyone sort of broke away from each other, and now it was more of a neighborhood.
They owned a dozen horses, plus they boarded horses for their neighbors, and hosted occasional small groups of travelers. Growing much of their own food, they utilized solar power and a propane stove. The huts we stayed in had thatched roofs and no air conditioning. I walked out onto the back porch of my hut, spreading some clothes to dry, and stepped on a rotten board. I nearly fell through as it broke off. One board – overlooked! I made a mental note to mention it to Santiago, as maintenance obviously proved tough to keep up with in the hinterlands of Uruguay.
Down a path from my hut was a composting toilet for communal use. Of course, it was home to a million flies. I went in to use it and was startled by a frog which jumped neatly out of my way. As soon as I stepped away, the frog hopped back onto the toilet seat. The lid was up. In less than five minutes, I watched the frog expertly catch three flies. I had to admire his clever adaptation to resources at hand. He had found the perfect gig on the toilet seat.
The food they served us was bland, but undoubtably quite healthy. Salad, breaded eggplant, goat cheese and a loaf of bread with a crust so hard it could have doubled as a football. The salad dressing was some weird peanut concoction. No bacon, no potato chips, no chocolate. The one standout dish was home grown tomatoes in balsamic vinaigrette. Now I could see why both Lucy and Santiago managed to stay as thin as string beans. After dinner, in my hut, I secretly munched a bag of pretzels, some dried fruit, and several handfuls of trail mix. And felt like I might survive until we got to another parrilla restaurant.
Beyond the huts and down the hill, past the garden, ran what they called a river – creek was more accurate – complete with a swimming hole deep enough for immersion. Several palm trees leaned over the cool, clear water. A couple flat rocks on shore provided a seat next to, as Lucy described it, the world’s smallest white sand beach.
Besides dipping in the river and taking hour-long horseback rides into the hills, there was not a lot for a guest to do on the ranch. I was glad that I had brought a good book to read in the hammock that hung between two trees in the shady front yard.
During a morning run, I spotted a tiny deer (the size of a dog) disappearing into the tangled brush of an arroyo. The deer was no doubt heading for the river, the only water for miles around. Farther up the dirt road, a one-room schoolhouse sported a sign in the yard that translated to, “Pray for Rain.”
Dry, dusty and hot, at the height of the South American summer, the ranch existed outside the press of civilization. It was obviously a lot of work, with limited electricity and no hot water or indoor plumbing. But it was quiet, except for an occasional horse whinny. To Lucy and Santiago, craving solitude and freedom, Caballos de Luz Ranch was a slice of paradise.
My stay provided a much-needed break from the stress of travel in a foreign land. For those couple days, suspended away from civilization, I felt a glimpse of paradise as well. The only thing was, I was still hungry. For a stuffed-full carne asada burrito, dripping with cheese and grease, I was willing to keep moving.