May 10, 2009 GMT
Fray Bentos

We're travelling to Uruguay. After a night's stay in the border town of Gualeguaychu, Argentina, we are perfectly poised to do a morning border crossing the international bridge over the Rio Uruguay into Fray Bentos, Uruguay. We want to visit the famous El Anglo, Fray Bentos museum. Little did we know the mischievous whims of politics would have the highway blockaded by Argentinians off and on since December 2005. OK so we didn't know and travel 40 kms to find that out.

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Turns out some of the lads have been intermittently protesting the Finnish company Botnia for the paper mill built and operating in Uruguay, but should have been located on their side of the river. Funny how polarized views about money vs environmentmental concerns can flipflop, depending on who's getting the money. So we backtrack and spent the rest of the day driving north to the next border crossing, going through customs, then riding south again to arrive back at the end of the day 20 km directly east of where we started that morning.

Our first impressions of Uruguay are very favorable. Healthy grain fields, modest but clean farm yards and houses, and friendly, approachable people just like Chilians. We stay our first night at the lovely Gran Hotel in Mercedes, where we meet Fabrizio Vignali, gerente general and bike enthusiast. Fabrizio owns two classics, a 1961 BSA and a 1972 Moto Guzzi. Given the weekend crowds likely to invade Colonia, he recommends we stay the weekend at his other hotel in Fray Bentos. We agree.

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On Saturday we take the tour of El Anglo, the meat processing factory built in 1862 by the Liebig Extract of Meat Company; later bought and operated by the Brits from 1924 to 1979. The works and yards at Fray Bentos ranked among the largest industrial complexes in South America, had the first electricity in South America, employed over 5000 at it's height and helped usher in the industrial revolution there. Think Oxo cubes and Fray Bentos corned beef (Joyce and I can remember eating the canned meat as kids) and it may ring a bell for you too. The museum claims the products aided Stanley and Livingston in African exploits, Scott in the Antarctic, Brown & Alcock flying across the Atlantic and the Allied soldiers in WWII.

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The museum has so perfectly preserved the administrative offices that it looks like the office workers have just left for their lunch break.

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Frabrizio, bless his heart, not only gives us a great rate on his four star hotel, but shows us around. Not only an accomplished business man but turns out he's a brilliant photographer as well. Joyce and I think, under different circumstances, Fabrizio could have worked for National Geographic, his artistic eye is that good.

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After a wee tour of the local countryside with Fabrizio, we stop to take a bikes-at-sunset photo beside the massive Fray Bentos refrigerator plant.

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A common theme, in Argentina as well as here in Uruguay, is the social gathering of folks while having a mate (pronounced "ma-tay") break. Sipped through silver staws, the drinker drafts up the tea produced from mate tea leaves that sit loose in the bottom of a special mate cup/gourd. It's a national pastime and we see everyone from security guards to secretaries sipping on their mates.

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We sit in the park, on a hill above, and watch the mate crowd below. We are really here to have a bottle of Uruguay Tannat wine, some cheese and bread, and watch the sun set over the River Uruguay. It's a shirt sleeve evening and the sun's final moments don't disappoint. The evening sky ends a spectacular blood red.

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Posted by Murray Castle at 04:20 PM GMT
May 12, 2009 GMT
Old City of Colonia

After enjoying more than a month of sunshine, we ride from Fray Bentos to Colonia del Sacramento in rain. Along the way, the temperature drops from 28 to 15C. Our textile motorcycle clothes keep us dry, thanks to the GoreTex lining, but nothing can stop the cold rain from running down sleeves and into our gloves. We turn on the heated grips and drive on with soggy but at least toasty warm hands. Warming too is the thought we have a reservation at another beautiful hotel, thanks to Fabrizio, so we arrive happy little ducks.

Next day we don our walking clothes and, under dirty grey scudding cloud and fits of wind driven showers, tour the remarkably restored old quarter of Colonia, known as Barrio Histórico (historic quarter). Good thing we have digital cameras because we can't walk 100 yards without photographing another postcard scene.

