Road Tripping in Uruguay

“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”

Willie Nelson – On The Road Again Lyrics

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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Miracle in the Andes

Wow – this is an inspiring story. Many of you likely know the story of the plane crash in the Andes in 1972 that was popularized in the book and movie, Alive. What you may not recall is the plane was carrying a ruby team from Uruguay over the Andes to play a match with a team from Chili.  The book was written by an English historian and biographer who interviewed the survivors and rescuers – it  was quite well received and is an excellent read.

Miracle in the Andes: 72 Days on the Mountain and My Long Trek Home was written by Miracle_in_the_andes_bookcoverNando Parrado, one of the survivors and one of the two people that trekked out of the Andes on their own to find help.  It is a fascinating and gripping tail which adds a lot more context than Alive. Much of the book details the absolutely incredible trek to safety. After surviving a plane crash and then 2 months in the mountains with little to eat, two of the players hike from 12K ft up  and over a peak at  17K ft and than 70 miles down in artic conditions with only street cloths, ruby cleats, and snowshoes fashioned from seat cushions. Their climb traversed walls of snow, vertical ice climbs, and a technical descent that would challenge professional climbers with crampons and ropes.

 

It is truly unbelievable and inspiring. Its a great motivational story to stick in the back of your head for your own climbs or bad days.  The later part of the book details Nando’s views on atheism and coming to terms with survior’s guilt and the loss of his sister and mother who were also on the plane.

Its very worthy of a few hours.

(Monte)video Killed the Radio Star

After our week of Spanish classes in Buenos Aires, we hopped on a ferry to Uruguay where the official language is…Portuguese.  But we quickly learned that there seems to be as much Spanish spoken here as Portuguese so it will be a good practice ground for us.

We took the Buquebus ferry which left from a port in Buenos Aires and delivered us to the heart of Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, in just under two and a half hours.  We rode on the Francisco ferry which is one of the fastest in the world. It holds 1000 passengers plus 150 cars and can reach speeds over 100 kms/hour. It is a massive ship with three different passenger compartments, and a duty free area that has to be at least 5000 sq. ft. filled with locals avoiding the high taxes in both countries.  There are 3 classes for passengers; we sat in economy class which is the equivalent of airplane travel with a lot more leg room and space, in general, for walking around on the boat. It was a great way to travel.

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Montevideo is a smaller city with about 1.3 million people and about 1.8 million more in the metro area. It feels a bit more run-down than Buenos Aires, and there is a lot less to see and do there. A friend who lived here for a couple years told us to expect older cars, generally older buildings, and people wearing older clothes.  It did feel a little bit like going back in time a few years.  We were also told before Cuba opened up Montevideo was often a stand-in location for Cuba for movie makers.

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4×4 Niva

The city and country is very progressive despite their choice in clothes.  It was one of the first countries to legalize same-sex marriage and marijuana. It also has significant corporate tax benefits that attracts companies from all around the world looking for a location for a South American HQ. For example, both Dell and John Deere are based in Montevideo.  Uruguay is also the playground for the South American elite – although, they mostly travel to the coast to places like Punta del Este rather than Montevideo.

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Bumped into a taxi strike outside the Presidential building just when we were looking for a taxi.

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We enjoyed our visit to Montevideo. We found another small hotel, My Suites, in the neighborhood of Pocitos that had a number of small restaurants in walking distances and was only 2 blocks from a city beach.

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There is a promenade that stretches on for 20+ kilometers and offers a great place for a morning run or walk. The city is surrounded by sandy beaches with good surf and wind for kiteboarding and surfing, but the raw sewerage smells that we picked up on our runs had us wondering if you really want to get in the water here.

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We took a couple hours one day to check out the city’s sites – the Plaza Independencia, the old city, the Teatro Solis, and a museum dedicated to the survivors of the 1972 Andres plane crash (that inspired the book Alive).

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While here, we discovered a new (new to us) wine grape while visiting – the tannant – which is a full-bodied, fruity and a big red. It has paired well with all the grilled beef that is down here.  It is grown in the US and France, but Uruguay considers the varietal their national grape.  It is often blended (we had it with Merlot) but is also produced as a single varietal.

