Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Uruguay: Colonia, Montevideo, Punta del Esta, Treinta Y Tres & Melo.

Awesome countryside, lovely people, intriguing cowboys PLUS lush, fresh, local food and low prices!

We found the posh port district of Buenos Aires, where we were told we could get an excellent steak, amongst a forest of glistening skyscrapers. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the money for a pricey steak, and it was 11am, so we had an enjoyable milky coffee and mini croissant, sitting in proper hot sun, while we waited for our ferry to Uruguay. Ahhh at last! We hoped this was the start of solid sun for us!

Buenos Aires port


Uruguay was a different world to BA. We had no idea what to expect, but the cobbled streets, horse-drawn carts piled with firewood and ancient cars of Colonia were a joyous revelation. The El Viajero Hostel was lovely, clean, had tonnes of gorgeous original features and an old-fashioned ambience.

Uruguay was surprisingly and delightfully cheap and the food and was generally excellent. We opted for the Mercosur pavement café, and ate an extremely delicious pizza topped with a local mushroom (the memory of it makes my mouth water now), begetal, drank beer, and watched the fascinating Uruguayian world go by.

That evening, we went for a drink at one of the prettiest, quaintest restaurants, with ferns growing from its ancient walls (Pulperia de los Faroles), but the service wasn’t very welcoming, so we decided to go elsewhere for supper. We found the fantastic, bohemian El Drugstore, and had a night to remember.

Outside El Drugstore are a choice of colourful tables, including one set out in an ancient car. Needless to say, the few kilometres from BA to Colonia did not have an enormous impact on the climate, so we chose to sit in the cavernous warmth inside the restaurant. It had hugely high ceilings, exposed brick, and colours, patterns and posters everywhere, with the wonderful wood-fired stove as the main focus point, and little side rooms leading deep into the building.

Starting off with bread and herb-sprinkled butter, I was taken aback by the wonderful fresh flavour and creaminess of the butter. Luisa, who runs the restaurant, said that it was normal to have such fragrant, locally produced butter in Uruguay. Having lived in Portugal, she told us that she really appreciated coming back to Uruguay for the high-quality meat, dairy foods and bread, and that the difference is marked.

After spending ages over the highly confusing and massive menu, we chose a Uruguayan speciality for supper, chivito, which is mainly the collection of farmyard foods that you get platters of in loads of rural communities around the world. It included egg, ham, cheese, bacon, mirepoix in mayonnaise, palm hearts and salad. Biddy had chicken grilled with cheese and salad. All of it was nicely cooked and tasty.

Along with the food, we were drinking cheap jugs of rather moreish table wine. The speed at which we drunk it increased somewhat during the meal. Then the friendly Texan couple, Carmen and Bob (pronounced ‘Maaam’) on the next table started chatting to us. Actually, Maaam was born in Cuba and Carmen was originally from Honduras. They were clearly very tipsy and rapidly getting more so, and we joined the fun with more and more jugs of wine.

Then a guitarist/singer climbed onto a big block and started up with some impassioned latino tunes. The wine really enhanced the music. It also made Biddy very emotional when a very cute 4 year-old called Ely wanted to dance with us. He was the son of another American couple, who take Ely with them all around the world, on exotic and exciting trips.

Adorable Ely

Punta de Este:

We woke up with fuzzy red wine heads, not feeling to pleased with ourselves. After a restorative walk around the estuary, and an amazingly cheap Mercosur meal of beautifully cooked hake, fried in breadcrumbs and served with lush salad (with medicinal beer), we decided to move on. Colonia is very pretty but there isn’t an awful lot to do or see there for more than a day. We walked to the coach station and caught a bus to

The scenery from the bus was mainly pale green grassland, the odd large tree, and lots of flimsy-looking, squat buildings. As we got towards the centre of Montevideo, the architecture became grander and older. But when we got out and tried to follow a map to the youth hostel, we almost drowned in the hoards of people, heat and thick pollution. After 5 minutes of getting totally lost in this filthy, hectic shit hole, we went back to the bus station and caught another bus. If we’d had the time and money to give Montevideo a chance, we may have enjoyed exploring the colonial charm we had read about. But we didn’t.

