SOUTH AMERICA ADVENTURE PART 1
Montevideo, Uruguay to Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay
January 30 to February 25, 2001
33,837 miles (54,576 km) cumulative
Help right off the bat from friendly Uruguayans.
"Nobody is ever met at the airport when beginning a new adventure. It's just not done"
January 31 - Arrival
So we begin another adventure, this time south of the equator in the land down under, South America. It only took some 4 changes of airplanes to get there, Tucson to LA to Chicago to Buenos Aires and finally Montevideo, Uruguay. But we made it, on time and not too worse for the wear. The only mishap was the disappearance of the one and only 6V light bulb I had for my brand new German made bike generator light. The chances of finding a replacement are nil to zero. Oh well, it's summer time in South America, warm and long days, so hopefully I won't need a headlight. I also made an AA battery charger for use with the generator so it won't be a total waste carrying it along for the next 3 months.
We dragged our tired bodies off the plane and onto the bus that took us the short distance into the terminal. Carassco airport, just on the eastern side of Montevideo, is a small 1960's style building that looks fairly well maintained, but very tired and old. I was delighted to find the bathrooms had toilet seats, good sinks, and even soap in the ladies room. So what if some of the wall and floor tiles were broken or missing. Everything was clean, even our discarded bike and gear boxes were whisked away by the diligent cleaning crew before we got out of the inspection area. We quickly retrieved our woefully mishandled bike boxes, and proceeded to assemble bikes and gear under the watchful eyes of the airport luggage monitors. They're the ones who make sure you take only your bags and not someone else's. We're such a sight with bike parts and bags strewn all over the place. Gradually it all gets organized into one fairly well contained package ready to roll. As we passed through their agricultural inspection they weren't quite sure what to do with us. No way could the bikes be placed on their conveyor belt running through the X-ray machine and a search through the bags would be a rather daunting task. Head shaking, the guard just asked whether we had any food and then laughed when he saw our cans of "chunk light tuna". "Buen suerte" they all wished us good luck and we were on our way.
We got as far as the information office just inside the terminal. We had two goals to accomplish. The first to get Uruguayan pesos. An easy task as right in the terminal, next to the information office, is a bank that had what proved to be one of the better exchange rates we found. Our second quest, camping or as cheap a hotel as we could find. The lady in the information office was nice but not that helpful. We had been expecting to find a camping ground in the nearby Parque F.D. Roosevelt. It was listed in Lonely Planet, Footprints, and shows up as a tent on our map. Unfortunately the lady informed us that the camping was not open anymore. The nearest, inexpensive hotel she could suggest cost $70 US per night. Ouch! What to do now. We rolled everything out to the front of the terminal where we could get a few more adjustments taken care of, such as inflating the tires, all the while wondering what to do next. We had no other plans except to head for that park and after over 28 hours traveling, virtually no sleep, and suffering from a pounding headache I was not in the mood to wander all over searching for a place to stay.
To our rescue came Rudy and Nadia. Nadia, from Belgium, was at the airport this one day checking out her up coming flight to Belgium. Being avid bikers they were naturally curious about what we were doing. We took the opportunity to ask about cheap places to stay. Soon we found ourselves peddling along behind this 1950s bright orange Jeep looking vehicle called an Indio. Rudy and Nadia stopped at a farmacia to ask about cheap hotels nearby and then we were off again. We found it, the small and pleasant hotel LaGomar in the beach community LaGomar. It's located right on the beach just 3 blocks from the main road, in a quiet residential neighborhood. It is hardly recognizable from the outside as a hotel. Rudy negotiated the price of $35 for us by claiming we were some long lost relatives just in from the states or some similar tall tale. We would always prefer cheaper, but in our present state we took it. It was just so unbelievable that these two incredibly nice people would take the time and effort to help two total strangers just off an airplane. This was our first taste of Uruguayan hospitality.
Uruguay is a tiny triangular shaped country located on the Atlantic coast wedged between Brazil and Argentina. It is bordered on the east by the ocean, the south by the Rio Plata and Rio Uruguay, and the north by the Rio Quarim. At about 68,000 sq. miles (176,000 sq. km) it is the smallest independent country of South America. It is in the eastern lowlands of the continent just touching the southern extremity of the Brazilian highlands. Consequently it's highest point is just over 1600 ft. Its landscape is mostly low rolling grasslands in the central regions and long sandy beaches lined with pines and eucalyptus trees, the pines coming from N. America and the eucalyptus from Australia. Being surrounded by such large bodies of water, its climate is temperate, not too hot in summer and not too cold in winter. Ocean breezes keep the coastal cities pleasantly cool in summer.
Uruguay owes its existence to the fact that Spain and Portugal were continually fighting for more control over South American territories. Prior to the arrival of the Europeans, Uruguay was inhabited by about 4,000 natives who existed in a hunt and gather subsistence life. There was no agriculture and no semblance of the civilizations found in Peru. The majority of the natives belonged to the Charruas linguistic group. A fierce group, they were continually harassing their nearby, less warlike neighbors. In 1516 a Spaniard named Juan Diaz de Solis first set foot on Uruguayan land. He didn't last long. The Churruas killed him at Colonia. Other Europeans visited the region, Magalhães in 1519-20 and Sebastian Cabot in 1526-7. But there were few precious metal deposits and a bunch of unfriendly natives. Consequently the area remained unsettled until 1624 when a group of Spaniards followed the Jesuits to Santo Domingo de Soriano on the Río Negro. The Portuguese settled at Colonia del Sacramento in 1680 relying on the Treaty of Tordesillas (7 June, 1494) as their justification. According to the treaty a line was drawn at 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands (approximately 50°W. longitude). Portugal received all territory east of the line and Spain claimed all territory west of the line. Of course there were breeches of the treaty and for the next 100 years the Portuguese and Spaniards battled over what is today Uruguay. Portugal finally ceded their claims to the land to the Spanish in 1777.
The first attempts to obtain independence from Spain came in 1811 when the local national hero, José Gervasio Artigas, gathered together a bunch of gaucho troops, beat the Spaniards in the battle of Las Piedras and then laid siege on Montevideo. His efforts were thwarted when the Portuguese entered and took control of the region. He was exiled to Paraguay and never set foot in Uruguay again.
In 1825, Brazil's domination of their newly acquired Cisplatine Province was challenged by a group of 33 patriots led by Juan Antonio Lavalleja and aided by Argentina. They've come to be known as the Treinta y Tres and even have a town named for them. The British and French also helped out by providing trading blockades. To provide a buffer between Argentina and Brazil the two parties finally came to an agreement to create the small country called the República Oriental del Uruguay, established in 1828. This literally means the eastern republic of Uruguay. Uruguay was originally called "Banda Oriental" meaning "eastern shore" of the Rio Plata. Hence the derivation of its present day name. A constitution was adopted in 1830.
The country spent the next 70 years in a state on continual civil war. There were 2 groups identified by bands worn on their hats. The Colorados (reds) represented liberal urban views and the Blancos (whites) represented the conservative landowners. National policies swung between left and right factions depending upon who had the greater strength and popularity.
Civil wars lasted until 1904, the first presidency of José Batlle y Ordóñez who is considered responsible for a lot of advanced social legislation and democratic traditions of modern Uruguay. With these social policies, growing exports of wool and beef to Europe, and a slowly growing population, Uruguay enjoyed a 50 year period of wealth envied by many other countries worldwide. But it was not to last. In the 1950s the economy stagnated as foreign demand for their goods shrank and the high cost of government controlled social services took its toll. Throughout the 1960s there was much civil unrest which culminated in a military takeover in 1973. Initially military rule was viewed favorably as a means to returning stability and strength to the economy. But it didn't take too long for the military rule to lose favor. It was viewed as increasingly repressive and opposed to the rule of free market economy. Through a series of political maneuvers, the country was returned to a state of democracy in 1984 with the Colorado and Blanco parties once again battling for control.
Today Uruguay is a land of peace and relative prosperity, at least compared to many Latin America countries. Its major exports continue to be cattle and sheep products with the addition of a few other agricultural products such as oranges and wet rice. However, Uruguay continues to have a largely state controlled industry which has resulted in little progressive advancements. Twice in the past 2 decades hyperinflation has forced the government to issue new currencies, knocking off a bunch of zeros in the process. It is a member of Mercosur common market. Formed in 1995 along with Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil, it is hoped this will encourage investment in the less developed countries of Uruguay and Paraguay. The outcome remains to be seen. A far as tourism goes, Uruguay is one of the safer countries of Latin America to visit and prices for hotels, campgrounds, groceries, and restaurants seems to be on par with rural USA.
