Uruguay

This country was supposed to be a bit something different for us. There is told not much to be seen, climate, nature, people, standards and development pretty much European, yet we were curious about it, curious how this small country of no significant advantage compared to others can be doing better than its neighbours in so many ways and yet the people to be extremely friendly and laid back. We wanted to start our trip just here, take a while, do some volunteering, get to know it, get to know a bit of Spanish and get ready for Latin America.

But we gave way to the goal of getting a car first so instead of heading there directly from Buenos Aires we went to Chile to get the car and then drove from there to Uruguay. We crossed the bordering Rio Uruguay and felt the difference from Argentina immediately. Better kept, better maintained and more European looking. The landscape, the fields, reminded us so much of Europe above the Alps, except warmer climate and some trees. True, the landscape started looking like that a bit already on the Argentinian side between rivers Parana and Uruguay. The names of the places are funny in the southwest – Mercedes, Nuevo Berlin, Nueva Helvecia – letting you know of massive Alpine countries’ past immigration around here. However it is still Latin America. You will run into siesta time which can take up to 5 (maybe 6) hours, but then you can visit most shops until 8, sometimes 10, 11, weekend including. When you drive on a perfectly nice road, don’t get too confident, sooner or later you will hit a typical SA hump not seen in Europe, not even in UK or Ukraine, that can seize the vehicle out of the road, you will hit dirt roads, you will not find anyone speaking English, you will struggle to find prices on goods or groceries in stores (unlike in the other countries, even fuel at the filling stations), you will find speeding very common and allowed even though not reckless or dangerous as in more temperament countries, you will find roads straight for 20km, you will find pedestrians and cyclists on motorways (if you could call it that way) and even people chilling and making BBQ which is a national sport here. Anywhere any time. Uruguay is the furthest in 21st century within the continent and that also includes legal gay marriage or legal marihuana. Strangely enough we have not been able to see that much on the streets. What caught my attention is this habit that I have not experienced before. In a let’s say supermarket which is near to European standards there is always a bunch of security guys (or ladies). That wouldn’t surprise you after other LA countries at all but without noticing you do get scanned and you do get informed that your knife (and probably other items considered as guns) are not allowed in the market and need to be stored in the free of charge lockers located conveniently near the entrance area.

Vast majority of tourists in Uruguay visit the coast. Starting in Colonia del Sacramento just across the La Plata mouth from BA, all the way up to Punta del Diablo and Chuy by the border with Brazil. Since most interesting stuff is there, we did it too, with various plans to explore the inland, ending up exploring a bit of it. Colonia is very famous as 1. the crossing point to BA and 2. the old colonial architecture. Our impression was average, certainly not worth an extra trip for sightseeing. Just a nice town much fuller of foreign tourists than this town would be worth otherwise. There is an extensive sandy beach (from now on I will write just a beach, I doubt locals would anything else but a sandy beach consider as a beach. It is so plentiful). The water was super warm and pretty dirty, so we decided to wait for the east coast, but it did not stop the others. The rest of the south west wasn’t worth a note but we did like roaming the country.

Montevideo is not worldwide famous for its architecture or history, but we have seen of it in there more than in BA and Santiago together. Still not much, but it’s nice. On the western shore there is a port and on the eastern shore there are beaches massively used by locals. The beaches are nice, the water still not as much, it is still La Plata and not the ocean, but much better than in Colonia. As everywhere, people from the country or smaller places would tell you the city is crazy, but it is as crazy or busy as other cities of its size, even a bit less than that. We did not find a host and so the beach hosted us. We had a mission to find a place to get a vaccine against rabies and typhoid. It was surprisingly complicated, they don’t give them in hospitals, so we asked for a private clinic and it was hell of a thing to get it out of them, first they said they don’t have any, then that you need a doctor’s prescription and etc.. What a mess. We found a place to get the rabies vaccine but couldn’t find for typhoid. Hopefully in Brazil, which has got the tropics. We also couldn’t find anyone to get some weed from (since it is as legal as it gets and Hanna had some pains to kill so we assumed it would be convenient). None. We found it rather hard to get in contact with locals. Weed is legally grown and distributed by state or grown and consumed by locals. You can only buy it from a pharmacy and only as a local, foreigners are not allowed to purchase. Great.

