I had been looking forward to this trip for a long time. I had been studying a ton and just needed a break. But, I also had a curiosity about Uruguay given it’s tiny size and all the great things I had heard about Punta Del Este, a beach town about 2 hours up the coast from the capital, Montevideo.
While boarding the boat in Buenos Aires to take me across the river, I heard my name called out after clearing customs. I turned around to see a Dutch couple who was on my boat in the Galapagos, Fabian and Melanie. Since we parted in June, they had been traveling trough South America and were leaving Argentina to go to Brazil through Uruguay. This was totally random but entirely wonderful. We caught up a little and then made plans to see each other in a couple days once they left Montevideo to head to Punta. Unfortunately, they headed straight on to Brazil due to the weather. But, I’ll be seeing them again in Holland next year.
After docking in Montevideo, I boarded a bus and made the 2 hour trip to Punta Del Este. After arriving, I walked around the peninsula to find a bathing suit – I left my last one in the Galapagos by mistake. I couldn’t find one in town, but did have my palm read by a gypsy. So, I went to the local mall where I found one in about 15 minutes and checked into the hotel. My only goal for this trip was to relax on the beach and catch up on updating my website. Mother nature had other plans.
My room looked out over a western bay and I enjoyed a beautiful sunset. The hotel was a little remote so I had exactly one restaurant option for dinner. I walked into this home that had been converted into a beach-side restaurant. It was casual enough for the beach crowd, but had a warmth that was different from your typical seaside joint. I enjoyed a nice grilled fish dinner with some wine and headed back to the hotel. Monday I stayed close to the hotel and worked on the website.
I took a stroll during the day to check out the beach and had lunch at the nearby restaurant. While it’s spring here, the weather was still a little too cool to be on the beach. Actually, I might have been OK had it not been for the wind gusts. So, I was left simply to admire the long, golden beaches. From December to February, Punta is hopping with Argentines, Brazilians and the European jetset crowd. Currently, Punta is sleepy, slowly waking up from winter.
Kim, my kiwi sister, had let me know that she was on her way to Punta and would arrive on Tuesday afternoon. I headed off to the bus terminal and met her when she arrived. We got her checked into her hostel and then we took off on foot to explore.
Central Punta lies on a peninsula and we walked around the perimeter. The city is very modern with hip, modern high-rises forming the skyline. It’s hard to miss a for sale sign, a construction site for a new building or a real estate office. You definitely get the feeling that you could be anywhere in the world. Over a nice Italian meal with a nice bottle of wine, we decided that given the cool weather, we would have to improvise. So we decided to hire a car and road trip around Uruguay.
On Wednesday, we left Punta around 11 and headed up the coast toward the Brazilian border. Just outside of Punta, there were a couple of very upscale towns and resorts with beautiful beaches and impressive-looking restaurants. After that, we were in “el campo”, “the bush”, “the country” no matter how you cut it. The landscape is relatively flat and pastoral with tons of farms with cows, horses and the occasional sheep. The green grasslands mix with large eucalyptus, pine and fir trees.
We made occasional stops for the odd picture and admired the lighthouses (faros) in every town. Around 2PM, we made it to La Paloma, a small resort town. Kim had a tip on a restaurant there so we went to check it out. We had nice fried calamari for an appetizer. I had a seafood ravioli while Kim enjoyed a seafood “cazuela” (stew). Both were excellent and after a coffee, we were on our way.
We hit several small towns but eventually reached our furthest planned destination, Parque Santa Teresa. The park was closed and so we went to find a laguna on our map. We didn’t find that either. Since we were about 40km from the Brazilian border, we debated and finally decided to complete the journey. Along the way, we came across a huge, historical fort. It was closed, but we walked the perimeter. it reminded a little of the fort in Cape Town with its large stone walls. The wind really picked up so we got back in the car and made our way to the border town of Chuy. There we visited, or tried to visit, Fort San Miguel. Again it was closed, but next door was a huge, historical hotel which was magnificent. We saw the sunset from here. We got back to Punta around 11:30 and were wiped. Our plans for a nice dinner flew out the window. But, we logged a cool 677kms!
On Thursday morning, we got up and headed west along the coast. We first stopped in Punta Ballena and made our way to “Casa Pueblo.” This is the home of the international painter, Carlos Paez Vilaró. His work was strongly influenced by his interest in African culture, particularly in Brazil and Uruguay – mostly Brazil. We saw a film of his life which has taken him all over the world including a couple of round the world tours – my kinda guy!
We made our way to the gallery and I found a painting I really liked – too bad the price was out of my range. I did find a more moderately priced piece and was getting ready to pay, when the sales associate led me to a private room. In fact, it was Mr. Vilaró’s home and studio. I spent about 15-20 minutes visiting with him. I got to ask him lots of questions and I also told him about my trip. I spoke about my passion for Africa and after hearing my story, he called us “hermanos” (brothers). I was stunned and honored. This man has been commissioned for art all over the world including many world leaders. And, according to him, we have a lot in common. It was great! He also gave me 4 of his books, signed them and then…signed my painting. I can’t wait to hang it one day.
After a quick coffee, we headed off to Piriápolis, a small seaside town where we sat near the rambla along the shore and enjoyed yet another great Uruguayan seafood meal. We split a paella dish and calamari in a butter and garlic sauce. We walked along the waterfront and then made our way to a random zoo near a large mountain. The zoo was free and basic. But, it had a good mix of local fauna including an ocelot, foxes, deer, cats and owls (my favorite of them all).
The rest of the afternoon, we saw a classic car junkyard (everything from the 30s or 40s, and maybe the 50s – I have no clue about cars). It was very cool. We saw an old fort in Maldonado (yeah – we finally saw one!) that was instrumental in Uruguay’s fight for independence from Argentina. One room contained busts of all the continental American liberators, including George Washington.
At sunset, we wound up at the beach and got some great pics. We then headed back onto the peninsula to look for a restaurant. We found a very tony place called “Lo de Tere” around 8:45. We got in early enough to qualify for the early bird discount (remember, no one in Arg or Uruguay eats before 9-10PM). Our luck with the food continued. We shared a large steak called, “Mas Uruguayo Que Nunca” or More Uruguayan Than Ever, and fresh crab raviolis. We enjoyed another great Uruguayan wine (who knew?). Completely sated, we went back to our respective residences to get some sleep.
I’m not sure what I expected out of Uruguay, but I loved it. The nature, the food, the people – all were great. With Brazil and Argentina next door, Uruguay doesn’t get much attention, but it should. It’s a divine little place that I will remember for a long, long time. Maybe it’s better kept as a secret.
Originally Published November 16, 2007
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