Day 2 - 19 miles to Atlantida
Having slept right through the alarm which was intended to get us onto the local time, we finally dragged out of bed at 10:00 AM. Fortunately we hadn't planned to go very far. Our goal was to get far enough out of Montevideo to find a good, safe campground yet be close enough so we could take bus trips into the city for daily visits. Atlantida, just about 45 km east of the city, suited our objectives perfectly.
The ride along the coast was practically perfect. We found that by just trying to keep as close to the ocean as possible you could spend most of the day within eyesight of the water and rolling, sandy beaches. Sometimes the road was paved and other times it was a nice, hardpack sand. There were some potholes and washboard to be negotiated, but otherwise the roads were in pretty good condition. Whenever a river crossed our path we were forced up onto the Interbalneario, the main highway going to Punta del Este. This road was a wide, 4 lane road with huge shoulders. So even though it had a lot of traffic, it wasn't an unpleasant ride.
The terrain reminded us of the south east U.S. near South Carolina. Very flat with large pine forests everywhere. Even the houses looked much like the southeast U.S. The wind was in our face for most of the way, but it wasn't too terribly strong on this particular day. When fronts come through, on the other hand, the wind can really howl. Since we were on side streets most of the day there was essentially no traffic. It as a great riding day.
Atlandita is one of the pretty, beach resort communities that stretch from Montevideo to Punta del Esta. It has criss-crossing dirt streets lined with quaint and meticulously maintained small European looking houses. It has a nice campground, El Ensueno, located within walking distance of the main town center where we found restaurants, stores, the bus terminal, and a huge supermarket. It clearly is a well-to-do neighborhood.
All through our preparations I kept telling myself not to expect Uruguay to be like Mexico. Yet despite this, I still expected something like Mexico. After all it is part of Latin America. Once one gets a preconceived notion, it's hard to break. Well, Uruguay couldn't be more different from Mexico. The first thing I noticed were the electric poles. Yes, looking up I was surprised, and quite pleased I might add, to see that the electric wires running from pole to pole appeared to follow some reasonable pattern. It looks as though they actually follow some sort of building code. In Mexico, at the top of each pole you will typically find a tangle, spaghetti mess of wire, all ad hoc, none in any sort of order. It's as if they start with one or two wires and over time jury-rig multiple additions in place. We always feared electrocution when walking Mexican streets in the rain.
There were many other differences. Uruguayan houses are more European in style. They have peaked roofs, especially important since they have so much rain, there's more use of brick and wood, they have European style shutters, and the yards are often meticulously landscaped with neatly trimmed hedges and lawns. Another important difference is the lack of walls surrounding the houses. In many Mexican villages the houses are all surrounded by 8 ft. tall solid concrete block walls, stuccoed in white, and topped with barbed wire or bits of broken glass. If you can peak inside through a crack in the gate you'll see a neat and tidy yard. Outside will be trash, litter, dust, and dirt. In Uruguay, there are no walls just perhaps chicken wire style fences. Consequently the homeowners keep the yard clean right down to the curb side. It's more familiar to those of us who grew up without walled-in houses. There is still a predominance of bars on the house windows attesting to a fairly high level of crime. But, the villages don't feel quite like the walled fortresses of Mexico.
The appearance, behavior, and attitudes of the natives was quite surprising as well. When Uruguay was first settled there were only about 4,000 natives living in the region, the Charrua. By the time independence was gained the majority of these had either been assimilated into the European culture, killed, or died by disease. What few remained were slaughtered by the first president, Rivera. There are no indigenous peoples left and very little of their blood remains. Thus the population looks very European; Spanish, Italian, and German. There is even a population of blacks, descendants of the slaves who were freed in 1843. The cross section of people look more like the mixture found in the US, a wide range of skin, hair, and eye colors and various heights. They're a much more quiet people than the Mexicans. Mexicans love noise. No matter where you go there seems to always be loud marriachi music blasting over loud speakers or a television blaring at full power. Even restaurants will have a TV constantly running. Not so in Uruguay. They seem to appreciate silence.
Uruguayans appear to respect their surroundings much better, or at least have the financial capability to take care of it. Benches and other structures within town parks are usually in one piece and the majority of the graffiti we saw was in the downtown Montevideo area. Also, countryside roads are surprisingly litter free. We even spotted a road cleaning crew picking up litter along the beach road. Uruguayans can afford more automation, large dump trucks collect trash from the dumpsters and big mowers cut weeds by the road. There aren't crews of men out there slashing away with machetes. Riding along litter free roadways always is a real pleasure
One more interesting comment. Uruguayans are avid bikers. Everywhere there are kids and adults riding around on bikes. Sometimes for recreation and other times for errands. This means that drivers are more alert to the possibility that a biker may be on the road nearby. They're willing to give you space and don't honk madly when they see you. It also means that bike shops and mechanics are all over the place. We found an absolutely enormous one on Colonia in the downtown area. They had absolutely everything you could possibly need to assemble a bike from the frame up. They even had a few preassembled bikes for those who didn't want to do all the work. On our first day riding I spotted one of those "cachila" (old car) 1950s style pick-up trucks, painted a dark blue with a homemade little house built onto the back. The house was well constructed and beautifully varnished. Out of this little house a man was operating a little mobile bike wheel maintenance shop. He had tires hanging from the awning and a truing stand set up. Although he seemed to be spending more time gabbing with the surrounding gaggle of onlookers than getting any work done. Truly Uruguay could prove to be one easy and bike friendly place to tour.
Day 3 - Doing nothing
After riding a mere 19 km, more or less, we took a day off. Actually we still felt the need to catch up on lost sleep. So we hung around the campground, reading the guide book, and basically doing not much of anything. We soon discovered it was good we did stay.
When it rains in Uruguay, it pours in torrents. In the early afternoon the skies to the southeast began to cloud over and then turn black. Hearing the distant rumble of thunder we decided it was high time we prepared for rain. We had only about 20 minutes to get the tarp hung, everything stashed in the tent, and bikes moved under the tarp. Then the heavens let loose. It poured in one of the hardest downpours I've ever seen. Quickly the low sandy campground filled with water as puddles became shallow ponds. Our tent, perched on one of the few slightly higher spots, looked like a little island in a big lake. We sat on our nearby picnic bench, holding our feet off the ground as the water rose all around. Our tarp sank with the weight of entrapped water and then ripped when a gust of wind hit. It was an old tarp and the UV had finally done it in. We watched as other campers grabbed big shovels and started a large excavation project. They'd had the misfortune of picking a low spot for their tent. The water got the best of them, they had to move. The rain finally stopped and within just 1/2 hour the puddles were nearly gone. The next morning one would hardly have known what a downpour there had been.
Day 4 + 5 - Into the big city
It was our fourth day in Uruguay and we still had done almost no biking. But, we did want to get in to see the capital city, Montevideo, at least once before we left. After all, who knows if we'll ever return.
From the campground it's real easy to get into town. Simply stand at one of the paradas, bus stops, out on the interbalneario. Every 1/2 hour, more or less, a bus for Montevideo will come by. Make sure to flag it down as it won't stop otherwise. Cost to get into town, 23 pesos or about $2 US. The ride takes about an hour especially if you happen to have wound up on one of the buses that stops by the airport.
As far as capital cities go, Montevideo isn't overly big. It contains about 40% of the country's population or about 1.5 million. It is said to be the only capital that has such a large percentage of the country's population in the world. Uruguay doesn't have any other large cities, the next largest having less than 100,000. So I can see why this is true.
The downtown has the same contrasts of urban renovation and blight as we've seen throughout our travels. There are unique 1800s buildings standing shoulder to shoulder with ugly 1900s modern concrete monstrosities. There are areas that are clean, neat, and well maintained with nice shaded streets. Yet just a few blocks away will be streets that are run down and strewn with litter. It's in better condition than Mexico D.F. and Athens but not in as good condition as Vienna or Saltzburg. I'd say it's like a lot of US cities with very mixed areas. It's one main advantage is the fact that it's small. So it's easy to walk all over old town, see everything, and not be completely beat by the end of the day. Also, it doesn't seem to have the same urban traffic problems we've seen in Mexico D.F. and Athens.
