Uruguay via Buenos Aires 2005 Part 2

My unexpected trip to Uruguay in May 2005 continues as I leave the capital Montevideo, which I found oddly deserted and subdued, and head toward the summer playground of Punta del Este, but in winter, and the UNESCO World Heritage town of Colonia del Sacremento. 

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Punta del Este marina – the one beautiful moment there

Punta del Este, the international jet set summer playground, was my next destination.  I figured I might at least be able to afford to stay there in winter, when in summer it would be booked out months in advance and too pricey for my wallet.  Since it is supposed to be such a popular vacation spot, I imagined beautiful white beaches and a lovely town with quaint attractive buildings.  Two and half hours away by bus and I was about to be terribly disappointed.

[From my diary:] This morning as I headed out of my Montevideo hostel to Punta del Este I could sense a change as I might be heading for adventure.  The bus terminal was modern and I had no problem buying the ticket or finding the bus.  We departed and arrived on time.  As we drove, the sun came out and I had high hopes it would remain so.  But here I am not in Punta del Este and it is overcast, the sky almost uniformly white. 

Punta del Este 3I found the hostel fairly easily (well, after many wrong turns and bad directions) and then set out have a walk around the town and some lunch.  I walked down the deserted main street, again feeling things weren’t quite right.  The town might be like any resort/beach town in the off seasons, think Ocean City, Maryland or Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in winter.  Very, very quiet.  Though Punta is supposed to be glitzy and expensive and trendy, I saw only old, worn out cars parked along the streets.  I had some less than fabulous pasta at a small cafe and then headed back to the hostel to get some guidance.  The girl in charge of the hostel was out and a man came downstairs.  He told me he didn’t work there but he’d been there for months and maybe he could help me.  My guess is that he was Uruguayan or Argentine though his English was almost accent-less.  I asked, “What is there to do here?”  “Sweetheart,” he said, “there isn’t anything to do here.”  I was amused at his “sweetheart” address to me.  It came off sounding rather cheesy and awkward, like he was just trying out its effect on foreign women.  He proceeded to tell me that I should have come with a friend or a boyfriend (thanks for making me feel alone buddy) and that he was there with “his girl” and they would be watching a video that night, maybe I might join them?  He pointed out to a beachfront from through the hostel front window.  “See that beach,” he says, “in the summer it is so crowded with people you can’t see the sand.”  I said that having a beach that crowded would not necessarily be a boon to everyone.  I asked about Cabo Polonia, where there are sand dunes and the country’s second largest sea lion colony.  Oh, don’t go there, he tells me.  Because it will be absolutely dead, there will be nothing to do.   “In the summer,” he says, “it is beautiful.  They have a naked beach and you can drink and smoke anything you want.  You can do anything you want there.”  Uh, we clearly have different ideas about what is “beautiful” and “fun.”  I wanted to see sand dunes and sea lions and enjoy stark natural beauty, not a bunch of drunk, stoned, naked people.  Such a shame to miss all that, I know.

Punta del Este 2

El Mano

I decided to just walk around the point.  It was sunny and not too cold and the walk was so much prettier than the Rambla.  Here at Punta and nearby Maldonado are where many wealthy Argentines keep large summer homes.  The walk reminded me very much of the walks along the ocean at Monterey, California for the climate and the architecture.  Each house was pretty and unique.  There was also a small port from where, in summer, boats head out to Isla Gorriti and Isla de Los Lobos, and in the winter the fishermen were selling fresh fish.  Sea lions swam around the colorful boats.  Around the point I slowly walked, with only a hopeful stalker bicyclist aiming to ruin it.  He biked past me several times.  At one point I must have made the mistake of saying “hola” while smiling.  He biked on ahead and then parked and got off to sit on the stone wall.  As I passed he smiled at me and patted the wall next to him.  Forget it buddy I said (okay I really said I don’t speak Spanish and he indicated that he didn’t care by shrugging his shoulders) and I walked on.  Around to the sculpture “El Mano” or as it is known in English, the Hand in the Sand – what appears to be five fingers of a giant hand, either reaching out of the sand or the last gesture of someone sinking away.  I thought it reminded me of the Planet of the Apes and the Statue of Liberty sticking out of the sand at the end.   I wanted a picture of me by one of the fingers, but there was no one else around.

