Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Termas Of Endearment...

We hopped in our car and left Paysandú before noon. We had to drive an hour north, almost reaching Salto--Uruguay's second largest city--before turning down another gravel road to reach Las Termas de San Nicanor, another famous Uruguayan estancia that also has thermal pools.
The entire northwest region of Uruguay is dotted with hot springs that landowners have converted into attractive tourist destinations, surrounding them with lavish, rustic or basic accommodations for travelers.
As we rolled along, palm tree and eucalyptus clusters offered shady respites to some of the country's twelve million cows and thirty million sheep. We saw the Blocker microbrewery, spun around and pulled in for a picture, nothing more, tours wouldn't start until afternoon.
Continuing down the highway under some murky dark clouds, large fuzzies began skittering across the street, nimbly avoiding the tires of cars and trucks. At first, we didn't recognize them, but slowing down, we saw the furry bodies, limber eight legs, and black eyes: tarantulas, who hoped to avoid drowning in their burrows. We also passed a frisky herd of cows at a watering hole, and giggled at their silly mooing an wooing.
A construction worker, in the middle of nowhere on the empty road casually stopped us with his red flag, then stared off into the bushes for a spell, before moving a pilon and waving us past. Then, after a dozen kilometers of red dirt and gravel and an ambush by a grasshopper, we found the entrance to San Nicanor.
A long drive lead around a pond fringed in lily pads and pink white water flowers. After a gaucho's wife answered some questions at the central food hall near the pools, we wound up a muddy road, around another lake to our lodging--a faded adobe red villa among the estancia ranch houses, where gauchos did work under hidden leather brims while flocks of peacocks patrolled the grounds with an occasional croon and the inferior pheasants.
We met "Mo Mo", the owner, who, hosting an afternoon tea with some other guests in the breakfast hall, quickly showed us our room and bid us welcome and free range of her ranch. We thanked her, and after the familar luggage flop, we took liberty to give ourselves the tour of the old home and its historic features and furniture.
Then, we returned to the eating area, where guests nonchalantly gathered for a leisurely late lunch of lamb and an assortment of fresh and grilled vegetables. Water, bottled from the same free sources that fill the thermal pools, came in tall cool clear bottles. We added a liter of Blocker for extra flavor.
As we ate, we watched an array of colorful birds--parrots, woodpeckers, cardinals, swallows, egrets, falcons and others. Then we wandered the gardens and grounds, following the tiled paths between buildings and pools, before claiming a bench under the unpredictable clouds, and taking our first soothing soak.
Except us, the estancia was soon deserted of tourists although we could tell that this place is accustomed to having hundreds enjoying their rural atmosphere and steaming baths. Rusted farm equipment from days gone by posed as sculpture between the flowering palms, campsites and assorted structures. Distant lakes looked like clouds on the ground.
After an hour we were completely relaxed. We went back to our villa, returning to our room to take the requisite siesta on our antique hand built bed. Waking up, we decided to explore the farm's fields and buildings. We started by moseying down a long two rut road that lead through a tunnel of sycamores and juniper.
The symphony of outdoors sounds--birds, buzzing things, and the breeze mixed with occasional sounds of gaucho work--eventually became an unnoticeable white noise, broken rudely by the alarmed caw of neck stretching peacocks, or maybe a long, worried moo.
We found subtle viewpoints that looked over wire fences with natural wood posts, staring across the grazing herds who moved without moving, like a sunflower, almost imperceptibly, as heads would dip, chew, rise, take a step and repeat.
A dog joined us, one of those clearly clever cowhands that immediately illustrated that it was the king of the farm animals, nipping at any quadruped we passed--seemingly just for the fun of it, or the power trip. Despite trying to mind their own business, horses, cows, and sheep kept a keen eye on the policing pooch, who would bark and mush them on for no reason. However, a leg rubbing cat who also sought our affection, was treated more like a playmate than a wayward four legged duty to attend to, resisting all attempts by the dog to be playful with that leave-me-alone blank feline stare.
Now in our own little man-woman-cat-dog herd, we walked around--dog trotting ahead to check things out, cat trickling underfoot, purring--stumbling across all kinds of estancia treasures: a freshly cleaned sheep skin stretched by wires on a fence, a bewitching hen coop hiding under three spooky ombu trees, mushrooms happily nesting in a cow paddy, some perfect peacock tail feathers in the grass, horses grazing freely after the morning's work,
horned skulls on a rusty gate, a small flock of nappy brown and white sheep, a warm swampy pond where wetland birds and nocturnal amphibians hid from sight but not our ears. Eventually we meandered back to the pink house circled in arches and its private pool that faced east, to the dusk developing behind the clouds.
We opened our reserve bottle of Falcone anniversary wine on the veranda, with two glasses stolen from the breakfast building and another transparent bottle of cool water. We lounged around the warm water, getting in and out on any whim. The natural orchestra played in our ears, until the sun set, pink, then purple.
At night, we revisited the food hall, having steak, potatoes and flan dessert while under the outdoor tables, giant frogs gorged and belched on the suicidal bugs that fell from the nearby flood lights. Ironically, fire flies flickered in the trees, being far smarter--and less eaten--than their unenlightened insect cousins. As we took a night walk on the long way back to our room, we found "Mo Mo" meditating alone in the mist of a perfectly still steaming pool. And, after a long, deep sleep followed by a silent sunrise alarm, we waded into the breakfast hall, alone with our biscuits, coffee and freshly harvested honey--except for the peacocks occasionally passing and staring, cock-necked in the open entrance, before crooning and high-stepping out of sight. We took another walk around the grounds in late morning, repeating yesterday's walk, but backward. In a distant pasture, we could see ñandu jog in a flock--even after a year, we have yet to get a good close look at Uruguay's native rhea. Before packing our bags we managed one last soak in the villa's private pool, a hot blue rectangle of geothermal liquid and vapors, then we waved goodbye...

On the drive home, we found the factory of Leandra's favorite yogurt, Claldy, in the town of Young. Further on, before reaching more downpours on the horizon, we drove the bridge that crosses the lakes of the dammed Rio Negro, Montevideo's main source for power and water. Eventually, we came to the Montevideo department toll booth, the last "peaje" of three, and sixty minutes later, we were home...

Here's the same story in pictures...

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