There are a few things to see in Montevideo, not an overwhelming number. We started at the port where the old market is located. Now that was a disappointment. We had expected a market, a busy, thriving market with just a few food stalls and small restaurants. What we found was pretty much just restaurants and food stalls. There was no "market" such as we've found in cities from Guatemala to Estonia. There were no fruit stands. No stands selling honey and jellies, breads, cheeses, or eggs and just one selling some beef. All we found were fancy, overpriced grills that were essentially devoid of customers each having their hawker trying to drag us inside. They were having luck with the cruise shippers who happened to be in town for the day, but none with us. We hated it.
From the port we headed up the main downtown thoroughfare, av. 18 de julio, to the several squares situated along its length every 3 to 4 blocks. There were a series of 5 really nice squares, (plazas) with perfectly manicured bushes and lawns. Fountains and statues in each were all in prime condition, although the fountain around the gigantic equestrian statue to General Artigas wasn't running. In one plaza was a statue of fighting gauchos, the gauchos who fought along with Artigas for independence. In another a statue that has been misnamed the statue of liberty. Its artist intended it to be a statue for peace. Another has a fountain dedicated to the city's new water works on which the Italian sculptors misspelled independeniente (indipendeniente). Finally there are the two plazas with equestrian statues, one for Artigas and the other for Lavalleja, leader of the 33. The statue for Artigas weighs some 30 tons in is said to be the largest statue of its kind in the world. Underneath, if you follow the marble staircase, you'll find a mausoleum for Artigas that was built in 1977. Two guards stand motionless 24 hours day and night, flanking the beautiful wooden urn containing Artigas' ashes, surrounded by marble inscriptions giving Artigas' life in extreme brevity.
There are some museums of note in the city. Although seeing more than a couple per day is not easy. They tend to have very short hours, usually from 1 to 5 PM. But they're also mostly free, so who can complain. Two caught our attention, the Museo de Gaucho y Moneda, museum of gaucho and money, and the Museo de Autmovil.
The money museum consisted of the usual static display of coins, bills, and commemorative medallions printed and minted over the years. It's the kind of museum only an avid coin collector could appreciate. We enjoyed the gaucho museum much more. It has 4 rooms of well presented tools of the gaucho trade. There was one entire wall covered with silver horse stirrups, four horse models dressed in the finest silver attire, display cases filled with whips, pistols, belt buckles, and an amazing array of mate bowls.
Mate is a cultural attribute that seems to be peculiar to large regions of South America. Mate is a tea made from what the museum plaque called the Yerba Mate tree. Evidently the habit of drinking these hot teas was common among the natives before the conquistadors arrived. The natives, however, used just about anything to make this tea; coffee, cocoa, even tobacco. When the Jesuits arrived, in the 1700s, they began growing yerba mate trees specifically for making this tea. Hence it eventually became the national drink, or obsession is more like it. Drinking mate requires a strange set of tools. There's the tea itself, which comes in huge bags, not little one serving bags like our Lipton style tea. There's a fancy cup made from a gourd, often painted, inscribed, or even decorated with silver. Usually the gourd sits in a little stand, silver or leather, as its round bottom would keep it rolling over. Next there's a funny silver straw. they're curved, about 6 inches long, and end in a funny looking spoon shaped filter. Finally there's the thermos. To drink mate you fill the gourd chock full of the mate weed and then add hot water. You keep your thermos full of hot water so you can keep on refilling the gourd. I guess the mate grass has flavor for many a refill. Now, mate's not just an after or before dinner drink and not even a "tea time" drink. It's an "anytime you feel like it" drink. Even standing in the line at a grocery store is good enough reason. So all through the day you'll spot people wandering around with thermos bottles tucked under their arm with the mate cup in the hand of the same arm and they'll sip away at those funny, curved silver straws. Not everyone you see in a day will be sipping, but you'll see enough in a day to know it is, indeed, a national obsession. I just couldn't imagine walking around all day with the encumbrance of a thermos and cup on one arm.
In the auto museum, run by the Club Automovil de Uruguay, we found a small but great collection of "cachilas", that's the nickname for old cars. Uruguay is known worldwide for its profusion of cachilas scattered across the land, some working, most not. During the good times of the first half of the 20th century Uruguayans bought cars, like everyone else. When the economy failed in the later half of the century people were forced to keep these cars running and running and running. Only in recent years has there been a large influx of new cars. On a daily basis you'll probably see more antique cars, 1950 or older, in Uruguay than anywhere else. Many times these may be no more than car carcasses sitting in back yards or ancient trucks used by farmers to bring their goods to market. However, there are occasional gems to be found. In Atlantida we spotted a 1930s Jaguar.
In the museum are found some of the nicest, restored vehicles. Their prize possession is the 1899 Delin, Uruguay's oldest car. There's a 1910 Hupmobile, a model A Ford, and a 1972 Masariti. But our biggest surprise was to find a 1928 Franklin. My father happens to own 2, a 1903 and 1932, and was formerly the president of the Franklin Owners Club. Franklins were air cooled cars made in Syracuse, N.Y. As with most car manufacturers, except Ford, each vehicle was hand built and unique. So, of course, the company couldn't survive the depression. There aren't too many out there and the club tries to keep track of all that exist. We wondered whether the club knew about this far flung model. If not, they will soon.
Two days was enough for us to spend touring a large city. We much prefer the small towns and quiet country roads. So it was time to finally get on those bikes and head up the Uruguayan Riviera to Punta del Este.
Day 6 - 53.46 km to Piriapolis
Staying on a coastal road from Atlantida onward is not that easy. You can follow the coast for about another 6 km to the next river. Then you need to come back to the Interbalneario to cross the bridge. From here until the intersection with Rt. 10 you can head back to the coast along dirt roads, but you'd be forced back to the main highway at each river crossing, every 4 to 5 km. So we chose to stick to the Interbalneario. It's a nice, wide road with huge shoulders. From here we started seeing more rolling terrain yet the road was still lined with pine and eucalyptus trees, obviously a planned planting as the trees were all in neat rows. We could glimpse large ranches and farms off to the north, an indication of what our future trek across the interior country has in store.
At Rt. 10, about 20 km after Atlantida, we turned right and within just a few km we found ourselves back right on the coast. We road along a paved coastal road with long stretches of white sandy beaches on our right shoulders and expensive looking vacation cottages on our left. In the distance, around the curve of the bay, we spotted our destination, Piriapolis. The sun was shining, the ocean was a beautiful shade of blue accentuated by the green surrounding hillsides. A great riding day.
We pulled into the Piriapolis campground right in front of the bus station. It was crowded and hot. We were tempted to set off for another campground nearby, but this one was convenient and with the high heat and humidity, we just wanted to stop, shower, and take a nap. Actually I needed to attempt to repair our torn tarp and Brian needed to rebuild our stove as one of the old seals had given up the ghost.
After a light dinner of hotdogs (panchos), the supermercado was within an easy 4 block walk, we headed for the downtown area to look around. First stop was the old 1930s Argentina hotel. This was a super posh hotel built by a Sr. Piria, hence the town's name. He was the owner of several ferries some of which would make the journey from Buenos Aires to Piriapolis carrying wealthy Argentines on vacation. As 1930s style goes, I suppose it would be considered an opulent structure. But to me only the exterior looks opulent. Wandering down an interior hall I felt as if I was walking down an old 1930s hospital corridor. The walls were nondescript off white and plain globe style lights hung from the ceiling by long chains. Plain looking doors were spaced along both walls at even intervals. I think I prefer the late 1800s national park style architecture much better.
The rambla, beach front road, of Piriapolis comes alive on sultry summer nights. On one side is the long, clean, sandy beach with a wide, brick, fronting sidewalk. Floodlights keep the beach in almost daylight conditions. On the other side of the rambla are shops and restaurants aiming to please every taste and budget. You can even buy a souvenir mate bowl should you desire. Hoards of people wander up and down the sidewalk, looking, touching, and trying whatever happens to be on display. You get your hair done on the sidewalk, a string wrap that mostly attracts young girls. It's worth a stroll just to see Argentine tourists on vacation.
