So on Tuesday, 9th February we present ourselves at the gleaming Buquebus ferry terminal for our one and a half hour trip from Buenos Aires to Colonia in Uruguay. (Note – the locals pronounce it 'ooroowhy'). The A/C on board is so ferocious that I am blue with cold by the time we arrive. I make a mental note to wear my thermals and a sweater for the return journey. Luckily it is a glorious day and after settling into our hotel we go out in search of lunch. Colonia is gorgeous, with lots of pretty colonial buildings, cobbled streets and flowers.
It is actually an old smugglers port, first established by the Portuguese in 1680 to transport goods across the Rio de la Plata into Buenos Aires. The atmosphere is laid back, which is very relaxing and we soon feel well chilled. However, at our chosen restaurant the two dozy waiters are so
laid back that they are practically horizontal. Not only is it quite difficult to attract their attention, first to actually get a menu and then to order, but instead of the spaghetti con salsa bolognesa I ordered, I am presented with a plate of plain white spaghetti. Definitely a new one on me! They seem surprised when I ask where my salsa is. Although tipping is the custom here it gives us great pleasure not to do so this time.
The next day we bus it to Montevideo, the capital of the country. We are pleasantly surprised to find that the bus is comfortable and that we have plenty of leg room. Obviously it had been been built with tall people like us in mind. This, more than anything makes us realise that we are now in a country where the locals are descendants from largely European people, mainly Spanish, Italian and German - many of the latter came during and after the last world war apparently. It is nice not to stand out any longer. Until we open our mouths and inflict our atrocious accents onto unsuspecting people, there is no way to tell that we are not local. It is not until it no longer happens that we realise how wearying it has been to be constantly regarded as 'strange'.
Uruguay is a largely very flat country and the roads are good. As usual most people on the bus fall asleep except for me – I hate missing anything and am enjoying the wide open landscape. We do not go through any towns or villages at all, but at some point there is a stop for people who need to change onto another bus. This stop appears to be at a road junction in the middle of nowhere. Rather impressively, two other buses arrive at almost exactly the same time and there is a general to-ing and fro-ing of passengers and luggage. The whole thing is over within minutes!
In Montevideo our chosen hostel only has a room without a window available which we decline. They are nice people, however, and say that we can leave our bags there while we look for another hotel. They warn us though that we may find this difficult as it is the Carnaval weekend and most places are likely to be full. Carnaval, how exciting, we did not know! It does not take us too long to find a nice room on the eight floor of a large hotel, so we have a good view.
We are beginning to realise that Uruguay is not a cheap country, in fact prices are more or less the same as at home. Oh well, we only have a few weeks left and we have decided to regard this time as a holiday, rather than travel. We like Montevideo, it has a nice atmosphere and people are friendly. However, it looks like it is in need of a major spruce up as many of the lovely colonial buildings are in a bad state of repair. Apart from a large 'Indian Emporium' we do not see any major shops or supermarkets, but suspect that these are located in the modern areas outside the town centre. In a way the town reminds us of central Lisbon, which to us looked equally unprepossessing.
In total we stay three nights in Montevideo. On our second evening we watch a Carnaval procession, which goes on until 11 pm. Chairs had been set out along the last part of the route, which was not far from our hotel. We find ourselves sitting next to a friendly Scottish couple who have just spent three weeks travelling around the country and loving it. After talking with them we decide to hire a car, which apart from French Guyana, we have not been tempted to do anywhere else so far. Our decision is also prompted by the fact that because of the Carnaval we have not been able to find anywhere to stay that we can afford further along the coast. This weekend is apparently a bit like our August bank holiday weekend! Not only are most places full, prices have doubled too! Peter jumps on the internet, but cannot find a single firm that has any cars left for hire! Then we remember that we had picked up a brochure of a local firm that did not have internet booking facilities. So we do that old fashioned thing; we use the phone. Hey presto, they have exactly one car left, a little Hyundai, which they deliver to our hotel the next morning.