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Uruguay's oldest city has a colorful and eventful past. From 1680 to 1828, it changed hands 10 times between Spanish and Portuguese interests before finally becoming part of Uruguay. What remains today are many examples from both cultures and three centuries of changing architecture.
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The preservation and restoration continues today. The old city is another World Heritage Site declared by UNESCO. It's also a favorite for the folks of Buenos Aires, who can skim across the Rio del Plate in 50 minutes on a fast hydrofoil.

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The stone work of buildings, old fort walls and cobblestone streets combine with late autumn flowering plants and trees still blooming to produce such charm even now that the quarter must be incredible to visit in summer.

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There are plenty of examples of early 20th century stuff too. Like this Ford Victoria automobile. The strategic parking of old cars in the historic quarter must seem to an antique car fanatic a dream come true. In addition, quality antique and local craft stores abound. It is hard but we resist buying; really, where would we carry it?

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Shop keepers and tourists alike bomb around town on the ubiquitous scooter. How can these decrepit old timers blend in with 300 year old buildings? We don't know, but they do.

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We are fascinated by the cobblestone streets built by the Portuguese in the 17th century. Note the street has a built in gradient for a centre drain, which very cleverly removes rain water quickly to the nearby Rio del Plate.

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Little remains of the original fort and walls. The gate and drawbridge still stand, proof of how it provided protected from invaders - or not, considering how often the city changed owners.

Posted by Murray Castle at 06:48 PM GMT
May 30, 2009 GMT
La Costa

We leave Colonia in a steady drizzle. The forecast for the next three days is rain but we must move on. Autumn is creeping up from the south, inching northward day by day like the cold black shadows of sunset. Our plan, now that cruel autumn is showing her real colours, is to follow the coastline of Uruguay east and north and enter Brazil at Chuy.

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We approach the capital city of Montevideo at lunch time. The plan was to stay a day or two here, but the gusting winds, driving rain and 17 C temperatures discourage us and also make the city appear unwelcoming and unflattering. Muddy waves send overspray onto the costanera drive, the palms bend frightfully in the wind and even the hi-rises look like they are hunkering into the wind.

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We stop for a quick fuel break in Montevideo, wolf down gas station coffee and sandwiches, both tasting like the plastic containers they came in, then we hit the road again. We decide to continue following the coast. The wind also decides to continue - to drive rain into our faces. Towards 4 PM as an early darkness approaches, we have had enough and take refuge in the quiet little town of Atlantída. In the summer this berg is wall to wall tourists. Today Joyce and I, Katie and Chicitita are the sole representives of the touristic world. Ben, the German ex-pat owner of the St Moritz Hotel, a goldsmith by trade in off-season, seems mildly surprised to have his jewelry work interrupted by dripping guests. He welcomes us openly and gets us in out of the rain immediately. We feel like old friends meeting after a long absence. We love how our day has ended so well.

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After two days of drying out clothes over electric heaters in our cozy second story room with a view, we move on as the weather clears. Riding further east, the tranquil coastal city of Piriapolis calls our name but by now we have the wind up our nose and want to travel on.

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Punto del Este is the point of land jutting out into the Atlantic that anybody who is anybody owns property here. The rich and famous from Brazil to Buenos Aires like to be seen here. We idle through town, look at the fancy condos, splashy homes, yachts in the harbour and ubertrendy cafes and are reminded of Monte Carlo, Cannes and California.

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Further down the road is Punto del Diablo, until a few years ago, a sleepy little fishing village on a sand and rock point. Then some surfers discovered the place and a few cabañas sproated up to catch the tourism wave. We take a cute little cabaña for a couple of days and catch the waves too - the solar waves. This is our kind of Punto: low key, no frills, but clean and good value. We know this place won´t last long the way it is; soon it´ll be loved to death like all the others. We humans are funny that way.

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In the meantime, we lay on the roof recliners and sun ourselves, later on wander inside and watch English speaking movies with Hugh Grant and any one of a number of leading ladies. It is Chick Flick Heaven for Joyce. And to tell you the truth, right now they are just what I want to watch too. We go through a lot of Coke and chips.

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We walk on the beach to watch the surfers, or to just watch the surf. It is good therapy after a bunch of days riding the bikes. This is what travelling is all about, even for aimless extranjeros like ourselves.

