“We’re the best of friends. Insisting that the world keep turning our way.
And our way is on the road again. Just can’t wait to get on the road again”
A NY Times article on Uruguay more than 5 years ago piqued my curiosity on the country, and I have been longing to visit ever since. I am not sure if it was the description of its coast as a down to earth, natural and unspoiled place or the gorgeous beaches or the lulling sounds of the ocean, but after the last few months, mostly in cities, it sounded like the perfect place to spend some time exploring. So we rented a car and headed out from Montevideo for a 10 day road trip to La Pedrera, a tiny, surf town with a gorgeous stretch of beach and Colonia del Sacramento, a small, historic town and UNESCO site on the “other” coast of Uruguay.
Uruguay is a small country about 175K sq kms and 3.3M people with roughly half of the population residing in Montevideo, the capital. The vibe is slow and casual with a bit of a European feel. One gets the sense, things have not changed much in the last few decades. Out on the coast, it is even more slow and sleepy. And the cars are even older than the ones in the city. At one spot on the coast where we stayed, the owner’s only transportation was a Studebaker that was decades old.
And nothing happens quickly here – especially out in the country side. If you go, check US efficiency and speed at the border. When checking into hotels, there is paperwork. Checking out at supermarkets takes a long time, and older people are moved to the front of the line (which is a nice gesture that we saw frequently). Dinners are late and lengthy, and servers will never bring you your bill.
Driving is also laid back and slow in Uruguay. After driving in South Africa and not even considering it in India and Vietnam, we enjoyed being the most aggressive drivers for awhile. Driving is slow, courteous and passive. It is similar to Seattle but in some cases, Uruguayan drivers are even slower and more passive than Seattlelites – which would have been quite hard to image if we had not experienced it. On the rambla in Colonia del Sacramento, 20 mph was the standard speed (despite the limit being close to twice that).
As we drove out of Montevideo, the scenery quickly got rural, and Chris and I found ourselves to be only two souls out on the road. It was bliss after spending a month in the second most populous country in the world just a couple weeks ago.
The roads were in great condition too. While the drive to La Pedrera should have only taken about 3 hours, we took a slight detour to Punta del Este. We knew La Pedrera was pretty remote, and there were no major food chains, no major supermarkets and no big box stores. (Exactly the way we like things.) So in addition to wanting to check out the “St. Tropez of Uruguay”, we wanted to stock up on some vino and snacks. We also stopped at an ATM for some pesos suspecting that there would be limited options at our destination. As we stepped out of the ATM, we encountered 6 security guards sternly staring us with sawed- off shotguns and full riot gear waiting. Apparently, they were just there to refill the machine, but it definitely gave us pause. Although there was a nice stretch of beach, Punta del Este had its share of high-risers. Seeing the high-risers off in the distance, we were both glad our destination was La Pedrera.
La Pedrera is a beautiful, seaside village of only about 225 people and 750 homes on a gorgeous beach at the end of Calle Principal (the main road in town). It is a surfing and kite-boarding hot spot and a popular spot for backpackers and cycle campers. There looks like more than a few gypsies out there living off the grid baking bread and making pasta for sale to tourists.
The beach appears to go on for miles and was a beautiful place to run every day. The town itself consists on one main street with a handful of restaurants and tiny places to stay. Most people come here to surf and kite board although we arrived at the end of the summer down here so the kite-boarders have all left town. The surfers were still hanging for a few more waves.
The peak summer season typically only lasts three months from December to February. We visited at the beginning of March, and we pretty much had the whole place to ourselves. The weather was perfect- 80+ degrees during the day and 70 degrees at night. La Pedrera was unbelievably peaceful, and the only sounds we heard for the five days were roaring waves, cicadas and some great music. They love their music down here in Uruguay.
We found two interesting places to stay: Pueblo Barrancas, a small, ecolodge with a private beach and Posada de San Antonio, a small inn on a gorgeous piece of property. Both properties were unbelievably remote and made for some of the best stargazing we have ever seen.
The owner of Posada de San Antonio is a great cook too. We ate at the posada two dinners during our stay. It was like having a wonderful, home cooked meal, but someone else cooked and cleaned. We had the whole posada to ourselves until the last night when it was fully booked (all four rooms). And we made a new friend, Olivia, a loving dog at the posada. She followed us everywhere during our at stay- went on walks with us and slept at our door in the morning waiting for us to wake up. We miss her already.
From La Pedrera, we headed to the west coast of Uruguay to Colonia del Sacramento, a small, UNESCO town of about 27,000 people. Located on the Rio de la Plata, Colonia del Sacramento sees more tourists than even Montevideo. Most tourists take a short ferry ride from Buenos Aires for a day or two to visit Colonia del Sacramento.
Founded in 1680 by the Portuguese, it is one of the oldest towns in Uruguay with interesting, colonial architecture. The Portuguese and the Spanish were regularly fighting over this city in the 17th – 19th centuries until in 1826 when Uruguay took possession.
Uruguayans are crazy about their Yerba mate (aka mate) which is made from the naturally caffeinated, holly tree. The loose leaves are put into a gourd which is filled with hot water (not boiling) and a straw is used to drink the mate. (During our bike ride in Buenos Aires, the guide made some mate for us to try. It has a bitter flavor.) We saw folks walking around grocery stores or hanging out on the rambla from 6-8 pm in the evening hugging a thermos and sipping mate from a small cup. It appears to be a daily ritual here probably not unlike coffee for some folks.
Colonia del Sacramento had some gorgeous sunsets overlooking the rambla. The locals congregated on the rambla to watch the sunset, drink mate and catch up with friends and family. Our hotel,Costa Colonia, was right on the rambla which was great for runs and sunsets. But we have not adopted the mate ritual, yet.
After spending a few days in Colonia de Sacramento, we drove back to Montevideo (about a 2 hour drive) to catch our flight to trek to the Lost City. I have been reading a fabulous book titled The Last Days of the Incas and really looking forward to the trek to Machu Picchu. We will be back with the book review and details of the hike.