“Riding a horse,” says Juan Mandel, “is like having sex. You must do it with confidence and personality.” My previous experience had consisted of trail rides where my horse plodded stolidly in line. Confidence? Personality? Sex? As far are riding went, apparently I’d never got past the first kiss. No worries. Juan had faith and I had time.

Juan Manuel is owner of the Panagea Estancia and Backpacker’s Hostel in the heartbreakingly beautiful cattle country of north-eastern Uruguay, where I had come to find something out of the ordinary.

Designed to avoid the big sightseeing buses and the usual tourist haunts, Intrepid Travel’s South American tour offered everything from a bike tour through Buenos Aires to an exploration of the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. The element of the itinerary that had me most excited, however, was the cattle ranch – or ‘estancia’ – visit in Uruguay. 

Like all those who make the four-hour bus trip north from the capital city of Montevideo to the small city of Tacuarembó, and then bounce along for another hour in Juan’s van to reach the ranch, our small group was prepared for a serious adventure. But no one is truly prepared for the Panagea.

The first shocker is the landscape – an endless, isolated, stunning sweep of gently rolling hills, stretching forever in all directions.  Dotted with the occasional tree and sprinkled with patches of rough, grey rocky outcroppings, it’s a place that reminds you of how tiny we human beings really are.  Neighbors are so far from the Panagea ranch that you could go for a week without ever seeing one.  If you’re looking to escape from the world, this is the place.

The landscape isn’t entirely empty – it’s a ranch, after all.  I’d expected cows and horses, and wasn’t surprised by pigs grunting in a muddy patch near the ranch house while a few chickens scratched and clucked. What I wasn’t prepared for were the armadillos that suddenly scuttled like tiny, crazed tanks through the short grass and the herds of ostriches that galloped across the plains on impossibly spindly legs. Many times, I nearly lost my grip on the reins as I gawped in complete wonderment.

Juan was always there to bring me back to the job at hand – riding and herding. While he shared my appreciation for the scenery – the same scenery his family has enjoyed for several generations – we needed to focus.

“The Panagea is a cattle ranch,” he said, “and the work doesn’t stop because we have guests.” The workday begins at sunup when Juan, wife Susanne and two-year-old daughter Dharma begin rustling around in the kitchen. You know they’re in there, because your bedroom – which you might just be sharing with another guest if it’s a busy time on the ranch – is in the same building where the family sleeps. 

You won’t mind being awakened. You’ve likely just had the best sleep of your life, so far from any man-made lighting that you might as well have been in your mother’s womb.

There’s no electricity at the Panagea, except for two hours between 8pm-10pm when the generator kicks in. Otherwise, it’s flashlight or candlelight – your choice. Cell phone reception is iffy and you can forget wifi. You won’t miss it. You’ll be too busy. Speaking as one who’s a huge fan of Mr. Edison, loves all things electrical, from computers to hair dryers, and rarely goes for long without checking her email and Facebook, I thought I might go into techno-withdrawal. 

In truth, when I got a taste of life at the Panagea, checking my email suddenly seemed positively silly. What really mattered was learning to saddle a horse securely so I wouldn’t slide like butter off a hot knife.

Gauchos – the term for cowboys in Uruguay – add a sheepskin on top of their saddles to cradle their behinds. A sheepskin is cushy –that’s for sure – but if it’s not strapped down securely, the side-to-side rhythm of your horse’s steps will soon have you slip-sliding away and that’s the last thing you want when your new job is rounding up wayward cows.

Have I mentioned that cows are damned big when you get up close and personal?  They are.  They’re also stubborn and none too bright.  Convincing non-conformist bovines to get back to the gang requires total cooperation between a cowherd and her firmly saddled horse.

Juan assured me my first mount was a star.

“Tango is very gentle. You’ll be fine,” he said.

And I was.

Tango had a beautiful light grey and white coat and a gentle temperament to match. His silky mane was trimmed gaucho-style, with a longish piece for a handhold. By the time the saddle was on and the sheepskin was in place, we’d bonded like crazy-glue and, after a quick lesson from Juan on how to steer left and right, we were off.

