Accidental Tourists in Uruguay

A handy statue on a beach in Uruguay´s primary city, Montevideo

A handy statue on a beach in Uruguay´s primary city, Montevideo

We took a day trip from Buenos Aires to Uruguay to spend a few hours getting US currency  to exchange on the blue market in Argentina, and we liked Uruguay  so much we decided to return again and travel there for a few weeks.

Uruguay was not at all what we had expected, and overall it was one of our favorite countries with plenty of horses, endless beaches, beautiful rolling flat lands, low population density, high employment, and warm welcoming people.

We found these unusual balls of water on the beach during an early morning run.

We found these unusual balls of water on the beach during an early morning run.

A few interesting things about Uruguay:

  • Uruguay´s size is 42% of California´s, but the population is only 9% of California´s
  • There are six people for every horse in Uruguay, compared to 54 people per horse in California.
  • Per capita GDP is $17K, 27% of California´s $46K.
  • GDP growth and unemployment numbers are healthy.  Inflation is perhaps the biggest concern at 8.5%
  • Uruguay has legalized the possession, purchase, sale, and growing of Marijuana.  Several other countries are considering purchasing medical marijuana from Uruguay, so it may become a significant export product.
  • If you were to rank all of the countries of the world in order of per capita donation of soldiers to the UN peace keeping forces, you would find Uruguay at the top of the list.
  • The people of Uruguay seem to drink even more Mate than those in Argentina, if that´s possible.  Drinking Mate is similar to drinking very strong tea with one key difference.  A cup of tea is consumed by an individual.  Mate is almost always shared.


A gaucho and his horse competing in an event comparable to dresage, which demonstrates complete communication between rider and horse.

A gaucho and his horse competing in an event comparable to dressage, which demonstrates complete communication between rider and horse.

Our first destination was the annual Gaucho Festival in Northern Uruguay.  Gauchos are a huge part of the Uruguayan culture and the festival is a great event to learn more about it.  Gauchos are  similar to our cowboys, with a few (somewhat fashion related) differences.  Their hats are broad and flat; they wear daggers in their belts instead of pistols; and they drink mate instead of chewing tobacco.  From the first event, (which involved young gauchos racing barefoot the length of the arena, jumping on a bareback horse and galloping back at top speed) to the last (a somewhat violent bronco riding event), it was quite a spectacle.


Two riders, on their way to the Gaucho festival.

Two riders, on their way to the Gaucho festival.

As we drove to the festival we saw a number of gauchos riding along in the grass on the side of the highway, with a horse in tow.  We learned that many travel to the festival by horse, taking 10 days or more for the journey.  They swap horses to avoid riding one too long.    Estancias along the way let them sleep in the barn, feed their horses, and perhaps serve them meals at the family table. A 30 second video of the broncing event is here.


Char herding sheep

Char herding sheep

From there we traveled South and East, mostly on dirt roads, to Estancia Aguila Blanca (White Eagle).  With 2,000 acres of gently rolling grassy plains, about 250 cattle, 100 sheep, 20 horses, a lake, a waterfall and some wonderful people, it was a heavenly place.  Each day we rode out, usually 3 abreast in deep grass, to explore different portions of the estancia and participate in herding sheep and cattle.

Dan trying to mik a cow.  The operative word is trying.  Char just sat down and did it immediately.

Dan trying to mik a cow. The operative word is trying. Char just sat down and did it immediately.

A woman from England and her Argentinian husband purchased the land about 18 years ago and set it up for a combination of livestock and tourism. Her husband had passed away at a young age and now her sons are running it.   The only problem with Estancia Aguila Blanca was finding it.  We had a latitude and longitude for it, but our GPS couldn´t figure out what dirt roads would take us to it.  Finally, a couple of hours after dark, we came upon a police station in a village.  Two young policemen said they couldn’t draw us a map to the place but they’d lead us.  So we had a police escort for 25 km.  Normally the police are chasing us.  In this case we were chasing the police.  We were glad we could speak Spanish that night.

The only way to get to Cabo Polonio is aboard this 4WD truck that carries everyone through the dunes.

The only way to get to Cabo Polonio is aboard this 4WD truck that carries everyone through the dunes. It is run by the Park Service

After several great rides, we were ready for some beach time so we headed east to explore the Uruguay coast. There are numerous beautiful endless sand beaches.  A couple of places particularly impressed us.

Our favorite was Parque National Cabo Polonio.  Getting there is half the fun.  You park your car about 15 km from the beach, and ride in on a mammoth 4wd truck.  Upon arrival you find a colorful collection of small beach shacks and hostels, lots of very happy people, huge sand dunes, and beautiful waters. It had a hippie feel to it.  The photos say it all!

Casa Pueblo is a vertical labyrinth pasted to the side of a cliff.

Casa Pueblo is a vertical labyrinth pasted to the side of a cliff.

The other unusual location along the coast is a place called Casa Pueblo, which was built by artist Carlos Paez Vilaro.  He considered Casa Pueblo to be both art and a home.  Parts of it have been made into the hotel where we stayed. He said ¨Casa Pueblo was molded by my own hands, in a constant struggle against the straight line¨.  He lived a remarkable life, starting poor.  He grew to be a highly respected artist, asked to show in China, Japan, and other countries.  He sailed to Tahiti, was in a ship wreck, built a new boat, and made a

movie called Une Pulsation about this sailing trip, with no script.