Day 7 - 35 km to Puertezuelo
From Piriapolis you have two choices, continue on Rt. 10 away from the coast, putting up with the continual passage of cars, or stick to the coast. We chose to stay on the coast. The paved road rounded a few stunning points where we could overlook a rocky beach, a lot of volcanic rocks just off the coast. It then changed to dirt as it continued to round the bay. It's not a well traveled road, with just a few potholes and a little washboard. We noticed mostly fishermen and nature lovers seemed to venture this way. Soon even the dirt road left the coast to roll up and down a few small hills and then rejoin Rt. 10 for the last few km into Puertezuelo.
Just past an intersection in the process of being completely rebuilt, we took a left toward the Arboretum Lussich and the Punta Bellena campground located just behind. We set up the tent, unloaded all our stuff, and headed off to have a look at the spectacular Punta Bellena, whale point. A few exclusive houses line the road up to the point and one real oddity. The artist, Carlos Paez Vilaro, built a strange, shockingly white, Mediterranean style house climbing up the side of the point's cliff. Called Casapueblo, it's a collection of white walls, domes, and spires. Nowhere is there a right angle to be found. Truly an architects nightmare come to life.
The point affords spectacular views along the sandy beach to the high-rise hotels of Punta del Este toward the east and along another sandy beach back toward Piriapolis. Atlantic winds blow strong out on this exposed point. Fortunately it appears to now be a preserve, so it will never be covered with hotels.
Back at camp we had one unusual surprise. One of our tent stakes was missing. These are special, heat treated, aluminum tent stakes that we've discovered seem to work in almost any form of ground, with the possible exception of the campground at Banff. They're about 7 inches long, cylindrical, gold colored with a silver colored top. The only place we've found them is in REI. Certainly there's nothing like them in Uruguay. It seems they were just too much for some kids to resist. They took one, only one. Fortunately we carry spares, but we just hope not too many kids will succumb to the same temptation.
Day 8 - 20.31 km to San Rafael
We were certainly taking it easy riding up the Uruguyan coast. Hey, this was a vacation when compared to the Great Divide Route last year. There'd been another one of those torrential downpours overnight. Wave after wave of thunderstorms passed overhead and the campground turned into mud. So there was a lot of cleaning to do in the morning which meant a late start. We're beginning to come to the conclusion that February weather in Uruguay means several days of hot, humid, sultry weather followed by one violent thunderstorm. At least it's not day after day of drizzle such as one encounters in Portland, Oregon.
Punta del Este is one of the largest cities on the coast. Photos of it taken at night show crowded streets bordered by high-rise buildings. Yet we quickly discovered it was actually quite easy to get through on a bike. We simply stayed on the rambla, coastal road, until we got to the smallest section of the point, crossed on one of the short roads, and continued on the coast road. The road is well paved, wide, has huge shoulders, and since we were headed east with the water over our right shoulders there were no cars coming in from side streets. This was the beach side. Drivers were sedate and courteous. Had this been Mexico there would have been maniacal drivers all over the place. Before noon we found our way to the ultra nice Camping San Rafael where we planned to spend a couple more days doing not a whole heck of a lot. It was a good place to finish cleaning off the mud from the previous night anyway.
Day 8, 9 - Going nowhere
Punta del Este and the accompanying town, Maldonado, are the spots where the creme de la creme of Argentina and Uruguay go to spend their summer vacations. Previously there was a spot on the Argentine coast where the ultra rich used to go. But, it was soon discovered by the not-so-rich riff-raff. So now everyone comes to Uruguay. You might say it's a trimmed down version of Miami Beach or Cancun. I say it's trimmed down mainly because it's not nearly as big. There's a wide beachside road lined with tall, luxurious high rise hotels and many extremely nice and also big houses. Some, the most luxurious and expensive, have ocean views. This is not a place one stays on the cheap, unless you hit the campground that is.
Fortunes in Punta del Este seem to depend more on the economic situation in Argentina than in Uruguay. In the late 80s, for example, Argentina was in a hard way. Consequently incredible real estate deals could be had in Este. Today, the situation is reversed. Argentina is doing well and prices in Este reflect this. So, lesson learned, next time there's a recession in Argentina, buy property in Uruguay.
Maldonado, the town that is essentially connected to Punta del Este, is the original settlement in the area. Established in 1757, it still retains much of its old colonial flavor in the central district. It's easy to see why Maldonado was built where it was. It's located at the most south/east promontory of Uruguay and guards the entrance to the large, navigable Rio de la Plata. Also, it's build back from the point as the winds and weather out there would be terrible. There's more to visit here than upscale shops and restaurants. There's the remains of the old fort. Originally it was a large rectangular building constructed of local rocks and mortar. It had a huge central courtyard, the parade court I suppose, surrounded by walls of small, single story rooms. It had only a single large entry. Today rooms on two sides have been reconstructed and only the outer walls and large gate remain of the remaining sides. Foundations of small buildings in the courtyard are marked with large rocks.
Within the old fort are two very small display rooms. One describes a bit of the military battles of Gral. Artigas, the national hero. There's a model in a replica uniform, a couple of large maps showing Artigas' main battles, pencil drawings of young Artigas through old Artigas, and even a small diorama of the battle of Piedras where Artigas routed the Spaniards. In the other room is a dedication to the main generals who helped establish the system of liberty and freedom in all American countries. There's a bronze bust of Artigas, front and center, even Hildago from Mexico and George Washington.
Another unusual museum is the Museo Mazonni. Housed in one of the original old colonial homes, it's chock full of an eclectic assortment of stuff. Several rooms are set up to look like early 1800s style with appropriate furnishings, paintings, and other stuff. Several rooms are set up as memorials to some of the more interesting people or things that have visited Maldonado. There's a room dedicated to Charles Darwin who spend 8 months visiting in 1833 and there are several pictures of the destroyed Graf Spee, the German battleship sunk off shore in WWII. The house itself is worth seeing as it's setup in traditional Spanish style, rooms surrounding a large tree shaded courtyard. I find it always interesting how the blank walls of Latin American cities hide such intimate and pleasant courts.
There's the cathedral to see, a large pink stuccoed building with one large and 2 small blue and lavender tiled domes. It wasn't open the day we visited, so we didn't get to peak inside. And there's the old watch tower that was built in the early 1800s to give watchers a better view of the goings on around the point. One more thing, this town still has an original colonial style plaza with the cathedral on one side and the former city hall on the adjacent side. Of course there's a tall statue to Artigas in the center.
Uruguayans seem to think the back windows of their vehicles are just billboards. So many cars we've seen have rear windows so completely covered with bumper stickers it's impossible to tell how the driver can see what's behind. We've seen an I heart NY, I heart my cat, Hershey kisses, Uruguyan flag, and dozens of other stickers all plastered together on the rear of a single car. Some even run out of precious rear window real estate and proceed to fill up the side windows. We have as yet to see a front window all covered, but I'm sure that's coming next. I've heard it described as an addiction. First you start with one little harmless sticker. Then you add one or two more. Soon the entire window is covered. In the U.S. there are states where it's illegal to have more than a certain number of stickers in the rear window. Obviously not here.
We've discovered one quite unusual Uruguayan dish. It's called a Chivitos plate and it seems to include just about anything you could possibly imagine all piled onto one single, huge platter. Start with a layer of boston lettuce leaves. Now pile on tomatoes, onion, green olives, potato salad, pickled veges, palm hearts, hard boiled egg, French fries, mayonnaise, ham, bacon, grilled steak, and finally top it all off with fried egg. It's an enormous concoction of mixed flavors that'll keep your tongue tied and your tummy full for a good long day. It's also a nightmare for anyone watching calories and fat. I wouldn't want to eat too many of them. Otherwise most of the Uruguayan food we've found is not very imaginative especially when compared to the sassy specialties of Mexico. There's a lot of grilled beef, they do specialize in raising cattle, hotdogs (panchos they're called here), hamburgers, and lots of pizza. You can tell there's been a large Italian influence due to all the pizza places. In Maldonado we chowed down on a Chivitos plate for 2 costing about $8.
Day 10 - 82.03 km to Rocha
There seems to be not one single semi truck in all of Uruguay. Here we've been riding on some pretty major arterial routes, yet we haven't seen a single one. There are small trucks, something that looks more like a local delivery vehicle in the U.S. But not one of those huge tractor-trailer combos so prevalent in the U.S. and Mexico. I find it hard to believe that all their deliveries, even to the large hipermercado, would be made by only these little trucks. Anyway, it certainly makes the riding all that much nicer. At least here anything that runs you down will be a little bit smaller. OK, so we did finally see one semi type truck out on Rt 9 near Rocha and more as we approached Chuy. But there aren't very many.
