Heidi Lender: stuck in Uruguay in the pandemic

This San Franciscan photographer runs a Uruguay/US creative arts institute. "There’s not a day that I don’t think, I’m the luckiest person in the world.”
By Karen A Higgs
Heidi Lender
Last updated on October 16, 2020

This US photographer had never lived any place longer than five months in her entire life—until she found herself stuck in a pandemic in Uruguay.

And Heidi Lender is in no rush to leave Uruguay any time soon. “I’ve lived in a lot of places and there’s a beauty and simplicity in the lifestyle here that I’ve never experienced before. So for me this is paradise. There’s not a day that I don’t turn onto the road into Garzón and think, oh my god, I’m the luckiest person in the world.”

This is the last of Guru’Guay’s series on foreigners stuck in Uruguay for the pandemic produced as an 8-part series for national newspaper El País. It’s a bit different. After the Canadian bikers stuck on their South American tour, the Russian bicyclist who incredibly found herself sheltering in a town of Russian immigrants, the South African who opted to have her baby in Uruguay rather than return home, the NYC actor and Spanish-American sailor who have both opted for Uruguayan residency…

Heidi Lender

Heidi Lender, photographer

Photographer Heidi Lender was at La Susana, in José Ignacio, having dinner with an artist friend when the news that coronavirus had arrived in Uruguay broke. She had just closed up Campo, her US-Uruguay artists’ retreat in Pueblo Garzón after a hectic, full-on season and, exhausted, was about to retreat to a cabin in Chile to sleep and rest. Her agenda for the next six months was chock full of fund-raising and festivals in Europe and the US. That dinner would be the last time she would eat out or hug another human being for months. It was also the first time she saw normally kissy Uruguayans elbow-bumping in greeting.

Heidi is from San Francisco. Her first brush with Uruguay came a decade ago she took a trip to South America. Looking in her guidebook she saw there was a “cute little country” between Argentina and Brazil. Having worked in the fashion industry as a writer and photo stylist she remembered covering Punta del Este. And she liked the idea of taking a ferry from Buenos Aires on the way to Brazil.

Falling in love with Uruguay

In Punta it was New Year and she hadn’t booked a hotel. The only place with availability was Francis Mallmann’s hotel in Pueblo Garzón which had just opened. Heidi had no idea who Mallmann, the internationally-famous Argentine chef, was but the location “looked like something off of a movie set”. During her three-night stay, Francis invited all the guests to an asado—a traditional barbecue–in the hills. “It was the most magical thing,” said Heidi. Heidi and her companion left the tiny Uruguayan town for Brazil but two weeks later in Rio they looked at each other and said, what are we doing here? They returned to Garzón and bought 33 hectares of land on the edge of town.

Inspired by the solitude and beauty of Garzón, Heidi founded Campo, a creative institute and Uruguay-US non-profit, in 2018. Campo’s mission is to invite artists and creative thinkers to “our magical corner of Uruguay and the planet, to connect with themselves, each other and then the world, in the stillness that is available here,” says Heidi. Besides, each December, Heidi organises the Campo ArtFest. The festival brings together artists from Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and the US for programmes, talks, parties and a benefit dinner.

“It’s a great community builder. It attracts tourists from all over the world, local gauchos and people from Montevideo to Garzón. Art brings people together,” says Heidi Lender.

Heidi Lender

Finding herself in quarantine

As the borders closed, Heidi’s plans literally ground to a halt. She had never actually spent the winter in Uruguay and she was dreading it: “Everyone says it’s a nightmare especially in the middle of nowhere.” But the cold and damp reminded her of San Francisco and she loved it.

So she built a fire and was able to read for the first time in years. She thought it would be a good time to take pictures but it wasn’t. She couldn’t do the things that she’d been doing “like a crazy woman” for the last three years. Instead she tapped into “another part” of herself by the fire, reading, being really quiet, thinking and writing.

“Something really amazing happened to me that I know happened to many people who are used to moving around constantly,” Heidi told me. “When you stop and you can’t make plans, you can’t look into the future. All you know is what’s happening right now. It’s the most living in the present I’ve ever been.”

“I’m a very hermetic person to begin with and I love to be alone,” Heide Lender added, “but I also like community. In fact that’s why I’m creating Campo. I like to be alone in the middle of nowhere but I also am creating an artistic and cultural community because we need to be connected.”

Next steps for Heidi Lender

I asked Heidi what her plans are for when the borders open. She said: “Four or five months ago, I would have said, I’m getting on a plane immediately. But I’m really loving it here. Our next step for Campo is building our campus so my mission is to make sure that we fundraise.” The campus is being designed by Rafael Viñoly, world-famous Uruguayan architect, who is a Campo board member.

As she can’t travel to fundraise as she did so intensively for the last three years, Heidi has turned to online crowdfunding. “The idea of crowdfunding is to open up to the world so Campo becomes a global festival and not a Garzón festival. Twenty-seven Uruguayan artists will make work on site which can be filmed and put online. Or people will drive by to see it,” explains Heidi. Another 27 international artists will make work to be showcased online.

A global art’s event

“It’s a time to speak up, especially in the arts so we’ve chosen a theme called Breaking Borders,” Heidi said. “We have borders to break and boundaries we need to be thinking about on climate, race and religion. It’s an opportunity to really highlight Uruguay and show the world how amazing our cultural community.”

In addition, Heidi is using her time to meet people and travel to Montevideo to “build a bridge between Montevideo culture and Campo”.

Of all of the people I interviewed for this series on travellers stuck in Uruguay for the pandemic, Heidi was the only person that I knew beforehand. We came onto each other’s radar through a mutual friend. Heidi was attending a writing workshop in France and having introduced herself as American living in Uruguay, a fellow attendee said: “You have to meet my friend, Karen. She runs a website with everything you need to know about Uruguay.”

Living a pandemic in Uruguay

When I asked Heidi how she felt about how Uruguay has dealt with the pandemic, she said:

I feel really safe and so appreciative of where I am,” said Heidi. “I have an immense amount of faith in Uruguayans and Uruguayan culture. That we—and I can say ‘we’ now because I have a Uruguayan passport—like to be number one. I feel that, because we are being touted as handling the pandemic so well, we want to stay that way.”

I asked Heidi to expand more on her perception that Uruguayans—who tend to characterise themselves as ‘low profile’–like to be considered number one. “There’s a pride in saying we were the first to have a women’s vote, we were the first to have gay marriage, we were the first to legalise marijuana…” she said. “I think that despite being a small country, we have a lot of clout internationally around progressive issues.

Heidi is in no rush to leave Uruguay any time soon. And she added, “I’ve lived in a lot of places and there’s a beauty and simplicity in the lifestyle here that I’ve never experienced before. So for me this is paradise. There’s not a day that I don’t turn onto the road into Garzón and think, oh my god, I’m the luckiest person in the world.

You can find more about Heidi Lender in her website and Instagram, or Campo’s website and Instagram.

The Guru in El País newspaper

This article was originally published in Spanish in El País, one of the most important newspapers in Uruguay. We recently partnered for creating original content about foreigners traveling or living in Uruguay to inspire the expat community and Uruguayans themselves to explore their country. You can follow Karen’s column in El País on Wednesdays, both the digital and printed version. We are also publishing the translated English version of these articles here in guruguay.com.

Photos with kind permission: Heidi Lender




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related articles

Copy link