Crossing Uruguay – From Holiday Resorts to Gaucho Country

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Montevideo is Uruguay’s capital and the only large city in the whole country. It has a very chilled vibe with almost the same population as Rosario, Argentina at around 1.3 million but over a third of Uruguay’s population call Montevideo home. (The number fluctuates because most students come here to study as there are only a handful of universities anywhere else in the country).

We had quite a lot of shorter days on the way to Montevideo but by the time we got there we were more than ready for a few days of down time. We stayed with a couchsurfing host, Ignacio, for the first four days where we had our own room and all the space to chill out, do some bike upgrades and we each got a new hair cut.

Ben was waiting on a new (warranty replacement) Thermarest that was held up in customs so we had to delay leaving for a few days and stayed at an awesome hostel in the meantime. It was a lot of faff because as with all South American countries, importing things is a headache and a tangle of bureaucracy. With help of our friend Mane, that we met in Pichilemu (Chile) we were able to collect it from the depot and continue cycling north.

Leaving Montevideo we followed the rambla, an awesome promenade with a cycle lane and a great view along the east coast. It was the easiest exit to a city yet! It was very busy and touristy up until Punta Del Este with lots of upmarket Uruguayan, Argentinian and Brazilian holiday homes and we were glad it was out of tourist season when it would be ridiculous! We followed the road with many white sandy beaches on our right and it was nice to see Atlantic coast after the long cycle to get here.

We also spent some time with Johanna from the US, who had gotten in touch with us from our Facebook page and we arranged to meet and cycle from Montevideo. Sadly this didn’t happen after the delay with Ben’s Thermarest but we spent a fun night at a hostel together and compared stories of cycling in Patagonia. We did catch up with her in La Paloma though where we spent an afternoon resting, eating and avoiding the torrential rain. We cycled the next day together and the scenery was stunning. There were deserted beach towns and quiet roads, plus we saw some more dolphins playing near the shore.

The weather was a bit hit and miss, with some heavy downpours and a lot of headwinds that followed us whichever direction we turned but it didn’t dampen our spirits too much. We camped in two wooded areas near the beach, a municipal park and two Bomberos garages along the way.

It has been interesting to learn how the firefighters work in each country and maybe this blog should be called the Bomberos’ tour of South America! In Argentina most firefighters are volunteers but in Uruguay, like Chile, being a firefighter is a full paid job. Argentina bought a lot of their fire engines from the US because it was cheaper and so their vehicles were all massive. In Uruguay their fire engines were from Belgium and quite similar to those you would see in the UK. One thing is the same in each country though – all of them really enjoy their job and work ridiculously long hours, with most also studying in their own time.

After 6 long days of riding we reached the small town of Melo where we had arranged to stay with a Warmshowers host and have some well deserved rest days. Rodrigo was an amazing host who made us instantly feel at home. A motorbike rider turned cycle tourist, he is planning his first big trip in July from Uruguay to Bolivia and back again. It was nice to be able to share some of the insights and knowledge we have gained along the way and see in him the planning process we started all those many months ago.

We ate like kings at every meal and although we had to work hard to communicate in Spanish, it’s always good to be fully immersed in a language and forced to converse in Spanish. It was also really awesome that he rode the first 20km out of town with us when we left

Also staying with Rodrigo were Gisela and Lucas, two cyclists from Argentina, who had left their home in Patagonia 15 months ago to cycle to the middle of Brazil and were now heading back into Argentina. We all left on the same day and rode together for three days. It was nice to have native Spanish speakers around as it forced us to use our Spanish and it had a few other benefits too. As they were happy to talk to everyone, we ended up speaking to most of the town in both Las Toscas and Minas de Corrales, small towns on the way to the Brazilian border. As such we were given our own building to stay in in Las Toscas and we got to sleep behind the town hall in a dormitory in Minas. It was a good cultural exchange too, sharing mate and seeing what they eat on the road. They prepare lots of food over a fire (bread, pizza, potatoes..), which is indicative of their culture where they use parillas (BBQ grills) a lot and this really inspired us to have a go next time we camp somewhere with a grill, which is nearly every day. We also have lots of thoughts and ideas about the parilla we are going to build when we get back!

Planning the route north through Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina over to Iguazu has been tricky and our plans changed every day for about a week!

Initially we planned on cycling the coast of Uruguay to the border at Chuy, where would continue to follow the coast all the way to Florianopolis in Brazil then head inland. However, when we plotted this on a map and saw how far it was (~2000km), we knew we didn’t have the time for that long a route. We shortened the route to only include the Rio Grande do Sul coast and head inland from there but after hearing and reading lots of accounts of the heavy traffic and dangerous lorries on Brazil’s main roads, we changed the route again. The current route only takes in a small corner of Brazil but we figure that this will give us a good first impression of the country and if we like it, we can always come back and make Brazil it’s own trip. After all, it does account for 48% of the continent’s land mass!

While we have no explicit time limit for this trip the time issue that we mentioned earlier, forcing us to rethink our route, is being dictated by the dry season on the altiplano of Bolivia and in the mountains of Peru. In winter, May-September there is less rain which means there are no landslides and the dirt mountain roads we plan on riding are passable. In order to make it there with enough time to fully explore these areas we have to again prioritise and the main reason we came over to the east coast was to see the Iguazu falls and Paraguay, so seeing any of Brazil is a bonus.

So just when we feel like we’re getting to grips with Spanish we’re going to one of the few places on the continent that speaks Portuguese. Chao español América del sur. Olá Brasil!

Steph y Ben

2 Responses

  1. Sal
    | Reply

    I loved reading this! I love how friendly and helpful people are to you, I am sure they enjoy looking after you as much as you enjoy their hospitality. It is heartwarming to hear your tales of kindness and welcomes. Great photos as always, those trees are awesome! And dogs too!! Safe onwards travel and lots of love xxx

  2. Julie
    | Reply

    Bom dia Steph & Ben,

    Thanks for another enjoyable blog read. It sounds like you enjoyed Uruguay and it must have been nice to see a lesser-visited S.American country and see how it compares to the countries you’ve visited already. Yet more impressive photos. The Atlantic ocean looks calmer than I would have expected. Have you been for a dip in it yet?! It is great that you are meeting so many friendly people along the way too, to help you make even happier memories of your travels.

    Well – we have now agreed to buy that camper van I mentioned, from friends we met whilst we were travelling in S.America. We are picking it up from them at the end of July, before they jet off around the world with their 2 kids for 12 months of travelling. We’re all very excited about it and trying to decide where to go on our first trip in it. We’re picking it up from near Brighton, so probably a few days on the South Coast of England, then maybe over to France. Meanwhile, we’re off to Jersey in May half term, to visit an aunty of mine who lives over there. Spring has well and truly sprung here now – the bluebells are all out, there is blossom everywhere and our tadpoles have hatched and are growing bigger each day- we have taken some into school so that the kids can watch them grow and change in the classroom too. Solana has now moved up a book level at school and she has her first wobbly tooth!

    We hope you enjoy Iguazu. It is certainly the most impressive waterfall I have ever visited – by quite a long way. Some great photo opportunities there too.

    Julie, Laura & Solana x

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