Leaving the nice Camping San Rafael we turned northeast toward Jose Ignacio. In only about 1 km we crossed the odd undulating bridge, Puenta La Barra. Normally a bridge is built high in the center, which allows masted or tall boats to pass under. This bridge was actually built low in the center making for two funny little bumps. Cars look like their going over roller coaster bumps as they cross. We had to wonder why they would build a bridge like this one.
After a quick stop in the market in La Barra, we continued up along the coast. We were lucky, winds were at our back and despite predictions of rain the weather looked as though it would stay fairly nice. The road was paved just as far as Punta Jose Ignacio and then a solid dirt thereafter. A couple of police officers parked at the intersection answered our questions about getting across Laguna Garzon which solidified our decision to press on along the coast rather than head inland to the paved Rt 9. It was here we met 2 Argentine bike tourists.
From what we had read we really did not expect to see very many bike tourists in Uruguay. It's just not a place one typically thinks of as a big bike tourist Mecca. Yet, much to our surprise, we'd already seen a total of 3 other groups of 2, one headed into Montevideo who I spotted while on the bus, another couple we saw in Piriapolis, and this group of 2 men. Both were from Buenos Aires. Their 15 day route was intended to take them from Montevideo to Chuy and then back to Colonia, basically our same route. However, they'd already used a good chunk of their time getting as far as Jose Ignacio and were planning to stop there for the night after just around 20 km riding. We didn't see how they could possibly make it to Chuy and back to Colonia in the time they had left, unless they planned to take a bus or ride day and night across country. They decided that the beach was good, the gas station had a toilet, and there was no camping until La Paloma, a good 100 km more. So why not stop.
We, on the other hand, having had many years touring experience know better. When the wind is in your favor and the weather is good you should always make the most of it because the next day ..... who knows. It was just 7 km up the nice, easy riding dirt road to the laguna where we waited just a short 20 minutes or so for the ferry to come back. Ferry is probably an overstatement for this little barca. It consists of not much more than a little 2 pontoon raft that is pushed back and forth by a motor driven row boat. At each side the man in the row boat spends his time turning around to push the other way, he has no reverse. The raft fits no more than 3 cars. As we climbed onboard I wondered just how seaworthy this raft was. I sized up the distance cross the inlet. I could swim it, no problem. But if there were a capsize the bikes would sink deep into the silt to be dug up some million years from now by an excited archeologist. We made it across without so much as a splash on deck.
In the middle of the entrance to the laguna stands an abandoned section of a concrete bridge. Built in 1955, it's doubtful it will ever be finished. We had to find out why. The laguna over which the bridge was to stretch along with it's hairpin twisting outlet to the sea marks the border between the states of Rocha and Maldonado. Maldonado with the town of Punte del Este, is decidedly the richer of the two. The half of the bridge that is complete happens to be on the Maldonado side. So perhaps Rocha couldn't afford to build their half.
We got a slightly different explanation from a fellow passenger on the ferry. He says that the state of Rocha has lots of lobster and shrimp in their waters and their fishing laws aren't as strict as Maldonado's. Maldonado's government feared that an easy access to Rocha's fishing waters would draw away tourist dollars. So they put a cabash on the project. Whether or not this is truly the case we may never know. We can say that today the defunct bridge project has been turned into a popular fishing pier.
We were greeted with more good dirt road on the other side of the laguna as we rode on a spit that separated the laguna from the ocean. It was a great place to spread out our red checkered vinyl table cloth for a picnic lunch. We sat on a grass covered, white sand dune overlooking the waves of the Atlantic ocean. It may have made a good camping site as well. But our tail wind held strong and steady. We just weren't ready to quit as yet.
We didn't stop until we got to Rocha, some 82 km for the day. We couldn't continue along the coastal road as there is neither bridge nor ferry over the Laguna Paloma. So we had to head inland over some gently rolling hills to the main highway, Rt. 9. Busy as it was, Rt 9 has a nice wide shoulder for most its way, so it's not an uncomfortable ride. We rolled into the Ancap gas station just before the turnoff to La Paloma and started planning our next move
La Paloma was another 27 km or so down the road. We'd already done 82 and were still not in quite good enough shape for much longer distances. So we could either head on down the road a little further and find a site somewhere off the road in which to camp or we could investigate staying at the gas station. Somewhere Brian had read that in Uruguay people often camped at gas stations. In fact they also often had showers. Now this particular gas station did have showers, but I'd never use it as it was so filthy. However, there was a nice, grassy spot in back. Upon asking the man at the counter he told me that people always camped back there. So we moved on in. Although we did learn, from the snitty lady that ran the kitchen of the restaurant next door, you must make sure you camp behind the gas station and nowhere else. Don't even think about trying to use their toilet instead of the oh so gross gas station's.
Day 11- 28.85 km to La Paloma
It was going to be one of those days. We arose at our usual time, packed up, hopped on the bikes, and made the very next right turn toward La Paloma, smack dead into a strong headwind. We were only planning to go as far as La Paloma, but those few 27 km took over 1 1/2 hours to complete. It wasn't just headwinds, I have to confess, but also rolling hills. And we were still not in particularly great shape. Yet no matter what the excuses, it took a lot longer than we'd hoped.
And then the rains came. Not the windy, violent thunder storms we'd experienced to date. Rather it was to be one of those all day long, dreary drizzle downpours. We hadn't quite made it to the camping in La Paloma when the skies started their showers. At the intersection of Rt 10 and 15, 5 km from La Paloma, stands a tiny police outpost. It's nothing more than a little white stucco block building with a few windows on 3 sides. Inside is not much more than an old wooden table and chair. Some poor police man has the unenviable duty of sitting in this building all day long answering questions from lost tourists and keeping an eye on traffic at the intersection. Although without a car we weren't entirely sure what good his watching from this building was as usually there was also a police van parked very near doing the exact same thing. Being more mobile they would certainly have a much better chance at catching any wrongdoers. In any event, it just so happened this building had a nice, covered and dry porch along one side. We pulled in at about 10:30 AM and made ourselves at home.
The rains came ... and came and came. From the moment we got settled under the porch until just around 3:00 PM it did not let up. There were periods where the rain fell harder than others. Still, it was just simply one long continual drenching. When it did finally let up, this proved to be only a short breather. We had just barely enough time to get over to the nearest camping, get the tarp and tent setup, get to the store for groceries, and get cozy under our shelter. Respite over, the clouds let loose once again and the constant rain continued well on into the wee hours of the morning. It is green in Uruguay. There are large, lush forests and long rolling, green grasslands. It is rapidly becoming quite clear just why it is so green.
This was our first radio interview. After checking into the camping a tall, thin woman with long red hair came up to me, stuck a radio 1260 sticker in my face, and rattled something off in a Spanish far too fast for me to catch. Realizing that Spanish wasn't my native language she slowed down to a much easier to follow pace. The second time around she made it clear that she was from the local radio station, 1260, and they like to do on the spot interviews of strangers passing through the state of Rocha. I'm not entirely sure how she happened to find out about us as she wasn't standing at the front office when we first rode up. Did the camping administration call her? Perhaps. In any event, with some coaxing and a lot of very slow Spanish we managed to get through a very short interview. In reality she wound up doing most of the talking and I just tried to keep up with the questions. She wanted to know where we were from, often a hard question to answer as it could mean where did we ride from or where do we live. Then she proceeded to such questions as why travel on bikes, what other places have we traveled on bikes, where are we going in Uruguay, how long will we be in Rocha, and how do we like it here so far. I answered as best I could. After I was presented with a sticker, handshake, and kiss on the cheek. Well, so much for our first radio interview. I only hope I can do better next time. Maybe I won't be caught quite so off guard.
Day 12 - Doing nothing around La Paloma
Once again we needed a day to dry out and clean up. This was getting to be a regular part of our week. La Paloma's not too bad a place to do that. There are 3 small supermercados that provide just about anything you could want, several restaurants whose prices are much more palatable than Maldonado or Punta del Este, there's a neat 1874 faro (lighthouse) to look at, and a great beach to lounge around at. I liked the faro because it's one of those picture perfect lighthouses one always imagines when the word is mentioned. It's a tall, white cone with a few, tiny rectangular windows spaced spirally up the side, and the big glass top painted red and white striped. It's authentic and is still operated by the Uruguyan Coast Guard. The only problem is, it's only open Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays from 4 PM. We happened to be there on Monday so we did not get to climb the circular stairs to the top.