Back at the hostel I have my dinner and watch a movie with Sweetheart’s girl.  I hit the sack early because I planned to leave Punta del Este as early as possible.

[From my diary:] My hope was to make the 7 AM bus to Colonia, but I slept long and woke up just five minutes to.  I had to settle for the 8:45 AM, which would get me to Colonia at 2:30 PM.  The bus ride was uneventful, I slept in shifts.  The sky cleared, then darkened, then cleared again. 

Colonia 4

Scenes from Colonia

I arrived at Colonia del Sacramento, the oldest town in Uruguay.  Founded in 1680 near the confluence of the Rio Uruguay and the Rio de la Plata by the Portuguese and later ceded to the Spanish, Colonia as it is known is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Though it too seemed lost it time, it seemed more appropriate for it to be so.  I am not sure which time Colonia is supposed to be lost in, but it was by far my favorite place in Uruguay.  The weather was beautiful – when I arrived I first changed into a lighter weight long-sleeved shirt and my fleece and returned almost immediately to take off the fleece.  It was sunny and warm – around 70 degrees despite the leafless sycamore trees with their fallen dried orange leaves littering the streets as evidence of the early winter season.  There were actually some other tourists in Colonia, most probably on a day tour from Buenos Aires – located just across the river, 45 minutes away by fast ferry.  I liked the no pressure strolling around the cobblestone streets – some of them of very roughly hewn stone without much attempt at placing them closely and smoothly together – looking into shops.  No one pounced on me as soon as I entered the stores.  No high-pressure salesmanship.  I was almost disappointed.  In Asia I would have been lured, even pulled, in from the street and drawn into haggling for items I had no desire to buy.  But in Uruguay, the lack of customer interest or even customers at all seemed unimportant.  There was something aggravating and yet also pleasant in this lackadaisical approach to sales and life.  Things were unhurried and in Colonia it felt so very appropriate – with the eclectic mix of Portuguese and Spanish colonial and early 20th century with hints of the 21st – there did not appear any desire to rush the town into the modern era.  There were horse drawn carriages, 1920s and 1930s vintage cars, along with what I would guess to be early 50s vehicles.  A 2005 model would have been the outlier, not the norm.

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Door knocker in Colonia

I strolled for several hours through the streets, climbing up the lighthouse and along the ruined walls of an old fort, to finally stopping for an early dinner at a small restaurant with a view of the sunset over the Rio.  I was the only diner and I sat outside in the warm air enjoying the view and a steak.  The only disturbances were a dog that wished to share in my meal who was shooed away by the two waitresses who sat glumly across the street on the curb watching over me, and a poorly dressed old man who sold me two band-aids for five pesos.

It seemed almost too calm and relaxing.  Why wasn’t I more pleased that the dogs were not attacking me? That the band-aid seller was not more persistent and aggressive?  This holiday seemed unlike so many I have taken.

Back at the hostel I was savoring the last few pages of the book I had brought.  I had tried to ration the pages – I had not expected to have much time to read, and certainly not to finish the book.  I should have brought two or three books with all the time I had on hand.  Mostly I had spent the time I could have been reading in another favorite hobby of mine – sleeping.  I slept on the plane, on the boat to Montevideo, on the buses to Punta del Este and Colonia.  And still I could go to sleep early at night.  It was as if I was making up for all the less than adequate sleep for the past few months – and still with all that sleeping, I could not stave off the end of the book.  Three days left and a long flight back and I was finished.  But just then the woman sharing the dormitory came in.  I explained that I was leaving Colonia the next day but was debating between the 9:15 am ferry to Buenos Aires or to spend another quiet day in the town and take the 5:15 pm; however, having just finished off my only reading material I was inclined to leave in the morning.  She told me I should take the way back via Carmelo and Tigre.  I had no idea to what she was referring, and she told me there is a slower boat leaving from a town about an hour’s bus ride north of Colonia.  The boat would wind its way through the Parana River Delta and arrive in the suburban town of Tigre, from where I could then take a bus or train into Buenos Aires.  The idea of a more adventurous and less conventional way to return to Argentina appealed to me.