Tango was sure-footed even on the rocky bits and knew just how to circle around behind delinquent cows. To help out, I thought I should make a few cow-herding noises.

“Here kitty kitty” works with my cats, but didn’t seem appropriate. Clicking my tongue confused poor Tango who thought I might be speaking to him. Finally, drawing on the vocabulary I’d developed watching “Bonanza” as a child, I settled for “Yeehaw!” The cows may have been confused, but there were no calls for a translator and miraculously, the huge creatures responded.

And so did I. 

As the afternoon progressed, I felt more and more like a real gaucha (a female cowherd.) Tango and I were a dynamite team – but not for long.

At the Panagea, you never ride the same horse twice. It’s Juan’s rule. “You’ll pardon a simple rancher,” he says, “if I suggest to you that you don’t want to have your confidence depend on the horse you ride.  You need to know that you can ride any horse and still be in charge.”

(Note: Juan isn’t a ‘simple’ anything. A veterinarian who has traveled the world and speaks several languages, he’s as knowledgeable about politics, art, literature and music as he is about cows and horses. He knows a thing or two about human nature as well.)

“Sunshine,” he said, grinning at me as I clung to Tango’s neck. “You think you need Tango to help you do your job but you don’t. When you leave this ranch, you’re going to know that you can ride any horse – and ride it well. There are no bad horses – just bad riders.”

And he was right. Each time I heaved myself up onto a different horse, there was a moment of doubt but soon, I’d sink into both the sheepskin and a sense of security. A gaucha really can ride any horse.

When we weren’t riding and herding, we helped Juan load the cattle into narrow wooden chutes where we sprayed them to keep the flies under control. Squishing around in the cow manure while chivvying unwilling cows into that chute was a challenging and fragrant little exercise, but as the borrowed boots and gaucha pants provided by Susanne reached higher than the dung, I got used to it.

Some of us squirted medication in lamb’s mouths and watched as Juan and his ranch hand put an end to a number of young male cows’ plans for a future sex life. (For the sake of our male readers, I won’t go into vivid detail. Let’s just say that at the Panagea, little elastic bands are used for more than hairstyling.)

As for that lack of lighting after 10pm, I couldn’t have cared less. By that time each night, I’d already been riding and herding for hours, had wolfed down three of Susanne’s hearty Panagea-style meals – all of which included enough fresh beef, lamb and chicken to feed a hockey team – and absorbed a lifetime’s worth of sunshine and fresh air. I was so deliciously tired, I could barely see straight.

I didn’t even mind going out to the well before I bedded down, to get water to flush the toilet. And I remembered to step over – not on – the box of baby chicks Susanne put in the kitchen to keep them safe from predators at night. I also remembered to close the door tightly to keep the skunks out – and probably the ostriches and the armadillos too. I’m not kidding.

Juan and the equally well-educated and well-traveled Susanne have made a conscious choice to keep modernization at bay, in order to preserve the traditional life of the Uruguayian cattle ranch. When Dharma is old enough to go to school, she’ll ride a pony, not a school bus. Although they could choose to allow technology to make their lives easier, they won’t – what they have is too precious to them and ultimately, to their guests.

If you’re thinking a stay at the Panagea doesn’t sound much like a rest, you’re right. It wasn’t. While I would certainly have been welcome to loll around the ranch and read a book all day, I’d have been missing the point – and most of the fun. 

One of the guests Juan and Susanne often speak of was a city guy who came, planning to spend a week. Obviously stressed but reluctant to talk about his personal issues, the guest threw himself into the work and the life of the ranch. One week stretched into two, then three, then four. In the end, the man stayed for six months.

Says Susanne, “We never knew what had been wrong, but as the weeks passed, we could see him relax and knew he was feeling better. Whatever he was looking for, he seemed to find it.” I understand what he found because I found it too.

A stay at the Panagea is a rare opportunity to leave behind the usual worries, responsibilities and concerns of our everyday, far-too-wired lives. More importantly, it’s a chance to test your abilities and stretch yourself far beyond your normal limits. Can you saddle up and ride – with personality and confidence? Can you work with your hands instead of your computer? Can you master your fears of horses, of cattle and perhaps, of failure itself?

At the Panagea, believe me, you can and you will.