29 March 2009

Uruguay 2009, part 12: Cabo Polonio

Available in Spanish: Cabo Polonio


El Mamut (by pablodf)
Cabo Polonio is a projection of land that enters the sea, surrounded and almost completely covered by huge dunes. A few years ago it was rather difficult to reach. Today you still have to get off your bus or car, get into a large off-road vehicle, and shake around at low speed for half an hour along a sandy path. The difference is that before (I'm told) there was only one big four-wheel drive truck which departed from the middle of nowhere and came to what was then a fishermen's village without drinking water or electric power, occasionally inhabited by hippies and other adventurous types; while now there's a whole fleet, a small emporium of vehicles, on an open space with ticket vending booths and public restrooms, and at the end of the road the little village has turned into a still picturesque and rustic but also populous place, with decent lodgings and even a seafood restaurant.

The day was splendid, threatening none of those clouds or those cold winds that had been visited upon us on previous occasions. We took the bus headed for Barra de Valizas and left it a few kilometers before that; there we boarded our 4x4 truck, named El Mamut (the Mammoth), together with a couple dozens of people, and slightly compressed atop its bulge we went down the sandy, wavy road, until we were able to see, far off in the distance, some dunes and a beach of uniform colour, some scattered houses, a turquoise-blue sea. The Mammoth drove along the shoreline for a while, turned left, and let us go in a place no different from any other.

Faro entre las rocasWe daubbed ourselves on sunblock (which in the long run would turn out insufficient) and a few steps from there we sat down to eat our sandwich lunch. Even without much wind, the sea looked fabulous; in the distance I thought I saw some surfers. Off the beach you could see some islets with little dark spots on the bare, glittering, surf-beaten rocks: seawolves, aparently gathering just to be together and bask in the sun all day. Beyond, on our side of the coast, there were more rocks and a lighthouse. We headed for it to try and down our meal.

Macho loboOn our way we found a corner where the rocky floor went down up to the sea, and a fenced-out area. A few metres away, some twenty sea lions,* black and brown, glistening with salty waterdrops, were dozing off. You couldn't really say they were active animals in any sense. One that looked like a maned male emitted faint bellows while it lifted itself on its forefins, and somewhat apart a pup scratched itself, oblivious to the rest of the world.

* I don't know if this is the proper terminology. In Spanish these are lobos marinos ("sea wolves") rather than leones marinos ("sea lions"), but the names are often mixed up in actual usage. In any case the ones in Cabo Polonio must be South American Sea Lions, Otaria flavescens.

We retraced our steps up the rocks and went to the lighthouse. The climb left us breathless (120 steps!) but the effort was rewarded: from up there our eyes could span not only the ocean and the two islands full of sea lions, but the whole cape, with beaches on both sides and the immense, saffron-yellow dunes in the distance. (I assembled a panoramic picture there which soon, I expect, will be hanging in my room's wall in its full 5-foot-wide glory.)

The sea was inviting. We'd had enough of walking and climbing stairs. We rushed into the beach, towards a place with fewer people around, and went into the water. (As in other occasions, I stayed there much longer than Marisa and went back several times. It was by far the best beach we'd experienced during the whole trip.)

Enseñanza sobre lo infinito (by pablodf)

Sunset was upon us. The distant beach was becoming empty and promised peace and a glorious view for meditation. We set ourselves into motion again, the sun burning us from the side, and soon reached the point where the dunes come a few steps close to the sea and there are just lonely beachgoers looking  for silence stay. I climbed a dune and looked around. It would've been easy to go down the other slope and climb again and get lost in this fine, hot sand, but I had to hurry back to the beach, where Marisa was waiting, taking those typical I'm-at-the-top-of-the-world tourist-waving-from-afar pictures.

Gran duna

We'd gone towards an end of the cape, which looked far away but not impossibly so, and we hadn't even gotten half-way there, and the lighthouse and the village houses were barely visible already. It wasn't too late, but it wasn't a good idea to wait. When, half an hour later, we rode back on one of the Mammoth's companions and then had to wait for our bus 45 minutes beside the road, we resented not having used up to our last minute in Cabo Polonio; but such is the cruel fate of the tourist who depends on his feet and on other people's means of transportation.


