The other day our road trip hit 40,000 kilometers which is the circumference of the earth at the equator. I think when we get to Ushuaia we’ll be nearer to 50,000 and Marlin, our trusty little VW Golf, will earn his final flag driving the Pan American Highway to South America.
One thing we noticed right away in Uruguay were people carrying strange leather cups and thermoses: on the beach, walking around the city, the campground, the hot springs, drinking it in their cars… maté was literally everywhere.
Maté actually refers to a small gourd some of which can be elaborately decorated, wrapped in leather, embellished with silver or inset into cows hooves. The tea is referred to as yerba. This tea is sipped through a metal tube called a bombilla which acts as both a straw and a sieve, the whole ensemble is completed with a thermos which is usually carried tucked in the crook of the elbow.
Not wanting to miss out on the fun we decided to wander around Montevideo and try to find ourselves a maté andbombilla set that we both liked. Tom picked his up first (only after we saw every mate dealer in the whole old city) and I found mine in a small Saturday market and bought it direct from a man who handmade them…making Tom rather jealous.
There are a million rules about how to prepare and drink maté…but it all depends on who you talk to and since Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay all partake in the yerba ritual you could hear a lot of different stories—but from what we have read and seen Uruguayans are the most serious maté drinkers, consuming twice as much maté per capita than their Argentine amigos
Preparing Maté – Uruguayan style We had the lovely owners of Punto Berro Hostel in Montevideo give us a lesson on how to prepare and drink maté, this is our summarized version:
Maté Etiquette Maté is serious business here in Latin America. It is more than just ‘drinking tea’ it is a centuries old ritual that is deeply ingrained in the culture and if you’re invited to share a maté you really shouldn’t refuse as sharing mate is seen as extending friendship. Another steadfast and important rule is to leave the bombilla alone, don’t fuss with it or do anything crazy like pull it out or stir it around, once it is set it stays there until the maté ritual is finished.
As for the flavour, well I think this maybe one of those things you learn to like. It sort of like green tea only a whole lot stronger and at times bitter though every Uruguayan we met was sure that we would learn to love it. We started out on one which was rather potent and have since backtracked to Abuelita (little grandmother) to slowly work towards proper appreciation.
Green rolling hills and long quiet country roads led us to Panagea Ranch where Juan and Susann welcomed us in to spend four days ‘playing Gaucho’ in rural Uruguay.
The term gaucho can loosely be defined as “cowboy” though it refers more to a nomadic group that lived off the land from the very south in Patagonia, to the west in the Andes and all the way to the southern state of Parana in Brazil. A distinctive part of Uruguayan culture, the gauchos are known as proud, fierce horsemen and remain a symbol against corruption even today.
We spent the next four days riding horses, herding cattle and sheep, assisting (though you might have to check with Juan if we actually did help) the gauchos, feeding the orphaned animals, playing badminton and stuffing ourselves with the most amazing meals – all made on a wood-burning stove by Susann. Gourmet gaucho meals mean real potato salad, the most delicious beef, green salads with organic lettuce from the garden, vegetarian options and other tasty delights. We had seconds at every meal…good thing gaucho pants are pretty roomy.
The estancia (ranch) is a true getaway. Secluded in the countryside and limited to 2 hours of electricity per day (7:30 to 9:30pm – by generator) one can find the time to relax, think, read, walk – encompassed in a comfortable silence where you can hear the beat of a hummingbird’s wings.