As we sit watching the endlessly restless surf, we talk about our experience here in Uruguay. The people here have been very good to us. We have collected many fond memories in this tiny but very friendly country. On May 17th, we head towards the Brasil frontera but it is not without a tiny feeling of regret for leaving Uruguay so soon.

Posted by Murray Castle at 04:19 PM GMT
Grande Brasil

After an hour of formalities at the Uruguay/Brazil border at Chui, we are on our way in another new country. We ride through lowlands heavily saturated with standing water full of standing cows. Our first night in Brasil is in the city of Rio Grande. Hey, that´s the same name as the city we spent our first night in Argentina, only that Rio Grande on Tierra del Fuego is half a continent away from here.

Brazilians, we discover, are just as helpful, curious and friendly as their Spanish counterparts. But in daily communication it´s a different story. The Portuguese language, although similar in writing to Spanish, when spoken is entirely incomprehensible to me. Case in point. After finding a place to stay for the night, Katie and I head downtown to the Banco do Brasil for an ATM. I can read the street signs but when I ask for directions (in my kindergarten Spanish, because it is my only hope) I get back a blur of Incomprehenseguese. Seems they can understand me but I haven´t a clue in return.

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At Porto Alegre, we start arrangements for shipping for our bikes back to North America via air cargo from São Paulo. That done, we ride north into the serras (mountains) to the architectually influenced Swiss and German towns of Gramado and Canela.

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Mountain highway BR116 twists and climbs up the serra, alternately offering spectacular views then green tunnels of overhanging rain forest. Together with the grand views we get long rows of roadside poinsettias, known in South America as the Flower of the Andes. Their brilliant red, standing out against a background of lush green, catches and pleases the eye.

The other red that used to catch the eye was brazilwood. The tree contains a vivid red dye, much to the delight of 16th century Portuguese royality fashionistas, who loved to import it. And hence how Brazil got its name. After that, sugar (cane), followed by gold, then rubber (trees), then coffee, each taking their turns attracting world attention. By the way, Europeans spell it Brazil, Brasilians spell it Brasil.

Brasil is the fifth largest country in the world by geographical area (just behind the USA), it occupies nearly half of South America, is the fifth most populous country in the world (130 million), and the fourth most populous democracy in the world. After a few weeks touring this massive country, in terms of industry and productivity, we think Brazilians are the workaholics of South America. With a dazzling abundance of resources at hand, they export products including aircraft, coffee, automobiles, soybean, iron ore, orange juice, steel, ethanol, textiles, footwear, corned beef and electrical equipment. One thing for sure, there is no shortage of food. We are overwhelmed by choice, even at breakfast. Losing weight is not an option in Brasil.

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Gramado and Canela are charming towns. If we were transported with eyes closed, then opened them here, we would swear we were somewhere in Austria, Switzerland or Germany. Clean, smart and colourful, the towns and their influence are not coincidental, for of course large numbers of European immigrants brought their culture and architecture here at the turn of the 20th century.

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A little afternoon break of hot chocolate, a favorite around here, is served on a sunny deck with a pleasant view of Canela. Brasilians do not take siestas like their neighbours, but they do like to take a break from time to time. Mate, coffee, chocolate, cerveza or cachaça (sugarcane liquor), it is all in the name of social relaxation.

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Not all Brasil is high tech. We are just as likely to see gauchos riding proud horses down the streets of towns and small cities. Or horse drawn, rubber tired wagons wobbling along, performing such important missions as collecting cardboard, transporting corn, moving house or just going to town for groceries.

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Or you can use your garden cultivator tractor if you like. Smaller towns please. Just need a trailor, no helmet, no lights, no fear. Take the little lady into town for a Saturday night and pick up a sack of fertilizer while you are there. Totally tranquilo, apparently, with all five kinds of Brasilian police.

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Honda motorcycles are produced en masse in Manuas, Brazil and are a popular form of transport for the masses as well as great for small scale delivery. Courier service for papers, passengers, pizza or propane tanks, take your pick, it is only limited by lack of imagination.

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The transportation span from Mercedes Benz executive sedan to family garden tractor serves also as a measure of the distance between rich and poor. Slaves were imported from 1550 to the late 1800´s (over 3.6 million) and although racial harmony is widely accepted and evident, it is easy to see nevertheless an enormous economic gap between the Haves and Have-nots. And it is not just between blacks and whites.