Exhausted on our return, we somehow dragged ourselves to a supermarket and bought mosquito repellent and a quick dinner before falling into deep sleep. There were to be no more beaches for us. Our tired eyes tired and our deep-tanned skins were saying goodbye to the coasts of Uruguay; the next day, before the sun was out, we'd be on our way to Montevideo.

To be continued...

26 March 2009

Uruguay 2009, part 11: La Pedrera

The day we arrived in La Pedrera marked one week of our journey, and like many other times before and after, it felt incredible to me that so much could have happened in such a short time.

El TucánWe had already called Janneo, the owner of our hostel in La Pedrera, to reassure him and promise, swear that we wouldn't fail him. Even then he hadn't felt extremely sure, and when we came into his front yard, almost at noon, he greeted us with genuine joy and noticeable relief, and proceeded to make us comfortable in our room at once. It was good to finally have a place for ourselves, with a private bathroom where you didn't have to wait on a queue to take a shower or pray for hot water to come out, and without other people's luggage scattered on the floor.

The room itself was little (the bed took up most of it), but well-lit, painted white, with an immaculately clean bathroom (separated from the rest only by a translucent curtain). Its sliding window was also its entrance.

Breakfast wasn't provided, and there was no kitchen available either, which somehow stretched the definition of a hostel and made the price less acceptable; but after three days of living in a tight space, it was paradise. We went out, therefore, to look for lunch, and since we were in good spirits, we splashed out: we sat at the table of a nice little restaurant, beside the main street (filled with sun and sand) and had a good meal with a cold beer.

If La Paloma can be termed a city, La Pedrera is definitely what you'd call a little town. The only paved street is the main one, which leads straight to the sea, which anyway isn't far from anywhere, in one direction or another.

Calle principal


Marisa had a vague reminiscence of the place from a visit long ago. It had changed only a bit; many luxurious homes had sprouted near the coast, there were certain facilities on the previously empty beach, and the visitors weren't all adventurous youth but also elderly people and families, including a good proportion of Argentinians. On both sides of the main street, populated by trucks and full of beach-goers, there were bars, restaurants, bakeries and takeaway food stores, besides a couple of little supermarkets and a few artisans' spots.

After downing our food as best we could, we went down to the sea. Again we had to endure wind and clouds. My secret hope of witnessing a storm over the sea, however, wasn't fulfilled.

Bajada a la playa

We stayed for a long while, until it started getting uncomfortably cool. We returned to the hostel, had a hot shower to rid ourselves of the cold, the sand and the tiredness, and went out again to fetch dinner. We had empanadas. Marisa, evidently not in her highest moment regarding food, almost couldn't sleep. I didn't do that well either, since (as in Montevideo) mosquitoes attacked.

While we were in La Paloma he'd been unable to arrange a trip to Cabo Polonio, and here in La Pedrera we were all set to go the next day. Nice trip, I thought — me without sleep, and Marisa with her stomach turned into a knot... But finally our tiredness got the best of us both, and when we woke up, with the whole town still drowned in the silence and coolness of morning, we managed to get started with the help of coffee and tea, served in a baker's shop which was evidently used to early birds.

We only had one more beach day ahead...

To be continued...

24 March 2009

Uruguay 2009, part 10: The Fortress and National Park of Santa Teresa

Fortaleza (by pablodf)The Fortress of Santa Teresa is near the coast of the Atlantic. Its construction began in 1762, by the Portuguese. The Spaniards came, took over it, and finished it. After undergoing wars and conflicts of all kinds, it was abandoned and got deteriorated seriously. In 1928 an archaelogist took upon himself the task of rebuilding it, and that's why it's still there in our time. Today it's a museum and it marks the entrance of the Santa Teresa National Park.

That day, at mid-morning, we left the La Paloma bus terminal without a clear idea of what the place was like that we were about to visit, and thinking maybe we could step by nearby Punta del Diablo on our way back. The bus we were on finished its route in Chuy, on the frontier with Brazil, and entered each and every city and town in the way, so the trip took twice the time it should have.