It is great driving along at our own pace and getting a sense of the Rio de la Plata coast. Our suspicions were right, once outside the centre of Montevideo, there are rather nice looking high rise apartment blocks all along the river front for quite a long time. Eventually they give way to ordinary housing until this stops too. It seems that Uruguay is actually quite an empty country. According to the Lonely Planet it is 187,000 square km, which - if it means anything to anyone, it does not to me – is roughly the size of North Dakota, but with a population of only 3.2 million. Eventually we come to Punta del Este, a major river/seaside resort, which is apparently sometimes rather rudely described by Argentinians as a suburb of Buenos Aires. It seems that the coast of Uruguay is a bit of a playground, not only for well-to-do locals, but also for Argentinians, Brazilians, Chileans, Mexicans, etc. We stop by a tourist office and ask whether there is any accommodation available anywhere. They say yes, there is a room in a lovely house on the beach near here which actually belongs to a five star hotel. For US$300 a night it would be ours, and we could also use the facilities of the hotel. Only the hotel is nowhere near – in fact it is not even on the coast!! We just laugh and say that there is no way that we can afford that kind of thing, at which they go to the other end of the scale and find us a room in a two star hotel which has a special deal as long as we book for four nights. This suits us fine as we rather fancy a bit of R and R on the beach.
Although it has a good location, and our room even has a sea view, the hotel appears rather dilapidated. The architecture looks to be from the 1970s and the furnishings as well as general state of repair, ditto. However, our room is comfortable enough and the staff seem friendly. The next morning, the hotel's owner, a man in his seventies, asks us if we have a bit of 'tiempo'. We are not sure what he wants, but wait anyway. Within a few minutes he comes back with a briefcase, stuffed with papers and photos. He tells us that during the second world war there had been a big sea battle between English and German ships, during which the German ship – the Admiral Graf Spee – got destroyed. Interestingly, it was scuttled by its own captain when he realised that he could not win! Rather sneakily the English had fed false intelligence about the size of the force that was opposing him; if he had known the truth he might have acted differently. Apparently Hitler was not impressed by his performance, and the captain later committed suicide. I have never heard of this battle (although Peter has) and am fascinated to learn that the second world war had been fought as far away as on the other side of the Atlantic! Although the English fleet sustained casualties too, the battle is apparently regarded as a great victory for the English. We are shown photographs of groups of English sailors, all happily drinking beer. The owner must have been a young lad when this battle was happening right where he lived!
We spend our three days relaxing on the beach, while watching the wind- and kite-surfers and exploring the area on foot. There are two parts to Punta del Este, East and West. The Eastern area near the actual peninsula – the Punta – is busy and touristy with lots of expensive hotels, apartment blocks, shops and restaurants. At the same time the atmosphere is quite chilled, this 'Costa Azul' is nothing like the Cote d'Azur! The other part of the town is largely leafy and residential with lovely homes, many of them bungalows. We enjoy wandering around the streets and admiring the architecture, gardens and parks. We also discover an excellent restaurant not that far from the hotel, where the food and wine are of a high standard, but without the high Punta prices. Talking of restaurants, people here eat very late indeed. Many restaurants do not start serving food until at least nine pm and it is not uncommon to see whole families eating at midnight! We've seen them, both in restaurants and through the windows of their homes.
We are the only non Uruguayan people in our hotel and have to explain, every morning anew, that we do not want 'cafe con leche' but 'cafe negro, sin azucar y un poco de leche aparte'. We are surprised to discover that contrary to all the other countries we have been to, Uruguayans do not really understand coffee. Having brought an electric kettle, we like to make coffee in our hotel room. However, outside the major tourist places it is actually really difficult to buy ground coffee that does not have sugar added already. This is not good news, as for us sugar in coffee is anathema! The cafe con leche as it is served here, should really be called 'leche con cafe', as often it can be hard to believe that the cup of milk actually contains coffee too. Things become clearer when we notice that here, more even than in Argentina, people are really keen on 'mate' (pronounced 'mahthe'), a herbal infusion not unlike green tea. Everywhere people, young as well as old, walk around with mate bowl and pewter 'straw' (called a 'bombilla') in hand and thermos flask containing hot water clasped tightly under one arm. Some sensible people even have a special shoulder bag to hold all the paraphernalia. Although it seems that everyone drinks the stuff all day, it is mostly men who do the cup and flask carrying. (Perhaps this is because the bowl and straw are strangely reminiscent of a large pipe, so they all end up looking like Sherlock Holmes). Mate drinking appears to be a shared activity, couples and sometimes small groups drink from the same bowl and use the same straw. Not keen on asking if we can share someone's straw (it is not served in cafes or restaurants) we are nevertheless curious as to what this brew tastes like and decide to buy some. Luckily we do not have to go the whole hog and buy all the gear, as our rather good local supermarket sells mate teabags. Even though this is not the quite real thing (for the bags the herb is toasted rather than dried) it does give us a flavour. We manage not to get addicted; this would take me a very long time indeed, but then I am no great green tea (or indeed any kind of tea) drinker. But maybe I should try as there are allegedly all kinds of health benefits, such as reducing high blood pressure.