Colonia

Beautiful Colonia del Sacramento

And so the next day at 11:30 I took the bus north to the small river town of Carmelo.  I had about an hour to walk the town and buy provisions for the boat.  Again it was beautiful weather, so although I circled the same 10 blocks at least twice and I did not find anything of particular interest in Carmelo, I felt rather excited to be there.  The boat ride was again uneventful and relaxing, but this time I felt content because I could look out the windows at the brown river and the life along the delta.  I could step out onto the back of the boat and feel the sun and wind on my face.  It felt delicious, almost undeserved.  Within two hours we pulled up at the dock in Tigre and those heading onto Buenos Aires boarded the company bus.

Uruguay via Buenos Aires 2005 Part 1

In 2005 I was working in Washington, D.C. in my first post-graduate school job.  I had only been working for a few months and really wanted a holiday, but had not banked a lot of money or time off.  I also love me a random, new, out of the way destination, but somewhere I could cover a fair amount within a short period of time.  And for some reason, I honed in on Uruguay.  I do not remember why only I had not been there before, I had found a flight, and there was enough, but not too much, for me to see in a week.  This trip was most certainly something out of the ordinary.  Yet this was 15 years ago and I am surprised by how little I recall of the trip, not the beauty of Colonia del Sacramento or the travel challenges I ran into that led me to originally call this email story “A Series of Unfortunate Events.”

MontevideoWhy would I want to go to Uruguay?  This was the question posed to me by just about everyone to whom I mentioned my trip.  Why not go to Argentina? they asked.  Well as just about everyone knows I like to take holidays that are a little different.  I do not necessarily want to go to someplace that everyone else is going.  However, looking up some statistics, I came across a website that said that Uruguay receives more international tourists than Argentina, Brazil, and Chile.  This actually left me rather puzzled.  Really?  Where were they hiding?  But I think I may know how this happens, if you count every Argentine that goes over for a weekend of shopping, then Uruguay may indeed have more “tourists.”  I’d be willing to bet that 80-90% of tourists to Uruguay are Argentine or Brazilian, another 10% are the international jet set and celebrities a la Naomi Campbell, Leonardo di Caprio, and Claudia Schiffer that descend on glitzy Punta del Este in the summer.

But those realizations came later.

On a Friday afternoon, I began my unexpected holiday to Uruguay.  I had little expectations really, I just wanted to get away, but the excitement was building.  And quickly it was dashed.  Despite the existence of a direct flight, I had found a cheaper option through Chicago.  Unfortunately, this did not work out in my favor.  The flight was delayed out of Reagan National and, due to storms, also delayed landing in Chicago.  As we circled Chicago O’Hare, my overnight flight to Buenos Aires took off.   There was chaos in Chicago, many stranded passengers, and it took time to finally speak with customer service only to learn the next flight was 24 hours later.  I spent the first day of my vacation holed up in an airport voucher hotel dining at various O’Hare airport restaurants.

Montevideo 3

Montevideo shopping street with a view of the old city gate leading to Plaza Independencia

I have to revise my plan.  I am dejected.  I think maybe I do not even bother going to Uruguay, because I am flying into Buenos Aires my plan is to take the boat to Montevideo.  I have no idea when the boats to Montevideo depart.  We touch down a little early at 10 am.  I think noon would be a good time to have a boat and I figure I might be able to race across town on a bus and get to the boat in time.  But I figured wrong.  The boat leaves at 11:30 in the morning.  I find this out around 10:45 in the morning when airport information informs me they tell me it will take 40 minutes to get into the city…  The next boat is at 3:30 pm.  I am momentarily stunned that my “plan” ( i.e. that was to have no plan) is not working.  Usually, I am very lucky when I travel.  This does not feel particularly lucky.  I concede defeat and book the bus.  I arrive at the port around noon.

My “plan” also included not acquiring any Argentine money; I figured I would just purchase the bus and boat tickets with a credit card and speed ahead to Uruguay.  But unfortunately, now I had three hours to kill in Buenos Aires.  In the boat terminal, there were neither open money changers nor left luggage facilities.  Very traveler-unfriendly.  I buy my ticket and ask if I can leave my bag at the travel office.  They say no but tell me to try at the information desk.  They also say no and tell me to try at the check-in counter.  He also says no.  But I am tired of hearing no, so I go back to the travel office and put on my sad traveler face and one of the guys goes over and bullies the check-in guy to let me leave my bag.  One little triumph.  A minor fortunate event.  I have two hours before I have to come back for boarding.  It is overcast and a Sunday.  It was as if I had flown into a Stalinist state during the Cold War.  There are not many people out and they are huddled in their coats, the shops seem half-empty on Avenida Florida, supposedly Buenos Aires’ main shopping street.  I change US$10 so I can pay for lunch.  I sit reading my book until it is almost time to return to the boat.  It has started to rain.  I am not in a particularly good mood, but then I think I am in for some adventure with the 2 1/2 hour boat ride ahead of me.