Viejo símbolo (by pablodf)As soon as we saw the Fortress we (hastily) got off the bus. Right away we realized it hadn't been a good idea, as the bus went on its way toward the interior of the National Park, leaving us under the sun falling vertically on us. There was none of the sea breeze that had been with us on other occasions, and to top it off, the stone walls of the Fortress showed no opening, or at least an overhang. So that we could postpone a walk that promised to be extremely hot, and also to avoid food poisoning later, we took out our ham-and-cheese sandwiches and ate, sitting on a rock carefully chosen so that the nearest wall provided shade (not much of it).

It turned out, when we went around the Fortress, that the entrance gate was on the other side. Once inside we found shade and cool in the great stone halls that were used, long ago, to house soldiers and officers, to prepare their meals, to pray and hear Mass, to repair weapons, to shoe horses, and to store ammunition. There were, as is usual, ancient and modern weapons in heterogeneous sets, cannonballs, ordinary objects rescued from the past, old flags and banners, uniforms, a chapel with a tearful Virgin Mary, and even a latrine room.

The contrast between the inside of these dark chambers, with walls one metre thick, and the sweltering outside, was terrible. From the Fortress's watchtowers you could feel some breeze, but that was all. As my mood was getting rather nasty (this I believed I noticed myself, and Marisa confirmed it), we wrapped up our visit and went down to the beach, across the park's camping site; on our way we bought return bus tickets, so we'd be sure to have seats.

As soon as I saw the sea my fastidiousness disappeared. The heat didn't matter anymore. In fact, it was a blessing, encouraging me to get right into the water and enjoy it. The problem was the wind... again the wind. At one point the fine, almost colourless sand, started flying around and stinging our legs. Our things (clothes, towel, camera...) were being covered in sand. A few steps from us, the wind grabbed an umbrella and sent it tumbling away to an amazing distance, followed closely by its owner.

Simplemente mar (by pablodf)

But the waves were fabulous, the beach was wide and quiet, and in the water the wind and the sand didn't exist.

I had to concede in the end. We took the sand off our stuff and retreated. On a bend in the road we had some late mate (which had been impossible before, with so much sand flying around), and then we went into the heart of the park.

Green peace (by pablodf)

Espejo con isla (by pablodf)
The park is quite large... not huge, but rather large for a casual walk. There were a lot of tall palm trees, those stereotypical palm trees with smallish leaves all bunched up at the top, but also leafy trees and lots of flowers and bushes. Where one would've expected park rangers or guides there were five individuals who, on seeing our approach, seemed to wage a short silent battle of mutual glances to decide which one of them would move and speak to us. We were given a map and at the same time the advice not to pay attention to it. We walked on, therefore, following verbal directions, among gigantic trees with a smooth, hard, plastic-looking, lustrous bark, and accompanied by the squeaks and cries of an immense crowd of parakeets.

Thus we came to the Pajarera. Despite its name, suggesting a bird cage, it had not only birds (of various species, from chickens to a tucan) but also monkeys and rabbits, along with a couple of cats which apparently were part of the staff; they let visitors call and pet them, and from time to time they sat down and looked intently (as if in a trance) into the cages of the smaller birds.

Nutria al descubierto (by pablodf)Nearby there was a small lagoon, with palm trees on one side and a kind of wooden balcony or pier on the other. In the lagoon there were ducks, and under the balcony, hidden among the grass and the mud of the shore, an otter. A group of kids, delighted at the sight of such a rare animal, debated whether it was a giant rat, a kind of hamster or a carpincho.

The time to go back was nearing, so we had to forfeit the chance of watching the sunset in the park. Clearly we should've gone there first, into the green and the shade, and then to the Fortress, but that's how it went, and it was a good day. It was the third in La Paloma, and the last night of our stay there. Next stop: La Pedrera.

To be continued...

22 March 2009

Uruguay 2009, part 9: Bird watching in La Paloma

Available in Spanish: Avistamiento de aves en La Paloma

Our second day in La Paloma began early. Having gone to bed so tired the night before, sleep came so fast and overwhelming that despite the crowded room and the thin mattress, when I woke up I found out I hadn't moved from my original position, nor had I dreamed (that I could remember), and I hadn't even woken up once and taken a look in the darkness as I often do.

