Unexpected Suprises

Trip Start Jun 07, 2009
Trip End Aug 23, 2009

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Where I stayed
Casa del Barco

Flag of Uruguay  , Rocha,
Monday, June 15, 2009

We left Punta del Este in search of a more tranquilo location.  Katie thrives on searching for isolated locations in the Lonely Planet and
travel blogs then planning our circuitous routes there via multiple bus
transfers, taxis and walks.  The less mentioned about a place and the more difficult it is too arrive there, the more interested she becomes.  After a 3-hour busride to Rocha then a bus to La Paloma (where all of the other 4 people on the bus exited) which finally connected to La Pedrera. 

We were left at La Pedrera "bus terminal" at 9 PM.  Terminal is used very loosely, as we were literally dropped in the middle of a dirt road sparsely lit by a few street lamps.  This spot appeared to be the bus terminal because there was a small wood covered structure, however it may very well have been a coincidentally located fruit stand.  The sparsely lit dirt road turned out to be Main Street La Pedrera-  Katie had succeeded in finding B-F Nowhere. 

We eventually found the one restaurant that was open in town and asked for directions to our hotel.  We had anticipated that much of the small town would be closed down since it was the winter offseason (all but 2 of the hotels in town were closed), but as we walked to the hotel we saw a number of cute restaurants, cafÚs and bars that looked promising.  We looked forward to strolling back tomorrow to sample some of them.  The next day a quick walk revealed that everything, including the restaurant where we received directions, was closed.  Not only had we found BFN, we had found it in the offseason on a weekday.

Despite being desolate, the town was beautiful.  The main street streched perpendicular to the ocean and culminated at a small hilside which overlooked the water.  In town there were several small cottage style homes, many of them being old, single-story seaside cottages from the turn of the century.  On each side of town there were beautiful beaches that stretched for miles.  You could imagine the place as a getaway for a novelist trying to finish their masterpiece. 

Although we were enticed by La Pedrera┤s tranquility, the prospect of paying $80 per night for the hotel room and $20 for marginal quality hotel food prompted us to search for greener pastures down the road to the larger town of La Paloma

We waited in the lobby/ lounge of the hotel as the elderly woman running the hotel tried to run our credit card for payment.  Despite the six excessively large stickers in the front window advertising that every credit card in the world seemed to be accepted, the woman had not mastered, or perhaps even used, the credit card machines.  After several attempts, she then called her daughter who was 10 minutes away to run the charge. Darren┤s spanish was still pretty rusty at this point and she didn┤t have much patience for his gringo accent, so she asked a man sitting quietly in the lounge to help translate. Enter Jean-Philippe Barnabe, the hero of our adventure in La Pedrera. 

He was raised in Uruguay by French parents but left to attend university in France and then stayed on and is now a professor of Latin American literature there.  He still frequently returns to Uruguay, spending a portion of the north american summers in Montevideo.  He escapes to La Pedrera for tranquility and to focus on his work. 

Up till this point Jean-Philippe was a mysterious man sitting in the corner, but he soon revealed to us both his generous spirit and passion for La Pedrera (and Uruguay).  As he was helping to translate for us, he asked incredulously, "why do you want to leave?".  When we told him that we wanted to stay in La Paloma, the next town up the road, he seemed even more perplexed at our response.  He offered (actually insisted very nicely) to drive us to La Paloma, so that if we changed our mind we could return with him. This was are first glimpse of Jean-Philip's generosity.

Before leaving La Pedrera, Jean-Philippe gave us a quick tour, pointing out the town┤s sites and its beauty.  We then drove up to La Paloma and stopped at three or four hostels so we could check them out. We were reluctant to continue but Jean-Philippe was insistant that we can continue checking the different hostels.  Katie then mentioned that she liked bicycling which prompted a mission to find a bike rental.  We eventually decided that the town was uninspiring and lacked the character that La Pedrera possessed, so we ended up sticking with Jean Philip and heading back.

