Tuesday, March 29, 2011

"Gaucho" Marx (22-26 March 2011, Days 103-107 of 127)

I am Johnny "Gaucho" Marx Golfinopoulos! A Uruguan cowboy!

Uruguay is the home of cowboys ("Gauchos"), cattle ranches ("Estancias") and horses ("Cabalos") in South America with the best reputation for steaks (beef) and barbeques ("Asados"). It is also known as the "Switzerland" of South America because of the Uruguains laid-back style, secret bank aacounts and "neutrality" in its military support of other countries. Refer "URUGUAY FACTS" below for more detail.

Our journey from our hotel in Buenos Aires to the one in Colonia Del Sacramento was mainly by ship (The "Eladia Isabel" owned by the company "Buquebus"), only 50km across the Rio Del La Plata, taking 3hrs in a total travel time of 5hrs.

The ship is big, carrying approx 500 passengers and trucks/cars.

Mon 21MAR was the official start of our last fifth Intrepid segment with our total group rising by one to a total of 11 plus our new guide Alberto from Buenos Aires. We said goodbye to Poonam, Jess and Tamara and welcomed Sarah and Ben from Melbourne, Rebecca from Northern Ireland and Veronica from Stockholm. This segment will finish in Rio on 6APR.

Colonia Del Sacramento (Pop 22,700. Est 1680 by Portuguese Brazilians) is the only UNESCO protected site in Uruguay because of its unique cobbled stone streets, Portuguese inspired colonial stone houses and the original wall of the Bastion San Miguel.

This strait-side town is where Europeans (Portuguese) first settled Uruguay and was used to smuggle goods into Buenos Aires. It has many streets completely covered in trees and many plazas with colourful trees and restaurants. I set out at 1:30pm in a very muggy 32C heat.

First stop was "Plaza De Armas" which contains "Inglesia Matriz" built in 1680 and the oldest church in Uruguay. I then visited the "Puerta De Campo" or stone gate at "Plaza 1811". The gate is part of the old wall of "Bastion De San Miguel" and almost reaches the water.

From here it is a nice stroll along "Calle De Los Suspiros" and "Calle Paseo De San Gabriel" which contains the oldest of the stone, tile and stucco colonial homes.

The views of the town and surrounding water from the "Faro" or lighthouse at "Plaza Mayor 25 De Mayo" are terrific - the old town is lterally built on a penisula that juts out into Rio De La Plata. Everywhere you look there a rustic bars and restaurants specialising in grilled seafood and meats. It is very cheap. Most meals range from 5-10AUD.

From here I walked to the "Puerto Viejo" or Old Port via "Plazoleta San Martin". Very scenic since it is along the water and dotted with nice eating and drinking places. This town is very relaxed but also very touristy. I hate to think how hot it is in DEC/JAN.

From the Old Port it was back to my airconditioned room at around 3:30pm. I relaxed to some blogging and cable until it got cooler for my first run in Uruguay. The run was magic, along a coastline of beaches and pines to a bright orange setting sun. The water was like oil and there was a cooling breeze with pine aromas - it reminded me of the island of Poros in Greece.

That night Maureen, Sue and I dined at a local Parillada and my "Chivito La Plata" (open steak sadnwich on a plate) was enormous and tasty - thin beef grilled over wood coals with cheese, bacon, egg, lettuce, tomato, chips and a Russian Salad (potato, peas, carrots, mayo). We also drank our first Uruguayan wines: a lovely orange coloured Rose with raisin nose but tasting dry and a 2008 Cab Sav Reserva back at the hotel. Colonia is a great place.

The next morning (Wed 23MAR) I could hardly wait to run along the beaches to sunrise - much to my surprise when I stepped outside at 6am in just running shorts (since I thought it would be warm like the sunset) there was a mini cyclone!!! Howlling wind, trees sideways, rain, very cool and still dark. It was no go. I went back to bed. Our journey from hotel to hotel (Colonia to Montevideo, the Capital) took 5hrs featuring a 2.5hr, 170km bus ride. It was raining lightly all the way but you could see the countryside was flat with green rolling hills and farms - much like anywhere in Australia or the world. After dumping our gear in our very centrally located hotel it was off to visit the city.