Carpintero nuca roja
Green-barred Woodpecker

Carpintero de campo
Campo Flicker

Garcita (by pablodf)
White heron

Ostrero común (by pablodf)
American Oystercatcher
The morning air felt fresh and stimulating, and there was quite a lot of light. I took a peek and found out Marisa wasn't there. It was no more than 7:30, and though I tend to wake up early because of my work, she most definitely doesn't; maybe she'd gone to the bathroom? I got out, trying not to step on anything or anybody. Marisa was on the hammock, reading under the vine, in the almost completely silent patio (the water of the fountain in the other patio could be heard).

The hostel was evidently not a place for early risers, and breakfast was served at nine o'clock, so we decided to kill time walking around. It felt like an autumn morning, but it was green and bright and without a trace of the mist and the grayness we associate with that season. We came back to the hostel in time to sit down by an outside table, with white coffee and a pile of toast and biscuits with jam.

After this copious feeding, with our faithful map in hand, we headed for the port zone and its breakwater, so we could be surrounded by sea. On our way there we passed by a naval base, around which lots of birds were doing their things: our familiar teros (Southern Lapwings), and others I didn't recognize. I chased them, zoom maxed out, while Marisa waited patiently. In the end I managed to take one acceptable picture of (what I later found out to be) a Green-barred Woodpecker and a Campo Flicker. I honestly thought that woodpeckers were all little birds with a red crest that lived all the time clutching a tree trunk and drilling holes in it, but as it turned out, these ones prefer the grass.

The breakwater was narrow and long. On the side of the port (a haven, actually) a large group of sea birds took to the air as we got 200 meters from them. On the calm water there were some birds with a little crest and a long reddish neck. Unknown to me at the time, they turned out to be Great Grebes with breeding plumage. On the side of the sea, right on a group of nearby rocks, there were the ever-present biguás (Neotropic Cormorants) by the dozens, as usual happily taking in the sun, along with a few little white herons, a couple of oystercatchers (small, with long, flaming red-orange beaks), and Kelp Gulls (white, with yellow bill and legs, and black wings with a white border).

This ornithological feast didn't keep the sun from going up and up. We left the coast and went to see the old train station on our way back. There we noticed there's a tremendous difference between a sunny midday in the cool breeze from the sea and the same time of day with no wind or shade even among the trees. I don't remember what we had for lunch, but I know after the long walk in the sun I wanted to take a nap. Marisa declared she had no intention to sleep, and went away with her book to read in the hammock; as expected, when I went to the patio to fetch her, one and a half hour later, she was sound asleep.

The afternoon sky was starting to get cloudy. We'd planned to go to the other beach, the one we hadn't visited before, called La Aguada, crossing a little woods (there's a camping site inside), and then have some mate beside the sea, as the weather it was noticeably getting cooler. After just a moment there we realized we wouldn't be able to pour even one mate, since the wind was blowing so strong that sand was flying, prickling our faces, and we were barely able to keep our eyes open. We retreated into the woods. Even among the tall trees it took us a while to find a calm spot for our picnic.

I'd been concerned about getting lodging in La Pedrera (especially after I saw the conditions of our accommodation in La Paloma), and I'd located a place that seemed OK. So when we got back, we went to a public phone and I called. The owner of this place, the only one we could conceivably get a room at, would not settle the deal: yes, he had room, a double room, and he would have room for us two days from now, but as for assuring us of it, he'd rather not, he couldn't, but if I insisted, well, I should go and see and he would see if he had that room... and so on. This indecission was all the more worrying because La Pedrera isn't exactly full of cheap lodgings, least of all available on high tourist season. I promised the man I'd call him back the next day to assure him (once again) that we'd be there.

We grabbed some warm clothes (it was a bit cold already), and we went (for the second time) to the artisans' fair in front of the hostel. If in Argentina good crafts tend to be a little expensive for the casual passer-by, they were very expensive here, so we only got ourselves a couple of carved mate gourds.

The next day we had already planned a tour outside La Paloma, to the famous (but only vaguely portrayed in the brochures) Fortress of Santa Teresa.

To be continued...

