For the last two centuries, San Pedro de Timote was the pride of Uruguay – a country estate owned by the country’s most prominent landowners. Today it’s a charming countryside hotel full of history which still retains the atmosphere of a stately estancia.
Probably Uruguay’s best-known estancia, it’s a delicious place to relax, horse-ride, take long strolls, or on a winter‘s day settle down in front of one of the many grand fireplaces. And it’s a wonderful place for children.
More than two centuries of history
The Jesuits worked huge swaths of land including what is Uruguay today from their arrival in the 1600s. Industrious as well as evangelising, they organised agriculture and raised cattle. They were so successful, the Spanish king saw them as competition and they were expelled from the continent in 1767.
Ten years later, the crown signed an agreement to sell almost half of the present day province of Florida to a Spaniard named Juan Francisco García de Zúñiga for $29,000. It was a good deal. The agreement also included over 200,000 cows and their offspring and the right to graze much farther afield.
Unfortunately for García de Zúñiga, he fell foul of the king and lost his head a decade later. His descendants maintained control of much of the land until the period of revolution prior to Uruguay’s declaration of independence. Believing that the land would be confiscated in the near future, Juan’s son did a quick deal and sold part of the territory to an Englishman, John Jackson, in 1825. He had bought 108,000 hectares – over a quarter of a million acres.
Jackson had arrived in Uruguay almost twenty years earlier in what are known locally as the English Invasions. He had stayed in Uruguay and started a hides business. When he went into agriculture he approached it in a new style with an innovative and business-oriented headset.
Focusing on cattle and wool production, he divided up land to be more efficiently managed and introduced managers and “puesteros” – experienced farmers who would be responsible for managing a large “puesto” or portion of land.
Flagship estancia, the pride of Uruguay
The land that became the estancia San Pedro was inherited by Jackson’s great grandson, Alberto Gallinal Heber. Gallinal was a visionary and for much of the twentieth century, San Pedro de Timote was a flagship estancia, the pride of Uruguay.
Gallinal had a keen interest in genetics. Even on his honeymoon he returned with sheep from New Zealand in the ship’s hold. Over time, his influence was so great that he introduced and improved the breeds of livestock that would eventually be so characteristic of the impressive animals you see all over the country.
Numerous overseas visitors came to San Pedro to see what was going on. Agricultural experts, engineers, politicians, even European royalty (including Britain’s Prince Phillip) were blown away by what they saw.
Gallinal was very wealthy and not adverse to enjoying his wealth but he had a deep social conscience.
He was responsible for two flagship programmes hugely important in Uruguay even today – MEVIR, which gave thousands of rural families the opportunity to form cooperatives and build their own houses and the Plan Gallinal-Dieste which built over 220 rural schools, many of which are still in use today.
A mini-society you can still appreciate today
Back at home, San Pedro was also run as a mini-society. All the children on the estancia – both the workers’ and Gallinal’s own children– went to school on the estancia. Gallinal personally oversaw their homework.
There was a blacksmith’s, a saddlery, a mechanical workshop and a dairy. The carpentry shop is still working today.
The whole community worshipped in a beautiful chapel built in 1925, where you can see a fresco painted by the artist Jorge Damiani and a sun clock (pictured).
Gallinal was a stern, patriachal leader – his supposed sayings appear on ceramic plaques throughout the estancia. But he inspired immense loyalty.
Beto the gaucho is a omnipresent figure in San Pedro. He was actually born in what is now Room 13. His father was one of Gallinal’s trusted puesteros and Beto has lived his entire life at San Pedro.
Today Beto leads many of the outdoor activities including horse-riding. If you speak Spanish, you will get to hear his highly personalised account of what it was like to live on SPT under Gallinal during an afternoon tour of the estancia.
San Pedro inspires loyalty in guests too
As a hotel San Pedro seems to inspire as much loyalty in its guests as Gallinal did in his staff.
While I was there I met a family from a well-heeled part of Montevideo. They looked like they had stepped out of an edition of South American Tatler – slender and youthful, sporting gaucho bombachas and soft leather riding boots. They have been visiting San Pedro as a family for twice a year for more than a decade.
The parents said that even now they are growing up their son and daughter –aged sixteen and fourteen respectively— still clamour to visit. They come at the start of each year for five days, before classes start, to relax and plan the year as a family. Then they return during the winter holidays (July) for a week to enjoy the roaring fires and winter activities. Seeing the daughter greeting “her” horse, you could tell they particularly love the twice-daily horse-riding.
Nowadays as a country hotel, San Pedro has thirty rooms in what was the main house and the hostelry where the numerous visitors were hosted arranged around a central shady quad.
It’s has all the charm and slightly faded grandeur of a stately home.
It’s an ideal retreat especially in winter. The common areas have overstuffed leather sofas and huge fireplaces. The library is the only place on site other than the reception that has wifi.
Guest rooms –even the double where Dr Gallinal used to sleep— are spacious with antique furniture. Decor is simple. The highlight are the bedroom fireplaces which are lit in the winter. The rooms I stayed in had large bathrooms with lovely pedestal sinks, extra large showers and tons of piping hot water.
The many things to do at San Pedro
One of the things about San Pedro is that while you are far away from civilisation there’s really a lot to do on site.