Montevideo (Pop 1.3m. Est 1726) is full of neoclassical buildings influenced by Portugal and Spain. It even has some art deco buildings. It is very unkept and most of the buidlings need to be cleaned or restored. It has nowhere near the grandueur or vibe or sophistication of Buenos Aires but it does feel old and full of history. It has much more of a naval feel to it with more seafood on the Parilla menus.

The only downside was the rain and wind today. It did not let up and photos took ages as I tried to manouver my umbrella under the camera to prevent drops on the lense. The good news is that I went back out to certain sites the following day with clear blue skies... Montevideo actually means "a mountain with a view of east to west".

The first stop was "Plaza Independencia" which features a huge statue of the country's hero, General Artigas with his ashes in an urn, guarded 24x7 by two armed guards, in an mausoleum below the statue.

This plaza also contains the 18th century "Palacio Estevez" (Presidential Palace) and the 26 storey "Palacio Salvo" which contains many Government Departments and looks like something out of Moscow. In the 70s it was the tallest building in South America. The "Teatro Splis" or Opera House is also here. The plaza is huge and also contains a mixture of skyscrapers from the 60s and 80s. It is a real mismatch of buildings but grand in its size.

From here I followed "Calle Sarandi" which is the main pedestrian drag leading to "Plaza Constitucion" which is much smaller, very leafy and surrounded by cafes. The "Inglesia Matriz" or Main Cathedral is here and although the outside is ordinary, the inside is very nice with a huge tomb of the first Archbishop of Uruguay.

After a lovely cup of coffee, I stepped into side streets to view some the colonial buildings including two musuems on Missiones and the massive Greek inspired Bank of Uruguay.

After passing "Plaza Zabala" I turned into "Calle Perez Castellano" which is in the middle of "Ciudad Vieja (Old City)", contains all of the oldest residences and leads down to the old port and "Mercado Del Puerto".

This is a massive wrought iron structure containing many "Parillas" or Grill Restaurants inside. Each one tries to out-do the other with their big log fires sourrounded by mountains of BBQ meats including livers, kidneys and blood sausages. I have never seen more meat in my life. The BBQ aromas simply make you want to eat. This is a lunchtime place with a similar set up at the other end of town for dinner, but much much smaller.

The old port area is charming, even in the rain and it is on a penisula sticking out into the Rio De La Plata which is the large strait that goes to Buenos Aires on one side and the Atlantic on the other.

After returning to the hotel at around 3:30pm, I grabbed a jacket and started another round of sites. "Plaza Del Entreveros" was next and it was boring.

The one after, "Plaza Cagancha" was terrific, surrounded by neoclassical buildings and covered in trees. By now the rain was getting heavy so I finished up and returned to the hotel for some rest.

At 6pm it was time for pre-dinner drinks in Sue and Maureen’s room then it was off to the Parilla (Steak House) after the team briefing at 7pm. My eye fillet steak was the best to date but still not as tasty as Meat & Wine. It was big at 400g, very tender and cost only 13AUD. We drank 1.5L of carafe Uruguyan Rose since it was the only cold wine on the menu but it was enjoyable. light, dry and refreshing.

Once back at the hotel we had a final quiet red in the lobby with a small aria from me which the hotel staff enjoyed so much that they shouted us one final round. Another great finish to an otherwise great day,despite the rain, all of us made the most of it.

I was greatly relieved when I looked out of my window at 7:30am on Thu 24MAR and saw a blue sky. I wanted to run yesterday but the rain and wind would not let up. My reward this morning was a terrific coastal run passing 2 of Montevideo’s 8 beaches with fresh air and lots of sun. The beaches were small, tan sand and no waves. Not that great. The city coastline is open and vast with some units but not a lot of cafes or restaurants. Either it gets too windy here or the locals haven’t bothered developing it yet.

