So far, South America has been a land of learning. Learning about fascinating new cultures and customs, learning what is ok to eat from the street vendors and which will send you running to the loo, learning to be patient when things don’t happen despite several ‘don’t worry, it fine!’ and finally, learning the complicated and illogical work arounds for the various (and thick) layers of bureaucracy that somehow keep these countries functioning. Having naively arrived in Argentina with only a few hundred $US we quickly learnt that the blue dollar (look it up) is the only way to make Argentina affordable. As Shannan gleefully runs and hides in a cafe or to a far off street corner, Andrew has become adept at the (only slightly illegal) process of seeking out and selling US dollars to vendors for pesos at a much higher rate than the ‘official’ one. Having researched the tricks and scams and taking advice from our hotels, Andrew has been able to get as many at 11.1 pesos for $1 compared to the 6.5 or so official rate (editors note: since writing, the peso has taken a sharp fall). It is for this reason that we decided to make a diversion to Uruguay, in search of more dollars (oh and to experience the wonders of a new country!)
We arrived by bus from Concordia, Argentina to Salto, Uruguay which share the Salto Grande hydroelectric dam on the Uruguay river. Many of the local Argentines are making the crossing for the exact same reason as us, although they have many more hoops to jump through to get their crisp $100 notes than we do! Fun fact; the official name is the Oriental Republic of Uruguay because it lies east of the Uruguay river. Its a pretty interesting little country, recently it became the first SA country to legalise marijuana with the intention of controlling the entire supply chain and has some of the most inclusive and tough anti-discrimination laws on the continent. Their current president, José Mujica, refuses to live in the huge palace in Montevideo and instead lives with his wife and three legged dog in a modest property on the outskirts of town and drives a banged up VW beetle, donating most of his salary to charity and is rarely seen wearing a suit, he also has a really interesting history! I digress, but you get the picture!
Salto was supposed to just be a rest stop after a long bus trip however we had a surprise waiting. We had booked at the Art Hotel Deco, a splurge in our usually very modest accommodation budget (thanks to a Christmas present from Ma and Pa Duncan). In an otherwise unremarkable town, this small hotel in a converted colonial mansion has to be one of the best hotels in the world. Conde Nast should add it to their list its that good. Besides the hotel itself though (and the breakfast, oh my the croissants!) the hosts, German expats, were amazing. In our usual style we hadn’t booked anything for our onward part of the journey, except for some ferry tickets back to Buenos Aires in a few days time. When we informed our hosts of this their concern was evident, it was the very peak of the high season and everything would be booked. Nevertheless, they persevered for us and after a few false starts we had a plan. Take a bus to Montevideo, hire a car for three days and explore the Colonia region, camping along the way.
Colonia is the region northwest of Montevideo . Though less sexy than the coastal towns to the southeast, like Punte D’Este ( the St Tropez of SA) it is very much like Switzerland where cows and cheese abound. The jewel in its crown is the cobble stoned little town of Colonia del Sacramento which lies directly across the Rio Plata from Buones Aires. It is very popular for day trippers (and Argentineans seeking dollars).
We made sure to camp by the beach for our three nights as a way to stay cool in the 35 degree heat. As we pottered from town to town we got a nice feel for summer holidays in Uruguay. Crowds of families would camp nearby and then head to beach in the late afternoon / early evening with their mate (mah-tay) cups and thermos in hand. In many places the ‘beach’ is actually the shores of the Rio Plata and the silty banks ensure shallow water for hundreds of meters. By late evening (10-11pm) the parillas are fired up and various slabs of meat added to the racks over the coals. Meat is king in Uruguay, being the largest per capita consumers of beef in the world. Usually by 1-2am or in one horrible incident, 4am, people have quietened down and gone to bed, only to arise around 8am the next day to head to the beach before it gets too hot. An afternoon siesta from 1pm- 5pm or so ensures enough sleep! It was nice to just relax for a few days and go for a few swims.
One thing we really enjoyed visiting the region was the variety of fresh cheeses available to buy on the side of the road. Made by local farms, this is the freshest we’ve ever tasted and when paired with some of the local dried sausage, a very nice picnic! We visited a little vineyard and were shown around by the owners, a young couple who had recently taken over production from older family members. The principle grapes grown in Uruguay are Tannat, which, thanks to the grape blight in France, is unique to the country. These grapes produce a strong red wine or lighter rosé. Andrew made sure to trial all their varieties!
We had intended on a visit to Montevideo itself but in the end we managed to only drive through it briefly on our way to the ferry which would take us back to Argentina, our first nautical border crossing!