When sailors turn gauchos - Yvytu Itaty, a splendid experience!

Caramor - sailing around the world
Franco Ferrero / Kath Mcnulty
Sat 10 Oct 2015 13:21
31:43.8S 56:4.5W

a cowboy from the South American pampas.

Yvytu Itaty means 'wind and stones' in the Guaraní language and is the name of a ranch (estancia)  in the heart of Uruguay.

Since we arrived in Uruguay on 10th September, we've been working hard to prepare Caramor for the far south. We had promised ourselves a week off to visit Uruguay, a land of horses and endless skies ... 

In international tourism terms, Uruguay is rarely a destination in itself, it is usually a little extra to a visit to Argentina or Brazil. The three million people lost in this vast landscape are busy earning a living and not too preoccupied by visitors and as a result "attractions" are few and far between. 

Our options were either a road trip which would involve long days driving on empty roads with only cows to look at or catching a bus to somewhere and spending a few days in the same place. 

Usually I use Lonely Planet guides to decide where not to go as the recommended attractions are bound to be oversubscribed so when I read the authors' top recommendation "Yvytu Itaty", I dismissed it out of hand. Later though, while searching the internet for horse-riding, I came across the blogs of some Australian travellers describing their time at Yvytu Itaty - it sounded amazing. I had a fairly hard time convincing Franco - "Going to work on a farm during my holidays? You must be joking!" But after reading the Ozzie blogs, he came round to the idea. 

We emailed the owners and the next morning Pedro and Nahir wrote back with dates that would suit all of us. 

Work is always easier when there is a nice carrot to look forward to, so we ticked off quite a few jobs in the preceding days and set off for the bus station early last Thursday morning. The bus to Montevideo (capital of Uruguay) followed the fairly built-up coastal road and an hour and a half later we arrived in the city of 1.5 million people. We changed coaches for Tacuarembó, the closest town to Yvytu Itaty. We didn't bother taking food and water as we presumed that, like Brazilian coaches, it would stop somewhere on route. It didn't. There was nowhere. Just large empty fields, with the odd cow or ewe. 

After four hours we were getting very thirsty, lucky for us the conductor must have read our minds as he came through the bus offering everyone a glass of Fanta. An hour later we arrived in Tacuarembó where Pedro was waiting for us.


On the way to Yvytu Itaty we stopped off for a few errands; to buy wine, bread, to collect large chunks of frozen meat from Pedro's house in Tambores and to discuss with a neighbour what to do about some cows that had gone through a fence and were now squatting next door. After Tambores, the road turned into a track and then petered out completely. For the last five kilometres, we were driving across fields.

At the estancia, Nahir welcomed us with open arms and sat us down for coffee and cake. We met Torro the friendly pit-bull, Caldillo, a pit-bull cross and the two six-month old collies Roque and Sole. Matias, the eldest son arrived soon afterwards and at 8:30 we sat down to a filling traditional stew.


The garden on a sunny day

Franco with Torro, the pit-bull

For the five days we stayed at Yvytu Itaty, we were made to feel part of the family, Nahir and Pedro shared their space, their food, their time, their books (and hats), their knowledge and jokes with us. We discussed all sorts of topics, from Mujica (the ex-president) to the price of beef and the afforestation by overseas companies taking place all over Uruguay. They are to be particularly commended for their patience with our (sometimes) hesitant and outrageously incorrect "Spanish". Nahir was particularly good at second guessing what we were trying to say and Pedro's miming and sound mimicking certainly helped us increase our "rural" vocabulary.

The next morning Pedro showed us how to saddle the horses. Although the riding style is similar to Brazil, the saddle is very different to the one we used in Chapada Diamantina, Brazil. The first layer is a woollen blanket, then the leather saddle which is cut straight and has lacing holding the two sides together. It is secured with a large piece of leather which straps under the horse's belly. A sheep skin is then placed over the saddle and held in place with another leather strap. 

Uruguayan gaucho saddle on Margarita

We set off to inspect the cows. Pedro's land covers 600 hectares on which he grazes cattle, sheep and horses. He has three milking cows. For an estancia to be economically viable 1,000 ha is the minimum. Four neighbours have farms about the size of Pedro's but the others are vast. "The Germans" own an estancia of 9,000 ha. They live in Germany and visit twice a year. They have a manager. Few farmers still live on the land, most have moved into nearby settlements and come out to the farm when work needs to be done. Tambores, where we stopped off to pick up the frozen meat, is a village where the government built  of simple dwellings, all identical, to house estancia owners with school aged children. It was cheaper to bring the families to the school than attempt to collect the children from the countryside every morning.

The farm is off grid. This windmill is used to pump water up the well

Franco rode Bombom, a tall grey (a white horse!). He is named after a large round sweet for his ability to stick his belly out while being saddled. A nasty trick as once he relaxes his stomach, both saddle and rider just slide off. I was on Pinta, a steady gentle mare. When we returned to the stables we were greeted by a donkey making the most terrible noise. Poor Pinta, she really didn't like him but he kept following her around "Pinta, I love you" he brayed.  

The next day I was given Margarita and Franco took Pinta but he decided he rather liked Bombom so from then on, he stuck with the tall "grey" horse.

Pedro's grandfather was French. He emigrated to Uruguay after the Second World War. He initially settled on the outskirts of Montevideo and was eventually able to buy some land. Yvytu Itaty was bought by Pedro's father. 'Nahir' is an Arabic name but she doesn't know whether she has Arabic ancestors. 

