Building muscles in Uruguay, one smile at a time

Up in the hills outside of Rocha, a small town North East of Uruguay’s capital Montevideo, sits what looks like a hobbit house. Three geodesic domes built of wood, mud, and thatch sit overlooking a gently sloping piece of land called “Tierra Alegre” or “Happy Earth”. This is Juli and Libre’s little piece of paradise.

Libre, Juli & Indi’s home, made of three geodesic domes

They moved here a few years ago when Juli was pregnant with their son Indi – who has the longest eyelashes I have ever seen and is now two years old. Also a part of the family are Arthur and Bianca, the draft horses who put their share of sweat equity into the farm; Lola the little mutt of a dog with more energy than you would think fits in such a small animal and who fearlessly chases lizards three times her size; and a shady cat whose name I didn’t catch.

After three years, Tierra Alegre is a productive member of a community of like-minded families working towards living off the land. They sell organic produce such as lettuce, tomatoes, and strawberries to neighbors and at the local market, complementing other sources of income such as a casual restaurant and bar or – in Juli’s case – teaching dance classes.

We landed in the middle of all this on a hot Tuesday afternoon. The sun was shining and there was barely a cloud in the sky. Wind made the temperature pleasant, birds singing made the day perfect.

The view from Tierra Alegre

After settling into our space – two tents, a small cabin, an outdoor kitchen powered by two small rocket stoves, and an outdoor shower – to call our own for the ten days to follow, Libre showed us where to harvest produce for dinner. We feasted on lettuce, leeks, beets, chard, kale and a few store-bought staples such as rice and eggs every day. If you have never picked ingredients fresh from the garden for your dinner, you should try sometime – everything tastes different, like the difference between a 1950s black and white television set compared to a high end flat screen TV.

Home sweet home during our stay at Tierra Alegre

Every day, we had breakfast with Libre at 6am (my favorite was the ultra-fluffy pancakes with a hint of lemon) before working from 6.30-11.30. Lunch was around noon. The afternoons were too hot to work and therefore ours to read, nap, and – in the case of Francois – work on handcrafting a bamboo flute.

The farm work was pleasantly hard, our muscles aching from twenty minutes into the five hours through to a few days after we left. But it was an amazing feeling: building beds from freshly tilled soil, producing rapid compost, pruning two full greenhouses worth of tomato plants, replanting seedlings – and all on a small yet commercial scale. Every step of the way, there was music: Libre singing, the radio, or Francois’ mp3 player.

Francois and Libre fixing the roof of the greenhouse after it got blown off by the wind

In a mere 10 days, we got used to the early starts, working with muscles we didn’t quite know were there, incredible food, and longer (soil) beds than usual.

Highlights included the fireworks of fireflies we saw on the first night, extending as far as the eyes could see and dancing around as though gravity had no claim on them. As a close second was the swim in the natural pool an hour’s walk away, with little fish coming to inspect us in a way reminiscent of the trendy NYC “foot fish spa”!

All in all, our time at Tierra Libre was incredibly peaceful and close to nature. There is no better way to feel totally and utterly free.