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Juan’s mouth is always - almost - curling. It looks dangerously close to a smile but never quite is.
Juan is a gaucho. A born-and-bred Uruguayan cowboy, with the boots and sharp wit to match. His farmhouse resides in the Tacuarembó region of Uruguay and he runs the Panagea Ranch with his Swiss-born wife, Susanne. Guests stay at the estancia to partake in a genuine cowboy experience; rounding sheep, vaccinating cattle and becoming the brunt of all Juan’s jokes. And yes you do get to wear authentic cowboy boots. Chaps are optional.
Juan quips aside, when it comes to a unique South American ranch stay, this is what you go for:
1. The adventure
Standing around the muddy horse paddock, fully kitted-out in riding helmets and waterproofs, Juan guides his pupils through the saddling process like he could do it with his eyes shut (most likely because he can). Look sharp, because Juan doesn’t take kindly to slow-learners, and once he’s given the initial introduction, you’re simply presented with a working horse and required to saddle it. It’s all leather buckles and sheepskin throws here, if you think you're getting a show-pony and a plush saddle pad, Juan will laugh you all the way to the cow shed. Juan’s humour is as dry as sandpaper, his face impeccably straight. But his eyes are always smiling - and when a cowboy’s eyes smile, it means they’re up to something.
HOT tip: As guests at a fully functional working cattle farm, you’re expected to muck in. Saddle up and jump on, there’s herding and de-worming to be done.
2. The unfamiliar way of life
Getting out of your comfort zone is what an estancia stay is all about. Located in the deepest realms of the Uruguayan interior, guests at Panagea Ranch have the opportunity to ‘ride-out’ both morning and afternoon. With Juan leading, you’ll ride for hours at a time to the steady thud of your sure-footed mare, across vast green plains and gentle streams. No experience is necessary, but a little confidence is required, especially if you have a horse that enjoys a natural trot across shallow rivers; a trot that feels more like a gallop when you’re stuck atop a six-foot stallion (and hell-bent on remaining there for fear of Juan’s ridicule if you topple off).
HOT tip: Hold the reins very loosely in one hand. Not two. If Juan spots you using two hands, he’ll have something to say about it, and you won’t fair well.
3. An intrepid experience
At the ranch you’re without electricity for 22 hours of the day. Between 8-10pm you’ll welcome 120 minutes of power to charge your phone and watch a film (Juan proudly owns more than 1900) before bed. Ten minutes after lights-out, you’ll hear Juan singing his daughters (and quite possibly himself) to sleep. There’s no flushable water, you’ll have to visit the outdoor well and refill the bucket, and by the time your alarm trills a few hours later, Susanne will already be busying herself in the kitchen, with nothing but a head torch to guide her. Somehow she manages to craft the most beautiful home-made meals to ever grace the depths of Uruguay. From bolognaise to a hearty stew, she even whips up a daily dessert or two.
HOT tip: You’ll want seconds of Susanne’s dark chocolate mousse, we can promise you that.
4. The off-grid freedom
The sign says it all: ‘No Wi-Fi, speak to one another.’
Say what? Like, actual conversation? Yes. One-hundred percent human communication. But trust us, you’ll revel in it. After a long day playing gaucho, you’ll take great satisfaction relaxing on the farmhouse patio with Juan and your newly-made friends. While the sun gently sets, Juan tells tales of luck, love and fortune. Platters of fresh cheese and olives are readily shared while he beguiles you with the story of how he first met Susanne, before pursuing her halfway across the globe and enticing her back to his Uruguay farm, which has been in his family for generations.
Hot tip: Visitors are asked to assist Susanne in the kitchen. Jump at the chance – her tales are as fascinating as Juan’s and your help will be met with a warm smile.
5. The unexpected hiccups
Like when one of your group insists on taking a group selfie, so you dismount for a picture and four horses run off in the process. And low and behold, the heavens open, you’re three hours from shelter and there’s an almighty thunderstorm brewing in an ominous sky.
Juan doesn’t allow rides when it rains, on account that it’s not safe, but there’s not much he can do when his horses have eloped; Mother Nature waits for no man. And so the heavens poured, the horses scarpered and the pundits - who only an hour before considered themselves thorough-bred cowboys – reverted to their urban ways and completely gave up on life…and hope.
Thankfully Juan appeared like a mirage on the horizon, four sheepish horses lined up (and reigned) in his wake. The group trudged back to the house, where Susanne was already waiting, with piping hot cocoa and the hearth happily roaring.
HOT tip: Take a waterproof jacket. And thick sleeping socks are a welcome sight after a long day in leather boots.
You too can enjoy an estancia stay with both Geckos Adventures and G Adventures, and there are ranches across Uruguay and Argentina. To find out more, come in-store or call 0800 838 747 today.
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