“When I was a young girl, I looked at the map and pointed at that little country squashed between Brazil and Argentina. I knew nothing about it, but I knew I had to experience a life there.”
That little country was Uruguay, and that little girl, well, she has created something magical.
Childhood dreams of a life lived alongside horses are all too fleeting for many, but for Lucie, the dream never disappeared. Instead, it led her far from home and thousands of miles through Latin America, until it became a reality.
As we arrived at Caballos de Luz on a bright, sunny morning, it was clear that the fates were kind to Lucie by guiding her to this spot; it is a little slice of heaven, carved out by love, hard work and, in the beginning, much hardship and struggle, by her and her husband Santi.
Created nine years ago, it operates as an eco-friendly alternative ranch experience for complete newbies to experienced riders looking for single or multi-day treks through the remarkable Uruguayan countryside or coastline.
After a night spent in the no-horse town of La Rocha, it is a scrap of paper with scribbled directions and a hailed taxi that takes us along the dusty dirt road to Caballos de Luz, a far cry from the built up resorts of coastal towns but an hour away. In the distance, jagged peaks provide a backdrop, and around us, long grass and wild flowers sway.
For our driver, it's the first time he has made it to this part of his home. “Que lindo!” he exclaims, the stock phrase in South America used to describe anything from a stunning mountain view to a dog dressed up in a ballerina dress.
He is, however, correct in this instance. It's 'lindo', very damn 'lindo' in fact.
Horses are scattered around the lush, green meadows. Small hobbit houses and rickety wooden sheds filled with rich, old leather horse handling equipment ooze charm and authenticity. Lucie, wearing a battered old felt hat and simple cloth summer dress, warmly greets us with hugs and kisses on the cheek.
After our heavy backpacks are stowed, we're led to, quite possibly, the most enchanting spot in all of Uruguay to enjoy our home-made lunch. A returning German volunteer called Livia – staying for six months - brings out our salad. White blonde hair, worn summer dress and a smile from a morning spent caring for the animals she loves - she is the picture of contentedness.
The meal – grown, picked and prepared from the organic garden here – is delicious. We dip wholemeal bread in olive oil, sip water flavoured with the fist-sized lemons which weigh down the trees, and slurp contentedly on pumpkin soup. The nutty salad dressing, a secret recipe here, is so good we have to restrain ourselves from drinking it straight from the bottle.
Only 5% of guests to this place are Uruguayan. Having read and witnessed just how much Uruguayans like to holiday, it disappoints us that they're missing out on this beautiful spot in their own backyard. We ask Lucie if, amongst a population where unparalleled meat consumption is intrinsic to the national diet, some people are hesitant to come because the only food served is vegetarian? Sadly, the answer is yes.
That's their loss.
For us, long before bags were packed and goodbyes were uttered way back in 2014, there were dreams of soft leather saddles and vast grassy plains, of rolling hills and open skies. But most of all, there were dreams of gauchos, for in Latin America's southern cone, there exists no character more iconic.
We always assumed that this dream would be played out in the Pampas of Argentina but, as we sat beneath hanging branches on a warm spring afternoon it seemed almost as if fate had also guided us to the horses and sierras of Uruguay. And the fact that this place loves animals even more than we do, makes it all the more special.
After a short siesta in a cool breeze we awake to find our horses being led from their pastures in preparation for our trek. Four beautiful animals appear through tall grass and it quickly becomes clear that these horses are not just pets or vassals from which to make some tourist bucks; they're family. Lucie knows the personality of each of these twelve or so horses better than some people know their own children – she knows which ones are best friends, which can't stand each other, which one takes twice as long to finish his meals, which needs special fuss and, importantly, how each and every horse rides. This means that we're paired with horses that are suited to our own aptitudes and personalities.
After a safety briefing, Livia explains how to direct the horse. Elsewhere on this trip, the treatment of tourist pack horses – from malnourishment to downright cruelty with the stick or whip – has made us reluctant to put money towards supporting those businesses.
Unsurprisingly, CDL is again different.
Lucie and her volunteers train the horses using their own methods of “love and patience”, which aims to reduce the stress and the harsh physical handling used by others. For example, the horses we're riding today have no need for the metal bit in their mouths. Instead, we simply stroke them across the neck to change direction. This is something we were fascinated to learn about and, as with so many alternative methods towards the treatment of animals, we're left wondering why it has to be the exception, rather than the rule.
After Timbo, a shaggy black dog who turned up one day and has refused to leave, is tied up (he likes to chase everything and anything on a trek), we set off. Over the course of two hours, we cross deep rivers, meander through long-grassed plains and trot across rugged landscapes.
Lucie, in floaty white shirt and brown waistcoat, effortlessly leads the way. From our view, with her waist-length mane of dreadlocks swinging side-to-side in tandem with her horse's tail, she looks every bit like a warrior high-priestess leading us towards battle.
And we're only too happy to follow.
As nightfall catches up with us, we dismount back at the ranch and lead the horses back to their pastures. The contrasting colour-scape in comparison to our sunshine-coated arrival only a few hours before is stark. Spring has given way to a bleak, yet beautiful, haze of greys and dirty greens.
With the grey horse being led in front, it looks like a scene straight out of Nordic noir.
An evening storm brings pelting rain and a lifeline for the local farmers after a dry winter. We join Lucie, Livia and Til, another volunteer, for a candlelit dinner in a rustic wooden cabin. Over pasta, home-made pesto and good olive oil we trade travel stories and love stories, toasting with red wine generously decanted from a glass carafe.
We retire for the evening to our cosy little private room, and fall asleep to the sound of rain drops and silence. The next morning we enjoy granola, fruit and freshly brewed coffee on our terrace in the sunshine. The birds sing around us.
This is the type of feeling and setting which we travel for and, in less than 24 hours, we're sure everyone will find it at Caballos de Luz.
During our stay we enjoyed 'A Day in the Sierras'. This is an all-inclusive option providing each guest with three excellent vegetarian meals, accommodation and a 2-3 hour guided horse trek. The cost (based on double occupancy) is $125 USD per person.
For the more serious horse rider, they can also arrange multi-day guided treks catered to your skill level for $160 USD per day. This includes many hours in the saddle, all meals, tents and bedding.
Unless you have your own vehicle, to reach Caballos de Luz you will need to hire a taxi from La Rocha (approx $20 USD), alternatively, a pick-up by the team at CBL can be arranged for a similar cost.
For reservations or further information:
phone: +598 99 400 446
English, Spanish and German spoken
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Our stay and horse trek with Caballos de Luz was provided free of charge so that we could experience 'A Day in the Sierras'. As ever, all photos, opinions and spelling errors are our own. For more information on why you can trust our reviews, click here.
All photography is property of Along Dusty Roads and must not be reproduced, copied or manipulated without our prior permission.