Time Out Argentina & Uruguay | UK
Easy living on Uruguay's estancias
Uruguay's grand old ranches are gradually be converted into a new breed of 'designer' farms where all you have to do is find the nearest hammock
Lucila drifted across the lawn to greet us. Tiny and tanned, with long, blonde hair, dressed in a sundress and flip-flops, she didn't look like a Uruguayan sheep-farmer's wife. But then, her husband Agustin, with his mop of tousled hair, white shirt and jeans, isn't your average sheep farmer.
He's an architect, for a start, from Argentina. "We bought La Vigna as a holiday home in 2001, but moved here permanently a couple of years ago," Lucila told us over tea. "Uruguay is so safe – you don't even have to lock up your bikes – that it seemed the perfect place to bring up our children."
In the kitchen, the table was laid with old English china, and dulce de leche cakes. In the larder, she showed us shelves piled high with jams and chutneys made on the farm. "We have 200 peach trees and grow grapes, figs, oranges and lemons . . . We even make our own limoncello."
The estancia, which dates back to 1880, is just inland from the coast, an hour and a half by ferry and road from Buenos Aires. Whitewashed and low-lying, with five bedrooms, the style is shabby chic: old shutters, wooden floors, and beds draped with muslin canopies. There are quirky touches throughout: in the master bedroom, a line of old metal milk pails had been sliced in half and hung on the walls for decoration; in the dining room a bicycle is suspended above a cream leather sofa.
Some guests come here to unwind and work in the gardens where onions, pumpkins, tomatoes, watermelons and carrots littered the ground. You can also go horseriding, of course, or if that's too energetic, there's a pétanque pitch and a swimming pool – or rather an Australian Sink: a huge metal tub usually used for watering animals. "It's a temporary measure," Agustin explained. "I'm going to build a proper pool, as well as an eco-spa out of mud." It was a balmy afternoon, but not hot enough for a swim, so we borrowed a couple of bicycles and headed down the road to the beach instead.
Playa Fomento is a couple of kilometres away, along a tree-lined road. Barely a car passed us as we pedalled down to the cluster of houses at the water's edge. One of the properties we passed was Agustin and Lucila's sheep farm, the only one in Uruguay to be part of the Wwoofing scheme (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms). If you want a cheaper option, you can work on the farm for six hours a day in exchange for board and lodging.
Back at La Vigna, Agustin served a cheese platter. "We make five different types of cheese – a parmesan, feta, ricotta, manchego and roquefort."
Stuffed with cheese and barely able to contemplate dinner (luckily Uruguayans eat late), the La Vigna hammock, an old iron bed suspended between two tree trunks, beckoned.
Despite the couple's creative energy (they also host art exhibitions and tango evenings in the old wine cellar and Lucila runs sculpture and painting classes in the workshop), La Vigna is, essentially, a peaceful, rural hideaway – as is another finca (guest farm), La Casa de los Limoneros, where you can also sample Agustin's cheese.
Just 9km outside Colonia del Sacramento, and around an hour from La Vigna, La Casa de los Limoneros is an ivy-clad building surrounded by gardens and seven hectares of lemon trees. It looks as though it has been here for decades. It hasn't. Sergio, another architect from Buenos Aires, and his partner, Mario, hunted for an old property to renovate but couldn't find anything suitable. So he designed the six-bedroom "old" finca himself.
"I found the double-height doors in a reclamation yard in Montevideo," he told us, referring to the front doors. But it's the public areas that give the house the wow factor. The dining room houses retro finds and antiques; the living room, red sofas and art works."If you're interested in bargain-hunting, Montevideo's Sunday morning flea market is a must," Sergio told us.
Relaxing by the pool after a morning spent wandering in and out of Colonia's chic shops, we gazed out over the lemon grove. "We exported our lemons as far afield as Russia last year," said Sergio, sounding surprised at their own success. These architect farmers seem able to turn their hands to anything.
• British Airways (0870 850 9850) flies to Buenos Aires via São Paulo from £757.80 rtn inc for travel from Jan-March (must be booked before 26 Jan). From Buenos Aires take a ferry to Colonia with Buquebus . La Vigna, doubles from US$120 per night B&B. La Casa de los Limoneros (+598 52 31028), doubles from US$110 B&B. Uruguay Tourist Board: turismo.gub.uy.