It’s just before dawn, and I’m rudely awakened by my alarm clock. It’s that freakishly early stage of the morning that normally passes me by, but today I have to haul ass into the paddock for my first ever horseback ride in Latin America.
Those looking for the gaucho experience have plenty of estancias to choose from in the Pampas of Argentina and the Uruguayan countryside. These vary from huddling around the fireplace with no electricity, to enjoying gourmet food and air conditioning on slick day trips from the city. You can also volunteer on an estancia and really get stuck in.
We settle for El Galope, near Colonia del Sacramento. Not having the time to head up to Tacuarembó for the ‘real deal’, nor the cash to splash on a luxury estancia on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, it seemed a good compromise.
Grabbing the horse’s mane (it doesn’t hurt her) and swinging my leg over Chimanga, a Uruguayan-bred beauty, I realise I’m in for quite a ride.
“She’s very calm, but she loves to gallop,” her owner tells me.
I’m used to naughty British horses that sometimes need a thwack of the crop to actually do what you want them to do. Gaucho horses are trained to herd cattle, and are so responsive it’s like driving an automatic car.
I gently hold the reins across the left side of Chimanga’s neck, and she turns so sharply we go in a little circle.
I’m warned not to keep pulling on the reins after she’s stopped, not because she’ll rear up or get pissed off, but because she will actually reverse! I look over my shoulder to check she doesn’t have tail lights.
The Gaucho style of riding is badass cool. You hold the reins in one hand, and hold out your other hand for balance (or to whirl around your bola). Leaning forward into a gallop, you aren’t holding onto anything – you’re literally flying.
It’s quite a rush, and once I start to remember my childhood lessons, I’m really getting into it. If only the girls in Pontcanna Riding School could see me now! No proper riding hat! No crop! And no attempt at a ‘rising trot’!
We slow down for a stroll and are being followed by a pair of redheaded woodpeckers while we spot birds’ nests made of mud and hares hiding in the grass.
The myth of the gaucho is something visitors can only speculate about, but if you are in this amazing part of the world it’s well worth going out for a spell.