After returning to the hotel, Jean-Phillippe talked to the owner and got us a discount for the night. We stuck our tails between our legs and returned to the room. We walked around, thinking that maybe something would be open- nope. Even the convenience/ grocery store was closed for the majority of the day.  By the time the store opened at 3:30, we were famished. We grabbed some bread and cheese which would be our lunch, where Darren took a little siesta and Katie twiddled her thumbs.

Just before sunset we walked to the southern beach to check out the remnants of a wreck lodged in the sand. Next to the wreck was a neat rock formation (as seen in the pictures).  Katie took a couple hundred pictures of them.  It turns out that the rocks here have a matching set in Nigeria.  Can you name which scientific theory this supports? 

The next morning we succeeded in checking out of the hotel, this time paying with cash.  Our plan was to catch a bus to the Brazillian border then walk across and catch another bus to Porto Alegre, Brazil.  We were somewhat apprehensive about this plan, as we had read stories of nightmare border crossings that took 3-4 hours and caused the traveler┤s to miss the last bus to Porto Alegre, leaving them stranded overnight in an absymal border town full of sketchy people hawking pirated DVD┤s and clothes.  However, we were up for an adventure and hoped we┤d have better luck with the crossing.   
Jean-Philippe again helped us by calling the bus company and arranged for them to pick us up at La Pedrera. Jean Philip drove us to the "bus terminal" where we waited for the bus that was expected to arrive in 5-10 minutes.  Twenty minutes later it still had not arrived. Jean Philip called the bus company again, and found out the lady on the other end had made a mistake and forgot to told bus driver to stop in the next town down the road for us, but by now it had already passed.  It seemed as if a strange force of nature was keeping us in La Pedrera.
Our badluck turned out to be serendipitous.  Jean Philip offered to drive us back to Punta del Este on his way to Montevideo, allowing us to catch the overnight international bus which would pass directly to Porto Allegre.  We┤d miss out on the adventure of navigating the border checkpoint bureuacracies but travel in comfort.  

We should note that we really enjoyed Jean-Philippe┤s company.   However, we did not want to be a nuisance and so anytime he offered to help us out we were somewhat reluctant to accept.  Darren more so than Katie.  At each offer of help, Darren and Jean Phillip would engage in a duel of stuttered words, Darren saying n-n-n-n-n-n-no and Jean Philip replying simultaneously with yea-yea-yea-yea-yea-yeah.  These exchanges would last for 20-30 seconds at a time.  It looked like something out of an SNL skit.

That afternoon, Jean-Philippe picked up his friend Elba, an Uruguayan woman who had previsouly worked as a chef for a wealthy family in Spain then retired to La Pedrera, and took us for a drive up the coast where we picked a sack of (hongos) mushrooms and pinecones (for use as firestarters). It felt very Hansel and Gretl-like. 

The drive back to Punta del Este with Jean-Philippe turned out to be a highlight of our time in Uruguay.  Jean-Philippe chose the more scenic and infrequently traveled coastal route.  The unpaved road follows the coast passing between large cattle ranches set on rolling hills.  The area has escaped development for tourism because a lake separates it from Punta del Este and the hordes of wealthy Argentinians who┤d love to build vacation homes on this prime coastal land. In the 70's the Uruguay government started to build a bridge over the lake which would have allowed the Argentinians to have a vacation home here and still drive to Punta del Este for a pricey dinner.  Fortunately for the land, the bridge was only half-finished when conservationists prevailed in stopping the project.  The half bridge is still there.

To cross the lake now,  you take a 5-minute single-car ferry- perhaps more accurately described as a barge being pushed by a dingy with an outboard motor.  Soon after the ferry crossing the scenery changes to paved roads, hotels and estates.  Jean-Philippe gave us a quick driving tour of the northern part of Punta del Este which is filled with mansions (owned primarily by Argentians)on a hillside above the beach.  Unfortunately, our adventure with the wild French-Uruguayan Professor came to an end, and he dropped us off at the bus terminal. 
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