Uruguayans and tourists from other countries escape the stress of city life and learn about rural living on once prosperous dairy farms and picturesque small farms near the city of Colonia in western Uruguay, where families have found a new livelihood – and way of life – in “agro-ecotourism”.
Families in the small farming town of San Pedro, near the city of Colonia, turned to that alternative to overcome the severe economic crisis of 2002, which threatened to wipe their farms off the map.
The area is home to many small-scale farmers, mainly the descendants of Italian and Swiss immigrants who settled in the mid-19th century on what was once a large British-owned estate, forging solid community ties based on hard work and respect for nature.
The families depended exclusively on small-scale agriculture for their livelihood, until the mid-1990s, when they began to feel the impact of the concentration of wealth that was sharply accentuated at around that time, widening the social gap, according to the study “Uruguay 1998-2002: Income Distribution During the Crisis”, by Marisa Bucheli and Magdalena Furtado.
Then came the 2002 economic and financial collapse in Uruguay, which followed the late 2001 debacle in neighbouring Argentina, forcing many small farmers in the area to choose between joining the growing number of families swelling the slums surrounding the capital, Montevideo, and other large cities, or coming up with innovative new sources of income.
Determined to weather the storm, the families in San Pedro chose the latter option.
The women in the community, in particular, began to come together for training and courses in English, computers, basket-making and herb-growing, while taking courses from doctors and psychologists.
In late 1999, the Instituto Plan Agropecuario (Agricultural Plan Institute), a mixed public-private institution, “selected a group of women from the San Pedro Farming Cooperative (Casspe) and other cooperatives around the country, to carry out the ‘Participative Microplanning’ project, aimed at stimulating local initiative,” Maria del Carmen Agesta, a teacher and activist from San Pedro, told IPS.
“A strong team spirit began to be forged, with lively exchanges of opinions and proposals,” said Agesta, who added that the dialogue gave rise to the idea of organising local enterprises to fight the loss of jobs and the drop in income, and to stem the growing number of young people joining the exodus from the countryside to the cities.
Thus emerged the Rural Tourism Group (Grutur), made up today of the Vivero Yatay – a nursery and park of native plants – the Parque Brisas del Plata campground, the ‘Los Tres Botones’ farm, where visitors can have a ride on a horse or in a cart and eat typical rural meals out under the blue sky, and the Tourn Museum, which includes antique tools and farm machinery manufactured by the Tourns, a family of Italian immigrants.
Also involved in ecotourism in San Pedro, although they are not part of Grutur, are the Villa Celina, a dairy farm that grows organic produce as well, and San Nicols, which offers horseback riding.
To this broad range of rural tourism establishments has been added more recently the possibility of renting cabins in the countryside.
In 2002, Grutur held the “Fiesta del Campo”, a rural fair or festival, in San Pedro to showcase the area’s attractions and products. In 2004 the fair was held in nearby Colonia del Sacramento, the capital of the province of Colonia, under the theme “the countryside is also humanity’s heritage,” a reference to the fact that the colonial city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Returning to our roots
Rural tourism, offered by large ranches as well as small to medium-scale farms like those of San Pedro, took off in Uruguay in 2002 as an alternative to the crisis, and today has become a mainstay of the tourism industry in this South American country of 3.3 million wedged between Argentina and Brazil.
The main draw for tourists in Uruguay, who are primarily from Argentina, but also from Brazil, Chile and elsewhere, are the country’s more than 700 km of wide sandy beaches along the Rio de la Plata and Atlantic Ocean.
Uruguay’s tourism industry currently has a turnover of one billion dollars a year, while it provides 50,000 direct jobs and more than 120,000 indirect jobs, based on an economically sustainable model that is respectful of the environment and local culture.
The Tourism Ministry, in conjunction with the governments of the country’s 19 provinces, is designing a development plan for the 2009-2020 period in which local residents will benefit from tourism through the responsible, balanced use of natural resources.
A key role in the plan will be played by rural tourism, which allows visitors to observe and participate in the work on farms and ranches, take horseback rides through the countryside, and eat nutritious, traditional meals.
Another possibility is bird-watching, said expert Maren Mackinnon Gonzlez, who pointed out that there are 450 different species that can be sighted in their own ecosystems in Uruguay.
At present, there are 80 legally registered farms and ranches in the country involved in ecotourism. The 15 that are located around Colonia mainly draw visitors from the rest of Uruguay as well as Buenos Aires, which is between 45 minutes or three hours away by boat, depending on whether you take the fast ferry or the more economic scenic route.
Wineries, guest ranches and rural bed-and-breakfasts, and even an old quarry that exported gravel and sand to the Argentine capital and now offers rides in an old locomotive form part of the ecotourism scene.
But one of the most interesting initiatives can be found in San Pedro, where an entire community transformed itself by pulling together to get through times of crisis.
In San Pedro, cows can be seen strolling lazily across a dirt road; dogs, horses, chickens and other barnyard animals wander around backyards; and a woman using a wooden spoon is stirring a huge pot of homemade jam on an old woodstove, following a recipe that was handed down from generation to generation.
“Tourists want to live like people in the countryside,” one of the heads of the Uruguayan Association of Rural Tourism (Sutur) told IPS. As visitors driving along highway 21, which zigzags along the country’s west coast, reach the picturesque farms of San Pedro, a saying by Uruguayan poet Lucio Muniz comes to mind: “What a pity it is to not have more eyes.”
Of the visitors here, 60 percent are Uruguayans, 30 percent are from Argentina and the rest come from other neighbouring countries, Europe or North America.
At “Los Tres Botones”, the owner proudly shows off her flower garden and offers homemade desserts, while visitors can watch traditional Uruguayan folk dances performed by a troupe.
At “Villa Celina” tourists can buy 22 different kinds of homemade jams and preserves carrying the trademark “Las Sanpedrinas”, and they are shown two huge keys “that represent the origins of the old English estate,” as Miriam Rigo explained to IPS.
At the farm there are also tours of organic vegetable gardens, chats on paleontological finds that abound in the nearby beaches and gullies of the Rio de la Plata, and visits to the farm’s dairy, where they can watch cows being milked.
“Villa Celina” is, so far, the only rural ecotourism establishment that keeps systematic data on the number of visitors it receives annually. The records from the 2008-2009 southern hemisphere summer show that it was visited by 1,500 tourists, who spent an average of 13 dollars per person.
Nury Pagalday, in the Tourn Museum, shows visitors how the antique farm equipment works and offers a taste of homemade liquors with unusual tastes, such as “yerba mate”, a tea-like herbal infusion traditional to Uruguay, Argentina, Paraguay and southern Brazil.
Ana Berretta and her husband, both of whom are agronomists, grow native species of flowers and trees in the Yatay nursery. She told IPS that they give educational talks in the park, with its ancient trees and enormous bushes, on how to protect them.
As night closes in, the lights start to come on beyond the fences, while the crickets chirp.