The cobbled streets of the Ciudad Vieja, lined by peddlers, stalls and shoe-shiners and home to Montevideo’s finest parrillas, are steeped in a strange dustiness, calling to mind a long-neglected museum suddenly disturbed. Towards the centre of the Old Town, a covered market with a flat green roof rises above the fray – the Mercado del Puerto. Inside, a bric-a-brac of parrilla bars jutting out from every corner, the sizzle of beef and the clink of glasses, an ubiquitous soundtrack in this nerve centre of Uruguay’s red meat obsession.

An introduction

The small town of Tacuarembo disappears from sight as the flat-bed truck rattles up the unpaved road, rolling fields of Uruguayan farmland stretching for miles on either side, the whole vista dimly lit by a blood-orange sunset scattering the clouds. Our party arrives at Pangea Estancia – a working ranch where city slickers come for an authentic taste of the good life. The man of the house, Huan – in his 40s, but lean and bull-shouldered from a lifetime of real work – introduces himself and runs through some house rules. “We have a rule with the alcohol – only one bottle of beer or wine per person, per night,” he deadpans. “But we have been unable to enforce this with Australians, Scots and Irish, so they are exempt.” The hits keep coming. On bathroom etiquette: “In life, everything comes back to us, and that includes dirty toilet.” The ranch, with its surrounding 80ha, runs on a generator that provides electricity from 6pm to 10pm only. Thereafter, it’s all about candles, and Huan has a special directive on that point. “Some ladies like to admire their beauty late into the night,” he says, with a doleful shake of his head. “They leave a candle next to the mirror and the mirror cracks. So please, ladies, late at night, when no one else can see your beauty, you don’t need to worry in the mirror.” And finally, before throwing his home open to a group of slightly baffled strangers: “My bedroom is the only no-go zone, because I am quite active.”

Home on the Range

Life on the ranch starts when the roosters begin to crow and it’s promptly into the saddling yard to prepare the horses for a day of herding cattle. Assigned a mean-looking black beast called Kaiser, I load him up with a couple of girdles and sheepskins and climb aboard. Huan keeps the instructions simple: kick the horse to go and pull the reins to stop. “When you fall off a horse, I will come to check you are okay,” Huan warns, “but do not expect me to stand and listen to you cry about how your husband ran off with a Russian prostitute. “We must ride like we have sex,” he instructs, wheeling on his own mount. “We do it with passion, or not at all.” The gates open and we’re away, out on to the range. I’ve never ridden a horse before, but am determined to make up for whatever I lack in experience with sheer, naked bravado. Shoulders relaxed but back straight, tall in the saddle, knees braced against the stirrups. Huan sidles up alongside, his reins held lightly between tanned fingers thick with sinew. “When was the last time you were on a horse?” he asks. “I’ve never ridden before, actually,” I admit – I secretly believe my horsemanship is innate and that I have an uncanny ability to mind-meld any animal. Huan is incredulous. “No,” he says, “you are being cheeky.” “It’s true,” I insist, “I’ve just watched a lot of movies.” I push the brim of my hat lower over my eyes, imagining that I must look at least a little bit like Clint Eastwood. There’s a new sheriff in town.

The Gaucho Life

The sky is a fluorescent, flashbulb white; a light haze hangs above the horizon, like smoke from some unseen fire.

“Pare, pare.” I pull back on Kaiser’s reins and he stops. I’m well into my day’s work herding cattle. Four cows have wandered away from the main herd and they now stare moodily at me through dull eyes, chewing noisily.

Using Kaiser’s reins, I turn him to face the cattle. “Vamos,” I bark, digging my heels into Kaiser’s ribs. We advance on the cattle and they slowly turn, with more than a hint of insubordination, and begin meandering back to the herd. I move up on the right flank to direct them and then back behind them to hurry them up. I’ve got this gaucho thing sussed.

We’ve brought about 150 cattle in from a paddock at the top of the ranch and the vaccination pen is now within sight. At the narrow gate, it’s gridlock; cattle jostling and bucking and butting heads. Slowly, they squeeze through, one-by-one, into a narrow run, where they’re jabbed and then hurried on.

All that’s left is to take the horses back to the ranch and unsaddle them. Huan warns this is the most dangerous time, because the horses are excited to be heading home.

“You have been riding for a day – but you still know nothing about horses,” Huan booms. The bubble bursts.

Maybe I shouldn’t ask for a job after all.

All Griller no Filler
In the background, an old bloke works a giant parrilla, with six different tiers, all stacked with meat and vegetables, flames like dragons’ tongues licking up through the grills.

I order and, before long, my plate arrives. My eyes widen as I prepare to dig deep. It’s like three steaks pinned together.

“Una cerveza, por favor, grande,” I say, gesturing to the beers in the fridge. I only have enough Spanish to drink and flirt clumsily – very clumsily. The guy behind the bar, white shirtsleeves rolled up, tinged black with parrilla smoke, points to the giant steak, back to the beer, rubs his tummy and laughs at me.

I laugh along amiably, but can’t help but wonder whether he’ll still be laughing when he has to carry me out.