May 30, 2009 GMT
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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
May 10, 2009 GMT
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.
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.
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.
The museum has so perfectly preserved the administrative offices that it looks like the office workers have just left for their lunch break.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Posted by Murray Castle at 04:20 PM