Our visit to Uruguay began with a catamaran ride from Buenos Aires to historic Colonia del Sacremento. We had originally planned to go straight to Monetvideo (the capital) and onto the coast. However, a faster boat and opportunity to see a different part of the country took us to Colonia – and we’re glad it did. Built on a narrow peninsula in eastern Uruguay, the town’s contrast to the massive BA hooked us for a couple of days. Besides the size and character of the town, we also appreciated the shift in weather. We thought because we were heading back north from BA, towards the equator, the temperature would rise. That wasn’t the case. The air was fresh and cool and the wind coming off of the brackish channel transported us from hot and and heavy humidity to a cool 25C.
The first day in any country can be a bit confusing. Another currency, new prices, changes in culture, different arrangements for transportation and accommodation take patience. We expected all of these things, however we were surprised when there were two prices noted in most places. All of a sudden, US dollars were posted and widely accepted. We took this to mean higher prices and a developed tourist scene marketed to Americans. Even the ATMs allowed us to choose what currency we wanted to withdraw.
We appeared to have slept in our first morning to notice we had lost an hour. As it turned out, in addition to entering the land of poor shower drainage, our slight eastern journey from Argentina had taken us to a new time zone. A check of pretty much every time zone chart online didn’t validate the time change but the clock on the wall told the truth. Ah well, it’s a good thing we’re not on a tight schedule. The remainder of our time in Colonia we spent wandering the historic centre, checking out shops and picking up our food for the next couple of days. Thinking we might get a good deal on some trekking clothing we need for Patagonia, we popped into a Columbia store; we turned around and walked out after realizing that the prices were in USD and not Uruguayan pesos. Yikes – we could get the stuff cheaper in Canada.
Montevideo was an utter disappointment. Afraid that we wouldn’t get a double room for a reasonable rate, we booked the night ahead. Shady characters walking around asking for money or food off of your plate, dirty streets and expensive cafe’s didn’t give us a reason to stick around. Fortunately, we didn’t pay for itthe room in advance. When we showed up at 4 pm, we had to wait nearly 30 minutes for them to “prepare” our room. We have no idea what took so long; when we finally got into our room, the carpet looked like it hadn’t been vacuumed – ever, the air conditioning didn’t work and there were no windows. The place had a kitchen, but after seeing the dilapidated dirty state of this once beautiful colonial building, there was no way we would cook in it. On top of the total crap standards, the owner fought with his girlfriend (or whoever she was) loud enough for the neighbours to hear and was still sleeping when we tried to check-out. There was no way we wanted to pay full price at $40USD per night. When we tried to pay upon leaving, from what Spanish we could understand, the girlfriend told us not to worry. We assumed that they would just put it on our credit card, so we left. We didn’t get one block when the owner came out calling to us, rubbing the grogginess from his eyes, asking us to pay. So we put ourselves in reverse and I rehearsed in my head how to tell him we’re not paying full price and why. It worked out – we got a 40% discount, just for complaining. In the end, paying $25 instead of $40 made the place worth the money and put us on budget. After the highlight of our sightseeing, watching a woman come out from behind a construction set up and walk down the street into a bar doing up her pants, it was time to high-tail it outta there.
The coast of Uruguay was determined to give us a better experience. For some insane reason, we thought it would be a good idea to head straight to a camp ground, on a weekend and expect to get a couple of beds in their small bunk house. No such luck. We improvised by getting a campsite and hanging our hammocks for the night. After discovering we had no way to secure our belongings, we overpaid for a tiny 2-man used pup tent at the campground. The strong wind coming off of the Atlantic turned cold quickly. We layered up, put our yoga mats on the ground in the tent and tried to sleep. I started in my hammock, and if it had a zipper on it to close me up like a cocoon, or if I’d have had a sleeping bag it would have been a great spot to sleep. I lasted an hour before the cold air was too much and I joined Dale on the unforgiving ground in the tent. Without bedrolls, neither of us slept well, having to shift every hour or so because one body part or another would be in agony from the hard ground.
Usually, we would find comfort in the first signs of fall – lying in bed, feeling the cold breeze come in the window, forcing you to put a blanket on for the first time in months. But when there are no blankets, the transition is harsh. The next day, we made an executive decision to walk into town and find a different place. While we were packing up we thought it would be a good idea to try to return the used tent we just bought. No such luck. And to add to the frustration the clerk at the store decided to tell us that we could have rented the tent. Awesome, not only did we get gouged on the price, but now we have to carry something we’re not going to use. Dale was only slightlyannoyed. On the bright side, we have the start of our camping gear we need later.
After our self-torture camping experience, we found La Paloma Hostel which ended up being a very cool spot. It was closer to town by half the distance, near the beach with warm fuzzy blankets and hot showers. This made it much easier for us to chill out for a few days. Other than the blasting wind, taunting mushy surf waves and thongs, the beach in La Aguarda didn’t give us much to write about. It was pretty enough, provided you don’t breath through your mouth unless you like the feeling of grit between your teeth.
Bright idea number two was renting bikes to take our own private ride up the coast to the next couple of villages. The day – ride to Cabo de Polonio 55km north along the coast, then back with a stop at La Pedrera only 15km away. Well, at least that was the plan until we spent 20 minutes on these beater bikes. We made it as far as La Pedrera before stopping for a lookout over the surf. It was a much prettier and more intimate beach than La Paloma, and a cuter town, but all we did was look. The surf was tempting but not with 30+ surfers dressed in full wet suits fighting for the same break. The idea of battling with these other more experienced surfers was daunting enough, but add in the full wet suit and I think we can find other ways to entertain ourselves. We officially prefer warm water, less visited surf Remembering the brutality of our 5 hour single gear ride in Lethem, we agreed to return home.
The beauty further up the coast still awaited us and there were other more “normal” ways to get there, like by bus. Once our bus arrived at the park entrance to Cabo de Polonio, we were still a 30 minute drive over rolling sand dunes, through the park to the village. The ride was part of the tourist attraction for sure, as we all piled onto the back of a 6-wheel civilian MLVW-like truck and braced ourselves during the crawling rolly ride.
We had gone to see one of the largest sea lion colonies in the world who have made Cabo their home, and were pleasantly surprised by the unique culture of the tiny settlement. It had an east-coast feel in the way the houses were built amidst the coastal rocks and a hippie vibe we couldn’t miss. The combination of colourful, barebones housing, artisanas selling home-made jewellery on blankets along the sides of the sand foot paths towards the beach, home café’s selling the best torta in South America, one town toilet with no running water and the distant voices of thousands of sea lions is a collection not likely to be found together anywhere else. Apart from the “I don’t want to know what that is” smeared on the walls of the “no paper provided” outhouse, we liked it there.
We walked along the rocky coast to see what we’d come for – wildlife. We were happy to see that the main resting ground on shore for the colony was roped off, giving the animals their own space. At first we thought there may be both seals and sea lions as there were very large manned, lighter coloured animals alongside darker, smaller sleek ones. They had a significant difference in their voice as well. The larger ones roared like a lion, while the smaller ones barked like a small dog. We finally figured it out – males and females. We were lucky to meet Fernando, a Uruguayan who lives in Toronto to take some photos of us, as our camera decided this was the day it needed juice.
As we jumped on top our truck to leave the park, the skies parted adding rain to the already adventurous ride. Unfortunately, our hitching attempts were unsuccessful, leaving us with an hour wait and a wet, cold ride home on the bus. All-in-all though, it was a very good day to end our coastal visit, and back-track to Argentina.