I set out at 9:45am to re-visit some of the city’s key sites so I could re-take pictures in the blue-sky sun to replace the drab and rainy photos of yesterday. It is amazing how your perspective of a place improves with great weather. Montevideo was like a different (and better) city. It was also very comfortable with low humidity and a cool 22C day.

I was sorry to leave at 11:45am but we were all excited since we were travelling to the centre of the country on a 5hr bus to stay at a huge working cattle station and sample the life of a "Gaucho" or Uruguayan Cowboy! The total trip took 8hrs with the bus terminating in Tacuarembo where Juan, the ranch owner drove us in his van another 1.5hrs to his "Estancia" or ranch called "Panagea" (The Greek word for the single global continent early in the Earth's history). The countryside from Montevideo to the centre was fairly flat with undulating green hills, occasional vineyards and lots of cows - could look like parts of NSW or VIC.
The ranch was literally in the middle of nowhere. What an incredible place. Very green hills, few trees and very reminiscent of the hills around Canberra - Marumbateman to be exact! There was cattle everywhere and the main house was quite large. There is a septic tank with diesel generated power only from 7pm to 9:30pm. After that it is torches and candles. The cooking is exclusively wood fired oven or BBQ. For more interesting facts about the ranch, refer "ESTANCIA PANAGEA FACTS" below.

Maureen and I had no choice but to start cheese and wine in the van on our way to the ranch since it was already 5:30pm when we left the bus. We arrived at 7pm and met 17 other young Australians doing our Intrepid tour in reverse - Rio to Buenos. They were leaving in the morning so we all enjoyed Spaghetti Bolognese outside around a roaring camp fire using mince from the local cattle. It was rich and full of flavour.

The station owner, Juan introduced us to his wife Susanna (Swiss who he met in Tibet and 7mths pregnant with their second child) and gave us a run down of the ranch and what we would be doing over the next two days. We also met 2yr old Dharma who made me so homesick for my nieces. The sun had set, the stars were out and a cool breeze blew. This Juan was clever. Having realised the rising tourist industry he fitted out his large two-storey house full of bunk beds and bought a shipping container and coverted it into a mini-hostel for 8! He could sleep 30! Juan's command of English was excellent and he was very tuned in to everything Australian. I knew at that moment that we were going to have a geat time here. By the time 10pm rolled around we had drunk everything in site and discussed all topics. I was the only one out of 28 gringos to sleep by myself in the roof attic - it was terrific - quiet and breezy! My reputation had proceeded me... I felt like a celebrity - what am I talking about... I am a celebrity!
Fri 25MAR was a rainy day but light. After a hearty breakfast of cereal and eggs we saddled up to go mustering cattle on horse back. My horse was called "Relampago (Lightening)", grey in colour and very obedient. Juan gave us great lessons on handling the horse then briefed us on today's mission: to round up 50 head of cattle on a nearby hill and bring them back to the farm so a potential buyer could inspect them. We rode for a total of 90min through green rolling hills, creeks and scattered trees - there was plenty of grass and the cows were fat!

Rounding them up was immense fun! I screamed and yelled and chased the odd stray. I even tried opera to direct them - it worked! Even the dogs helped out - four of them chasing strays. By the time we got back we were quite wet but very pleased with the experience. Our mission was accomplised with the 50 safely penned near the house. We then unsaddled our own horse, dried up and had coffee by the fire. It then started to pour so we all gathered together for a fireside chat - Megan (24yr old lawyer born and raised in Joannesburg) and Maureen (spent 17yrs in Johannesburg) gave us an insight into life in South Africa, especially apartheid and the current state of affairs. Eventually the rain stopped and I went on my first run in gum boots given the muddy gravel road. The views were terrific but my feet were quite sore. I spent the rest of the arvo blogging. After dinner we all watched "The King's Speech" on DVD - Colin Firth deserved his Oscar!

