Unmissable Uruguay

It took more than five months for Stefje and I to criss-cross the entire length and width of Chile and Argentina, but on Friday morning we had our passports decorated with one more Argentinian exit stamp and were on our way. In the ferry terminal at the Buenos Aires port we were admitted into the next country, even though it would take three more hours to reach Uruguayan land. Through a pounding rain our huge ferry churned across the muddy waters of the wide Rio de la Plata. More of a bay than a river, it flows all the way from the inland rainforest to the Atlantic Ocean, progressively getting wider as it winds along marking the border between Argentina and Uruguay. 

By the early afternoon we were dealing with the new currency and attempting to sift out differences between the two neighbors. Certainly the biggest shift was our transition from Buenos Aires to the quiet Colonia, just 50 kilometers away yet spanned by a world of difference. Originally founded in 1680 as a port to smuggle goods into neighboring Argentina outside the watchful eyes and potent taxes of the Spanish crown, Colonia has retained much of its old school charm. The current city center wasn’t very atmospheric, but on Saturday we set off to explore the Old Town, an amalgamation of ancient city walls and cobblestone streets the UNESCO has deemed a World Heritage site. 

We were welcomed into the area by a renovated version of the city’s original gate, flanked by a wall that leads directly to the windswept waterfront. A stiff and persistent breeze came in off the river, following us around as we took a lap of the outer reaches of the historic port. 

Every time we turned inward to explore parts of the town was another opportunity for a photoshoot, as quaint windy streets occupied by old school cafes and boutique art galleries dominated the thriving tourist economy. In other stretches persistent waiters attempted to entice us into their overpriced restaurants, but the constant salesmanship couldn’t diminish our enjoyment of the experience. We had blue skies, clear views, and were grateful for this opportunity to step back in time, using our vivid imaginations to speculate what this dock might have felt like 300 years ago. 

Adding to our mental model was the proliferation of ancient cars parked on the unpaved streets in their final resting places, repurposed as works of art or fledgling vegetable gardens. 

Colonia didn’t offer much else that captivated our interest, so by evening time we were on the bus to Montevideo. Even though the journey was by most accounts nothing special, after all the adventures and chaos of hitchhiking, deciding to hit up the bus terminal felt like basking in the lap of luxury. We sped across the type of natural environment that makes up the vast majority of Uruguay: flat green farmland perfect for grazing cows and growing rice, wheat, corn, and sugarcane. It wasn’t long before Stefje and I both passed out. 

Before sundown we were rudely brought back awake by the chaos of the Montevideo bus terminal, one of the most important transport hubs in the country. Through asking a few locals we were able to avoid settling for an expensive taxi, instead hopping on a bus near the station that brought us within a few blocks of our hostel. Maybe it’s because late February still characterizes as a “high season” summer month here, but I’ve never seen a lodging situation more confounding and expensive than Montevideo. It was just as expensive as the depths of Patagonia, with a 17 bed dorm running upwards of $15 dollars, yet most places we checked out were pretty empty. 

Sunday in Montevideo brought with it mostly empty streets and shuttered stores as we crossed the sun-soaked center of town. By walking ten blocks further though, we discovered where all the locals were. Right along the principal shopping street a hectic market began to take shape, oddly consisting first and foremost of animals for sale: goldfish in tanks, puppies crawling over each other in cramped cages, and huge frightening snakes resting on the shoulders of would-be sellers. 

As we turned into the maddening crowds of weekenders, the streets became packed with procession of mate-toting locals slowly eyeing an endless stream of wares for sale.

We found vinyl records, VCRs, and TVs from before the turn of the century, plus an inordinate amount of broken down furniture and silverware. Antiques ruled the scene here, but the majority of the traffic hovered around food trucks dishing out cured meats and cheese, farmers displaying boxes upon boxes of fresh vegetables, and cafes featuring lively vibes and music performances.

Eventually overwhelmed by the madness, Stefje and I opted to meander South towards the other top Sunday destination for locals: Parque Jose Rodo.  One of the more expansive parks along Montevideo’s gorgeous 30KM long waterfront, the grassy knolls and wide tree-lined paths steadily filled with people as the warm afternoon dragged on. Besides sipping mate, the most popular activities here were waiting in an interminable line for paddle boating through a windy river and hanging a long sheet from a tree branch to practice some acroyoga. 

Compared to Buenos Aires, our taste of Montevideo offered more of grunge and hippie vibe; tattoo parlors, dreadlocks, and graffiti are all significantly more prominent on the Northern side of the Rio de la Plata. 

My top priority in Montevideo was obtaining my visa for Brazil. It took the whole morning of waiting at the consulate and nearby banks, but they finally accepted my paperwork - only to tell me to come back in a week to pick it up. I sure wasn’t looking forward to a week of traveling without my passport, but it gave me free reign to explore the best of Montevideo. 

The Brazilian consulate was on the corner of the Avenida 18 de Julio, the main drag that cuts straight through the epicenter of downtown. Primarily lined with shops and banks and absolutely packed during rush hours, the street is still not without its green spaces. First and foremost is Plaza Independence, a wide park riddled with palm trees and aptly adorned with a leviathan 30 ton sculpture of Uruguay’s original libertador, Jose Artigas. 

Not to be overlooked as well is Plaza Constitution, home to restaurants with outdoor tables and the chance to encounter an impromptu tango duet.

Combined with the quiet and more relaxed vibe of Plaza Fabini, with a ring of benches wrapped around a mesmerizing statue-fountain combination, these three form the triumvirate of city parks that permeate with one constant: the smell of (legal) weed. 

