This is a great ride for sightseers – people who want to see the countryside from the back of a horse. It is not really a ride for those of us who love to ride. Careful planning has gone into the itinerary to show guests the diversity of Uruguay from irrigated rice fields, rolling grasslands to strangler fig forests and miles of magnificent deserted beaches. However the riding seems less important than the sightseeing. One surprise was the flatness. I had read that Uruguay was flat and was still astonished by the flatness. You can see forever. The only “mountain” was a small hill outside of Montevido, proudly pointed out to us on a city tour.
The style of riding is to move every two days from one hotel or estancia to another, usually by van, and then ride from that location rather than riding a long distance trail. Riders change horses several times. Sometimes they are the horses of the estancia and at other times they are supplied by a local resource trucking the horses from place to place. This makes the ride feel quite different from a long distance or inn to inn trail. On long distance trails, riding the same horse, you get to know your horse partner, and at the end of the trail you have a feeling of accomplishing a journey together. The trade off in Uruguay is that you see more places.
The horses are local Criollos or mixed breeds not large animals. The tack is gaucho style tack. In trying to describe the Uruguayan gaucho saddle, the best I can come up with is imagine a leather bareback pad with a fleece cover and a set of stirrups hung far forward sort of straight down from the pommel. Forget things like knee rolls, a saddle tree or a deep seat. Some of the group managed fine with the saddles, most of us had a few adjustment problems. My saddle slipped a lot. I remember cantering down the beach trying to tell our not very fluent English speaking guide that my saddle was slipping. She kept smiling at me and saying “ Good good, you like your horse!” I gave up on that and cantered up to the Spanish speaking guide and pointed at my saddle and that worked, perhaps helped by my distinct tilt to one side. Who needs words in riding? The saddle pads were torn up bits of foam mattresses. When a new one seemed necessary the guide ripped off another slab.
At one of the estancias, English saddles were offered and I thought wonderful but English saddles have to fit the horse. This saddle was way too narrow for the poor horse and I felt I was sitting on a steep slippery slope. I had to ask for my dreaded gaucho saddle back. There might be a lesson in that — better to go native or should that be stick with the devil you know?
Some of the day rides were to very special places. One day we rode to a tiny fishing village Cabo Polonio which is only accessible by horse or truck. The ride went through a sandy pine forest, into huge sand dunes and then out onto the beach that seemed to go on forever without a person in sight until we spotted the fishing boats of Cabo Polonio. The village has a 60’s hippie feel with dilapidated looking illegal cabins, no electricity, several brightly painted wall murals and lots of tiny grey weathered shacks.
One day we rode to Laguna Negra through wetlands, an area of 300 year old palms that are not native to Uruguay and no one knows how they came there. Birds are everywhere. Uruguay means land of painted birds and the birdwatcher in the group wrote down every species she saw and got close to 100. Rheas, swans, egrets, ibis and storks just to name a few which the non birdwatchers could spot.
The beach rides are spectacular. The Rio Plato appears as wide as the sea and hundreds of miles of empty beach reach to Montevideo. One day we started from our hotel along the beach and passed the wreck of a ferry that ran from Montevideo to Buenos Aires. A group of dissidents stole the ferry, sunk it and ran off. Only the wheelhouse and a bit of the foredeck are above the sand. It looks like a giant cubist sculpture.
One day we had a sheep and cattle herding morning and trying to get 15 or 20 young calves bunched up in a corner is a lot harder than it looks especially if the shouted instructions are in Spanish. The sheep are worse. Brave souls got off their horses to catch a lamb. I tried once but when the lamb got away, I quietly got back on my horse. I can miss out on lamb wrestling.
The accommodation varies a lot. Some of the hotels and estancias had last been renovated in the 1940’s or 50’s and some were quite modern. The estancias do have a family or private home quality. If you love lamb this is a ride for you. Lamb appeared almost every night and the lamb fanciers said it was wonderful.
The booking agents describe this as for intermediate riders and it is called fast paced but the pace is fairly slow and the canters short. Often there were great places to canter with long flat stretches of green grass between towering palms but no cantering. This was disappointing for those of us who like to go fast. On the beaches, we did canter more often but in general short controlled canters. A couple of days were long riding days but most are relatively short. Lots of free time and stops to visit historical sites like forts and one day a visit to a botanical garden.
sand dunes in uruguayOne characteristic of this ride is that there are two types of guide. The tour company provides a guide who speaks English but does not have anything to do with the horses or riding. The horse guide looks after everything to do with the riding and is changed with each new place. At each new estancia, the gauchos who work there lead the rides When we ask for a canter, the English speaking guide had to ride up to the front and negotiate for a canter with the horse guide and by the time they had talked it over, often the opportunity was past.
Would I do this ride again? No. For me the riding was not good enough. I appreciated seeing the landscape but I think you should get both. However, I would recommend it to lamb loving birdwatchers and sightseers who also like to ride. I did this ride in 2007 but I checked the ride description before I wrote this article in Sept 2009. I booked through Ride World Wide but other booking agents probably handle this ride too. It is sometimes difficult to compare rides from one booking agent to another because they give them slightly different names. If they sound the same but you are not sure, check the pickup point, names of the towns, hotels, and estancias that are given in the day to day descriptions.