Uruguay - Coasts and Cattle Country
Apr 20, 2006
|First of all, let me say a big THANK YOU to Uruguay for being the first Latin American country to adopt the "no smoking in closed spaces, private and public" policy promoted by the World Health Organization. In a part of the world where cigarettes are cheap and everyone smokes like a chimney with no consideration for the poor non-smokers in the room, it is an incredible relief to get away from the ever-present smoke filled haze for a while. I never thought I'd see it in SA. Now, if only the rest of the continent would follow suit!
So, after my 3-week volunteer gig at Karumbé, I hit the travel trail again. I spent a total of 7 weeks in Uruguay; that's probably 6.5 weeks more than most people! I enjoyed the trip, but in honesty this was not the best time of year to visit Uruguay.
The main tourist season in Uruguay is remarkably short, usually just the hottest summer months of December, January and February. If they're lucky and the weather cooperates, they might squeeze in one more month on either side. During these months the beaches are jam-packed with people, as are the bars, restaurants, hotels and campgrounds. Every vacation property is fully booked. The streets are filled with vendors and pulsing with music, laughter, life, and activity.
Now, if you happen to be traveling around Uruguay at any other time of year, say April or May for instance (ie. the months that I happened to be there), you'd find those same beaches deserted, most bars, restaurants, campgrounds and hotels closed for the season, vacation properties boarded up, and streets pretty much void of life.
In other words, for the last month I've been wandering around from one abandoned place to the next looking for some sign of life. And it's not just the foreign tourists that are missing; the locals are gone as well. It's like I've been living inside some freaky sci-fi flick where I'm the last survivor of a nationwide nuclear disaster! Okay, so maybe I'm exaggerating a little ...but really, other than Montevideo, the country's capital, the rest of the places I visited were beyond quiet.
Anyway, despite the lack of people and frequent travel frustrations, I found Uruguay one of the friendliest countries in South America. For instance, if I asked someone for directions, they didn't just tell me how to get there, they'd personally escort me there, not wanting anything in return...how nice is that! And although small (placing third smallest in SA behind French Guiana and Suriname), it had more to offer than I had expected.
The Atlantic coast is one of Uruguay's main attractions. I traveled east along the coast, basically from Montevideo to the border of Brazil, stopping at every place along the way, or at least the ones I could get to this time of year. Although the places were all but empty, there's no denying the sheer beauty of the succession of picturesque bays, white sandy beaches, and tall lighthouses that follow the coast.
Punta del Este is the largest, best-known and most visited place along the coast. Nicknamed the "Uruguayan Riviera", it's one of SA's most glamorous and exclusive destinations with luxury holiday highrises, million dollar mansions, yacht clubs, golf courses, 5-star restaurants, casinos, designer shops, and stretch limos and expensive sports cars to transport the rich and famous who come for the summer from around the world. It's amazing that most of these places sit empty for the majority of the year!
My favorite place along the coast was Punta del Diablo, a tiny fishing village with a population of maybe 500. There's a nice sandy beach facing an energetic sea and huge boulders stretching out to "Devil's Point", but vacation homes here are more rustic than rich, small fishing boats line the shore instead of luxury highrises, and there's no need to make a reservation at the couple of beach bars or restaurants in town.
After I ran out of coast I moved inland, wanting to see what the central part of Uruguay has to offer. Here the scenery changed to gentle rolling hills and valleys, small lakes and rivers, and lots of ranchland to support Uruguay's large cattle population.
I faced more transportation challenges once I got off the main coastal roads, and a couple of touristic places that I had wanted to visit just weren't accessible without private transport. I even had to leave one city (Treinta y Tres) earlier than planned because I arrived on a Friday night, wanting to stay and tour around over the weekend, but all hotels in this particular place shut down for the weekend. What? Surely I heard wrong. My Spanish is pretty good these days but I still don't get every word. Who's heard of a hotel being open during the week and closed on the weekend? But sure enough, one hotel after the next told me the same story, so on Saturday morning I was forced to hit the road, sights unseen, otherwise I'd have been sleeping on a park bench! I had accommodation problems at the next place as well (Minas), but this time all hotels were full because a big annual Gaucho Festival and Rodeo was taking place that weekend (thankfully the tourist office was organizing rooms with local families for visitors).