A few hours later, and the next stop was Punta del Este, one of the throbbing surf capitals of the world, with stretches of skyscrapers, dunes, clubs and bars. We arrived well after dark, and after a local bus ride, we found ourselves in worryingly quiet streets, with closed shops and restaurants. It was really cold! We identified a chilly, dark sandy track with the youth hostel’s sign, and began the mini-trekk, past a ferocious and very vocal dog, until finally we arrived at the hostel steps.

The white and blue exterior of Hostel Manatiales hinted strongly at hot seaside resorts, but we had arrived just as the first cold spell of autumn had hit. The hostel was damp, mouldy and dirty, which would have been more bearable if it was warm. The staff were helpful, if incredibly slow (actually like slow motion), and the shy boy from reception took us (very slowly) up the road to the only place we might find something to eat – the whole town had shut down for low season.

A mile or so up a wide sandy track, flanked by large villas, we can to the local shop. The shy, slow boy translated for us, and we sat outside shivering over glasses of beer, while we awaited our metro pizza, which was all that was available, and sounded darned appealing to our cold, hungry tummies. Metros are sold by the metre, and we had ordered 50cm of the stuff, which was a lot. It was not a good pizza, but was enjoyable comfort food, with a sweet, bready base, sweet smear of tomato sauce, and piles of bland, too-sweet cheese - all lovely and oily, hot and filling.

Crossing Uruguay:

There was certainly more of a holiday atmosphere the next morning. We sat basking in the sun, drinking tea and coffee …for a frustratingly long time, until a dude on a moped finally arrived with the breakfast bread. These pretty white rolls were soft inside and delicious with dulce de leche. A local speciality, they are called galleta pan.

Galleta pan

We were so disappointed by our time (and bad timing) at Punta del Este, that we were pleased to be on the move again after breakfast, and relieved to be waiting for a bus in the sun (in view of thatched roofs), even if the breeze was pretty cool and strong.

After a short time on the road we were thoroughly enjoying the journey. The scenery was spectacular. We had hours of watching it go by, and never once felt bored. Vast grasslands dotted with enormous trees stretched into the distance. Copses of eucalyptus trees marked river and streams, and every few miles we passed a ranch. The grassland was divided into vast fields, containing buff cows, the odd horse, and emus! The biggest treat was spotting real-life cowboys, with leather hats, plaid shirts, pretty faces, and relaxed control over their livestock.

The pretty, run down little towns were almost entirely made up of mini one-storey buildings, and had a backwater, laid back feel. Everyone moved slowly. And the country is so small and under-populated that everyone knows everyone else, so that every time the bus stopped, whether in the middle of a prairie or in a village, everyone kissed the new arrivals ‘hello’, and began chatting loudly. We got stared at a lot, but the people were friendly to us, going out of their way to help, and to stop their children staring - we were becoming increasingly blond and tall compared to the locals, and it was very clear that we had moved off the beaten tourist track.

At Treinta Y Tres, we stopped to change buses, giving us time to enjoy an Ecuadorian band with American Indian style dress and dance, then a meal at the Cafeteria in the same square. I ordered ‘pulpo’, expecting octopus, but was happy with the nicely cooked steak and chips that arrived! Especially as prices seemed to be even cheaper in the interior of the country – a litre of beer was $1 US. It was also getting warmer as we moved inland, and we sat outside in the sun to eat.

Melo & Wild West:

The next leg of the journey was sadly mainly in the dark. We arrived at the town of Melo to find that all the accommodation had been taken by businessmen, who were converging there for a conference. We had taken a cab from the bus station, and agreed a price for being dropped off in town, but our driver took us from hotel to hotel without charging us more, and even ran into the hotels to ask them if they had a cheap room for us. He had an American wife, which seemed to increase his sympathy for us. We could only find one room in the whole town, which was very expensive. We had ummed and ahhed over whether to just sit on our rucksacks until dawn, in the bus station, but in the end we just took the room.