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Uruguay dining equals MEAT

Instead, the boat journey takes 3 1/2 hours and it is completely uneventful.  It is so overcast outside all we see is white from the windows.  No view.  It grows dark while the boat putters on.  I fall asleep for two hours.  When we finally arrive in Montevideo it is dark, around 7 pm, and it is raining.  I am one of the first ones off the boat only to have to wait for what seems a ridiculous amount of time for the luggage to come out and for everyone to file through the bottleneck through the x-ray machine.  There is no money changing places.  I am puzzled by this seemingly key tourist service lacking.  If it had been daylight – when I thought I would arrive – I would have walked some way from the port, but the guidebook says to definitely NOT walk in the port area after dark.  Suddenly, I am standing with two German guys who are going to a hostel.  I become one of their group.  I don’t know how it happened, I think a woman offering tourist information lumps us together.  That is fine because they seem to know where they are going.  There is a huge line waiting for taxis and no taxis to be seen.  The German guys suggest we walk away from the crowd and we hail a taxi just entering the port.  We pile in together and our driver proclaims we are lucky to hail his taxi because he says not so many Uruguayans speak English.  The Germans have an address.  We arrive at a building with no sign and buzz the doorbell.  It turns out to be a little retro hostel called Red Hostel.  Walls painted red, a small living room of sorts in front of the service counter.  Sofas, bean bags, a lit fireplace, low lights, and three computer terminals.  I get a dorm bed; there are only two other girls in the room and they are not there at the moment.  I never do meet them.

The next day I decide to head out into Montevideo, heading first for the Ciudad Viejo or Old Town.  I’m looking forward to the cobblestone streets and colonial architecture.  I decide to walk the whole way, a few dozen blocks is not too much for marathon-walking me!  But first I must finally get some money and pay for the hostel.  Walking down the main street, I think Avenida 7 Julio, I notice that nothing particularly stands out.  The stores are nondescript and actually many are not even open although it is by now 9 or 10 am on a Monday morning.  This is the capital of the country, where at least half of the 3.5 million Uruguayans reside, and yet there is very little bustle.  There are people on the sidewalks, there are cars and buses, but it just does not feel right to me.  I come across the main square,  Plaza de Independencia.  There is a large statue of Artigas, the Uruguayan independence hero, upon a horse.  The Plaza is almost empty.  A line of colorfully dressed school children is having a tour.  Two other tourists stop to take a picture.  I decide to follow the kids.  We pass through the old gate to the city.  I take a picture.  We are then on the main pedestrian shopping street but again it seems oddly deserted.  I feel as if I am transported back to Tallin in Estonia where years ago I also stepped off a boat from Helsinki to arrive in a town with a pretty central old town but surrounded by depressing Soviet-era buildings and boulevards and although the weather is nice, the people seem braced, huddled, unfriendly.  Except, this time I am in the Old Town of Montevideo and this one is not nearly as nice at Tallin.  There is a lot of construction, but it does not feel industrious.  Does this make sense?  I have the feeling that I am in a town that was long ago abandoned and people are now only beginning to return and rebuild their lives.

