Our last stop in Argentina before heading to Uruguay was the city of Rosario, 300km northwest of Buenos Aires and it is the third biggest city in Argentina with over 1.3 million people. We spent four days in this chilled city exploring the downtown area, drinking mate in the park by the river and eating some traditional Argentinian food with our couchsurfing host, Victoria. We also learnt some interesting facts about the city – Belgrano created the Argentinian flag, which was then shown for the first time in 1812 in Rosario during the Argentinian war of independence and its football team, Newell’s Old Boys (NOBs), is where Messi’s football career started. We still don’t know very much about football though, regardless of how many people ask us about it when learning we are from England!
One of the best things about South America though is the meat. Here in Argentina they have so many cuts of beef that by British standards are quite cheap and even though they only season it with salt, that’s all it needs to taste amazing. The first time we experienced this was in Ushuaia with Christian and it’s been the same all the way up both Chile and Argentina. Franco, Victoria’s boyfriend, cooked us an incredible matambre a la pizza which is essentially a slab of meat with tomato sauce and mozzarella on top and it is quite honestly one of the best meat dishes we’ve ever tasted. As well as sharing some meals that we cooked, Victoria made a chocotorta, which is essentially an Argentinian tiramisu with dulce de leche instead of the coffee. It was so rich and gooey, we might just have to add it to the list of puddings we are making these days!
In our previous blog we spoke about the ride across the country and when we wrote it we had just reached Rosario, where we’d have a few days off to relax before heading in to Uruguay. We both assumed that the ride from Rosario to the border was going to be easy and whilst we’d plotted the route on the map, we hadn’t looked at it in detail. It’s only 300km and mostly flat, the 1000km we’d already done to get across the country was the difficult bit, right? Err… no! What we hadn’t realised is that Rosario is situated on the edge of the Rio Paraná, a massive river which runs from Iguazu falls in the north all the way to Buenos Aires and the Atlantic Ocean. The Rosario-Victoria bridge separates Rosario with the next province, Entre Rios and the fact that it literally means “between rivers” should have given it away really! The bridge is prohibited to cycle across because there is no hard shoulder and for the next 60km there are a number more which are equally unsafe for bicycles. Our plan was that we would hitch a lift to Victoria, 60km away from Rosario and across all the bridges, then we would continue along the planned route to the border. Unfortunately we weren’t able to hitch a lift because the road was a dual carriageway, the traffic was going so fast and those closest to the hard shoulder were coming off at the next exit for Rosario, which meant that any vehicles that might have stopped weren’t able to. It was really hot in the sun and feeling disheartened, we gave up by mid-afternoon and headed back into town.
At the hostel we spent all evening weighing up the different options and trying to find other cyclist’s blogs to see how they’d done it. There were a few options:
1. Try and hitch again tomorrow.
2. Get a bus to Victoria and ride from there. (We did actually try this one but after asking at all of the bus companies we discovered that none of them would take bikes.)
3. Bus, train or ride to Buenos Aires and get the ferry, but it’s a fairly expensive option.
4. Cycle up to Santa Fé and cross there, which cyclists can ride, but it’s a 400km detour north.
Just when we were about to give up we found a bridge on the map which was just before Buenos Aires in a town called Zarate. After some frantic Googleing we found that we could ride across this bridge, it would be cheaper than a ferry and quicker than riding north. It did mean that we would need to ride south, towards BA, something we weren’t expecting to have to do but after leaving that morning and ending up back in Rosario, we had to consider other options.
It turns out that the most spontaneous plans can sometimes be the best plans. The roads themselves might not have been the most interesting but it was a good mix of riding on ripio (gravel) backroads and the dual carriageway, until the latter ended and we were on a much worse sandy road. At one point we thought we had more bridge trouble as the road had subsided and the bridge looked a bit worse for wear. Some people were crossing the bridge on mopeds though, so we figured it must be safe enough for two cyclists!
The first night out of Rosario we made it to San Nicholas and it was late when we were looking for somewhere to stay. As there was no campsite and wildcamping is difficult in urban areas we found a velodrome on the map, so we thought we would ask about camping there. As is the case more often than not we were welcomed in, shown to a dorm room, showers and the kitchen and given the keys for the night! The following night we found a Shell garage with a large grassy area to camp and when we eventually reached Zarate we asked at the Bomberos. Again we had a hot shower, a room to sleep in and use of a kitchen. It was a relief to get this far and the town was really nice, we just hoped that we could get across the next bridge!