What else is there to do in La Paloma? Go for a swim in the warm Atlantic waters, which we did. Or you can head down the spit to the Laguna La Paloma where you can bird watch. Black neck swans and red herons are the main birds to view. We didn't do this. There's restaurants to eat at, electronic games for kids to play, fishing on the laguna for those so inclined, or surfing at Uruguay's few reasonable surf beaches. Or you can sit around your campsite and not do a whole heck of a lot. That last option caught our attention.
Day 13 - 58.98 km to Aguas Dulces
We peeled out of the campground at a reasonably early hour for us, somewhere around 10 AM. As we soon discovered, this would be considered the break of dawn for most Argentines. The two bikers we'd been leap frogging over the past several days rolled past us after we'd been taking a long siesta following lunch. They must have left well over 2 hours after us.
We followed along one of those neat beach side roads, the kind that is supposedly paved, but the sand has gradually overtaken it. Beach bungalows of all types lined the street, some impeccably neat and clean others looking like little shacks. All too soon the road took a sharp left and we found ourselves back with the intersection of Rt 10. The winds are beginning to take on a recognizable pattern. When the weather is nice the wind blows strong and steady from the north. When a front passes, it's from the south. On this day the weather was nice which meant we spent the next 50 km battling that strong, steady wind.
As we continued northward and approached the access to the town of Cabo Polonia, the foliage seemed to change somewhat. The rolling hills flattened and the groves of eucalyptus and pine were joined by dispersed Butia palm trees. These trees are quite tall, have gray-green leaves, and are found in the state of Rocha in the largest concentration anywhere in the world. They'll be scattered about a large, grassy field which they often share with a herd of cattle. Now that was a most unusual sight to behold, herds of cattle surrounded by palm trees.
Cabo Polonia is also a unique town. It's situated well off the main road and its inhabitants have shunned the technology of modern age. Access to the town is gained either by horse drawn cart, one of the 4 wheel drive tours offered locally, by boat, or by a long 3 hour hike across the sand dunes. The town doesn't even have electricity. It does share it's location with a large colony of sea lions and penguins which are its main tourist draw. People pay a lot of money for the privilege of riding one of those big 4 WD tour coaches out to see them. We've seen lots of sea lions on the California coast and penguins in New Zealand. We decided to pass on this extravagance this time.
After that long after lunch siesta the headwinds really picked up speed. It was a struggle making it to the next town of Aguas Dulces and I was certainly relieved to see the camping sign finally appear. A little paradise is what we found at the Camping la Natura. Tucked among nice trees, there's plenty of room to spread out and not feel like you're on top of your next door neighbor. Bathrooms are clean and nicely tiled. The cost is just $50 pesos which is the cheapest we've found all along the coast so far. It was sooooo tempting just to stay there for several days.
Of all the towns we'd seen along the coast, Aguas Dulces has to be our favorite. It's a town that hasn't been entirely transformed into touristville, at least not yet. There's just this mish-mash, hodge-podge of little shacks compressed together in this small area. Most seem to have at most 2 or 3 rooms, single story, and are a boxy shape. Construction materials are stucco, block, wood, or thatch for the sides and tile, thatch, or corrugated metal for the roof. Some are impeccably neat and tidy, others look like real dumps. Even one thatch sided house lay collapsed against its neighbor. The entire town sits nestled against the sand dunes fronting the ocean beach. In fact, we were amazed to see some houses built right up on top of the dunes. Now imagine what would happen if a real bad storm came in and washed away all the sand. Ta ta house.
Aguas Dulces is a real laid back town where it seems people go to just get away from it all. The tourist brochure mentions going there "armed with a bag of comfy clothes and some good books." That's all you need. Everything else is there, virtually every shack is available for rent, there are at least a half dozen little shops to buy food, and restaurants ranging from fast food stands to the fancy schmancy place on the corner. We hated to leave as it's an atmosphere that is easily addictive.
Day 14 - 53.51 km to Parque Santa Teresa
Some of the maps we've seen show a nice short cut between Aguas Dulces and Rt. 9. However, upon asking the lady running the Camping La Natura about that road she assured us that it did not exist. She ought to know, she lives there. So we had to ride toward Castillas to get back on the main road. The distance was only 9 km, but there were 3 short but somewhat steep hills in the way. So much for starting the day out somewhat sweat free. Rt 9 was more level and had that enormous shoulder we've grown to know and love. Although we also had that headwind we've grown to know and hate.
The road goes up and down a few more gentle rollers, leaving the flat lands and those interesting palm trees behind. Then it flattens as it skirts along the shores of one huge lake. Laguna Negra shows up as one big blue spot on my map which happens to cover all of southern South America. It is one big lake. Immediately following we turned into the large Parque National Santa Teresa.
What first caught our attention was the obvious military presence in the park. They check you in at the gate, they trim the weeds, they take care of the zoo, the camground, and the old fort itself. We wondered if this was a normal procedure, having the military in charge of a national park. The park is a large, forested area bordering on the beach and within its boundaries is the really cool Fuerte Santa Teresa. This has to be the largest and most intact Spanish style fort we've ever seen. St. Augustine, Florida has a similar Spanish style fort, but it's significantly smaller. Like most other forts of the late 1700s era, Spanish forts were built in the normal star shaped pattern. What distinguishes them from other forts are the extremely sharp points on the stars and the unique little guard houses perched on each tip. I've seen no other forts anywhere bearing similar guard houses.
Fuerte Santa Teresa was started in 1752 by the Portuguese. They didn't get any further than building a single temporary bastion. The Spanish invaded in 1753 and quickly the Portuguese soldiers capitulated. It was the Spanish who rededicated the fort to Santa Teresa and rebuilt it out of sturdy stone. After forts of this type became obsolete, soon after the 1860s, Santa Teresa was abandoned and left to disintegrate. Fortunately for the structure, the area around the fort never developed into any kind of community. In Montevideo, for example, the huge fort structure that used to exist apart from the main port was torn down to make way for the city's progress and expansion. Only bits of the old town wall and the fort's main gate remain. Santa Teresa, on the other hand, was in fairly good condition right up to the 1920s. It was at this time that interest in the old fort finally grew to a point that the government decided to undertake a complete restoration. It was a massive undertaking especially considering that the fort is located in a fairly remote area of the country and the roads at that time were often rivers of mud. The tops of the outer walls had to be rebuilt and the roofs of the interior buildings put back in place as well as a lot of work stabilizing the structure and adding modern facilities such as lights, sidewalks, and landscaping.
Today Fuerte Santa Teresa is quite a spectacular fort to see. In addition to the wonderfully rebuilt main walls there are 5 restored buildings inside. One housed the church and today displays some of the old liturgical stuff. Another houses an example kitchen and blacksmith shop. There's the old black powder building tucked below ground in one of the star's points. And finally the other two large buildings, probably the old barracks, house miniature versions of all the forts along the Uruguayan coast in one room, banners and weapons of some of the Spanish garrisons in another, and drawings of the old military uniforms in a third. It's a nicely presented museum of some of the early Spanish history of Uruguay.
Now the camping at the Parque Santa Teresa wasn't quite so good. It's a strange camping, sort of like distributed camping in the US Forest Service yet with a fee. You just find a spot somewhere within the designated camping area and set up. No tables, no grills, very limited water, and only a few bathroom buildings. Yet it was crowded, very, very crowded and expensive, $130 pesos or about $10.50 US for one night. We stayed only that night because we wanted to see the fort. But it is possible to see the fort without entering the park, as we discovered after entering, so I would recommend a quick stop to visit and then a ride onward to the next camping place.
