I sit writing this post on a plush chesterfield armchair, the contents of which seem to ply off one’s bottom. The room surrounding has the reminisce of the end of the 60s, beginning of the 70s, with old dial telephones stacked neatly in a row. A metaphor for this peaceful country. Uruguay, a place defined by a divided history, has only recently pulled to the left. It’s become known as one of the most socially advanced countries in Latin America. Not surprising when you have had Pepe Mujica (40th president of Uruguay), a loveable cuddly bear, who donated 2/3rds of his presidential salary to charity organisations, and drove around in a beat up old beetle.
For us, Uruguay, has been a rather uneventful affair, as the country prides itself in summer holidays. Unfortunately for us we arrived during the rainy season, which meant sitting about reading and finally finishing off Handmaid’s tale. Our bus journey took us from Porto Alegre to Chuy. A small border town the main road divides Brazil and Uruguay. Arriving in the evening, we had no idea whether we would get to our next destination the same day. All saddled up, we walked aimlessly about the town. I had lost all sense of trepidation for some reason, I guess my ‘spidey senses weren’t tingling. Finally we saw a bus peeking its head around a corner, and so we darted in the general direction. Upon arriving, the bus had left.
Forever confident we would get out of Chuy, we popped our heads into a local hotel and asked for the bus station. “Si, si, final del bloque, gire a la derecha. Rutas del sol. RUTAS del SOL. RUUUUUTAAASS del SOOOLLL”, the receptionist explained, slowly. Must mean route south, I said to Fem. Turned out, it was the name of the bus company…AH RUTAS DEL SOL! Happily booking our bus for Punta del Diablo (only 6 euros!), we had a quick dine and dash pizza. The bus journey took us further south, toward the heart of Uruguay, and finally stopped outside the small town of Punta del Diablo. Devils point.
The Devil was certainly making a point that night, as the municipality thought it would be an absolutely brilliant idea to build the bus station 4 kms away from the city centre. Off we hopped with our 15 kilo bags on our back, and started the trek toward Compay, our hostel for the evening. The night was dark, and the road dimly lit, an odd car would occasionally pass us by. The walk seemed to go on for eternity, as we stumbled over potholes, and squinted under our phone lights. Google maps wasn’t doing us any favours either, as it only shows distance relative to cars. And so we walked, eventually making a turn onto a much larger gravel road. There, at the end of the street, was Compay. Phew, we had made it!
As we drew nearer, house music seemed to be blaring away at the hostel. We arrived, looking rather bewildered, and made our way to the makeshift reception desk. “Ola Amigos, you booked a room?” Not yet, we would like to. “Ah okay, no problem at all. Where you from?” South Africa. “SOUTH AFRICA! You must tell me all about Mozambique. Surfing, it’s good there, no?” Insert yet another shrugging emoji.
One bank. One shop. A beach. A few overpriced restaurants. Pretty much sums up Punta del Diablo. The surf is okay, but it doesn’t justify the cold water. We imagined the place to be buzzing in summer, but, alas, it was no longer. And so, we decided it was time to move on. Packing up our things, and armed with a better sense of direction, we woke up early and left the hostel before any of the mate drinking hosts awoke. Before I forget to mention, Mate is a religion in these parts. Every person wields a flask of hot water, and a container stuffed with Yerba Mate (a type of green tea). Succulently sipping away, the drink contains high levels of antioxidants and caffeine. It’s also used as a social occasion, even become a source of rebellion during the military dictatorship.
Next we made our way to La Pedrera, another small coastal town. The rain plagued our stay, however we did manage to cook up a Asado storm, a Braai concept of sorts. Beef is one of Uruguay’s top exports, which drives down local prices quite substantially (our 300 gram steaks cost us 3 euros total!). Hard to be a veggie in these parts. Asado was our local highlight, while finishing off Handmaid’s tale 2nd season was our guilty pleasure lowlight. We thought this season was struggling to find a focus point, with the story ravelling off into all sorts of direction, only to return to the same narrative again. Oh well, next guilty pleasure is ‘The Wire’. Can’t wait.
Onward we went, to the Saint – Tropez of Latin America, Punta del Este. Meh. Not much to do here either. This place really comes to a standstill outside of summer season. We arrived, checked into our Ibiza type hostel and made our way through the dining room area into an outside terrace with pool and bar. In the corner of the bar stood a DJ who resembled Pitbull. He insisted on playing endless hours of mumbo jumbo and Rihanna remixes. This drivel went on went on until well past midnight. Even WITH the apparent lack of revellers. Anyway, highlight of this trip was the Rustic Resto restaurant, a cozy bohemian cafe, with all sorts of old maps and naval objects.
Montevideo was our next stop, the capital of Uruguay. This beautiful city, with a hint of old buildings poking through the new reminded me of present day New York, minus all the people. We had heard of the legendary steak restaurants, and how Uruguayans pride themselves on their ability to cook a hunk of meat. As explained earlier, the asado concept is part of the culture here, and what better way to experience it then to go to a place that actually specialises in the creation of such a concept. Looking on matador network (a travel site for alternative touristy activities), we soon found the infamous Mercado del Puerto. This wrought-iron structure used to be the main train station, bringing goods from the port to the centre of the city. These days it hosts a number of restaurants and markets that specialise in meat. Every which way you look, different cuts of cow were sizzling to perfection. We settled in, and decided to treat ourselves to some beef ribs, and sirloin steak. Medium rare, oozing with juice. Our eyes widened with excitement. Our waiter soon brought over our fresh cuts. Delicious.
Feeling absolutely stuffed from the experience, we decided that everything should be done in moderation and that meat is rather bland. Curing ourselves of ever craving meat again, we’ve come to the conclusion that we should limit our meat in our diets. It ain’t good for the world, and the taste is rather overrated.
After our meat sweats, we meandered down the cobbled streets, happily snapping some pics, and getting a sense of the city. Footballers were playing a bit of sunday league, while fisherman patiently waited for their catch of the day. Nothing, it would seem, tended to stress a Uruguayan. Hard fought historic conflict has brought about a certain peace to this country. I later learnt that Uruguay has more people (1 peacekeeper for every 280 citizen) in the UN per capita than any other nation in the world. Keen to spread their message of peace and security to the world, not a bad message, if you ask me!
Our time in Montevideo was short lived, as there wasn’t a whole lot going on in the city over the weekend. We enjoyed the local Sunday market, and treated ourselves to some delicious salads and burgers. Argentina was calling, and we soon found ourselves on a bus to Colonia, Uruguay’s most southern city. A city that has changed hands more times one can count, used to be of strategic importance for the Spanish and Portuguese. A mere 50 kms away from Buenos Aires, the town is located at the Rio de le plata River mouth. He who would control this town, would control all access to the 280km estuary that would run the length of Brazil.
These days, the town is peaceful, quiet and historically beautiful. We arrived to amazing weather, and were treated to an absolutely perfect sunset. The egg yolk dipping ever so gently into the sea, we were reminded of where we had been, and how far we had already traveled. Almost 2/3rds of the east coast of this gigantic continent, and many many more towns to follow.
Next up, the Paris of South America. Buenos Aires.