¡Sin problema! Crossing the two bridges out of Zarate took a good half hour to ride but we were just glad to be finally getting across this damn river! The worst bit about it was trying not to hit your handlebars or the bags on the fork legs when you have to manoeuvre around the lampposts and avoid the railings on both sides.
The rest of the ride from Zarate to Uruguay took us a day. The landscape wasn’t overly exciting as it was wet land with the one road running through it and flat as far as the eye can see. There weren’t even any towns so we continued riding after dark. I think at this point, after all the faff of actually getting here, we both just wanted to be in Uruguay already. At least there was another luxury Shell garage to camp at!
We reached the border at Gualaguychú where there was another bridge to cross and again, we were prohibited from crossing it by bike. This time though we could ride to the edge of the bridge where there was a police checkpoint and all of the traffic stopped. It was much easier to hitch a lift here and we got a lift in the second truck that passed. Julio strapped our bikes into the back of his truck and crossed the last bridge of this saga before dropping us off at the border control. It was Easter Monday, hundreds of Argentinians were returning from their long weekend abroad and the border reflected this with 5/6 booths open for the traffic entering Argentina. After a confusing half hour of being sent backwards and forwards (I don’t think they get many cyclists here) we finally got our entry stamps and left the chaos behind us.
We were so excited about getting a different stamp in our passport after the two pages of Argentina and Chile entry and exit stamps. As we mentioned before, it was a bank holiday Monday, the immigration officer really didn’t want to be at work and he made no effort to hide this when he didn’t ink the stamp or even look where he was putting it.
We arrived in Fray Bentos hot and tired, it had been a long five days and we decided to treat ourselves to somewhere nice to stay. We sat in the plaza to use the free Wi-fi, which most towns have, and a few locals spoke to us as they walked by. A few minutes later a man we’d already chatted to returned with a camera woman in tow and explained that he works for the local tv, could we do an interview? It looked like we couldn’t decline, so for a few minutes we answered the usual questions about the trip, in Spanish, then they filmed us with our bikes. This has happened a few times now and never when we are clean or feeling refreshed, which is unfortunate for them as we’d speak better Spanish and be better presented if we weren’t cornered the minute we arrive in town! It’s funny though and people don’t seem to mind too much.
Fray Bentos is probably a name that many British people will recognise but not as the small town in Uruguay. Funnily enough the famous Fray Bentos tinned pies were never actually made here, the name was sold to Baxter’s in Scotland and they have been making these pies under the Fray Bentos name ever since. They don’t even get the pies here and find it hilarious that the town’s name is used abroad. We learned a lot at the UNESCO World Heritage site, The Industrial Revolution Museum, and whilst a meat packing factory is probably not on most people’s holiday wish list, it was a great place to spend a few hours and being Tuesday we got free entry and a free tour. Nicholas, our guide, spoke excellent English and took us around the factory from the motor room to the slaughter house and finally the freezer building. The whole process from animal to final product was done here on site and they used to joke that every part of the animal was used, except the moo!
The factory was founded in 1859 to source, process and pack various meat products and played a valuable role in Europe during both world wars. The Liebig extract of meat company are most renowned for the meat extract they invented for troops in World War I, that we now know as the OXO cube. 32kg of meat was reduced to 1kg of pure protein and packaged in a small box before being sent to the trenches, to both the Nazis and the Allies! The factory was initially run by the German Liebig group but British money financed it and that is evident in all of the British machinery, steel and engineering around the site. It was renamed the “El Anglo” Meat Packing plant in 1924 and continued as such until it closed down in 1979.
It was a really interesting few hours and we could write so much about it but it would double the word count so we’ll leave you with a few facts and pictures. Google will give you even more information about it if you want to know more.
• The factory had 3 slaughter days per week where they processed 1600 cows per day! (They also processed sheep and turkeys at the same time.)
• From killing the animal to the carcass being hung in the freezer took 25 minutes, all done by hand.
