When planning our route around the continent, Jon spent a considerable amount of effort to persuade Jackie to go to Uruguay (“Pros: untouched beaches, great steaks, one more country to add to The Spreadsheet“). You have to admit that Uruguay doesn’t have the same draw as say Columbia or Peru. Other than the footballer/cannibal Luis Suarez, we didn’t know much about Uruguay, and have since learnt to properly pronounced it, ooo-ru-gwai.
The second smallest country in South American is wedged beneath Brazil’s armpit to its north, and nudged by Argentina’s shoulder to its west, overshadowed by both, in both size and prominence in the world. But little did we know (or actually notice much whilst there, truth be told), it is one of the most liberal and progressive countries in South America, let alone the world – legal abortions and same sex marriages distinguishing it from its South American counterparts). It comes first in the continent when it comes to press freedom, size of the middle class and prosperity.
In a week’s time, we skimmed the surface of Uruguay, visiting towns along the coastline through its organised bus network. Considering our basic knowledge of Uruguay, it was more developed and ‘first world’ than we expected: credit cards, coaches with wifi, existence of McDonalds (the real indicators of sophistication). The rest of the mainland is tended by gauchos – real Cowboys working in cattle ranches – and is less traveled by tourists.
The majority of visitors to Uruguay arrive via ferry from Buenos Aires to the sleepy, picturesque town of Colonial del Sacramento. We rode a massive ferry, more akin to a cruise ship, and crossed the widest point of the Rio del la Plata with 500 other visitors, mainly Argentinians on a weekend getaway. The journey was pleasant and efficient, owed to the hundreds of seats we could choose on-board. We had read one of Uruguay’s key attraction was its beaches, so it was rather disappointing to see brown murky waves crashing against the boat as we sailed across the river mouth.
The town’s unique old quarters was once used to smuggle goods into Buenos Aires in the 1700s. Its cobble-stone streets are lined with colourful colonial buildings, a postcard pretty sight – for about 5 blocks. Then that was it really. What made this nucleus of a town more memorable was the snake we encountered, or more accurately, unintentionally stepped over, as it slithered across the road under the oppressive heat.
During our stay, we hired a golf cart (think Noddy’s car) for a day to venture out of the old quarters and have an explore. We hit the accelerator (at a max speed of 26km/h) and zoomed up the brown water beaches, like we were competing in Mario Kart, only to find one other attraction in town: an abandoned bullring once built by a millionaire, used only eight times and which now lies abandoned, at the centre of a roundabout. A prelude to what was to come in our Uruguayan tour. In hindsight, Colonia merits a day’s visit rather than three.
Moving on to Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, which is ranked the second safest city in the world. And yet, at times we were looking over our shoulders at every other step. There’s a grittiness to Montevideo, as if the population had collectively decided to abandon parts of town, turn the lights off and vanish (summer holidays?). Maintenance of aesthetics was nonexistent in places, despite its historically rich and ornate architecture. A number of beautiful buildings in Centro and the Old Quarter had windows blocked up by bricks and graffiti scrawled across its tall wooden shutters. We learnt that many fictionalised versions of Havana on TV & films are likely to have been filmed in Montevideo as the resemblance is so close.
We had read Montevideo has a small but thriving Jewish community as many Europeans fled from persecution during the ’40s. We were keen to see a number synagogues, a square dedicated to Golda Meir and even found a Jewish-style deli to visit. We set off from our hostel, map in hand with sites marked in order of locality, confidence abounding. Alas, site after site we walked to, were either replaced by a rotting bar or closed indefinitely for renovation, or had just completely gone off the radar. It was a discouraging day of exploring under the pummeling heat so we forfeited and chose to lounge by the pool instead, a rare treat at any hostel. Whilst Jackie had a sulk, Jon took the opportunity to visit the Andes Museum, which commemorates the aviation accident on the Andes that happened in the 70s (watch the film, Alive).