What a relief. The cloud had scattered and the sun was making its way through on the morning of Sat 26MAR. Perfect for our morning horse ride. Today we all switched horses and I got "Neuve (Cloud)". He is a spritely chap and likes to be at the front of the pack so he would just speed up without my beckoning. I saddled him up mysefl including the placing of the metal "bit" in his mouth to which the reins are attached for control. All horses have a gap in the middle of their mouth where the bit sits and when you pull back on the rein this bit presses against the roof of the horse's palate causing some discomfort so the animal stops.

This morning's mission was to ride out to a paddock approx 5km away and round up approx 500 sheep and bring them back to the pens next to the farm house for mulesing (cutting away the "dags" or poop) and treating any infections. The ride out was magnificent - the sun simply highlighted how lush and green this country was - no wonder the beef is so good. My horse was great - easy to control. The saddle was also very comfortable - we spent a total of 2.5hrs on horseback on this occassion. Mustering sheep is a lot easier than cattle since one follows the other. The four farm dogs did a great job. Each one would walk beside a horse until Juan or Malinga shouted a Spanish command and they would race off. We all surprised ourselves on how quickly we rounded up the sheep and brought them back.

We then all participated in the sheep inspection process by opening and shutting gates so that the sheep could be inspected in groups of 10. Malinga would then point to a sheep that needed treatement and we would grab it. Only 10 sheep needed treatment for infected rear ends - a blue paste containing insectiside and antibiotics is applied and within 5 days the area is cured. These sheep were nice and fat and full of wool. Juan sells a lot of wool and the current price is very good.

The sun was now shining with scattered cloud and a cool breeze - perfect for my second run whilst the others lunched. It was great to run in joggers again and the road had dried up well.

After a brief rest at the ranch it was off on horseback again. Our mission was to return the 500 sheep to their paddock. There was only 4 of us riding with Juan and Malinga and we returned the sheep in just over an hour. Juan then took us scenic riding up to an elevated ridge full of dead trees overlooking the whole area and beyond.

The middle of Uruguay (and entire northern half) is very green with rolling hills, scattered trees and very rocky. For this reason not much cropping is done in the North - just cattle and sheep.

Croping occurs in the southern half with mainly wheat and corn. WIne is also on the rise. There is no mining or oil in Uruguay. On our way back to the farm, Megan (who grew up on a farm in South Africa with horses) showed us how to "canter" (slow gallop) and even gallop and we did it. My gallop was only for 1min and was bloody scary. You did not have to encourage these horses. Once they saw the open grassy plains and Megan's horse starting to bolt they automatically followed. A gallop feels like you are floating through the air. I had to stand on my stirrups and lean forward like a jocky. It was exhilarating but scary.

We celebrated our epic 3hr horse ride in the garden outside with chilled Uruguayan Sav Blanc and Sav Gris blend 2008, smoked salmon stuffed green olives and local cheese (like Jarlesberg). Civilised Gauchos indeed!!! This culinary delight was a great prelude to a tasty dinner of beef stew and stir-fried vegies.

Once again we all sat down to another DVD movie - "Black Swan". Very impressive performance by Natalie Portman - again another deserved Oscar. Tonight we saw best acctress and last night we saw best actor - great combo!

Juan learnt his excellent English from watching English DVDs with Spanish subtitles - he has a library of over 300! After the movie it was time for a game of UNO in the kitchen with plenty of beer to lubricate the action. Then the coffee liqueur came out which fuelled some excellent discussuions on politics and life. What an evening. Fabulous comapany and discussion.

I woke up with a stiff back and quickly worked out why - galloping pains - from the many hours of horse riding in the last two days. By 9am we were on the road again with Juan driving us 210km to the Uruguyan border town of Salto. The day was great. Sunny with high shapely alto-cirrus clouds. The landscape completely flattened out with plains as far as the eye could see.