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Radio is alive and well down here. Montevideo did not kill it. US classic rock, and specifically Heart, seems to be popular here. At least, we have been hearing it a bit on the radio in taxis. We had a fun chance meeting with some young hipsters down here.  I blew their minds by turning them onto Shazam, and in return, they introduced us to a number of jazz and other musicians from Uruguay including Eduardo Mateo, Opa, Ruben Rada, Hugo Fatorusso, and Jaimie Roos. We are still plowing through all the back catalogs but Eduardo Mateo’s stuff is great.

Montevideo was an entry point for Uruguay, and we are planning to take another road trip heading up the remote coast to hang out with the surfers and gypsies for a few days. We are both concerned about having the right color thongs for the playas.  We shall see this week – stay tuned.

 

 

Estudiantes de Espanol en Buenos Aires (BA)

“They must often change, who would be constant in happiness or wisdom.” – Confucias.

With that in mind, we left Asia and Africa behind where we have spend the last 4.5 months and hopped on a plane to South America heading for Buenos Aires, 15,000 km away. Our plan was to swap our bikes (not entirely) for textbooks and study a bit of Spanish. After the 40 hour journey from Mumbai, our little hotel, Awwa Suites & Spa , tucked into the leafy neighborhood of Palermo was just the spot to hibernate during our first day in Argentina.

Palermo is a  quaint, European style neighborhood with tree-lined, quiet streets, beautiful parks and plazas including Jardín Botánico Carlos Thays, Parque Tres de Febrero, Jardín Japonés  (perfect for running), lovely Italian restaurants and Argentinean cafes including Mishiguene, Malvorn, Bella Italiaa dry cleaners with laundry service, wine shops, supermercados and one single hotel.  The area is wonderfully residential.  It was also a beautiful, 25 minute walk to Vamos Spanish Academy where we took a week long, crash-course in Spanish.  Perfecto!

Buenos Aires has the look and feel of an elegant, European city. Its architecture is similar to both Paris and Madrid. Its parks, plazas, and monuments could fit nicely in any Spanish or Italian city. The eating and nightlife is also very Spanish – light and late breakfasts, big lunches with wine, very late dinners which can last for hours.  This is not too surprising given the city’s history and the European immigration 100 years ago.  The second largest immigration of Italians went to Argentina from about 1850 to 1940. (Only the US had a larger number of Italian Immigrants).  Curiously, Argentina also had a significant number of both Eastern European Jewish and German Nazi immigrants. And you can see and feel their influence.  Jewish delis are scattered throughout the city. We had one of the best Reuben sandwiches we have ever had (we had to go back twice) and also a tasty bowl of varenikes (which are Argentine pierogies) at Mishiguene.

Argentina has had a very tumultuous past with many different governments, dictators, military juntas and plenty of civil unrest. The recent “Dirty War” of the late seventies, the financial crash of 2001, and the additional economic issues of 2008 have made life challenging for the typical Portenos (as people who live in Buenos Aires are called). There is also a very noticeable division between the poverty of the indigenous people and the extreme wealth of “the Europeans” as well as the foreigners that continue to hide wealth in over-the-top real-estate projects on reclaimed land in new neighborhoods of Buenos Aires.

Argentina has recently elected a new president, Macri, in December, and there is both hope and apprehension in the air.  The financial issues will take some time to solve, and there will be pain before resolution. Inflation is climbing and is expected to be in the 30-40% range this year. The black market for US dollars has been eliminated only within the last month or so. We met people whose rent has increased by 80%. Taxis are increasing their fares this month by 20%. The change is big, but it appears that Portenos just roll with it – they have seen so much in the last few decades.

Since we plan to spend a couple months in South America, we thought a week of studying Spanish at the  Vamos Spanish Academy was a good idea.