On our 3rd day in the capital, we were determined to give Montevideo another chance. We traveled further north into town to visit the Estadio Centenario, home to the first FIFA World Cup final in 1930. It’s simplicity in construction cannot rival stadiums like Wembley or the glory of the Ethiad back home, but one could imagine the fanfare that took place in its heyday. A poorly archived exhibition filled with a hodge podge of trophies, team photographs and moth-ridden memorabilia sat within the stadium. Again, reinforcing the theme of abandonment, but cool to have visited none the less. In the afternoon, we took a walk along the Rambla, a coastal road that stretches along the city from East to West. The waves from the Pacific crashed violently against the pavements as we walked. Luckily, no one was hurt in this expedition.
Our final stop in Uruguay was the hedonistic, scene-to-be-seen-in, party-loving Punta del Este – a more accurate depiction of us couldn’t be found. In what came as a surprise to us, it’s known to be a beach haven for the super rich and famous South Americans to flock to during the winter months, a place to be seen, to tan all day and to drain all your savings. Punta del Este, is the equivalent of superficial Miami beach or the snooty French Rivera. At peak season, prices are inflated three-fold. Once the summer heat goes, so do the people, and the entire peninsula turns into a ghost town once again. A two hour bus journey from Montevideo brought us to a main street lined with modern high-rise residential blocks and hotels. For a moment, it felt like coming home to Hong Kong. Tall glass windows, marble foyers, concierge desks, women clad with shopping bags. It was a massive change of scenery from the rest of Uruguay we’d seen.
The best thing to do in a town with prohibitively expensive things is to go to the beach and people watch. It was packed to the brim from sunrise to sunset, and hawkers took advantage of the lazing masses gathered by parading their goods along the sandy seafront. After weeks of sight seeing and excursions, it was a real treat spend a couple of days soaking up the sun and have a ‘typical’ beach holiday.
Punta del Este is home to the second biggest colony of sea lions, first being in South Africa but you’d have to take a chance with the Great Whites first. There was an opportunity to scuba dive to see them and it was an offer Jon couldn’t turn down. A twenty minute ride out to the colony on choppy waters took down a few fellow divers, who spent the entire journey emptying their stomachs into the sea. Once in the water, with extremely low visibility (<5m), you only had to wait a few moments before a huge number of sea lions, some as long as a motorbike, swam right up to your face. They were extremely playful and curious – zooming right by, one even accidentally kicked Jon in the head, although it may have been intentional. A fantastic experience, and at times it felt like all 250,000 were surrounding you! Jackie, on the other hand, was very glad to have stayed on solid ground and strolled to the docks where fisherman sold their daily catch and greedy sea lions waited eagerly by the sidelines to eat the unwanted bits.
We also managed to find a Synagogue and attented a Shabbat service – it was packed to the rafters as though its Yom Kippur, with standing room only. The building’s extremely bright and modern, with its own little kosher bakery. Apparently, outside of High Season, they struggle to get more than 10 people – it seemed that almost the entire congregation was made up of vacationers from neighbouring Buenos Aires.
The night life was something to get used to. We unknowingly booked ourselves into a ‘party hostel’, which meant sleeping was not an option and you will party whether you like it or not. Whilst we’re not ones to say no to a drink once in a while, it was excruciating to stay in separate dorms (again) and put up with parties that really kicked off at 2am and dorm mates that ‘brought in friends’ for ‘sleepovers’. After a night of consciousness, we decided to cut our losses, and despite having prepaid the accommodation, took refuge at a basic hotel down the road for some peace and quiet. Hard core.
Overall we were glad to have visited Uruguay (one more country to add to The Spreadsheet of course) but we understand why it isn’t necessarily on the tourist route, we barely met any other travellers other than a few Brazilian/Argentinean weekenders. On reflection, we would have spent less time in each city (each of which was pleasant enough), and explored further inland instead. Perhaps if we had traveled further east to see the untouched beaches of Punta del Diablo, we’d have changed our minds but it was impractical to stay any longer without burning through even more of our budget. And with that,we packed our bags to head back to Buenos Aires to pick up where we had left off.
Time traveled on planes: 41hrs
Time traveled on buses: 20hrs 45 min
Time traveled on ferries: 43hrs
Places visited: 12