“Tourism Week” started on the day we crossed the border from Argentina to Uruguay, where kilometers long lines of cars waited to cross from Uruguay to Argentina. We considered ourselves lucky to head in the other direction. In Uruguay, politics and religion are completely separated, to the point that the week of Easter – a holy week in most of Latin America – has been renamed “Tourism Week”. At that same moment we were confronted with the economic difference between these two neighboring countries: Argentina’s currency is weak with an incredible inflation rate, their money is not very desirable in its neighboring country, unless they pay a steep exchange rate. Uruguayans, on the other hand, can live like kings across their border, which explained the one way traffic. So when we arrived in Uruguay, we expected a richer, more developed country than Argentina – where we’d enjoyed excellent roads and modern looking towns… We were surprised how much less prosperous Uruguay looked: generally the houses were smaller and simpler, their landscaping less cultivated and, beside the toll roads, we found ourselves rattling over dusty dirt roads. This, while Uruguay is named as one of the two wealthiest and most expensive South American nations….we were puzzled. Just like Argentina, most of the countryside consists of cattle pastures and fields that grow animal feed like corn and soy, albeit at times a bit less homogeneous and more natural looking. However in Uruguay, the gentle hills also held patches of eucalyptus forest, its wood becoming another source of income beside the beef industry. Could that make all the difference? In addition we saw herds of horses, grazing on pampas plants and tufts of grass, or galloping along in the distance, throwing up dust, living their lives as they should. Uruguayans love their horses; I’d think everyone here owns a horse like people in the Netherlands own a bike. We passed so many riders along the road, that we concluded that this must be the reason why they have so many unpaved roads: horses and hard pavement don’t go well together.
As we got closer to the coast, quaint thatch- roofed farm houses caught our attention. Most of them were small and unassuming, but so charming. The roads were on and off good to bad, the towns were simple.
Already in Peru we’d heard about a lovely campsite near the coast, owned and run by a Dutch couple. In need of some wifi connection, a load of laundry done, and hopefully some information about what to do and where to go, we decided to go there first.
At the gate of la Chacra Holandesa we were greeted by Jan, Marieke, and their two dogs. We joined several overland campers on the grass near a sparkling pool, beside a field occupied by a handful of horses and a giant pig that thinks she’s a horse. The chacra’s population was completed by a harem of roaming chickens, guarded by a few too many roosters and some cats.
Every day around five o’clock, after the chores of the day are done, Jan settles himself with a cigar and a glass of wine in a chair under the poolhouse roof: a silent invitation for a get-together. Tales of destinations and experiences went around… We found out that we missed an interesting part along a northern route, and what else we should visit. The coast should definitely be on the list. So after a few days of rest we decided to drive north along the coast, which in many places was still the way we remembered it from our first trip in 1978: with sand dunes, pine forests and strips of summer houses (some of them the cute, cottagey, thatched roofed kind) along white sandy beaches. Except for Punta del Este, which is reminiscent of a downsized Miami Beach, most coastal towns were laid-back and simple with low-rise apartment buildings and old fashioned villas.
Our northbound endpoint would be the Parque Nacional de Santa Teresa, at thirty-some kilometers south of the Brazilian border. There, the beaches are grand and wild, the coastal forests untouched, while a historic fort and leftovers of the town of Santa Elena add to the attraction. The park can also accommodate an incredible amount of campers. Maybe this would be the place where in 1978 we experienced Easter weekend (?) when we were joined by campers in old fashioned trucks, loaded up with the family’s brass bed and other home furnishings, and old T-Ford type cars (in that time in Uruguay, every car was antique) got decked out with tarps as makeshift tents, and where we saw the first motorcycle-tent construction, and a legion of gauchos servicing the grounds… So far, we had not found or recognized the exact spot. On the other hand, we passed so many pine forests along the coast, that it could have been anywhere …. My appreciation for the geo-location option, nowadays embedded in my photos, was asserted once more: we didn’t have that in 1978. I need to dig up my photos from back then, before we return in September.
Google maps is great in directing us to impossible roads: in the past, google brought us to a stepped street; on a non existent shortcut through dense jungle; and up a street so steep that our truck just stopped, so we had to back up with our front wheels barely touching the road which made steering impossible… This time google directed us through the backstreets of Punta del Diablo to reach Playa Grande in the National Park. We had to turn around when the road became a deep river gully which, even while walking was a climb along narrow ridges. After we returned to the main road, we found the official main entry, where, as expected, we paid an entry- and camping fee and received a map of the park, as well as a desinfecting dip to drive through. On this map, the road connection between Punta del Diablo and the park was non- existent.