Carlos Vilaro´s son was one of the 16 survivors on the airplane full of rugby players that crashed in the Andes.  This story was dramatized in the book, Alive, and the film Stranded.


.Our last stop in Uruguay was 3 days at Hostel El Galope which combines stylish

A warm up ride in deep grass at El Galope

A warm up ride in deep grass at El Galope

hostel living with horseback riding.  Here we took some wonderful rides on country roads.  Both of us got to ride the fastest we´ve ever gone on horses, galloping at high speed while pulling hard on the reins to retain just a token of control as we thundered along the dirt road. We also enjoyed fascinating conversations with our hosts, the owners. We learned a number of interesting things about horses, politics, and history which are (optional reading!) below the collection of favorite Uruguay photos. If you click on a photo it will go into slide show mode any you will see the captions.



What we learned from Miguel, our host at El Galope

How to train a horse.  The most important part is the hour after the foal is born.  After it is born it will try 2 or 3 times to get to its feet, and then it will finally succeed.  During this time, stand in front of the foal so the first thing it sees is you.  Then gently approach the foal and touch its chest and back, gradually work toward touching its mouth and nostrils.  Poke it where you´ll eventually be giving it shots.  This will make it comfortable with the handling involved in putting on a bridle, a saddle, etc.   There are two problems with this technique.  First, you have to be there when the foal is born.  Second, any stallions around may attach you, thinking they need to protect the foal from you.  Our host had to roll away from a foal when a stallion attacked with its two front feet.

The way to train a horse which is a couple of years old and still wild is to start by standing in the center of a round pen for 24 hours looking at the horse.  Make constant eye contact with the horse and don’t fall  asleep.  After that, training will be easier.

The sturdy, powerful, high-endurance horses in S. America are called Criollos.  A distinguishing characteristic is a dark stripe down the back.  For years everyone sought out, and bred for, a profile which had gentle curves and a rounded characteristic.  One estancia in northern Uruguay bred for a sharper more rectangular profile. Word spread through the horse community that the horses with these sharper features get sick less, last longer, and work harder than their rounded counterparts, so now this  look is sought after.

History and Politics.       In the 1970s,  an American came to teach the Uruguay soldiers the practices of torture.  His name was Dan Minote. He used homeless people as victims during his demonstrations of torture techniques and killed some of them.  Before and after work he would always take his children to their school in Montevideo in a convoy, with US soldiers in front and Uruguayan Guards in the vehicle to the rear.  They always traveled the same route at the same times.  One afternoon the People´s Liberation Army arranged to be in a truck along the side of the road.  When the convoy came by they let loose with machine guns, killing everyone in the convoy except Dan Minote. They captured him, held a trial, and executed him.

We observed that there seemed to be a “dirty war” simultaneously in Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay.  That is, a period in the 1970´s during which a dictatorship overthrew a liberal democratically elected government, and people from the opposition were tortured and “disappeared”.   This was evidently all part of “Operation Condor”, which was coordinated by Kissinger in the US.  It began when Allende was elected in Chile and he took possession of the copper mines which had been owned by US interests.   There´s a book, OpenVeins of Latin America, which describes this.

During the dirty wars Pepe (the current president) was imprisoned, tortured, and held in a well for 2 years.  Evidently he has many scars on his legs, which reportedly came from machine gun bullets he took during one of the 3 bank robberies he´d staged to raise money for the People´s Liberation Army. (Can you imagine a president who has been tortured, lived in a well, and robbed 3 banks? Note that as president he donates 90% of his salary to charity.)

Pepe  has promised Obama that Uruguay will accept 5 Guantanamo Bay prisoners.  This is not necessarily popular with Uruguayan citizens.  These people believe the prisoners are the USA´s issue and Uruguay should not be solving it.   The prisoners will be set free in Uruguay, and they will be free to leave if they choose.

Economics.    Uruguay´s biggest exports used to be meat and leather, but recently soy has taken top position.  Monsanto has introduced genetically modified soy, which is a very profitable crop Uruguay sells to China. There are three problems.  1) Water and soil pollution.  The soy is impervious to insecticides and herbicides, so the farmers can spray heavy doses of chemicals without worrying about harming the soy.  The chemicals trickle down into the water table and the soil.  2) Employment.  Raising cattle took about 22 people per 1,000 hectares whereas soy production takes only one.  3) Ownership. Soy is a high tech business requiring heavy capital investment, so a few foreign companies have purchased much of the land and formed huge farms.  The land is no longer owned by Uruguayans, and most of the money flows to the foreign owners.

Currently a major driver of the Uruguay economy is that it is the Switzerland of the Americas.  That is, one can have a bank account in Uruguay which hides your money.  This is popular for those evading taxes and in criminal endeavors.


One thought on “Accidental Tourists in Uruguay

  1. Carol Hamilton

    Wonderful pastime for me to enjoy perusing your blog posts and photos while spending 5 hours at the Boise airport today. Fabulous authentic experiences you are having!


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