From Barra de Valizas we traveled a few miles to Arroyo Valizas (Valizas Creek) and took a small motorboat to a magical forest of bizarre-looking ombú “trees” on private land owned by sixth generation owner Marcos Olivera. Along the riverbank we observed small groves of native palms, now endangered because of uncontrolled cattle grazing. Flocks of black-headed storks soared overhead as we docked at Marcos’ inn: Rincón de los Olivera.
Marcos led us into a grove of the namesake ombú (Phytolacca dioica), a huge member of the evergreen tree that is native to the South American pampa and a symbol of Uruguay. Oddly, the ombú is not a true tree, but a shrub with spongy wood that can be sliced off with a pocketknife. The ombú can grow 60 feet high and live more than 500 years. These “trees” have learned to adapt at a very high level. Cattle and insects cannot graze on them because the sap is poisonous. Gauchos once used the groves as shade for their cattle and sheep.
Across the small creek lies the public portion of the park. The ranger, Juan, has been living there for 22 years and guided us through the more overgrown side of the forest. We stepped out into an open pasture to watch the sun set as our fingers froze wrapped around our cameras.
Juan told us about the troubles he had faced with poachers but spoke highly of the visitors he saw throughout the year. While the people that come to experience this beautiful forest are educating themselves about the beautiful land that needs to be conserved, he knows there are many who think there is nothing to protect in Uruguay.
After several hours spent among the mystical world of ombú trees, we boarded the boat once again to head back upstream. Before hopping in the truck to head back to La Pedrera, Marcos introduced us to his weiner dog, Panchito.