Although we did have a good time, our stay in the Punta is somewhat marred by the loss of a lot of our clothing! One way and another we had not had a chance to get any washing done for a while, and as the weather is rather hot, are running out of things to wear. So the morning after our arrival we ask if can get some done at the hotel, to which the answer is affirmative. So far so good. Only we never get it back! Somehow it got stolen, although exactly how and by whom I cannot really say. One explanation (if we understand correctly the rather rapid Espanol spoken by a very excited man) is that the washing was too much to be done by 'one of the chicas' at the hotel. He therefore took it and drove around looking for a launderette, during which time it got stolen. Right. Anyway, we write an official statement (we are rather p..d off by now), stating exactly what has happened and that we want it back before we left the next day. Although we do not say so, we have decided to go to the police the next day if we got no joy, as apart from the inconvenience, the loss amounts to a not insignificant amount of money. However, in the evening the owner and manager call us into their office. They tell us that they had obtained additional statements from all their staff and taken the lot to the police themselves. It had taken them all afternoon and visits to two different police stations to get us all the documentation needed to make an insurance claim. Well, that is good anyway. In a strange way it seems rather flattering that our clothing, which we have been wearing more or less non stop for the last six months, is still so desirable that it is thought worth stealing! So the next day, with only just over a week of our trip left, we go shopping, as especially Peter has literally nothing left to wear! We find a mall not far away with good shops and...the end of summer sales is on! So we enjoy ourselves buying some nice stuff (I buy more than I need, but hey, I'm on holiday!).
We continue along the very pretty coast to La Paloma, where we rent a cabana for three nights. Our cabin is at the edge of a pine and eucalyptus forest overlooking the sea. What more can anyone ask for? La Paloma is a non pretentious place, popular with young people and those young at heart. The main street has lots of little cafes and trendy / arty shops and at the weekend there are frequent music gigs. Perhaps it is because we are now on the Atlantic coast, but although the weather is still nice, it is extremely windy. The beaches resemble a typical British seaside with a few determined souls huddling under a parasol, while only the extra hardy (or foolish) brave it into the water. We opt for walks instead. It is very relaxing being in La Paloma but all good things come to an end. On Saturday 20th we start the drive back towards Colonia and spend the night in another very rustic cabin at La Floresta, a little place to the west of the Punta.
The location of our cabin is stunning – on the beach, overlooking a large bay, where there is a certain amount of jet skiing going on – after our Galapagos speedboat experience, it beats me how this can possible be classed as 'fun'! The next day we take the inland route back to Colonia, which allows us to see more of the country. The landscape is totally open, totally agricultural, with just a few rustic towns, reminiscent of small towns in Ireland. Colonia feels like an old friend, the weather is gorgeous with lots of people sitting in the many pavement terraces. After checking into our hotel we join them in order to finish this blog. Today we start our journey home – ferry to Buenos Aires, flight to Madrid, where we will stay a few days, then Easyjet to Bristol.
So this is our last blog. Thank you for reading it and in a way travelling with us.
Rio Plata Glistens
Wide vistas gladden the soul
Herons stand and starePeter's Haiku:
Travelling all done
Are the people returning
The same ones who left?