The following day we crossed into Uruguay, a grumpy customs officer, had Tom raising his eyebrows but soon we were in and soaking in the hot springs of Salto. We shared the campground with fat sheep, a stubborn donkey and of course the usual pack of friendly dogs.
There was that sinking feeling when Tom went to pay for gas and I heard, “My Visa Card is missing!!!” Doing a quick U turn we headed back to the store he had last used it at, while trying to figure out the best way of getting a new credit card sent to us in Uruguay. Fortunately, they had it and we soon we were off again. Passing endless fields of cattle, horses and crops we felt a sense of tranquility, it was good to be back in cowboy county. Gauchos rode along the side on their horses, we were also surprised at the number of antique cars on the road.
The Mercado Del Puerto in Montevideo the capital of Uruguay is located opposite the port. Built in 1868, the cast iron structure is now home to restaurants. It was Sunday and bustling with montevideanos, with plates piled high with obscenely large servings of meat. The open grills of all the restaurants fill the air with smoky steam and mouth water aromas of good food. We settled down to experience a traditional Uruguayan meal of meat. Our servings were so huge, the meat size bigger than the plate!
The locals arrive at the restaurants with a thermos of hot water tucked under their arm, a supply of yerba mate leaves from which they make the traditional drink; mate. Sucking the tea up through a bombilla (straw) from a gourd (mug like cup) they socialize and drink, sharing the mate with friends; it’s a national tradition.
Uruguay has been full of surprises despite being such a small country. In 1972, we were married; it was also the year a Uruguayan plane disappeared in the Andes while flying to Chile. I remember the story well as the survivors of the plane crash survived for 70 days in the snow covered mountains by eating the dead passengers. It is a story of extreme survival and courage. Books were written, and the film Alive made. The story never really left me as even to this day I am in awe of the power of some people to live and survive in horrific conditions. However, I did not know the name Carlos Paez Vilaró I was to meet him in Uruguay through his home, his art and his book. He was the father of one of the survivors who never gave up hope that his son was still alive and spent long days in Chile in the search for his son when others had long given up. 70 days after the plane went missing; Carlos hugged his son who survived, a dramatic end to a long and painful search by a father looking for his son.
Carlos Paez Vilaró created Casapueblo, a huge house-sculpture perched on the side of the cliff overlooking the sea. Inspired by the ovenbird nests Carlos built this eccentric home without a plumb line. Curved white walls, dark twisting tunnel like passages, blue wall murals, I could feel the passion of the man, his commitment to doing what he needed to do, the same man who would not give up looking for his lost son in the Andes. The art gallery filled with his glorious painting, sculptures and stories of his past travels across the world were inspiring.
La Mano is a sculpture in Punta del Este by Chilean artist Mario Irarrázabal. It depicts five human fingers partially emerging from sand and is located on Parada 1 at Brava Beach in Punta del Este, a popular resort town in Uruguay. The fingers reached up from the fog covered beach, the waves crashing behind it. We were in Punta del Este on the beach where the 1000’s bronze their bodies, surf and swim in summer. Now in the winter the beach is wild, windswept, covered in a grey miserable fog with not a soul in sight.
The jet setters used to go to Punta del Este but now they have moved further north to Jose Ignacio once a sleepy fishing village. Millionaires and billionaires from around the world arrive in the summer to the village of Jose Ignacio to escape the paparazzi, to seek their solitude in beautiful mansions in a spectacular setting. The little bohemian village with hand painted signs, Sotheby and Christie real estate offices and chic boutiques are a sign of who really owns this place. It was deserted the only sounds were the crashing of the Atlantic waves on the stunning beaches, the icy wind cutting a chill through us as we strolled along the wind swept beach. The lighthouse specially made higher so the lights do not disturb the seals and sea lions. Homes boarded up and a few laid back locals waiting for summer and the jet setters from across the globe to return. Jose Ignacio is now the chicest spot in South America, as we had a cup of coffee on a little café on the beach the magazines on the table were of private yachts and helicopters for sale. No overlander trucks for sale in this place, time for us to move on and find a campsite.
At first glance we thought the Barra bridge had collapsed but as we got closer, we realized it was yet another quirky Uruguayan style. It also felt like being on a roller coaster as we drove over it and into La Barra.
Eduardo met us with warm freshly baked apple cake, as we set up camp in PePe. A delightful man who runs this little campsite tucked in amongst the trees filled with chattering birds. Juan the happiest dog runs in circles in excitement in meeting us. No jet setters here but the nicest man and the happiest dog, life does not get much better.
Driving across Uruguay, we pass the vineyards, cattle ranches and sleepy fishing villages. We camp on the beach, as most campsites are not yet open.
We reach Colonia a UNESCO designated old colonial town with its old buildings and cobbled streets. Large trees in the plaza home to hundreds of chattering green parrots, noisy schoolchildren and the occasional tourist. Quaint houses, antique cars and wide tree filled cobbled streets made it a pleasant day. In the evening, we had supper at a restaurant decorated with art by Jorge Paez Vilaró the brother of Carlos Paez Vilaró.
Colonia is located on the banks of the Rio de la Plata and across the river our next destination Buenos Aires, a bustling city of 15 million people and supposedly chaotic traffic. The solution is simple drive into Buenos Aires early on the weekend. We purchase our ferry ticket leaving for Buenos Aires 0530 Saturday morning and hung around Colonia enjoying the town for one more day.