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Uruguay, an Unexpected Surprise

Uruguay, an Unexpected Surprise
The ferry ride from Buenos Aries, Argentina to Colonia Del Sacramento, Uruguay took approximately one hour, and crossed the Rio de la Plata.  The cities are on opposite sides of a broad section of the river just before it empties into the Atlantic Ocean.  The river was so wide it seemed as if both cities were on the ocean; however, the muddy-colored water indicated otherwise.

Most Americans know little about Uruguay, and we were among them.  Uruguay is slightly smaller than the state of Washington and has a population of approximately 3.3 million.   The country has had its share of political challenges including a Marxist movement in the late 1960s followed by a government ruled by the military.  However, between 1985 and 2004 the political winds changed in favor of the people, and Uruguay is now considered one of the freest and most stable countries on the continent.

Colonia Del Sacramento is a former Spanish colonial town and is well known as a great get-away for Argentineans.  It still has many buildings from that period, and the town is filled with quaint restaurants and shops of all types.  We stayed at a guesthouse on the outskirts of town and mostly hiked back and forth.  One day we rented a golf cart that had the get-up-and-go of a slow moving tortoise, especially when all five of us were on it.  It was only slightly faster than walking, but gave us the means to see more of the local area.

We arrived at the guesthouse on Wednesday and had booked two rooms for two nights.  It was quiet and few people were there so the morning of our scheduled departure, we informed the proprietors that we would stay through the weekend.  Due to their lack of English and our limited Spanish, we had difficulty communicating that we wanted to stay until Monday; however, after much hand gesturing on both sides they finally seemed to understand.  That's precisely when we discovered Colonia Del Sacramento was popular with the Argentineans, as the guesthouse was fully booked through the weekend.

The owners tried to find accommodations at other guesthouses, but the story was the same everywhere.  Within an hour we were packed and headed to the bus station.  Our next destination was Montevideo, the capital.  The bus ride was only two hours through beautiful farmland.  Long vistas against a cobalt blue sky seemed to go on forever.  Different kinds of crops and cattle appeared to be the mainstay of agricultural production.

Since our exit from Colonia Del Sacramento was as hasty as that of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, we did not have time to book a hotel in Montevideo.  After arriving at the bus station, we found the tourist office and reserved two rooms at a hostel.  The terms hotel, apartment hotel, guesthouse and hostel are all fairly interchangeable throughout South America.  However, after arriving at this particular hostel, we quickly realized it was in fact a "youth" hostel; complete with dorm rooms, shared bathrooms, and a very loud and noisy common area.  Even though we proclaim to be hardcore travelers, we have our standards and the 24/7 party-hardy atmosphere did not meet them.

A few blocks towards the center of town, we found a not-too-expensive hotel that would satisfy our first night's stay in Montevideo.  The next day we located a three-bedroom apartment with a full kitchen, which became our abode for the next several days.  It even had high speed Internet, a luxury we had not experienced in a very long time.

There is a lot to see and do in Montevideo including museums, parks and the riverfront.  However, our biggest disappointment was the amount of trash along the riverfront area.  The sunsets are spectacular, but that's where the beauty ended.  It was shocking to see people swimming in such polluted water, and the trash washed up on the beach.  This was in direct contrast to the city streets that were clean and tidy.  In addition, there appeared to be a booming dumpster-diving business, as men with horse drawn carts were everywhere collecting and recycling nearly everything imaginable from the small and large trash bins that lined the streets.

One must-see local attraction is the Sunday street market.  The mother of all markets sets up and breaks down one day each week, and was the longest continuous line up of selling stalls we had ever seen.  On average, each vendor had a booth approximately 8' long x 6' deep, and they were back-to-back along both sides of the street.  Another line of wares was displayed in front of the stores that also lined the street.  The market stretched for eight city blocks and extended down nearly every side street in both directions.

Everything was for sale, from chickens, geese, puppies, fish, kittens and rabbits to vegetables, old phonograph records, clothing, art, sponges and enough hardware gadgets to stock several Home Depots.  Most of the goods were new, slightly used or genuine antiques.  It was a combination open-air bazaar, garage sale and flea market all rolled into a plethora of goods that would make the Home Shopping Network look like a neighborhood rummage sale.  The only caution from the locals was to be on guard against pickpockets, which apparently do a booming business on Sundays.

After leaving Montevideo, we headed to the beachside community of La Paloma.  We spent a week there to recharge and regroup.  It was known as a great surf spot, although the weather did not cooperative.  A severe storm rolled in unexpectedly, which kept us housebound for several days.

While in La Paloma, we experienced a very interesting phenomena.  The town points south and sits on land that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean.  As a result, we enjoyed unobstructed ocean sunrises and sunsets on the beach just in front of the cottage we rented.  This seemed impossible, as it's usually only possible to see one or the other depending on the Coast.  A map of the area finally helped solve the mystery.

Next week's article is a tale of woe.  Getting into Brazil was fraught with added costs and challenges galore.  It was the complete opposite of the efficient border crossing we experienced between Chile and Argentina.  The border town of Chui or Chuy, depending on whether it is in Uruguay or Brazil, is a place we will never forget.

And remember . . . "Travel is the ultimate education."

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