My favorite place in central Uruguay was a small village called San Gregorio de Polanco, pretty much smack in the middle of the country. It sits beside a large tranquil lake, but added charm comes from the large bright murals that a group of artists painted on many of the buildings around town a few years ago.
I also visited Tacuarembo and nearby Valle Eden, which Uruguay claims is the birthplace of Carlos Gardel, a singer of the early 1900's who set a new music trend with the introduction of lyrics into the tango, formerly strictly an instrumental form. Starting as a nightclub singer, he eventually moved into motion picture and received international fame and the title of "King of Tango" before being killed in a plane crash in Colombia sometime around 1940. To this day there's still great debate over his nationality, both Argentina and France trying to claim his birthright, but Uruguay insists he's one of theirs.
I moved further west again and hit the banks of the Rio Uruguay. This river is wide and beautiful, and basically forms the border between Uruguay and Argentina. In addition to extensive ranchlands, natural hot springs and water parks stretch along the river, as well as hydroelectric stations (often joint ventures with Uruguay) that generate the majority of electricity for the country.
I toured one hydroelectric station near Salto, and also spent an afternoon relaxing at one of the nearby hot springs. Man, ya gotta love those hot water massage jets! Heading further south, I spent an afternoon at a small town called Fray Bentos visiting the Industrial Revolution Museum where, until 1980, one of the largest and, for its time, most high-tech meat and sub-product processing plants in the world operated. Ever heard of OXO cubes or tinned corned beef? Well, these products were basically invented here!
My most enjoyable experience in this part of the country was visiting an "estancia" which, by Canadian standards, would equate to a "cattle ranch". Estancia visits are usually booked through agencies, and I had requested someplace "rustic" in order to experience the real heart of Uruguay. Well, when I arrived and saw the outdoor swimming pool, sprawling villa with no less than 6 large guestrooms, pool table in the family room, and let me not forget to mention the 5-star cuisine and bottomless wine glass, I knew firstly that I'd died and gone to heaven, and secondly that my request for rustic had been slightly upgraded. If this is rustic, I'd like to see what a swanky place looks like!
Estancia "La Gaviota" has many hectares of land where soya and wheat crops are currently being harvested, huge herds of cattle, dozens of horses, goats, sheep, chickens, and a kennel full of dogs (it's also a very popular destination for bird hunting). I went horseback riding one day, a good way to tour around the estancia, but in honesty I don't have much talent there, so I guess the gaucho life just isn't for me!
My final destination in Uruguay was Colonia del Sacramento. I definitely saved the best for last. Originally founded by the Portuguese in 1680, this old colonial town is renowned for its cobbled, windy streets and colorful houses reminiscent of old Lisbon. Walking around the historic center really is like taking a step back in time. But even there, probably the most visited place in Uruguay, the streets were practical empty!
So, after 7 weeks in Uruguay, there are still places that I'd like to visit and some I'd like to return to ... but in a different season when there are more people and warmer weather. On the positive side though, because there weren't many other foreign tourists, I had the opportunity to interact with a lot of fantastic locals, and I definitely got lots of practice and improved my Spanish skills!
Lastly, for those of you who read my last story, here's a little update on Karumbé. The new centre survived its first school group of 25 teenagers with most walls and exhibits intact! The land turtle eggs haven't hatched, so no babies yet. The rescued sea turtle count remains the same: "Patricio" has yet to pass any of the plastic he ingested and remains under care at the centre. The flipperless turtle has been permanently adopted by Karumbé and has been named "Venus". The sea turtle named "Connie" fully recovered from her close encounter with the fishing lines and returned to a free life at sea, but a new turtle named "Margarita" with much the same injuries has recently arrived. They haven't found yet another "painter and cleaner extraordinaire" to replace me!