Despite the price and plush reception area, the room at the Crown Hotel was not very comfortable, and we were not very gracefully received (it was probably the rucksacks that did it). After a nice hot shower we put the same set of our warmest clothes on once again, and ventured into the chilly night. We found the Café La Rural opposite a cowboy’s shop (boots, saddles, hats and other leather goods). The waiter was so surprised to see foreigners, and so thrilled to be able to practice his English, that he gave us free olives and cheese with our beer, “Just to say ‘welcome’”.

We got up in good time the next morning – we were catching the bus to Brazil! We stocked our stomachs up on the standard hotel breakfast buffet, of coffee, bread, plastic cheese, cheap watery ham and fruit.

Unfortunately, the hotel did not accept the international debit cards that we offered (Visa and Maestro), so I had had to run around the streets like a panicked chicken, looking for a working bank machine. Meanwhile, Biddy ordered a taxi, because we would now be too late to walk to the bus station by the time I returned. Panting and sweating, I presented reception with the cash, and we dashed off to catch our bus.

The journey through the dewy morning was wonderful. We saw more ranches, hamlets, and more beautiful scenery. The journey looked short on the map, but took hours of frequent stops, on tiny, winding roads.

When we got to our destination, we were quite bemused. We thought we were going to a town on the border. We found ourselves in what appeared to be the set of a wild west film – a dusty, one-street town, with a couple of shops and bars in, and cowboys who didn’t look like they had much of a sense of humour. The ‘town’ was on a hill, and view of endless grassland from there was incredible, and all the more exciting, because all that grassland was in Brazil.

We hadn’t got any cash, because we hadn’t wanted to take any Uruguayan money out before entering Brazil, and we could not have withdrawn Brazilian cash in Uruguay. This was very stupid of us; there was no cash machine, and the bank didn’t take cards or exchange travellers’ cheques. We had not yet got our bus tickets to the next town (where we were assured there were cash machines), so we were pretty stuck. We had no way to pay for anything, and now way out of there.

Not knowing what else to do, we began counting out our change. And by an actual miracle, we had EXACTLY the money required for two bus tickets. What relief!

Now we had about four hours to kill, until our bus. We walked about, explored the only side street, watched cowboys lazily trotting about on their steeds and sat on a bench. It was about midday, and starting to get hot. We hadn’t eaten or drunk anything since the early morning, and had a long wait to go. We also needed a wee. I started nonchalantly looking through the pockets of my combats and bags. Incredibly, our luck for that day had still not been used up; I found the equivalent of about 20p. We went to a small deserted café. When the string-vested man came out, I somehow expressed our situation and asked if he could give us two coffees, despite having only enough for half of one coffee. He agreed immediately, and signalled that we should take a seat at a table. I felt guilty, because it was clear that these people were very poor and didn’t get much custom. Then he brought us a whole pot of coffee and a basket of bread! This was so wonderful, for a few reasons:

1. Drink and food.
2. The difficulties and rewards of that morning had felt like a ‘real’ travelling-type adventure.
3. The life enriching experience of being given more than we even hoped for, by someone who didn’t know us at all, and who has very little themselves.

Re-fuelled, we were pleased to find that the café had a toilet, so we left feeling very content.

Only another three and a half hours to wait.

More strolling about, more cowboys, more sitting on a bench. Time went slowly, but the surroundings were so alien to us, that we were happy just sitting there observing them. It got hotter and hotter, until we were able to sit sweltering in t-shirts, with our trousers rolled up, and our blue-white feet exposed to the sun for the first time on the trip. Ahhhhh! This was the travelling life!



At last, the ticket office opened. We put our clothes back on and hoiked up our rucksacks.

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