Laze by two outdoor swimming pools. There’s a third small indoor pool for the winter.
This is a great place for chilling out. Every day make time to watch the sun set over the River Timote valley.
Horse-riding expeditions go out for an hour every morning and afternoon led by Beto the gaucho. They start informally around a camp fire where Beto heats up his water for mate. Guests munch on tortas fritas, a traditional type of fried bread, as the horses are saddled up.
Uruguay has about 500 species of birds. Over two days expert, a local bird expert logged almost one hundred. He visits SP on a regular basis to lead day and night time watches. We went out specifically to find the great horned owl, one of the largest owls on the American continent. Just fifteen minutes later we were being observed ourselves from just 30 yards above. The video was taken that night.
Children are particularly happy at San Pedro. The estancia has rabbits and guinea pigs for petting. Children are encouraged to collect the hotel’s eggs each day from the coup. There are visits to see lambs and calves including births in the spring. They also get to fish (the fish get thrown back) and there’s a small four-person boat for paddling.
The guest rooms deliberately don’t have TVs but most common spaces do, primarily for World Cups and other major soccer matches I was informed. I never actually saw one turned on, there was so much else to do.
There’s an outdoor jungle-gym. A games room has table-tennis, table football (yes!), pool and a large screen TV with comfy sofas.
The estancia is planning to be self-sufficient with seasonal vegetables and meat. Estancia life is not for the sentimental. These little pigs may end up on the dinnertable. Note the striped piglets – their dad was a wild boar who broke into the pigpen.
Full board, all inclusive
Your stay at SP includes four meals a day – breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner– and is all-inclusive except for drinks. All inclusive also includes the activities.
SPT characterises their cuisine as “what your grandma would make”, if your grandmother were Uruguayan. The all-you-can-eat buffet at lunch and dinner features typical country dishes including roasts and crock-pot style stews (guiso) and the Mediterranean cuisine beloved by Uruguayans including freshly-made pastas, salads and soups.
Breakfast is typically Uruguayan though I did get excited about the freshly baked bread (there is a chef onsite just making breads and desserts) and the marvellously fluffy cream cheese.
Planning your visit by the season
Every day there’s a menu of activities available at the front desk to plan your day. To be honest it felt like there was almost too much to do and that we’d never get to the poolside!
In addition, there are great seasonal activities that you can participate in or choose to observe including:
March-April: Guided bird-watching with an expert
First weekend of June: Chocolate and Wine Weekend – a San Pedro tradition including tastings and demos
July: La Yerra. One of the most important community/festive events in any Uruguayan country calendar. It is when cattle are branded and young bulls castrated. (Ouch. If you hadn’t got the message before, now you know you really are in gaucho territory.)
September-October: Sheep shearing
So… the Guru analysis of San Pedro de Timote
- Gorgeous surroundings and perfect peace and quiet
- Steeped in history with gaucho staff who have been onsite for decades
- Tons of activities, including for children
- Sleeping in a room with a lighted fireplace during the autumn and wintertime
- Ideal for a personal or group retreat. Limited internet, antique writing desks and a mysterious old library will get the creative juices flowing
- Good value Prices will be confirmed shortly but according to the Spanish site full board per person based on two-person occupancy is 135 USD per night. Given the facilities and all the activities that are included this is a great deal. And you get an additional 10% off when you book mentioning Guru’Guay.
- Lots of insects outside. If that bothers, go April to November
- Staffing shortages mean that some common spaces like the poolside may not be as pristine as you would expect in a hotel of this category
- Meals are abundant and tasty but not particularly varied. They are looking to take on new kitchen staff (not an easy task in such an out-of-the-way location)
- Dinner starts at 8pm. Don’t miss the abundant afternoon tea to get through till dinnertime
- Limited green leafy veggies. Hopefully that will be remedied with the new kitchen garden started at the beginning of the year. San Pedro is planning to become self-sufficient in seasonal vegetables, eggs and meats in the near future.
- Activity scheduling can be erratic. Relax, this is South America. If it’s something you are really interested in, don’t get irritated. Talk to manager Michael. He will make things happen.
Getting there to San Pedro de Timote
Distance from Montevideo 157 kilometres. Calculate 2.5 hours to drive. Two hours if you know the roads.
From Pocitos or the centre of Montevideo Take the rambla out of the city, then Ruta 5 to Florida, then Ruta 56 and then Ruta 7 to Cerro Colorado. The Rutas (highways) are reasonable – not always the case driving in the Uruguayan countryside. In Cerro Colorado at the Carrillon (kilometre 142.5) there is a sharp turn left signposted to SPT. The final 14 km from Cerro Colorado are unpaved but just fine for a regular car.
From the airport Take the road to Pando and then Ruta 7 to Cerro Colorado.
Find out more:
Hearty Guru Thanks to the Department of Tourism of Florida and the Florida Economic Development Agency (ADEF) for the invitation to visit the province of Florida and cover their Ruta de las serranias. The history section is based on a short history of San Pedro written by local wordsmith Roberto Diringuer.
Guru’Guay agradece al Departamento de Turismo de Florida y a la Agencia de Desarrollo Economico de Florida (ADEF) por la invitación a visitar el departamento y recorrer la Ruta de las serranias. La información histórica la basé en un librito muy lindo hecho por el referente Roberto Diringuer.