We arrived at the Salto Thermal Pools at 12:30pm.This place was great. A huge manicured park with palms, flowers and 8 different pools at different temperatures, heated by molten magma deep within the earth. I soaked in the big 28C pool for 1hr then lay on the wooden bench with four 32C jets massaging my back and finished with the 39C fountain pool. Perfect timing - as a rest day from running, I could not have timed it better - my feet were brand new again! I returned to the restaurant where our bags were at 3pm and surfed the net a while until we caught taxis to the Uruguyan-Argentinian border. We got tthrough in record time and arrived at the Argentinian border town of Concordia (Pop 177,000) to eat and catch the 12hr bus to Iguazu Falls. At 8pm we were on our way.

NEXT BLOG: covers Iguazu Falls due 31MAR.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: 1) Our new tour guide, Alberto, made a big first impression on 21MAR by replacing our 10hr overnight bus from Iguazu to Sao Paulo with a flight! 2) Untold thanks to the hosts with the most, Juan and his wife Susanna who made us feel like extended family on his cattle ranch in the middle of Uruguyan nowhere!!! Special thanks to Malinga who rode with us and always made us feel welcome.

URUGUAY FACTS: 1) Area is 187,000 sq km, (slightly bigger than VIC) with very few mountains (max elev is 500m). 2) Population is 3.42 million and like NZ has a growth rate so low that it if stays the same will never reach 4 million!!! 3) Has lowest Catholic pop at only 47% and highest atheist rate at 17%. Rest are mix of Evangelical Protestants and Jews. 8% are mixed indigenous and 4% black. Rest are white of Spanish and Protuguese descent. Biggest immigrant group is the Italians with Sao Paulo having the largest Italian population outside Italy. 4) Originally inhabited by the indigenous "Charrua" from unknown date. Portuguese Jesuits landed in 1624 (in Colonia Del Sacramento). 5) For the next 200yrs, the Spanish, Portuguese and British wrestled for control with Argentinian Spaniards dominating. 6) In 1828 came part independence with liberated Argentinia and Braazil fighting over Uruguay till 1850. 7) Until 1967 there were many coups and rebellions with firm dictatorship lasting from 1967 to 1971. 8) Military then took over until late 1980s when elections of sorts were held. 9) Economy started to falter in 1960 and crumbled by 2002 when foot and mouth hit most of the beef industry. In 2002 inflation hit 40% and the country was declared bankrupt. Loans from USA, IMF & WB brought economy back to life but drought since 2009 has unsettled it again (no 1 beef export has fallen 33%). 10) Soccer started in 1930 and Uruguay has won 2 world cups. 11) Tango is big and Sao Paulo's "Pizza Paulistana" is supposed to be the best in the world. 12) Has reputation for the best staek sandwiches ("Chivito") and deserts in South America (the most famous is the meringue and ice-cream "Chaja" and custard cream pastry with burnt sugar on top "Masini").

ESTANCIA PANAGEA FACTS: 1) Name of our ranch is "Panagea" and it has been in Juan's family since 1926. He was born and raised here. His home was built in 1926 2) Its size is 1,000 hectares. 3) Elevation is 196m 4) Location is 40km from Tacuarembo, 140km from the Brazilian border and 210km from the Argentinian border. 4) Annual rainfall is 1,600mm on average and it is sunny 80% of the time. 5) Panagea has 1,000 head of cattle, 2,000 sheep and 84 horses. 6) 800 gringos visit it every year on average. 7) There are approx 10,000 ranches like this one in all of Uruguay. 8) Beef is still the number one export in Uruguay and the price now is very good.


  1. Hi Ho Silver!! But where's Billy??

    Great effect with the B&W pics!

  2. Hey John

    Love the pics & especially the black & white ones. Quite a horse back you have there!

  3. Hey Johnny,
    The images you are capturing are phenomenal.
    What's with all the images of you in Speedos?
    Keep up the good holidaying.