Franco on Bombom 

Although the landscape appears flat, Yvytu Itaty isn't. Springs have formed little gullies where trees grow. The ground is rocky and waterlogged in places, it reminded Franco of parts of Wales and he was nearly homesick. This time of year, the gaucho spends a lot of time checking up on his cattle. The cows give birth out in the fields and it is necessary to make sure all is going well. One of the fences was down so in the afternoon Pedro and Matias knocked in a couple more posts to support it. Fencing methods are very similar to Wales but the gate posts are strained together rather than supported with stakes. When riding through a gate, one has to duck to avoid being garrotted. The untreated Eucalyptus stakes aren't dug into the ground, instead they just rest on the surface, held up by seven strands of plain wire.

Pedro and Kath

Spring is also the time when the cows are rounded up and those that calved last year are introduced to the bulls. Our task was to gather any stragglers. We brought over 200 cows back to the pens by the house, some had calves just a day old. They had no idea how to cross streams, the most intrepid would hesitate for a moment and then take a flying leap. Others refused to cross and their mothers had to go looking for them. Franco stayed with the main herd and impressed Pedro with the way he dealt with a white cow that is known to be particularly awkward. I headed up-hill after a small group that were trying to get away. Once I got round them they galloped off to join the herd, leaving Margarita and I on our own. When Pedro appeared he must have thought I was skiving! I flushed a ñandu (Rhea americana), the South American ostrich which can run at speeds of 60km per hour, but the photos are a little blurred.

Separating the cows was fairly chaotic but eventually the elderly cows and mothers of last year's calves went to join the two handsome bulls while the pregnant ones and heifers returned to the field. I told Pedro the joke about the old bull and the young bull and he told us it was true, that old bulls are much more thorough.

Herding the cows into the pens

In the field beyond the bulls are the wild horses. The way they move and socialise is beautiful and I loved watching them. The six donkeys in the same field never mix with the horses, they keep to themselves. Their job is to clean up the pasture, as they prefer to eat the thistle and thorns.

The whole of Pedro's land is unimproved. He doesn't use fertilisers and he doesn't resow. He keeps half a cow to the hectare. Not all the livestock are his. His two sons have a few horses and cows each and he allows some of his friends to keep their horses and cows on his land as well. In exchange they help with fencing and other tasks. He told us that when his friend had a child and he was asked to be the godfather, instead of money, he gave a cow (which he would look after on his land), as the child grew, the cow multiplied, each time one was sold, it released funds for the child's family. "If you put money in the bank, only the bank wins" commented Pedro. We were surprised to learn that livestock is traded in US Dollars.

Sheep for wool and meat

Pedro was keen to show us an armadillo. We went looking a couple of times but never found one. They live in burrows and the ones in Uruguay are different to the ones we saw on Isla Anchieta, here they have more armouring and are smaller. Both Pedro and Nahir are really interested in, and knowledgeable about, the wildlife on their farm and they have a number of very good books on Uruguayan wildlife. Birdlife is particularly abundant in Uruguay and on the farm. This is for the same reasons the weather is so changeable, the meeting point of two very different currents, cold from the south and warm from Brazil. The bush by the house is visited by an iridescent green humming bird, chimangos and vultures fly high above, green monk parakeets are building collective nests high up in the Eucalyptus trees, and as we ride across the fields we flush out common partridges and the Tero (Vanellus chilensis) screams its "tero tero" to lure us away from its nest on the ground.

Hornero - the oven bird

There are also many different species of snake. Out in the field I had seen two adders wriggling furiously but it was just the one that had been cut in half when a horse stood on it and was writhing in agony. Nahir told us about the time she was bitten by a young poisonous snake, hiding in her plant pots. The bite didn't really hurt, It felt like she had caught her finger on a thorn. This snake species that bit her usually delivers 8 units of poison but because it was still a baby, the venom was concentrated, and Nahir received 24 units. She spent a week in hospital and suffered from terrible convulsions. 

On Sunday we were joined by Marcel and Oliver, two brothers from a small town near Munich. Marcel has been in Uruguay for three months on an internship at the German embassy. His opinion of Uruguay: "Muy tranquilo" (tranquilo means both quiet and peaceful). He visited Yvytu Itaty a month ago with his girlfriend and is emphatic that it is the most interesting place in Uruguay. Oliver is a merchant banker, when not on holiday, he works 15 hours a day and many week-ends. Their parents manage a fancy cake shop (konditorei) which has been in the family for five generations. It looks like succession planning is on the cards as both sons have clearly decided apple strudel is not their cup of tea.

Franco, Marcel, Pedro and Oliver

Lunch is the main meal of the day and on Monday, Pedro and Matias prepared an asado. This is the typical feast food in South America, meat roasted on embers in the large clay oven Pedro built with some friends and a 'How to" book. Nahir and Pedro regularly go on courses to learn how to prepare different types of culinary specialities (their beef chorizo is excellent) or about wildlife.

Over the five days we spent a lot of time in the saddle, mostly walking but occasionally trotting. This is the speed we find the most difficult to master as you stay glued to the saddle and the motion is very jerky. Pedro is able to analyse what muscles and positions are needed to ride, even though he does it instinctively. He has been able to ride since he was three! He gave us some good tips and I can confidently say that we now look more gaucho than gringo.

Gauchos hard at work

We were all leaving on Tuesday and Nahir had prepared a flan caramel for desert. Somebody had written in the visitors' book that Nahir's flan caramel is the best in the world so we all had seconds in order to confirm the compliment.

Marcel and Oliver drove off in their hire car, headed for the Atlantic coast and Nahir and Pedro dropped us off at the coach station in Tacuarembó, We were sad to say farewell to our new friends who had given us such a wonderful insight into Uruguay and life in the countryside.

Hasta la vista ... you never know.