During our two week roadtrip around Uruguay, we spent a couple of days at Estancia Hosteria El Ceibo, a small family estancia north of Montevideo. Our stay at Estancia El Ceibo was a highlight of our trip, and when we left it felt like saying goodbye to good friends.
About an hour from Montevideo, El Ceibo lies 16km north east of Florida, the small town most famous for providing the setting of the Declaration of Independence in 1825. After 20 minutes of gravel track through low hills and farmland, you reach Estancia El Ceibo, beautifully unassuming in the middle of nowhere.
A warm welcome to estancia life
We are greeted enthusiastically by Ariel, the ever smiling farm help, and three equally friendly dogs – one of which, Taylor, is to become Rosalin’s new best friend and our loyal escort during our stay. Nancy, the cook, leads us to the shady patio in between the two main buildings and serves us beer. ‘The owners are asleep’ she tells us – we arrive during siesta time.
A traditional family estancia
It isn’t long before owner Carmen emerges from the living quarters, closely followed by her husband Joselo, both lovely, welcoming us warmly. Carmen immediately rushes to get a box of toys for Rosalin. In excellent English, she tells us about her family, her Italian and her husband’s Spanish heritage and the story of El Ceibo. Her children have flown the nest, but most of her extended family continue to live in nearby Florida.
The couple have lived and worked at El Ceibo for over 20 years, although the ranch building itself dates back to 1849. The interior of the communal areas and guest rooms reflects the long history of this farm, charmingly decorated with traditional furniture and antiques.
Introduction to the farm
Joselo takes us round his land in his truck, showing us the boating pond and rock pool at the edge of the farm. Even though we only speak 5 words of each others’ language, we learn about the farm’s produce, the flora and fauna, and Uruguayan society and culture.
Joselo is clearly very passionate about nature and enjoys his life as a modern gaucho, despite the hard work. Infrastructurally, El Ceibo is self-contained, drawing water from an underground well and releasing it in its own mini-sewage system.
A working estancia
According to Joselo, El Ceibo is a relatively small farm, at least compared to the large landowners in the north of the country. Nonetheless, with its miles of farm land, dozens of cattle, sheep, chickens, several horses, and not to forget the three friendly dogs and Ariel’s cat, it seems pretty impressive to me.
Despite tourists coming from all over the world to stay, El Ceibo continues to be a working farm. Besides livestock Joselo also grows soya, one of Uruguay’s growing export goods with sales worth over $1bn. The family also deals in cow hides and Carmen, a psychotherapist by profession, has put her heart into the growing tourism business, renting out 5 guest rooms and hiring out the farm’s old barn – known as the ‘saloon’ – for family occasions and group visits.
Meal time in the saloon
The saloon is also where the family and their guests sit down for shared meals. All food is freshly prepared, home cooked and absolutely delicious. We enjoyed some of the best empanadas, a wonderful lamb and vegetable stew, super tasty grilled meats, all with plentiful sides and followed by sweet puddings.
In addition to lunch and dinner, El Ceibo serves a generous breakfast, with home-made bread, jam, ham, cheese, dulce de leche – and even eggs specifically cooked for us! There is also coffee and cake in the afternoon, to see us through to dinner time.
Meals are a social occasion at El Ceibo, guests and owners chatting about Uruguay, sharing stories. In Uruguay it is customary not to eat dinner until late in the evening, often as late as ten, but Carmen and Joselo are happy to ‘adjust’ to accommodate hungry European visitors like us.
Culinary highlight: A traditional asado
The culinary highlight is the asado – Joselo makes sure that every guest gets to enjoy at least one traditional Uruguayan barbeque. Unlike the Argentinean version, the Uruguayan asado is grilled on a wood fire. It’s quite romantic, guests gathering around the fire under the stars, watching this traditional meal being prepared. Joselo serves a mixed grill of stuffed pork, chorizo sausage and beef, with fresh salads and condiments on the side. It is awesome.
Activities at El Ceibo
When we’re not stuffing our faces, we’re chilling our boots. We spend our days exploring the land, hiking to the rock pool and dipping our toes in the refreshing stream, observing and playing with the animals, reading and relaxing. It’s not quite the right weather for canoeing or swimming, but if we wanted to we could.
Twice a day, Joselo takes his guests horse-riding, an hour long tour around the land. As none of us have ever sat on a horse before, we stay within the compounds of the stables. A gentle ride in circles, Uruguayan style without helmet or safety briefing, is adventure enough.
There’s a mini playground and endless quirky corners for children to explore. But Rosalin has the best time chasing after the cockerels, cuddling the dogs, stroking the horses and observing the sheep. On our last day we even stumble across a group of newborn chicks, in the far corner of the ranch.
Is it value for money?
A full-board stay at Hosteria Estancia El Ceibo doesn’t come cheap. Originally, we had planned for a bed & breakfast stay only, but, once there, we changed our mind quite quickly and opted for the full board package.
Firstly, the food just looked (and proved to be) too good to be missed. Secondly, being almost half an hour drive away from the nearest shop or restaurant, the idea of organising our own meals just seemed silly and inconvenient. More importantly, it would have really disrupted our peaceful stay at the Estancia.
Admittedly, the price tag of c. £170 per night for two seems steep at first, and we swallowed hard when we received the bill. But once you take into account everything you receive in return, and the quality and quantity of food provided, it is entirely justified. Yes it is a pricey place to stay, but for a couple of days, I’d say it’s worth it.
So in summary:
Whichever one you choose, I definitely encourage you to incorporate a stay at an estancia in your trip. And if it fits with your itinerary, say hi to Carmen and Joselo. Together with their staff, they are the most welcoming of hosts, quirky, interesting, funny. The Estancia Hosteria El Ceibo is a place to chill out and relax, enjoy some lovely food and switch off. A fantastic way to learn about and get to know Uruguay.