• The freezer building was immense. 100x40m, 5 floors, 10 chambers per floor. Total capacity of 18000 tonnes of meat. It started off as 2 floors and when they needed more space they added 3 more floors at ground level by jacking the existing structure up and building underneath it!
Dolores was the first place of note after Fray Bentos. It’s on the smaller road that heads towards the coast, not the main Ruta 1 towards Montevideo. We were in no rush so we decided to head for the coastline and see what we could find. We were sat in the plaza in the middle of Dolores by mid afternoon and we were discussing going further and finding a Wild camp spot. A chance meeting with a street food seller changed our minds. Not only did he sell us some delicious baked goods from the trailer on the back of his bike but also told us about a lovely municipal campsite next to the river. He wasn’t lying, the municipal campsite had great facilities considering it was free, and it was set in a pretty wooded park. As it turns out there are many places like this in Uruguay, which is awesome news for us. The park is obviously loved by locals too as for much of the evening there were people sat drinking mate, jogging or cycling, or just cruising around in their cars. It was cool for us to people watch as we were cooking and setting up camp.
Being in no real rush to get to Montevideo meant we decided to have a few shorter days and take things a bit easier on the road. Playa Agraciada was only 40km from Dolores and it provided us with another amazing municipal campsite. We were there by lunch time giving us the whole afternoon to relax in the baking heat of the day, rather than ride in it. This was a real novelty as recently we have been riding bigger distances most days.
Before coming away we were convinced we would have plenty of off the bike time to plan our onward travels, learn Spanish and read books but between riding for more time each day and the daylight hours getting less and less our routine has become far more limited. Eat, ride, eat, sleep, repeat. So taking it a bit easier on this section was really appreciated.
Another short day’s ride and we were in the town of Carmelo, sat in the plaza enjoying some sandwiches by lunch time. Something quite strange happened then, it started raining! First just drizzling but within a few minutes it was pouring. We haven’t seen rain since Puerto Varas, months ago, and even then it was on a day when we weren’t actually riding! Our plans to camp in the municipal park went out of the window and we began the search for a hostel in town, because there is no point camping in the rain if you don’t have to. Our search took us to an amazing hostel that was way out of our price range (it had “boutique” in the name), but because we are now out of high season they kindly offered us a massive discount instead of letting us leave. We were the only ones there and it was great.
From the comfort of the hostel we watched the rain fall for the rest of the afternoon, definitely happy to be inside. Checking the forecast revealed that it was due to continue the next day too. Even at the reduced rate we couldn’t afford to stay in Carmelo to wait out the rain so we booked another hostel in Colonia del Sacramento for the next night and resigned ourselves to the fact it would be a wet day on the road. The next morning, fortified by the amazing breakfast in the hostel, we set off towards Colonia… just as the rain started. 80km later we arrived dripping wet at our hostel, so glad that we had some accommodation already organised.
Colonia is definitely on the Uruguayan tourist trail as it’s where the boats from Buenos Aires arrive to. It’s also the oldest city in Uruguay and has a lot of colonial architecture and history in the old centre. We had arrived early enough that we had some time to get our bearings and explore the historic centre. It was nice to see the ruins of the old fortifications and church, but “old” is definitely relative as even the oldest things here were only around 300 years old.
Our hostel was really busy despite it being low season, and it was nice to be able to socialise with other travellers and hear their stories. It was the most English we had heard spoken in a long time! We decided to stay another night to explore the town some more, and wait out another really wet day that was forecast. Coincidentally (probably) it was also MotoGP race day and the hostel had a tv that would show it, so we had a relaxing Sunday drinking tea and watching the races.
The weather improved as forecasted and the last 2 days of riding to Montevideo were spent in blazing sunshine. More amazing municipal camp sites provided us with accommodation and despite riding on the main road to the capital it was a pleasant ride.
As we approached the city that 1/3 of Uruguayans call home the traffic on the roads dramatically increased, but it was fairly straightforward to get into the city centre so we didn’t have any issues. We were lucky enough to have been offered some accommodation by a Couchsurfing host so we didn’t have the hassle of finding somewhere to stay, definitely the best way to arrive in a city.
We plan on staying for a good few days to explore Uruguay’s biggest city before continuing around the coast towards Brazil.
More about that next time.
Ben and Steph