photo | Kobby Dagan
Argentina may be famous for its pampas (lowlands), ranching, beef, and of course gauchos (cowboys, such as the one above and those in the video below). But fewer people are aware that these characterise its much smaller next door neighbour, Uruguay, to an even greater extent. In fact, unlike Argentina, here the pampas cover practically 90 percent of the country beyond the coast and capital Montevideo, and the gaucho tradition and culture is if anything a more defining aspect of national history.
photo | PeerV
And here on its rolling hills and grasslands, the estancias (cattle and sheep ranches) still stand, and dozens of them these days open their doors to visitors (and, by the way, are often a better deal than their Argentine counterparts).
You can just use them as you would a hotel, exploring towns and ecotourism in the region, or you can saddle up and do some riding yourself; there’s even, in some, the option to do chores (and not backbreaking work, fear not!) in exchange for bed and board. Some are historic while others are modern, and amenities vary from comfortable but simple to more tourism-oriented, and a few nearly luxurious (with perks like swimming pools).
photo | Kobby Dagan
They’re scattered across the country, often 90 minutes’ to three hours’ drive from Montevideo. Several choice choices include Finca Piedra (which also includes a vineyard and winery!), Guardia del Monte (above), Lagunas del Catedral, La Salamora, Estancia Tornero, and La Vigna (this last a somewhat arty-flavoured one which is also convenient to visiting one of South America’s loveliest colonial towns, the UNESCO World Heritage old quarter of Colonia del Sacramento).
The best time to visit is during Uruguay’s summer, November through March (when in the early days of the month – the 7th through 12th in 2017 – the country’s top gaucho festival is held in the northeast town of Tacuarembó).