Montevideo 2

School kids pass by Artigas statue on Independence Square

At the port, I decided that although it is just before noon, I might as well have lunch to give myself something to do.  And this is supposed to be the place to have lunch and not dinner because it is not safe here after dark.  It is not particularly cold, but the warm fire in the restaurant feels nice.  [From my diary:] So far my impression of Montevideo is not too favorable.  Thre are plenty of people living on the street, in doorways, in parks.  There is a dejected feel here.  Actually, the restaurant where I am eating is quite nice – a roaring fire to grill meats and vegetables.  Lots of wood and brick, warm, dark colors.  It feels very nice in here.  If only the music were not U.S. eighties hits.  That seems off, but again hardly surprising that the soundtrack to this trip (in the taxi, in the hostel, in the restaurant, in the shops) is American music.  I order Lomo or filet mignon.  I am in Uruguay after all and beef is the national dish.  Both Uruguay and Argentina are known for their beef, the ranches, and gaucho (cowboy) culture.  The steak is wonderful and I begin to cheer up.  This was all I needed, a good meal and now I can sightsee happily.  I go into the old market which is full of small restaurants with bar stools around large grills.  Meat, meat, meat hanging everywhere, cooking.  It smells wonderful.  I imagine the heat from the grills might be too much in summer, but it is just right now.  I head out and decide to go to the National Museum.

After a few confusing turns, I find one of the four buildings of the National Museum and go inside.  It seems nice enough but seems a strange collection.  There are no English explanations, but really there seem to be few explanations at all, even in Spanish.  There is a room of what I guess is of early man in South America.  Maps of the migration across the Bering Strait and through North and Central and South American.  A life-size version of an early indigenous man.  Some pottery and bones.  Another set of rooms have paintings from the colonial periods and early independence.  One room is dedicated to Artigas the hero.  But a “room” might be misleading as it was really a small alcove with a bust, a painting, and a mural with his words.  And strangely there was also another room with modern black and white photographs pasted onto three-sided cards on a table in the center of the room with a CD of new age music which seemed to alternate baby cries with erotic moans and heavy bass.  I have no idea what that room was supposed to signify.

I went in search of another of the four buildings only to find it padlocked shut with no sign indicating anything whatsoever about the reason for this.  Okay, fine.  I decide to take a walk along the Rambla, the road along the other side of the peninsula.  The guidebook said that this was a pleasant walk and one traveler had described it as the highlight of their trip to Montevideo.  That person was clearly drunk, drugged or had had an even rougher start to holiday than I had.  As I crossed the four-lane highway I had to be extra careful of the Monday afternoon traffic, barely making it across when the one car came barreling down the road towards me. Again I wondered if there had been an evacuation of the city and me and only a few other souls were unaware of this.  It was sunny and the sea/river was a bit rough.  It usually cheers me to see the water but the ugly high rises in the distance just did not do much to lift my mood.  I was beginning to feel sleepy and decided to just return to the hostel for a nap.

That evening I went out for a free performance of tango being offered at the Montevideo Cultural Center.  I found the building just in time and found a seat in a small crowded room.  It was like a small chapel in an old school, narrow, with pew-like seating.  Again even though I was in a room full of people, I felt as if we were lost in time, in a forgotten era.  I sat and waited for the singing and dancing to begin.  I sat there for 30 minutes and it never did start.  There was an announcer who brought two guys onto the small stage and they sat behind an old grand piano and chatted.  Occasionally the audience clapped and I joined in.  It was like watching a radio talk show.  I started to wonder if I had, in fact, wandered in on a town hall meeting and the tango was going on somewhere else in the building.  I thought to ask the guy next to me, but then the game would be up – I would be found out to be a phony, having just sat through 30 minutes of dialogue I could not understand.  I just got up and left.

Montevideo 1

Horse-drawn garbage cart

Back at the hostel, I watched a movie with other guests while I planned my escape from Montevideo the following day.  My favorite part of Montevideo was NOT the Rambla, but instead two other things – my first exposure to the children’s school uniforms, which seem a cross between a lab coat and a painter’s smock: knee-length white lightweight polyester coats with large pockets, buttoned in front, with pleats on the girls’ uniform, topped by a large blue bow at the neck.  Add a black French beret on their heads and they would have looked the part of the quintessential French painter.

The second thing I liked was the horse-drawn garbage carts.  Throughout my walk around Montevideo, I distinctly heard the clop clop clop of horse hooves on cobblestone.  At night, on the wet pavement and in the semi-deserted streets, the sound romantically echoed of the past.  Finally, on the second evening while heading back to the hostel I caught sight of one of them, the driver leaping off the cart to grab bags of garbage and hoist them onto the back of the cart or tie them to the sides.  Even though the site of large plastic bags tied all around and piled high is not the most attractive sight, I could not help but feel a little delighted to find the source of the sounds to be something so every day as the garbage man, in the most un-everyday kind of way.