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A roadside stop further north along BR116 is called for. It is damn handy having two way radios, we both agree. We stretch, eat sweet bananas, oranges and a half pack of Oreo chocolate cookies. Wash it down with bottled water. And wave at the passing camiones (trucks) as they roar by, honking air horns in friendly greeting.

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Autumn continues to pursue us. Some trees, like the prehistoric araucárias in the background of this picture, stay green. Other species remind us in orange the change of season is not theoretical. We need to escape north, to at least above the Tropic of Capricorn.

East of Lages, accepting the kind offer of Luiz and Tatiane Almerda, we tour the remarkable and modern vineyard of Villa Francioni. Brazil is not known for its wines but this ten year old vintner has grand plans otherwise. The buildings, vineyard and production process are nothing short of a creative blend of efficiency and beauty. Unfortunately Mr. Manoel Dilor, imaginative founder that he was, died before his dream came fully to reality. We wish this classy company success.

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Katie picks up a rusty one inch nail at one of our roadside stops. Good thing we discover it the next morning at our posada in Bom Jardin do Serra before starting out. The host throws Katie´s rear wheel in his antique Toyota Land Cruiser and we jounce up the road a kilometre to Pepe´s Borracharia.

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Tube and tire are repaired in less than an hour by Pepe himself. He has the most rudimentary of equipment but is an expert when it comes to art of borracharia (tire repair). He charges me five reais, or about $2.77. I give him 10 and a two-litre Coke for his trouble.

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Costs are high or low, depending on product and service. With jillions of acres in production of corn and sugar cane (sugar cane producing 10 times more ethanol than corn), Brasil is a flex-fuel champ with 7.5 million vehicles in use (the States has 8 million). Vehicles get less mileage than with pure gasoline, but it is CAD $0.77/litre, so they come out ahead. We buy Supra for our motorcycles, that comes in at CAD $1.44/litre. Between the two of us it costs $14 to travel 100 kilometers, or about $50 a day. For us, our method of travel has become shockingly expensive.

Good thing Katie didn´t have the flat on our ride called the Rua do Rio do Rastro, a twisty 1000 metre descent down the Serra Rio do Rastro escarpment to damn near sea level. It has more curves than a Miss Brasil contest. At the bottom, we take paved two laners and a narrow one laner dirt road to the Atlantic coast.

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Next day we head north for Florianópolis and fresh oysters. We have lunch in the wee, colourful town of Ribeirao da Ilha. It has a very traditional Portuguese feel with narrow cobblestone streets, tiled sidewalks and colonial architecure.

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The oysters are literally lifted straight from the ocean onto our plates. Wow they are good. We order 3 platefuls and a litre of Antarctic Beer.

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Days later, and back inland again, as we head for world famous Foz do Iguacu waterfalls, we get the bikes serviced and oil changed in Rio Negro by none other than the last year´s No. 1 Champ in velocross and motocross for Brasil. Celmo Dzickanski not only does the mechanical work but cleans our bikes so spotless we are reluctant to ride them. That and it is raining when we go to pick them up. Two days later, it is still raining. Katie and the Bumblebee are back to looking like red stained mud guppies.

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The liquid air the last few days raises hell with the Bumblebee´s ignition. When we stop for lunch, her engine keeps running even after Joyce switches the ignition off. After lunch, we ride onto Pato Branco and find Agvel, the Yamaha dealer. In three hours they go from having the Bumblebee´s front end scattered across the floor, to changing a burned out relay switch to putting it all back together. Amazing. And problem solved. Or, as we found out a week later, so we thought. Remarkably, the motorcycle club in Pato Branco has been expecting us, having got the word throught the grape vine from the motorcycle gang 320 kms away in Rio Negro. We are treated like royality the whole weekend, led by hotel owner Adair Bedin and his wife Iara, and by Ruebens Camargo, editor and publisher of Namoto Magazine. Time passes quickly, which is good. Three days more rain in 12 Celsius weather make us reluctant to move on.

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Posted by Murray Castle at 04:28 PM GMT

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