Day 15 - 36.56 km to Barra del Chuy
A pleasant tail wind pushed us all the way to the turn off toward the sleepy village of Barra del Chuy. As the terrain grew flatter and flatter we seemed to become more surrounded by what looked like marshy lowlands. Off to the west we could see long expanses of rolling grasslands, a taste of the pampas perhaps? To the west were more forests. The road had left the coast back just north of La Paloma so what we were seeing would probably be representative of most roads in the interior. Hence our decision to catch a bus back to Montevideo and then ride up the Rio Plata rather than riding across the country. We took a site in the nice, shady De La Barra Chuy camping and settled in for an afternoon of doing nothing,
Nothing except laundry that is. One thing we have discovered during all our travels is that Laundromats where you can do it yourself are few and far between. In Uruguay they normally have lavaderos. You take in your dirty clothes, some energetic senora gives them a good wash, and you collect them sometime later. Of course this means you may have to wait around for your clean clothes and they're quite expensive. So our main alternative is to wash clothes by hand. In the heat and humidity of summer in Uruguay this amounts to just about an every other day task. Keeping up with the dirty sweat that pours off our backs each day is nearly a full time task. I can see why some smart person once invented the clothes washer.
Day 16 - Chuy
Chuy is a small, unorganized town located on the eastern border between Uruguay and Brazil. The international border actually bisects the main downtown boulevard. Buildings on one side of the street are in Uruguay, on the other in Brazil. A line of outdoor shack style shops runs right along the boulevard's center medium. Are they in Uruguay or Brazil? Customs and immigration are actually located on the highways a few km out of town in all directions. Within town you are free to wander from one side to the other without any of the official trappings of a border crossing. Money of 3 different countries are readily accepted, Uruguay pesos, Brazil reales, and US dollars. It truly is an international town.
Chuy's (spelt Chui in Brazil) main reason for existence is shopping. Sort of like the shopping areas in the border towns of Chula Vista and Tijuana. Only in this case people are not looking for unique handicrafts or souvenirs. Just normal everyday manufactured goods and food. Shoes and clothing seem to be some of the main purchases. Brazil's prices are significantly cheaper because Uruguay's prices include not only import duties but a 23% sales tax as well. Prices in Brazil can run up to 1/2 those in Uruguay. In Chuy, Uruguay has allowed for the creation of duty free shops, called Free Shops, which help balance the prices within the town somewhat. But, Brazil is still cheaper.
Food and lodging are much cheaper on the Brazil side of the street. For restaurants they have these places called Tenedor Libre, free fork. They're actually all-you-can eat grills. A buffet table is set up at one end which contains salad items, pastas, empanadas, and deserts. Then while you are eating a man comes by with a huge skewer loaded with bar-b-cued chicken, pork, ribs, beef, or sausage. There are several tenedor libres to choose from, all offering essentially the same grilled meat but different items on the buffet. No matter which you choose you will be guaranteed to come away completely stuffed. The price of around $5 US per person is actually a very good restaurant price for Uruguay, although I'd be willing to bet it'd be considered high in the rest of Brazil.
Our sole purpose for visiting Chuy, besides a chance to look around, was to find out about bus service back to Atlantida and to locate a super cheap and light bag to consolidate all our biking bags. That, and chow down at one of those super, duper grills. Otherwise if you're not into doing a lot of shopping there really isn't much there to see or do.
"The traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see."
Day 17,& 18 - Back to Atlantida
One could, if one had the time or desire, ride from Chuy to Colonia de Sacramento across the interior of the country. The entire trip would take about 7 days. You would spend the entire time pedaling by rolling pasture lands filled with cows and sheep broken only by a few slightly higher hills in the distance and blotches of trees scattered about. It'd be the same scenery the entire way. Pretty in its own subdued way, but not overly spectacular or interesting. We'd only allocated about 3 to 4 weeks in Uruguay and that time was already over half gone. We still wanted to see Colonia del Sacramento. So we chose to skip that cross country trek and take a bus back to Atlantida instead.
Bus travel within Uruguay is easy. Buses run regularly, although not quite as frequently as in Mexico, and seem to be able to get you anywhere you want to be. From Chuy 3 different bus lines run back to Montevideo. If you want to go anyplace else you have to change there. Prices for passengers seem to be fixed, $167 pesos to Montevideo and $147 to Atlantida. Prices for bikes, on the other hand, vary all over the place. Ruta del Sol wanted $100 pesos, COT $70, and Cynsa $45. Cynsa not only had the best price, it also had one of the best schedules and buses. They would pick us up right in front of the camping at about 10:45 AM and leave us at Atlantida at around 3:00 PM. They also have huge buses with gigantic cargo holds. Needless to say they won our business hands down. We had plenty of time to get everything packed and out to the street in preparation for our 5 hour journey back to where we came from.
After years of bike touring and years of taking buses with the bikes and bags we have finally figured out the best way to do it. Those super el cheapo bags we bought in Chuy are so large we can actually fit absolutely everything inside, all 4 panniers, food box, tent bag, and sleeping bag. The only things we left out were our day packs and front handle bar bags which contained things we didn't want to put in the cargo hold. It was so easy to get on the bus. Rather than having 4 to 5 separate pieces each to look after and the bikes, there was simply one bag and one bike each. Everything was stowed and ready to go in minutes and we didn't have to worry about losing any of those miscellaneous pieces. Getting off was even easier. The conductor just grabbed each bag and bike, quickly tossed them out, and the bus was ready to go in just a minute. We finally found the right formula and those big bags cost only $3.60 US and weigh less than a pound. Why didn't we think of this before.
We settled ourselves back in the pleasant camping El Ensueno where we were greeted like old friends. Another day off and we'll be ready for a bit more longer distance riding as we head around Montevideo to the town of Colonia del Sacramento.
Day 19 - 83.76 km to Santa Lucia
If you happen to be on the east side of Montevideo and want to ride over to Colonia del Sacramento, you have just about 2 choices. You can ride through the city by staying on the beach road and rambla all the way around the point and beyond. Eventually you will be forced onto the Pan Am highway, route 1, but that will be well after the city. Or you can take route 11 around the city and through the large towns of Canelones, Santa Lucia, and San Jose. We chose to do the latter as it is more direct and avoids city riding.
As Rt 11 leaves Atlantida you are treated to a separate bike lane for several km and then wide, paved shoulders. The terrain is a series of rolling hills that seem to keep you climbing higher as you leave the coast. Slowly the road changes direction from north toward the west. We passed the tiny farming community of San Jacinto, stopping for water at the gas station. Interestingly, along the route just about 5 km out of Atlantida we passed an antique car dealer. Outside he had about 8 to 10 1920/30 cars and a bunch more 1950s. A cachila dealer.
After turning west the road levels out a bit, but we happened to be heading into a headwind making riding harder. Temperature levels climbed and climbed until the thermometer peaked out at a miserable 90 degrees. Sweat was dripping off my back, chin, eyelashes and my legs were burning with the usual spread of heat rash from thighs to feet. We passed through the nice town of Canelones, capital of the state of the same name. It had a neatly trimmed central plaza, some grand old buildings one dating from 1889, and a bunch of police who couldn't resist running out of their office to have a look after I'd ridden on by. I can hear it now, "What the heck was that?"
Just out of town was one of the several antique stores we'd seen. More like junk I'd say. Spread all over the lawn was an amazing collection of old things. Coleman lanterns, manual sewing machines, treadles for sewing machines minus the machine, pots, pans, insect sprayers, ice box, even a bath tub. Much of it was rusted, most looked entirely worthless. Yet if you could just get some of the Antiques Road Show experts to take a look I'll bet there are some gems among the chaff.
It was the peak of the afternoon heat and we still had 15 km to Santa Lucia. My legs were burning, my stomach churning and Brian was racing ahead like someone had lit a match under his seat. It was so hot our peanut butter melted into a soupy, runny sauce having peanut lumps. Santa Lucia was clearly as far as I could go for the day.
Down by the shores of the muddy river, all rivers in Uruguay seem to be muddy, is the municipal campground. It's filled with ancient eucalyptus trees that offer some relief from the mid afternoon sun. There's also easy access to the river which is a favorite swimming hole, tables and bar-b-cues, as well as showers that usually aren't hot. The campground is crowded this time of year putting a strain on the meager facilities. Actually you might say they had some of the worst toilet facilities we've ever seen. There were 2 buildings, an older one containing 2 squat toilets and a newer one with 2 regular toilets and 3 shower stalls. For some odd reason they only opened the newer building for about 2 to 3 hours in the evening, during which time the old building was locked. For the rest of the day the old building was open. They never seemed to clean the toilets. They were absolutely filthy. The lady's room was somewhat better than the men's, I suppose. But both were pretty bad. And the citygovernment employees in charge of the park, HA! They just sat around all day watching the gate. "Who me? Clean toilets?" Needless to say we managed to find a couple of nice, secluded bushes to handle our business at night and a clean gas station toilet for the morning. We would not recommend this park during the high season. Perhaps it'd be better at other times of the year.