From Montevideo we hit the countryside just above it. Not so much to see, but it is quite pretty. Vast majority of the land is pastures or fields and always fenced. Difficult to find a place to park for the night actually, or even find a shade without leaning on someone’s property. In one god forgotten little town we ran into an event where local drumming group was marching around the square playing solely drums, mostly with their hands. If this would happen in Europe it would be sometime during the day but there we were talking about 10PM. Literally walking around with a toothbrush in the mouth ready for the bed, we got caught unprepared for that. We went on two small hikes staring two small hills. Once we got lost and once we got not let in as the area was closed after 3PM for entry. You could also not bring less than 1l of water per head, worse than good for hiking shoes/boots, less than 1 adult with, any kids younger than 7 and any cell phone. On a 300m hill!

The most popular neighbourhood of Uruguay is probably the southeastern tip around Punta del Este. It is an urban area patched from many many towns and villages stretching mostly along the coast, more or less mixed of standard residential and seasonal tourism accommodations (there is virtually no other than seasonal tourism). But Punta del Este town is else. I have never seen before such a concentration and extent of new, 5,10,15story buildings all looking like they could be apartments, offices, headquarters etc. but all they are is summer holiday apartments and units. Dead empty 9 months a year or even more when Argentinian economy is struggling – which is for example now. Most of the tourist come from BA and rest of Argentina, big bunch from Brazil too and only then Uruguayans or others. It is a cult. You’ve simply got to go there for the summer and you’ve got to go there every year, it’s a tradition. It might be taking a part on the joke that it is the suburbs of BA (originating from the thought why Uruguay isn’t a part of Argentina when it’s more or less the same). Tradition also is to rent the same place every time so people have old friends that they hang out with every summer. If you are on budget and want to rent a place our there, your best bet is to rent it out from March to December and for January and February, when the rentals easily add up a whole zero to the price tag, sleep in a tent, car or get out. People build new houses just to rent them out for 2 months. The madness goes even stranger regarding the Brazilians, because once you visit their seaside, you wonder what in the hell attracts them on this worse, colder, more crowded and much more expensive place. Argentinians have a huge country but their seaside offers relatively little. And the ocean is cold. Until Punta del Este we kept experiencing 35dgr sunny days but then it went rapidly down, because 35 is usually a peak summer in Uruguay, not spring. But the ocean is still cold then, only in mid December it gets bearable.

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At the end of this urban area we were hosted by a nice family. German/Moldovan. The kids (4 and 2) spoke or at least understood fluently 4 languages (German, Russian, Spanish and English) and around the age of 5 were about to start learning Portuguese at school. That was one of our biggest shocks on the trip so far. The parents had a lot to tell, they had tremendous experience with Couchsurfing and hitchhiking, he even engaged in organizing some of the communities and websites, and they recommend us other two hosts further on the road, which approved really neat.

After that we went almost directly to one of the related hosts. He on the other hand lives in the middle of nowhere in forests/bushes, where he’s got a 8ha land full of trees, bushes, little rivers, birds, snakes, boars, escaped cows from the surrounding gauchos (SA equivalent of cowboys rasing cattle or horses) and the only connection to the civilization over a bad mud road and satellite data. He built himself a tiny hut out of mud and timber and he lives in the bush in piece. As we wanted to try a volunteering stage in Uruguay related to the countryside and “ecoliving”, we agreed with him on a few days as he does offer that anyways. We didn’t work much really but we helped him a bit with elevating a home water tower. Which is something highly popular in these parts of the world. For every house to have its own water tower, simply a plastic tank on a few timber or brick posts. Although he is a German, he easily adapted to the LA engineering standards and so we didn’t overdo any precautions. The rest of the time was dedicated to chilling in the nature, talking about life or preparing an easy meal.

From there we moved up to the last place in the country, Punta del Diablo on the coast. It is the opposite to Punta del Este, it’s small, calm and somewhat rustic, just small one two story houses with yards, beach barely organized or marked, but yet somewhat touristy – though regarded to backpackers, alternative or at least-wanna be alternative people (like us, just a bit richer). At the edge of the village we took a proper volunteering opportunity at an alternative eco/sustainable accommodation place. It contained of a bunch of tiny ball rounded domes for couples in a calm, hidden place by the forest and by the beach, off the grid. We were about to help and learn about “ecoliving”, local culture etc. Excitement was in place.