Past the grand entryway we drove a rickety potholed road to the long stretch of Playa Grande beach, where we found ourselves alone on top of a cliff overlooking the ocean. Except for the terrible road condition I wonder why no-one else picked this beautiful spot. The beach below was almost deserted. We passed a few dog walkers, a decaying whale carcass, and further down near the cape that separates the park from Punta del Diablo, some more people. We climbed the dunes and walked the path that brought us to the touristy fisher town, where at that moment a crowd was fixated on a surf competition, sipping maté tea through a bombilla (metal sifoning straw) out of their cuias (maté cups) while holding a thermos of spare hot water tucked under one arm.
How to describe the town of Punta del Diablo? Along the Playa de Pescadores- the most popular part- the streets run helter skelter with the dunes. The dusty roads are scattered with quaint, loosely built open front restaurants, interspersed with small stores, and the occasional cottage. Maybe the buildings were constructed with whatever was found on the beach. Old Volkswagen buses, and young people selling jewelry on the streets or making music made me think of the hippie times. Away from the bustling center, cottages of various sizes and styles varied in curb appeal: some could have been built in the middle ages, some were airy and contemporary. Over time I grew to appreciate the place.
Beside a large restored Spanish fort and some Santa Teresa settlement houses the National park also boasts botanical gardens with an impressive conservatory. Impressive because it looks grand, old and overgrown. Upon entry into the octagonal center, one cannot help but look up and notice the windmill shaped structure that supports four glass roofs. Natural stone pillars and arches leak mosses, ferns and vines. Through an archway we entered a lower side wing, where raised beds displayed a wild array of potted plants rooted in green undergrowth. Another wing displayed taller plants in straight borders, centered by a water canal edged by potted plants. One room looked like an indoor pool, where tropical plants shaded the water for the fish below.
Behind the conservatory we took a narrow path into a patch of old growth forest, which led us over a narrow bridge to a small hill, where a statue of an indigenous warrior was displayed: an ode to the Arachanes people that inhabited these lands until the colonial immigrant people basically extinguished them and all other Uruguayan indigenous inhabitants. Contemporary Uruguay is a very white country.
On a drive around the park we discovered we were not the only ones camping here. Although our spot on the southern side was deserted, we found the most popular spot -with an access road ten times better- on the northern side, where at least a hundred campers hung out under the trees, in close proximity to bath houses and a camping store. We however, happily remained at our lonely spot overlooking the ocean…
Upon return towards Montevideo (from where we plan to fly back to the Netherlands for a summer with family) we chose an inland road that would pass by some vineyards. The dusty road brought us over rolling hills to a lovely vineyard where no-one was home. With our recent experience in Mendoza, where one could visit most vineyard bodegas without making appointments, we never thought to need one here in Uruguay, so this is what you could get. But no big deal, there was another one not too far from there. We arrived at the grand entry of the Garçon wineries, where a guard asked us for our reservations. Which we didn’t have. Thijs later told me he’d tried to make reservations for wine tasting/lunch the night before, but when a prepayment of $80 pp was demanded, he decided to go our usual way. It didn’t work this time. Is that why Mendoza wineries are more popular? For us they are. We don’t need to taste the wines. So we moved on through cattle country, over rolling hills and dusty roads. We spent a night at a rare of-the-road flat spot near a riverbed and soon found ourselves back in Atlantida, where Chacra Holandesa was crowded and welcoming.
The old city center of Montevideo is not overwhelmingly large: one can see most of it in one day. We took the bus, together with our host Marieke, who needed to go into town for her own reasons. We criss-crossed the town and walked down the Avenida 25 de Mayo. At one point you can see the water from three sides, the fishing pier straight ahead of us, and on both sides waterfront peeping through at the end of the streets. Traffic was relaxed for a nation’s capital, and the shady parks felt comfortable. Pompeous Renaissance and Neoclassical buildings, plus a scattering of Art Deco facades bring back memories of good old times when money must have been plentiful for the chosen ones. The economy is pretty good now, and slick modern architecture stands proudly beside the historic monuments of yesteryear, but neglect seeps through the walls of some smaller buildings. At the Plaza Independencia we descended under the statue of José Artigas, and found his impressive black granite underground mausoleum: the remains of this national hero solemnly accompanied by two honor guards.
Thijs went on a quest to find himself a typical gaucho beret, so he could keep his head protected against sun and wind, although we already have this as a gift for our youngest son in mind, who we think might appreciate this fine woolen cap. There are gaucho stores in Montevideo that sell a generous range of these berets: ridiculously wide cotton and woolen berets, as well as more moderate sizes, in a variety of colors and materials. Thijs proudly stepped out of the store with a black woolen one and was immediately photographed by a passing tourist. He generously posed for the picture!
All too soon our departure date arrived. We drove to the storage facility, where our camper joined over a hundred other overland vehicles, waiting for their owner’s return to continue their journey. We plan to be back by the end of September, when the drive south to Ushuaia and Tierra del Fuego, followed by a trip north along the Chilean border should finalize our South American exploration. But for now, we look forward to some family time in the northern hemisphere.