We were surprised to see that there was passenger train service from Montevideo to Santa Lucia. In fact, there were quite a few trains. We'd been under the impression that trains were no more throughout Uruguay. It seems that they store the trains in Santa Lucia at night and we were able to count a total of 4 complete sets. What an old looking bunch of engines and cars they were, probably dating from the 1940s. They didn't seem to be overly crowded either, a make work project perhaps? They run daily in summer; weekdays and a few times on Saturday in winter. So if you're a real train buff, or happen to be filming one of those train travel specials for PBS, then here's your opportunity to ride one of the few remaining Uruguayan trains.
Day 20 - 77.99 km to intersection with Rt. 1,
Day 21 - 78.91 km to Colonia del Sacramento
Geez, it was hot. We'd get up at the crack of dawn, pack, eat a light breakfast, and be on the road before 8. Yet by the time the clock reached 10 it was sweltering out on that road. Our shirts would be drenched in sweat during the day and harden into stiff, salty boards at night. Our energies would drain after it got hot making the rest of the distance seem like an endless struggle. The rolling hills seemed to turn into rolling mountains and the wind always had a front component. It was not a pleasant ride. At least the night we spent at the intersection of Rt. 11 and Rt. 1 proved to be nice. There's a free campsite that doesn't appear to be all that well known. It's right behind a small zoo, next to the tourist information center. There are 4 sites with the usual brick bar-b-cues, no tables, but nice clean bathrooms with regular toiletsas opposed to the squat, hole in the ground variety. No showers, but just imagine how close one can get to taking a bath in a sink. It was a far more pleasant experience than our Santa Lucia stay, that's for sure.
The roads weren't great either. Up until the town of Canelones there'd been some sort of shoulder and light traffic. But between Canelones and San Jose the shoulder was barely a few inches, if at all, and traffic much, much heavier. We hoped it wouldn't continue this way, and it didn't. From San Jose until a few km down Rt. 1 once again we found nice, wide, well maintained shoulders. This wasn't to last, however. Within the state of San Jose, Rt. 1 was a wide, 4 lane highway with some descent shoulders. At least as far as we rode that is. As soon as we got into he state of Colonia the road narrowed to a skinny 2 lane, country road. The shoulders were hit and miss, sometimes a reasonable pavement, sometimes completely gone, and sometimes so full of pot holes it was impossible to ride. As it happens, Rt. 1 is where all those semis we'd been wondering about hang out. Semis, buses, vans, cars, trucks big and small, mopeds, and even some of those 2 wheeled horse drawn carriages we'd seen all over the country all use Rt. 1. Between the sweltering weather, constant traffic, and miserable road conditions, riding Rt. 1 through the state of Colonia was not at all fun. Seeing the buildings of Colonia del Sacramento was such a grand relief. We climbed over one last hill, stopping midway to cool down again, made our way over to the municipal campground, and plopped ourselves right down for a few days of recovery. Enough is enough. After we finish visiting Colonia we're going to head for someplace cooler, the mountains of Argentina.
Day 21, 22, 23 - Colonia del Sacramento
Colonia was founded in 1680 by the Portuguese Manoel Lobo during the time when Spain and Portugal were sort of abiding by that "every thing west of here is yours while every thing east is mine" treaty. Spain had created some very restrictive and bizarre importing laws for its colonies. Something along the lines of, only goods could be imported from Spain and they had to be shipped into Panama, go across land from the Atlantic to Pacific oceans, then shipped to Lima, and then across land once again to Buenos Aires. Which, of course, made Colonia a great place for smuggling goods into Buenos Aires. It's located directly across the Rio de la Plata. Goods from Portugal, England, and slaves from Africa made their way into Colonia and then across the river to Buenos, a much shorter and cheaper route. Eventually, 1777, the town was turned over to Spain and it began a second life as a much less important river coastal city. By this time Buenos Aires had been made a Viceroyality which meant shipments could be taken directly into the port. The contraband business went kaput. The main river town in Uruguay became Montevideo which has a better port.
Today Colonia is recognized as having some of the best, intact colonial character in Uruguay. It has become quite popular with Argentine vacationers and is starting to be visited more and more by foreigners, at least based upon the number of Lonely Planet guide toting tourists we saw. It seemed an ideal place to finalize our Uruguayan adventure.
Our first day spent in Colonia was doing nothing, nada, zilch, zip, squat. A walk on the beach, a chance to read, and resting in the shade was about all we accomplished. The farthest we roamed was over to the small grocery store and back.
Our second day was the day to see the town. A short bus ride through the suburbs eventually took us right to the main downtown plaza. From there it was a 3 block walk to the old town. Old town Colonia is one of your typical new world colonial cities on a nearly miniature scale. If you stroll slowly you may be able to squeeze 1/2 hour looking around. To give an idea of just how small the town really is, we arrived in the center at around 10 AM. We had enough time in the day to check on ferry crossing schedule and prices, take a leisurely stroll through old town, visit all 7 museums, spend an hour at an internet cafe, and shop for groceries all before 6:30 PM.
Colonia is located on a point jutting out onto the brown, muddy waters of the Rio de la Plata. On the upstream side is the old contraband port, now taken over by visiting yachts. In the middle of the town is the very large and shady plaza. At one point there was a large fort further inland from the town of which nothing remains today. Later a new, stone fort was built having a square shape with diamond pattern corners. The inland wall of this fort was part of a fortified wall that extended from water to water across the point. In its third phase, 3 of the 4 walls of the fort were torn town leaving just the wall across the point enclosing the town buildings. A gate and drawbridge were located toward the downstream side of the wall. Even this soon gave way to progress as most of the wall, with the exception of the draw bridge and the short section leading to the shore, were torn down to make way for new construction. Yet this short section of rebuilt town wall is said to be the only such wall remaining in all Uruguay.
Within the tiny old town you find narrow, cobblestone streets lined by canyon feeling, stucco facade buildings. Most have been renovated and are now in use as stores, restaurants, museums, government buildings, a theater, and even a few residences. The building fronts give little to reveal the secluded, green courtyards enclosed within their walls. But, take a peak through a gate of two and you can get a glimpse of what treasured hideaways exist.
There's plenty to see as there are a set of 7 little museum buildings contained within those old walls, each within one of the restored colonial homes. There's a museum on the Portuguese and Spanish periods of the town's history. These offer perhaps more an explanation of the town's history through written signs than actual artifacts to look at. Although the Portuguese museum has an interesting collection of old maps, furniture obtained from the Portuguese royal court, and some great colonial miniature dolls and carriages. There's the Casa Nacarello, a restored home that has been furnished in the style of the Portuguese period. It only has 2 bedrooms, a tiny kitchen, and long skinny front entry, but you get the idea. The regional archives contain bits and pieces of things dug up in an excavation of the old governor's mansion, the foundation of which is on display in one of the plazas. There's the tile museum which has, you guessed it, a small 2 room display of some of the tiles that used to decorate many of the building facades. The El Cologio museum contains some artifacts from the indigenous people. This consists mostly of pot shards and rounded stones. But there are some great paintings that try to depict life at this early stage. Finally there's the municipal museum. This is perhaps the largest and most eclectic collection of all 7 museums. It has furniture, an Edison Victrola, glass and pottery, taxidermied animals, a display of some dinosaur bones dug up in the area, and bug and butterfly displays. Individually, each museum wouldn't be worth the $10 peso entry. However, that $10 pesos gets you admission to all 7, which is well worth the price.
So that's enough of Uruguay. As far as bike touring goes, it's the kind of place you go to if you want easy riding and want to go to the beach a lot. Scenery is pretty, but not spectacular, towns are OK but not all that interesting, and people are friendly and drivers nice. And if you are to ride there in their summertime you'd better really like super hot, humid riding cause that's what you'll get. Now it's on to Argentina, Buenos Aires, and then someplace, anyplace, cooler.
Appendix A - Route
February 1, 2 - Coastal dirt roads and Interbaleanario to Atlantida
Appendix B - Campsites or hotels
January 31 - Hotel Lagomar in Sylmar
Copyright © 1995-2011 by Caryl L. Bergeron - Distribution for personal use permitted. Distribution for other uses with written permission.