First day we were told to chill out and get to know the place and people. So the main guy showed us a bit around and gave us one of the domes, the only not wooden one, but a textile one. To stay there and to figure out small bits how to fix and improve details. So we went to sleep in there and we saw a bunch of big ants wandering around. Both of us really dislike most insects, ants not the least, so we went to sleep to the car for the time as it was night already. In the morning boss came to us and wanted to send us away because we didn’t do anything the day before. Exactly as instructed. Might be related to the pot which he smokes all day long like cigs. So we cleared that out and got assigned to clean the dome with a brush, water and poison. When we unfolded the duvet we found the whole bloody nest and then two more nests in the same bed, full of eggs and stuff. Gosh that was gross. Imagine at night you are so tired you don’t even light up you just jump in the bed. Boss just repeated to clean it all. I gave up but Hanna proved a strong gut and did it. After a while we convinced him at least to take a look at it. So he did and said “Incredible. Nooooo. Incredible! Imagine I sent the guests to sleep here, hahaha. Yea, clean that all up.” No shame. At that time he still really liked the idea of having me there, a civil engineer. So he asked me some tips on his wooden structures (meaning crooked planks and bamboo nailed or screwed together so so, so it would hold a few years together). I did give him some tips and was ready to give a lot more but he didn’t like them and kept his own ideas and from then on all we did was her cleaning and me painting (just timber treating, no art involved). After 5 days of zero interesting work, zero cultural or language exchange, they wouldn’t talk to us unless necessary, finding that the place isn’t eco or sustainable at all, after working 4h a day and having provided no bed, no food, only bathrooms and an empty kitchen, we just left. Couldn’t have been more pointless.

The beach next to which we were was really nice however at that time it wasn’t 35dgr like before but more like 15 and windy. You wouldn’t find many people without wetsuits in the water either, which was probably 15 too. The forest next to it turned in to a kind of a subtropical jungle sample, protected as a national park. It is interesting how quickly you could change from planted and sterile forests (eucalyptus mostly) or pastures over vast parts of the country into a jungle where you get lost immediately. None of the trees or bushes we could recognize, but that wasn’t new for us on the continent. In the whole picture though, again, not so much interesting. The most exciting moment after all was, when we ran into a capibara. What a shock that was. But already 100km further, in Brasil, there are thousands living freely in the wetlands just like that.

The last stop for us was in Chuy. It is a duty free zone little town, kind of. So everyone from pretty far would go there to shop imported goods, fuel etc. It is binational and the border is one big open avenue making the centrepiece of it, overfilled with shops of varying quality. Apart of prices which were reasonable compared to insane in the rest of the country, we found useful or quality stuff that we wouldn’t find anywhere before. So we bought for example a corded fridge, because the previous one that came with the car didn’t work. What happened to it? The previous owners of the car didn’t like to charge it with the 12V plug and because they are handy fellows, they found a wire of a similar connector with a 220V plug and shaped it with a knife so it would fit in the fridge perfectly. Just a bit of craft work and plug it into 220V, no problem!

That was our two or three week stay in Uruguay, we did not manage to connect with the locals much, our hosts were Europeans and Argentinians, we did not manage to soak into the local calm life, we did not manage to push our Spanish into talkative, we did not find any wonders of the country, but we had  nice time and we could imagine it as a nice place to live, for some people. More than elsewhere we found confusing pricing of the goods. Sometimes in the local pesos, sometimes in USD and you go figure, both have the same symbol. In Chuy it could also be in Brazilian reals and you could guess even more. The weather can be pretty hot in summer and cannot be much freezing in winter, it can get windy or humid anytime, more in the winter, but certainly windy by the ocean. Sometimes the landscape reminds you Europe, just the flora is different. A lot of roads ale unpaved but generally in ok condition, considering the little traffic, little winter and little slopes, it makes sense. Much more than in parts of Brazil or Argentina for example. Argentinians are famous for their mate and bbq. Uruguayans are even more crazy about both. Their mate gear is often better looking and really omnipresent. That seems to be a bit of a standard for Uruguay to be in the shadow of Argentina and they don’t like it. And I understand that. Nevertheless the similarity is inevitably huge.

Video here

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