The thing about being vegetarian in a carnivorous country is that you rarely go hungry. People are so concerned about making sure you get enough to eat, and concerned that the foods you eat seem entirely unsatisfying to them, that they keep offering more food until the table (and your waistband) are groaning.
This was definitely the case for us last weekend when we headed into Uruguay’s interior to visit a ranch. Uruguay has many tourist ranches, which range from very fancy to basic. This one was a family run working ranch with 1000 head of cattle, several horses, chickens, two geese that mysteriously disappeared during the weekend (only their feathers remained), and a number of sheep recently diminished by preparations for a large group lunch.
To get there we drove three hours into Uruguay’s interior mostly on a tree-lined two-lane highway that cut through gently rolling green fields populated by cattle, horses, sheep, birds, and outcroppings of rocks. There were some cultivated fields and places where farm buildings were visible. Occasionally we watched gauchos ride across fields or farmers maneuver huge farm equipment across the highway.
Somewhere between Trinidad and Durazno there was a faded sign pointing down a rutted dirt road toward the ranch. The road dipped down to cross a stream and on the other side cattle stood knee deep in swirling early evening mist. The ranch itself was a few white washed one story buildings with thatched roofs and some outbuildings surrounded by manicured lawns with nothing but pasture beyond. We were greeted by five barking dogs who chased our car down the winding drive. They were intimidating until we opened the car doors when they promptly stopped barking and prostrated themselves before us, waiting to be pet.
Our room was attached to the main house and was accessed through a walled garden, which was crowded with flowering plants and small trees. A porch ran along one side of the house, dormant wisteria vines climbing up the poles and over the roof. The door to our room, as well as doors to the kitchen and entry way, opened off the porch. Our room was a clean, high-ceilinged, spartan space with three beds covered in wool blankets, wooden shuttered windows, stone walls, and a moldering armoire filled with dusty extra blankets.
Before we had our coats off Mariela and her assistant Iris were feeding us. We ate our meals in a small room with a thatched ceiling, a sturdy wooden table and carved straight-back chairs, a huge fireplace (which was the only thing keeping the damp chill at bay), and two pink armchairs that felt like sitting inside a warm hug. The room was dark and cold away from the fire, but also appealing and cozy.
Mariela and Iris always brought us soup in a traditional cast iron pot with white bread and butter on the side. This was followed by delicious, but rich, dishes like canalones de choclo, milanesa de berenjena, and zapallitos rellenos. And this was followed by dessert. They made other dishes that would please the kids as well, but in quantities large enough for several busloads of children. Two meals in Nathan and I realized we were eating past hunger and on into guilt. No matter how many servings we ladled onto our plates, we didn’t seem to make a dent in the spread. Yet somehow after every meal, as we waddled out of the room, they worried that we were leaving hungry.
To work off the food we explored outside. We watched the sheep who, understandably, were not so fond of people. The kids picked the pink flowers that grew in the yard. We rode horses around a bucolic field (bucolic as long as you didn’t look down at the sheep skulls chewed clean by the dogs and bleached by the sun). The kids climbed on the various tractors. The fact that it was a working ranch, not just a tourist destination, was always apparent. At one point I found the boy staring transfixed at piles of sheep skins hanging from a rafter in the barn. Trying to rationalize it, he suggested maybe they had been able to remove all the fleece so it just looked like a skin, but the sheep were still alive. There was a disappointing experience with milking that involved a year old cow, her still nursing calf, and a very sticky udder.
The ranch had plenty of entertainment to offer, but we also managed to tear ourselves away long enough to see some other sights. Outside Trinidad is a large, well-kept, and free animal reserve. We spent a few hours there looking at carpinchos, monkeys, alpacas, rabbits, snakes, deer, goats, and the cutest swarm of guinea pigs (including baby guinea pigs).
Some twenty kilometers down a bumpy road in Flores are the Grutas del Palacio. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Grutas are 70 million year old naturally occurring limestone caves. Columns of stone and curved archways formed by millions of years of erosion give the impression of some intricately planned architecture. There are places where, with the help of a guide, you can walk back into the caves, stepping over puddles of water and into ancient history. Given the chance there are many reasons you should visit them, but our kids will tell you the best part was the flashlights they got to carry while exploring the caves.
On our last day at the Ranch, still well-stuffed from lunch and not yet ready for dinner, the owners took us for a drive to see some of the cattle and their property. They pointed out their cattle, distant property lines, and birds while we all made awkward conversation. A short way into the drive we discovered three yearlings who had escaped the pasture. We followed them in the pick up truck, Mariela leaning out the window making the same huffing noises cows make. Eventually, for some reason neither Nathan nor I could discern all three calves decided to plow back through the barbed wire fence into the pasture. Across the road curious cattle gathered to watch the show. Mariela knelt down in the ditch again making soft blowing sounds and grunts, which urged the cattle forward. We all stared at each for awhile as the light turned golden.