Uruguay is at the vanguard among its South American neighbors in liberal social policies; it was the first to legalize both same sex marriage and marijuana. Despite the constant toking, only the cultivation of the plant is legal, making purchasing and selling still risky and unlawful endeavors. Yet there's a price to pay for this style of life: compared to our basis for price comparisons, Uruguay is extremely expensive.  A recent weakening of the economy has actually made prices more reasonable compared to the dollar, but $11 for lunch, $3.50 for a liter of beer, and $2 for an empanada feels more like Europe than South America. More than any other country I've found myself in on this odyssey, my purchasing power is the weakest.

Tuesday we followed the lonely planet's advice and explored the Port Market on the city's Northern harbor, only to inundated by a gaggle of cruise ship tourists. Among the cargo pants and cameras, the market was a busy scene of craft jewelry and grill restaurants firing up absurd amounts of meat over open flames. 

The price for even the most standard option was downright absurd compared to our asado experiences in Argentina, but we grabbed a seat anyway at one of the counters, deftly observing the ebb and flow of both humans and steak on all sides. 

Afterwards, a long walk around the industrial port area offered a different perspective on the city: old houses and factories were shuttered up, blockaded with wooden boards and concrete. Much of the real estate in the area was for sale, contradicting our impression that with high prices much of the city must be well-to-do. A brisk chill in the ocean air and some strong winds heralded the onslaught of afternoon rains, compelling us to seek shelter in a sleek, expensive cafe just a few blocks away from the decrepit buildings and overt poverty. 

The weather wasn't much better on Wednesday, but a brief interlude of sunshine convinced us to explore Pocitos, a prosperous neighborhood boasting a crescent-bay beach. On the bus ride over, the local economy transformed into upscale shopping options and luxurious ocean view high-rises. Upon arrival, the white sand beach was bracketed by apartment buildings on one side and tumultuous water on the other. 

The strong wind and chilly water dissuaded most people from swimming, but we couldn't be stopped from enjoying ourselves by having a picnic, playing paddleball just steps from a heavily trafficked highway, and capping the visit with a quick dip in the sea. 

Further along the bay we came upon Montevideo's giant block letters and went full tourist, taking the most clichéd photos possible. 

Wednesday evening we took a nap to prepare us for the evening's activity at the hostel: a free salsa lesson. The class was supposed to begin at 9:30PM and Stefje, eager for some dancing, was losing hope as the time came and went while most of the inhabitants and staff were just chatting and relaxing on the outdoor patio. But just after 10 the energetic and effusive Ronaldo came bursting through the doors, already starting to step and swing to the music. 

"Vamos a bailar" (We're going to dance), he proclaimed, rapidly transforming the mood with his expansive, infectious energy. Putting us all to shame with a serious of devilishly tricky footwork and wild, forceful hip thrusts, Ronaldo breathed his Colombian heritage into the crowd, cajoling participants - most of all me - to find the beat. Two sweaty hours later I couldn't say I'm a proficient salsa dancer, but I can say I've experienced the music with a newfound appreciation. 

Not exactly eager to spend four additional days in the urban Montevideo when the tiny beach towns of Uruguay's coast were already on my mind, on Thursday I went back to the consulate under the irrational premise that my visa might be ready early. 10 minutes later I was practically sprinting back to the hostel equipped to enter Brazil; just two hours later Stefje and I were headed to the bus station. 

Our last stop before Brazil was the remote outpost of Punta del Diablo, which lies less than an hour from the Northern tip of the country. The ultimate backpacker destination for Argentinians, Brazilians, and Uruguayans looking for some prime surfing and fun in the sun, Punta del Diablo is unique for its exceptional seasonality. From Christmas to February its innumerable hostels are all full every night, but our arrival during the first week of March equated to warm ocean waters and mostly empty beaches. 

During our stay we checked in at El Diablo Tranquilo, a hostel that serves as a haven for travelers. It's the kind of place where people from all over the world can both congregate and feel at home, coupling the option for surfing lessons, horseback rides, and mountain bike rentals with hammocks, a patio, and an outdoor BBQ that make leaving abnormally difficult. 

In fact, I'm unashamed to admit that during our three night stay we refrained from over-exerting ourselves by sticking to a one mile radius around the hostel that simultaneously captivated us and provided for all of our needs. 

Just a block away the primary beach began, a short yet picturesque stretch offering harsh surfing breaks along the rocky pier to the right and calmer swimming waters on the left. It was there that I spent as much time as possible on Friday, rising for an early morning workout next to the water, returning after breakfast to take in some sun, and then wiling away the long afternoon with intermittent dips between games of paddleboard.

The beach here had a much less overwhelming vibe than the ones we ventured to in Argentina, with the end of the high season bringing less locals and more of an international long-term traveling crowd. Even in this ramshackle group of tiny houses built around rapidly eroding sand dunes, people were congregating from all over the world in search of good surf. 

Despite the high season winding down, Friday still brought an onslaught of weekenders into town, so that night we enjoyed the party atmosphere at the hostel before setting out to see what was cooking. A long walk through the center yielded a ghost town; restaurants and bars that others had seen jam-packed just last week were shut down for the season, the streets pitch black and eerily empty. But the exodus was not without its rewards, as the walk back along the beach yielded a stupefying display of stars. A tiny sliver of moon conspired with the lack of civilization around to force us each to crane our necks upwards, bedazzled by nature's most inspiring tapestry. 

In the end we ended up finding a bar just a stone's throw from the hostel; inside most of the surfers that labored for waves in the ocean all day were packed inside listening to the live music. As the night progressed musicians started popping up from all sides and listeners turned into performers, serenading the crowd with popular Uruguayan ballads and old-school American classics. The party atmosphere was our desired capstone to a week full of adventures in Uruguay. This is a place that's often overlooked on the traveling trail, but for our small slimmer of the country held a number of moments that left us feeling contented, relaxed, and amazed.