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We were a little apprehensive, at first, about taking the Spanish course and spending 8 days in Buenos Aires, but we are so glad we did.  At the end of the week of study,  we could navigate daily tasks much easier in Spanish, and we met some nice people.  There were only three other people in our class- a couple  from England about our age who are also traveling the world and were in South America on their way up to visit their son at school in California; and a young hipster from Istanbul who is currently living in Austria but visiting Argentina to learn Spanish and working on getting accepted for some extended study in Chile.  The class was held for four hours every day, and speaking only Spanish was encouraged.  Basically full immersion for half of the day, a great way to get up to speed quickly.

But before we started class on Monday, we had a chance to get an introduction to Buenos Aires. With its 100 miles of recently built bike lanes, there is no better way to see the sights than on cycles. And Chris found a great cycling company, Biking BA, which offered a seven hour cycling experience .  We saw most of the key neighborhoods, sights and had a fantastic lunch that included a bondiola completa, a killer sandwich with pork, egg, cheese and all sorts of condiments including chimichurri, hot sauce, tomatoes, carrots, scallions, onions.

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The cycling started in San Telmo neighborhood which is the oldest barrio in Buenos Aires and used to be the wealthiest neighborhood before an outbreak of cholera drove out the wealthy elite up the hill to the neighborhood of Recoleta.

After cycling through San Telmo, we cycled to La Boca, a working class, colorful barrio, home to La Bombonera where the world famous Boca Juniors play futbol (soccer) and where Tango initially started.  Football is crazy popular over here but also extremely dangerous.  Games are often delayed or canceled.  Although there was a game the first night we arrived, we opted to catch some of it on TV and visit the stadium during the security of daylight hours.  Indeed, we learned from someone the next day that there were “small riots” on the streets after the game.

From there, we rode on to Puerto Madero, a barrio with a completely different look and feel as it was created with reclaimed land and has a lot new, modern buildings – most apparently built with money of questionable origins.  Puerto Madero also happens to be the barrio  where Messi, a famous futbol star, has a home.

We wrapped up our cycling in the Recoleta barrio where the Recoleta Cemetery is located. But on the way, we passed a grave site of hundreds of victims of the “Dirty War”.  Human remains were found while digging a new extension to a highway. It turns out that the previous site was an athletic club used by the police. During the war, they used the basement for torture and killing and buried the victims  next door not expecting the site to be excavated in the future.  Over 30K people “disappeared” during the troubling times between 1976-1983.  Many of the tortured people were drugged and thrown out of planes over the Rio de la Plata. In fact, it was one of these pilots who was responsible for bring these grisly details to light.

Recoleta Cemetery, a much different grave site,  is an interesting place and takes graveyards to a whole new level. Supposedly, a grave site costs millions and there is a 10 year waiting list.  Many of Argentina’s rich and powerful are buried here in some of the most grandiose temples, houses, mausoleums.  Evita Peron, Argentina’s First Lady and wife of President Juan Perón, is among the rich and powerful Portenos ( as Argentina folks are called) buried here.

The cycling was a great way to see the city in a day and also meet some more interesting people.  We met other travelers from the UK, Canada and the US as well as a number of locals who were very friendly. In fact, we found most of the folks in the city to be very friendly and willing to help. Also, they were incredibly honest.  On the day before we were leaving, we realized that we had left USD $100 in a shirt that we dropped off at the local laundry.  We did not realize we had left the dollars in the shirt until later that evening when we went to pick up the laundry (washed, folded and wonderful smelling  – so nice).  When we initially inquired about the money, the woman at the shop suggested that we check with someone else in the morning.  The following morning, Chris and I went to laundry shop thinking it was an exercise in futility.  But to our surprise, as soon as we walked in, a young lady was waiting for us.  She knew immediately that we were the crazy foreigners that left the dollars hanging around in our shirt pocket.  She smiled as she pulled out the freshly laundered Jeffersons that she had carefully tucked away in the accounts book for us. With our faith in humanity restored (or at least strengthened) and our clothes freshly laundered, we headed out to our next adventure – a high-speed ferry to Montevideo!

We will miss Buenos Aires.  It has been a wonderful week filled with kind and interesting people, education, dinners with new friends and an old grad school buddy, great food and vino.  We both wished we stayed for two weeks to continue the Spanish classes and spend more time in the city, but we are looking forward to Uruguay (where they speak Portuguese not Spanish:O).