Uruguay, Part 2

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. 

Uruguay Part 1

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.  One of our party, Jon, had spent some of his teenage years during the 1960s in Colonia Sacramento, staying with his dad.  What was Jon’s dad doing in Uruguay?  The answer was hazy, something to do with either the U.S. Agency for International Development, or possibly the C.I.A.  Half joking, Jon said that “the revolution started six months after Dad left each country.”

In Uruguay, Jon’s dad married a local woman and had a couple of kids.  Teenage Jon was not well supervised while there; he ran wild, engaging in typical teenage shenanigans.  When he got kicked out of his dad’s house, he returned to the United States and had never been back to Uruguay – until now. 

We crammed into a tiny economica rental car and drove from the ferry dock in Colonia to the end of the road in Uruguay.  It’s not a very big country.  On a map, it’s a grape wedged in between a giant cauliflower (Brazil) and a zucchini (Argentina).  We stopped over for two days in the nation’s capital, Montevideo, where Jon’s half-sister, Karen, lived.  The two of them barely knew each other, as their dad left Uruguay when Karen was five, moving on to another wife and family in Korea.  But Karen cheerfully showed us around the city, narrating some of its history in surprisingly good English, and walked us through an outdoor mercado where we bought some handcrafted jewelry and tee shirts. 

Karen suggested a parrilla (grilled meat) restaurant for dinner.  Dinner was served late in Uruguay – like, way late, 9:00 pm, or later.  I thought I would starve to death before they served us.  Then, as we sat at a picnic table, the waiter brought a lazy susan piled high with all kinds of barbecue – beef cheeks, kidney, blood sausage, spare ribs, and well-done sirloin.  Exotic eating is supposed to be part of the fun of foreign travel, but the organ meats were a struggle to swallow, so I filled up instead on the side dishes of grilled vegetables.  After dinner, we walked to an ice cream parlor on the Rambla (waterfront path) where a double scoop of chocolate gelato rewarded me. 

The next morning at 5:00 I went for a run along the Rambla.  A lovely orange sunrise over the South Atlantic was witnessed only by me and a couple homeless guys curled on benches next to the water.  The rest of the city was sound asleep, having stayed up past midnight the night before.     

Departing the urban area, we drove through countryside as green as Ireland.  Cattle grazed, and fields of corn and alfalfa, groves of apple trees, and grape vineyards lined the roadway.  A couple hours later, we departed the highway at the town of Rocha.  Six miles up a dirt road in the Rocha Mountains (which were really hills, not mountains, to this Rocky Mountain dweller – elevation of only 1400 feet) we arrived at an organic estancia (working ranch) called Caballos de Luz – Horses of Light.     

We passed two days on the farm, riding horses across the rocky hills and nearly starving on vegetarian fare.   The couple who ran the place, Lucy from Austria and Santiago from Brazil, had bonded over their shared love of horses, and spent the past nine years living on 400 acres off the grid.  Lucy told us the small settlement in the region had begun as a commune, but in recent years everyone sort of broke away from each other, and now it was more of a neighborhood. 

They owned a dozen horses, plus they boarded horses for their neighbors, and hosted occasional small groups of travelers.  Growing much of their own food, they utilized solar power and a propane stove.  The huts we stayed in had thatched roofs and no air conditioning.  I walked out onto the back porch of my hut, spreading some clothes to dry, and stepped on a rotten board.  I nearly fell through as it broke off.  One board – overlooked!  I made a mental note to mention it to Santiago, as maintenance obviously proved tough to keep up with in the hinterlands of Uruguay. 

Down a path from my hut was a composting toilet for communal use.  Of course, it was home to a million flies.  I went in to use it and was startled by a frog which jumped neatly out of my way.  As soon as I stepped away, the frog hopped back onto the toilet seat.  The lid was up.  In less than five minutes, I watched the frog expertly catch three flies.  I had to admire his clever adaptation to resources at hand.  He had found the perfect gig on the toilet seat. 

The food they served us was bland, but undoubtably quite healthy.  Salad, breaded eggplant, goat cheese and a loaf of bread with a crust so hard it could have doubled as a football.  The salad dressing was some weird peanut concoction.  No bacon, no potato chips, no chocolate.  The one standout dish was home grown tomatoes in balsamic vinaigrette.  Now I could see why both Lucy and Santiago managed to stay as thin as string beans.  After dinner, in my hut, I secretly munched a bag of pretzels, some dried fruit, and several handfuls of trail mix.  And felt like I might survive until we got to another parrilla restaurant. 

Beyond the huts and down the hill, past the garden, ran what they called a river – creek was more accurate – complete with a swimming hole deep enough for immersion.  Several palm trees leaned over the cool, clear water. A couple flat rocks on shore provided a seat next to, as Lucy described it, the world’s smallest white sand beach. 

Besides dipping in the river and taking hour-long horseback rides into the hills, there was not a lot for a guest to do on the ranch.  I was glad that I had brought a good book to read in the hammock that hung between two trees in the shady front yard. 

During a morning run, I spotted a tiny deer (the size of a dog) disappearing into the tangled brush of an arroyo.  The deer was no doubt heading for the river, the only water for miles around.  Farther up the dirt road, a one-room schoolhouse sported a sign in the yard that translated to, “Pray for Rain.” 

Dry, dusty and hot, at the height of the South American summer, the ranch existed outside the press of civilization.  It was obviously a lot of work, with limited electricity and no hot water or indoor plumbing.  But it was quiet, except for an occasional horse whinny.  To Lucy and Santiago, craving solitude and freedom, Caballos de Luz Ranch was a slice of paradise. 

My stay provided a much-needed break from the stress of travel in a foreign land.  For those couple days, suspended away from civilization, I felt a glimpse of paradise as well.   The only thing was, I was still hungry.  For a stuffed-full carne asada burrito, dripping with cheese and grease, I was willing to keep moving.