El Galope Hostel, Balneario Santa Regina, Uruguay

Published: June 24th 2012
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The instruction was to get off at the 114.5 kilometre mark on the road, not in a town. This looked like a challenge because the kilometre markings were on the side of the road, opposite to where our seats were on the bus and it was getting close to dusk. Every time I saw the conductor I would remind him of our destination until finally he gave us the call.

We scrambled off the bus on the side of the road and there was Monica and her trusty old jalopy. After a little rearranging of essential items she had bought in town, we piled our enormous bags into the back and we began our short but rough and dusty journey to her home and hostel called El Galope.

We had rented a 2 bed dorm to keep the visit within budget. This meant single bunk beds and a shared bathroom. Luckily the room we were to share the bathroom with was empty for the duration of our stay so we had the bathroom to ourselves. After a bit of discussion and some measuring, I took the top bunk. The ladder proved to be a bit of a challenge but the bed was comfortable enough. In order to give me easier access to the ladder, Eileen moved the chair to the empty spot underneath my bunk. She then stood up and nearly knocked herself out on the solid wood frame; not the best start.

We both adjusted quickly to the quirks of our cosy room; the cat who was not allowed in the rooms but would dash in as soon as you opened the door, the dog who would greet you with enthusiasm each time you returned from somewhere, the many centipedes that would creep in under the door at night, the low wattage light bulb which turned the normally simple task of finding objects into a game, and the snippets of conversation through the wall from the lounge next door. Add to this the gorgeous sunsets, the horses grazing near the verandah, the great meals, the good wines, the fabulous company and it's fair to say, it was a great few days!

We met a lovely young couple, Clinton and Laura, from Melbourne Australia who had arrived two hours before us. We chatted about our travels, our pre travel life, the amount of or lack of luggage, travel tips and traps, and we shared some pre-dinner munchies. It wasn't long before Monica's husband Miguel appeared with the ingredients to make dinner; a fondue made with cheeses produced by the Swiss neighbours. It was my first fondue and very yummy. We had a local red wine to accompany the meal which everyone loved. The four of us enjoyed a game of cards after dinner and then the day's travelling hit us so we hit the sack.

The morning dawned fine and clear but it was windy so Miguel suggested we ride in the afternoon. To fill in time, Eileen and I took a walk in the sun. We enjoyed spotting the local wildlife which was mostly birds at this time of day. The most raucous birds were the green parrots that inhabited trees that were not too dissimilar from Australian gum trees. We spotted strange mud mounds on top of some wooden fence posts and we noticed they all had openings of various sizes facing the same direction, north. Later Miguel explained they are birds’ nests. These birds build the nests facing north so they are protected from the cold south wind and face the warm sun from the north.

After lunch we were called by Miguel to help fetch our horses, give them some feed and a brush down before Miguel saddled up. Eileen had a traditional gaucho saddle covered with two sheep skins. I had a large western style saddle. My gelding named Urko, is a cross between the local breed Criollo and a Quarter horse. He was a recent addition to their stable having been purchased from an old gaucho. He was a steady and focused horse always keeping an eye on his surroundings; typical of a working cattle horse. Eileen’s horse named Irupé is a pure bred Criolllo and she is the boss of the herd which included Chamangá, Mundaca and Yuca, also females.

First up was a quick handling lesson to learn the ways of a working cattle horse in this region. Hold the reigns in one hand, straighten your arm then reigns to the left over the horse’s neck and the horse turns left. Hold the reigns to the right and the horse turns right. Eileen said they can turn on a dime! Wow, what a dream to ride. These horses have really been well trained!

We enjoyed a quiet ride through the local countryside with Laura and Clinton. This was made much more enjoyable by Miguel who gave us a commentary about the local area. What made it extra special was him pointing out the neighbours who produce much of the food purchased for the El Galope guests. We also discussed New Zealanders’ farming investments in Uruguay which are substantial and he showed us the piece of land he wants to purchase to expand his small holding.

On our second day the four of us walked to the local goat farm in the glorious sunshine. We were greeted on the road by a large number of barking dogs in various states of health. Later we discovered that Victoria has such a soft spot for the abandoned dogs that she cannot turn them away. She gave us a tour of the cheese making process and introduced us to her friendly goat herd. Eileen couldn’t resist buying a jar of Victoria’s marinated feta which was destined to be shared over lunch. When we returned to El Galope Laura cooked us a shared lunch of her pasta and pesto mix with our pancetta and feta. A delicious meal with great company ended a great morning.

On our ride that afternoon we took a slightly different route with a newly arrived Australian couple who were inexperienced riders. Eileen and Irupé had just taken the lead at Miguel’s request when Eileen noticed that the way was blocked by a large broken tree branch with some type of nest. Miguel got off his horse to clear the branch and the dead looking nest which turned out to be a live wasps’ nest. All of a sudden he was shouting “run, run, run away”. Eileen turned her horse immediately and raced off with the rest of the horses following Irupé, the boss of the herd. Miguel ran after us but he had been stung five times on his face and he was looking a bit dazed when Eileen went back to meet him. He sat for a while to recover before he insisted we continue rather than go back to the farm as we suggested. It was a sobering and lucky escape for us all. If Eileen had ridden through, disturbing the wasps, the horses would have been stung and Miguel said we would have been tossed off our mounts. The experience gave us some good dinner conversation later when we were enjoying the delicious salmon Monica cooked for us.

On the third night we had a much anticipated “asado” barbeque. The Uruguay barbeque system is to have a fire in a grate at the side of the ‘barbeque’. When the embers fall through the wide spaced grate they are moved under the meat. The men did the cooking with much wine and laughter at one end of the kitchen while the women prepared the accompanying dishes. Sounds familiar! It was a very nice meal shared by all eight of us with lots of laughter and wine and a great end to a great day.

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