By Kathleen Kemsley, © 2021
Let’s go to Uruguay! Says no one, ever. But in January 2017, four of us took the Buquebus (pronounced Bookie Boose) ferry across from Buenos Aires to Uruguay for a few days of exploration.
After departing Rocha, we drove to Punta Diablo, the last town before the Brazilian border. Vicki had picked out a rental house while we were still in the states. On the computer it looked palatial. In the flesh, the house, set back six blocks from the beach, had one normal-sized loft bedroom which was adequate for her and Jon. A tiny back room was barely big enough for two twin beds, and a living room contained only two chairs. Obviously, it was an all-right place for a couple with little kids. But there was not room for both me and Bruce, the two singles.
I got onto booking.com to find Bruce a nice hotel where they served dinner and he could walk onto a balcony overlooking the ocean. Then I told Vicki that I’d try the kid’s room at the rental house for one night, before deciding whether to switch to different lodging. The room had no a/c, only a small fan that barely moved the air. No screens on the windows. Sweating in the heat of the summer night, I lay awake, gradually becoming aware of a persistent buzz. Mosquitoes had entered the house through the front door earlier, and now, in the dark, they swarmed me in the stuffy bedroom and attacked.
Sleep became out of the question. Turning on the overhead light, I started swatting mosquitoes with a magazine. Hit and miss. Hit and kill. Taking a break, I’d sit down to read a few pages, then get up to hunt again. Standing on the bed, I hung by one hand from the closet shelf, swatting and missing and swatting some more. At one point around 3:00 a.m., I googled the newly identified Zika Virus, then stressed out about contracting it. Thus I passed a whole sleepless night in panic and paranoia. I was going to die in Uruguay.
First thing the next morning, I got back on the booking.com website and snagged a studio apartment down the beach from Bruce, where I could make sandwiches on the cheap, away from mosquito hell. My room had what they called a “peek-a-boo” ocean view – in other words, you could see a little bit of blue water between the buildings. Hidden at the end of a dead end street, the complex stood solidly just before the beach rolled back into vacant sand dunes and rock promontories. In the distance, I noticed a lighthouse perched on the point.
That afternoon, I walked down to Bruce’s hotel. He invited me into his well-appointed room complete with art on the walls and a hot tub next to the king size bed. Bruce seemed to be embarrassed by the hot tub. “I won’t use it,” he said.
“Well then, could I use it?” I asked him, only half kidding.
“Help yourself,” he said. “I’ll be sitting out on the balcony, reading.”
I went back to my room and fetched my bathing suit. After a relaxing soak in Bruce’s hot tub, I accompanied him to dinner at the restaurant downstairs. We ordered roast pork loin with peaches and apples, fall-apart tender and delicious.
Over dinner, we cast about for commonalities. He read history books; I preferred mystery novels. He enjoyed listening to jazz, while I was strictly a rock’n’roll gal. His perfect vacation in Mexico had been a week in an all-inclusive resort at Playa del Carmen. Mine was driving around the Yucatan in a camper van. But we found ourselves in perfect agreement about the basics: politics, religion, and the need for a beach day tomorrow in Uruguay.
Early the next morning, alone, I left my room and walked south half a mile down the deserted beach to get a closer look at the lighthouse at Palmar Point. There was no gate or barrier, so I entered the courtyard. Two dogs burst out of the structure barking madly. They seemed friendly, if loud.
A man emerged from the building where he apparently lived as caretaker. He misinterpreted my question about the lighthouse as a request for a tour of his living quarters. I followed him through several dark rooms, but when we got back to the bedroom, a finger of trepidation came over me. Hastily I backed out the door, mumbling something about looking at the sea view. He followed me to the jutting land at the front of the building, where I took a couple photos before realizing that we were completely invisible to anyone on shore or down the beach.
The lecherous lighthouse keeper indicated for me to turn my camera around for a selfie, then put an arm around my waist. I froze and pushed away. For an old guy with no teeth, he was surprisingly strong. We fought briefly before I spun and fled. He followed me for some distance, but I was younger and faster. I escaped over a sand dune, uninjured but certainly more aware of the potential for danger when I went wandering alone in a foreign country.
Later that morning, I met up with my travel companions for a drive north from Punta Diablo. We walked around the Fortress of Santa Teresa, a restored eighteenth century structure originally built by the Spanish to repel Portuguese Brazilian aggression. Situated on a high point of land looking out to sea both north and south, the fort was backed by a swamp prohibiting enemies to approach from land. After Uruguay gained independence from Argentina in 1852, the fort was used for a time as a prison before being abandoned to free ranging cattle and bats.
In the 1940s the Uruguayan government invested in its restoration. We spent a couple hours walking around the pentagon-shaped fortress walls which were four or more feet thick. At least 20 cannons mounted at the corners demonstrated the strength of the fortress’s protection. Inner rooms were furnished to show living conditions for the 300 soldiers who staffed the fort.
Between the fortress and the Brazilian border lay a beautiful empty beach. Remembering the harrowing trip to the lighthouse earlier, I stuck close to my friends as we walked barefoot over several miles of clean, empty shoreline. The whole length of beach was designated a national park, protecting whales, dolphins, and sea turtles in the waters off shore, while cormorants and other sea birds flocked along the edge of the sea.
We did get our beach time in the summer sun at Santa Teresa. A little too much, as it turned out. The strong rays not far from the Tropic of Capricorn caused a bright sunburn to blaze on my shoulders at the end of the day. Jon, who had forgotten to put sunscreen on his legs, received second degree burns to his ankles and calves, resulting in several painful days of salving blisters.
We drove all the way back across Uruguay from Punta Diablo in one long day. Before boarding the Buquebus back to Buenos Aires, we spent a morning wandering in the old town of Colonia del Sacramento, where Jon had spent some of his teenage years. He scarcely recognized the town. Run down and neglected back in Jon’s day, the historic quarter had since been restored and was designated a World Heritage Site in the 1990s. We walked on cobblestone streets built by the Portuguese in the 1700s, and photographed churches returned to their former glory. From the top of the sea wall, you could almost see across the Rio Plata to Argentina, 30 miles away.
All too soon, it was time to leave the picturesque colony by the sea, and ride the ferry back to Buenos Aires. Would I recommend for an Argentine visitor to take a side trip to Uruguay? Yes, definitely. It is a mellow country, easy to travel around, with gorgeous historical buildings and unspoiled beaches. Just watch out for the killer mosquitoes, the strong sunlight, and one lecherous lighthouse keeper.