Uruguay

– visited March 2014 –

As I relax in the hot pool, I begin to ask myself if I have just arrived to the friendliest country on earth. It all starts on the boat crossing the Rio Uruguay. I anticipate a problem; the boat is small and leaves only every few hours so I do not expect to find an ATM at the point of arrival. I have to take a bus to get to the bus station but how to pay for that bus without Uruguayan money? I ask an older couple if there is an ATM or a money changer at the port. No, there isn’t, I do not really get the rest of their response, my Spanish still has plenty of room for improvement. I ask the lady selling the tickets, she is accepting payment in Argentinian and Uruguayan Pesos so she could easily change something for me. She doesn’t want to do that; she just gives me a 10-peso coin instead. I wonder if that will be enough, it is only 30 cents. As I climb out of the boat, I stop to worry. The man I spoke with before, is waiting for me and hands me a 100-peso note. Thank you. I’m all set. At the bus stop, I ask a lady which bus I need to take. She takes good care of me and alerts me as my bus approaches. As I get in before her, I hear her say “I will pay for you”- No, no, please not, I have enough money. The bus costs six pesos, I could have taken the bus 18 times with the money I was gifted by strangers.

Termas del Daymán is a small village, famous for its spa. I urgently need a needle and thread to fix the emergency camera bag that I bought back in Brazil. The shop is more like a bigger kiosk and I have no hope of finding what I am looking for but there seems to be no other option in Daymán. I don’t even know the words for thread and needle in Spanish but I do know how to say “to sew”. The friendly lady quickly understands, she explains that I need an “aguja” and a “hilo” and in this moment a needle is already lying on the counter. “What colour do you want for the thread?” As my bag is black, I say black. “Good choice, it is the only colour I have”, she says with a broad smile. I have set up my tent on the campsite for little money and now I realize that it has two pools. One is a normal pool and the second is fed by the hot spring. Nice. I share the pool with a very friendly couple and it turns out that she has lived a few years in Germany and speaks near perfect German. I start to like that country.

That feeling never left me all my journey through Uruguay. If I should describe the country in one word “relaxed” is what immediately comes to my mind. The second-smallest nation in South America (after Suriname) it is squeezed between much bigger Brazil and Argentina. These two countries are both seeing themselves as the “powerhouses” of South America but are, in fact, beset by plenty of problems. And in between there is laid-back Uruguay, which just seems a pretty nice place to live. At the time of my visit, Uruguay’s president was the 78-year-old José Mujica and he still lived on his small farm outside Montevideo. He kept 10% of his salary and donated the rest to charity; as his private car he was driving a Volkswagen Beetle.

Fiesta de la Patria Gaucha

Uruguay does not have a boatload of attractions for a visitor. The coastline is beautiful but the season is short, and in that season, it is overrun by Brazilians and Argentinians. I am lucky though, and tomorrow, the Fiesta de la Patria Gaucha, a festival of Gaucho culture will start in the inland city of Tacuarembó. Gauchos are skilled horseman, known for their bravery and unruliness. Kind of the regional version of the better-known cowboy. The Fiesta is an event for them to meet, to chat, to stock up on Gaucho clothing (I buy pants and Gaucho shoes myself), listen to concerts and for young men it is also a rite of passage. They have to show their skill breaking in horses in the arena in front of the visitors. The horses use all their energy to get rid of their riders, if they have stayed atop the horse for about 30 seconds a whistle blows and a crew of experienced Gauchos sweeps in basically catching the rider from the horse and then securing the horse. It goes all day and it is interesting to watch. It is not without risk though, one of the riders leaves the arena in an ambulance.       

Uruguay’s Coast

We, since the bus to Tacuarembó I am travelling with an American living long-term in Heidelberg, need a full day to reach the coast. We have to stop in several small towns along the way and again Uruguayans turn out to be seriously friendly, the lady at the restaurant quizzes us about what we are doing here in sleepy Trenta Y Tres.

It is mid-March and summer has come to an end. On warm days, if the sun is out it is still good to swim but if the clouds come in, it gets cold quickly. Punta del Diablo has long, beautiful beaches and a nearby fort. It is one of these seaside villages where in season every house is rented to tourists but outside of the season few people bother to come.

I move on to the exceptionally beautiful Cabo Polonio. A small village of about 100 inhabitants it is protected by a National Park. There is no road, you can either walk for about 7 kilometres or take one of the scheduled 4×4 trucks plying the route through the sand dunes. A hippie refugee, there is no electricity, water comes from your own well and some of the houses have been built with driftwood. The focal point is the lighthouse, that sits on the tip of the peninsula. Sea lions frequent the rocks in front of it and the nearby islands are home to a large colony. Shifting sand dunes, up to 50 metres high, are another attraction. My hosts want to talk about politics with me but that stretches my Spanish too far. Cabo Polonio is a place of such beauty that you should just stay. But there is so much else to explore, so I better get moving again. 😉   

Punta del Este

Punta del Este is the full contrast to Cabo Polonio. I have left the alternative part of the coast behind and reached the establishment part. A playground for the rich of South America, Punta del Este is to my eyes exceptionally ugly. A lot of non-descript concrete, I would see no reason why to spend my holidays there. One thing is cool though, “The Hand”, a sculpture by Chilean artist Mario Irarrázabal where the fingertips of an imaginary giant are sticking out of the sand. A fourteen-year old Brazilian girl is posing on the thumb. It is a professional shooting and the aim of the whole endeavour is to produce pictures for the invitation cards for her 15th birthday. All across South America, girls celebrate their 15th birthday with a big party as kind of their entry into adult life. If you are rich enough why not go to Punta del Este to take some picture. This is the kind of people who are attracted to this place.

Another attraction near Punta del Este is the Casapueblo, the brainchild of artist Carlos Páez Vilaró. Originally his summer house and workshop, he transformed it over the course of his live into a gleaming white complex sprawling up the hillside containing a museum, an art gallery, a cafeteria and a hotel. His art is also very creative but you are not allowed to take any pictures. The Brazilian girl is visiting the Casapueblo as well, another session of her shooting, different dress this time.

Piriápolis is more of a classic seaside resort with the Argentino Hotel (formerly Grand Hotel) as its focal point. The brainchild of businessman Francisco Piriá, who had a castle built nearby, he modelled it on the French Riviera. I stay at the Youth hostel which is devoid of any character and in low season totally empty.

Montevideo

Montevideo’s Estadio Centenario is where the first Football World Cup was won by the host nation of Uruguay in 1930. A museum remembers the history. I visit during the day and in the evening to see Club Atlético Peñarol play Club Atlético Cerro. Only one section of the stadium is filled with supporters of Peñarol and the rest of the stadium (capacity 60,235) is mostly empty. Disappointing as both teams hail from Montevideo. That is a common occurrence in Uruguayan football though, half the population lives in Montevideo and most teams in the league are from the city.

Besides football, Montevideo is a nice city but has few sights. At the hostel, I meet a Chilean Ph.D. student who tells me he has been living at the hostel for three years. It’s perfect, he says, he has no work to do to clean or whatever, he constantly meets new people and they are all in happy-holiday-mode. I move on to Colonia del Sacramento, withdraw plenty of US-dollars for Argentina’s black market and take the ferry across the Rio de la Plata to Buenos Aires. If you read my report on Bolivia you might remember the name “La Plata”, the silver originating in Potosí was shipped down the Rio de la Plata, the River of Silver.