Thanks to the adventures of a young Argentine aristocrat, Uruguay’s presidents have an enviable vacation residence in the department of Colonia, where the San Juan River empties into the Río de la Plata.
In 1907, Aarón de Anchorena, the son of a wealthy family from Buenos Aires, and Jorge Newbery, a pioneer in Argentine aviation, stepped into the hot air balloon Pampero for the first balloon crossing of “the lion-colored river,” as the poet Lugones would say. Strong winds caused the pilots to lose control of the balloon and Aarón pledged he would buy the land where they landed. They fell on the opposite side of the San Juan River and, since this property was not for sale, the young man's father bought almost 10,000 acres, where the Anchorena estate is now located.
The young Argentine with Anglophilic tastes built a chapel and a beautiful home, combining Tudor and Norman styles, next to the steep river banks that rise more than thirty feet over the narrow, sandy beach of the Río de la Plata, which grows when it is uncovered at low tide. There, the house sits protected from the floods that bring winds from the southeast. The residence and the entire coast of the estate along the Río de la Plata offer views of the skyscrapers of Buenos Aires, just thirty-four miles away as the crow flies.
Long before Buenos Aires existed, this coast saw the likes of Juan Díaz de Solís and Sebastián Cabot, as well as the explorer Ferdinand Magellan, who was searching for a passage to the Pacific. In honor of the 400th anniversary of the Spaniards’ arrival to these lands, Anchorena had a 245-foot stone tower built, which is the park’s most architecturally interesting feature.
Aarón de Anchorena died, childless, in 1965 and donated more than 3,200 acres of his property to the Uruguayan government, with the stipulation that it be used for educational, recreational, and general interest purposes, “for the population’s welfare and comfort.” He also mandated that the main house be designated as a retreat for Uruguayan presidents. By testamentary disposition, his grave is at the foot of Gaboto Tower. The first president to use Anchorena was Jorge Pacheco Areco in the late 1960s. Since then, the house has seen major meetings of presidents and cabinets, as well as illustrious visitors such as Princess Anne of England and former presidents Felipe González and George Bush. Tabaré Vázquez immensely enjoyed fishing in the San Juan River and our current leader, José (Pepe) Mujica, uses the estate “more than people would think,” the guide confided in me.
The park was opened to the public in the 1990s. It is open from Thursday to Sunday, for two guided tours a day, one at 10 a.m. and the other at 2 p.m. The entrance road is approximately nineteen miles west of the city of Colonia, surrounded by pastures and fields of wheat, corn, and soy.
I arrived early on a Sunday morning. The reception area is located in the former stable where, before entering the gates, you can admire a collection of old farm machinery. I am told that climbing the tower was prohibited a few months earlier due to the discovery of some cracks in the steps; this noble construction was not built to support the thousands of monthly visitors it receives. Resigned to missing out on the marvelous view that I’m told can be enjoyed from up high, I walk around while cars carrying travelers from Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay arrive. One of the homes here is the first that Anchorena had built, so he could live here while the big house was being finished. It is a house typical of the Uruguayan countryside, with a tin roof and veranda in front.
Before we enter the park, we are gathered as a group and asked if anyone has cars with enough space for the two guides. I quickly raise my hand. Taking the guide is a privilege and, as we are at the head of the line, this will allow me to take photos before the large caravan of cars following me arrives. The guide tells me she is from Colonia and we talk about the most recent storm and what a spectacular day it is. A soldier opens the entrance gate and the visit begins. The most amazing sight is the herds of deer constantly running and crossing our path. Always at a distance and in movement, they are agile, beautiful, and difficult to photograph. The downside of the guided visit is its restricted nature; we can’t stop just anywhere. The first stop is along the shore of the Río de la Plata, at a lookout point under huge Tipuana trees that spit their tears of resin. I back away a little to protect my camera but the view is quite spectacular, and apart from the guide’s litany, the silence is only interrupted by the soft sound of water from below the precipice and the continual song of the birds. On a diaphanous day like today you can see Buenos Aires on the opposite shore.
We pass the golf course, which features a lake that is almost hidden by aquatic plants. We stop about a thousand yards from the presidential house. It doesn’t seem like the president is here this weekend: we can’t spot any movement and the garden chairs on the veranda are missing their cushions. What a pity we aren’t able to get closer. They say the security measures increased during Vázquez’ presidency. Before, on the weekends hundreds of Argentine boats would anchor at the San Juan sandbank, but since 2006 that has been prohibited. In any case, the view from the house must be stunning. But Anchorena only allows us, the people, to walk around designated areas of the park.
The next stop is Gaboto Tower, impressively silhouetted against the cloudless sky. After listening to the guides’ explanations, I am absorbed taking photos of a wasp’s nest, an immense cork tree, and the running children who are here with the group. Luckily they open the tower for us, and once inside I have to restrain myself from running up the spiral staircase.
A hare crosses in front of us on our way to the last stop: the pier on the San Juan River. The place is gorgeous and the river is much wider than I had imagined. On the other side you can see native flora, but I know the plants are hiding Los Cerros de San Juan, one of our best wineries. I don’t know why I love rivers so much, especially where they empty out; I love the trees that lean in, the reeds, the soft sound of the current, and a flower petal from the ceibo tree that gets carried away by the water.
After the minutes and hours fly by, the guides remind us that it is now time to go. We leave. I drop off my own private guide at the reception and head westward, toward the city of Carmelo, but I don’t really want to leave. I didn’t take any river water, I think to myself. Taking water is a guarantee of a return, according to my collection of two or three superstitions. I reject the idea. If it were true, I would have to spend the rest of my life travelling in order to return to all the rivers from which I have taken water.
But I want to come back to Anchorena and climb Gaboto Tower. On the return road I spot an owl on a fence post. I have never seen an owl before and somewhere I read that it’s a symbol of wisdom. Does the owl know if I’ll be back?