04 March 2009

Uruguay 2009, part 8: Arrival in La Paloma

Disponible en español: Llegada a La Paloma

Terminal de La Paloma (by pablodf)On the morning of February 4 we said goodbye to the Montevidean hostel that had given us lodging for three nights, to the streets of the Old Town and to the expansive capital metropolis. The trip that followed lasted too much and, to my disappointment, we barely got to see the sea at any point. First the suburbs of Punta del Este passed by; then almost two hours later we entered Rocha, the capital of the Rocha Departament, and a while later we got off the bus at the luminous terminal of La Paloma.

As is already automatic for us, we asked for a map and inquired about our hostel, where we headed on foot. Due to reasons of availability, first, and then also of price, in La Paloma we'd had no other recourse but to book places in a shared bedroom. My hostelling experience in that regard was more or less varied, but it hadn't prepared me for this: a mixed room with five twin bunk beds, low and not really firm-looking, with the thinnest mattresses ever seen, and some tiny lockers, all of which filled up with people in a very short time. People who choose to sleep in mixed, low-price shared bedrooms tend to come along with lots of luggage and make room for it liberally (that is to say, there were huge backpacks thrown around the middle of the room, all the time).

The place had a reduced staff, not to say two people (in all shifts, not always simultaneously), and it was reduced also in two very, very major aspects: the bathrooms and the kitchen. The latter was so small that two people couldn't get in it at the same time, and the equipment was scarce, though fortunately it worked OK. As for the bathrooms, they were few and logically they weren't (always) clean, since among that many people there's always one or two that are dirty and careless. For my first shower I got cold water; for the second one, I was cautious enough to get up early, before the hot water ran out.

We men at last have the advantage of being quick; some of the women managed to hog the shower for themselves for half an hour or more, which led to the formation of queues (ask Marisa about that). Naturally they then emerged from the bathroom as if just come from the beauty parlour, which confirms to me that we men are sometimes too lazy to take our time, although in cases like these being negligent actually helps. (My self-portraits of those days are unpublishable, showing how I completely let fo of the routine of combing my hair, shaving and choosing the right clothes, as soon as I left Montevideo.)

Patio (by pablodf)I don't want to trash the hostel completely, though, since there were some good things about it. Firstly, it was cheap and the location was very convenient. Secondly, thin as they were, the mattresses were sleepable. Breakfast wasn't just abundant but varied: coffee (black or white) and croissants or biscuits with jam, or juice and slices of fresh watermelon, all of it freely available on a covered pool table for unlimited servings. Outside there were chairs so you could have breakfast facing the streets, and inside, a great patio shaded by a dense vine (a haven for the sunny hours) and a hammock.

I'm speaking ahead of the facts, though. The first day, as I said, we arrived after a long trip, so we quickly dropped our stuff and went to eat lunch at the closest place we'd spotted: a little bar across from the bus terminal, where we were served a sandwich of something that was a beef milanesa in name, though not in looks or texture, and which came to us addled in sticky, antique oil. My chronic digestive troubles made no appearance, which is a clear sign that work not only isn't healthy but should be actively advised against by medical professionals.

After prudently waiting for the meal to go down, we went to the beach. It was our first encounter with the sea proper here in Uruguay (as I've said, in Montevideo the river is practically a sea, but not technically), and off I went, according to Marisa "just like a kid", which is perfectly understandable if you ask me. She likes the sea but basically to look at and listen to it; I have to get inside the water and if possible be beaten, dragged, rudely rocked by it in order to feel it.

El refugio (by pablodf)

My little secret, here, is that it was the first time I went to the sea. As a kid my family never went on vacation (as so many Argentine families) to Mar del Plata or any of the all-too-popular beach resorts in the coast of Buenos Aires; as a teenager we had no vacations at all; when, as a grown-up, I had my own job and the ability to make use of my own money, it never occurred to me to look toward the ocean, but rather I turned to the dense forest or the mountain or the desert. So there I was, 32 years old and for the first time treading on the soaked-up sand, feeling the foam come and go over my feet, the cool shock and the rude welcome of the waves, the salt in my mouth. If I ever get used to it, I'll stop being a kid before the sea and I'll be just one more guy in the beach... but that won't happen soon.

The wind blows all the time in the shore, and it wasn't easy staying in the beach waiting for the sun to dry you off. We went back to town, wandered here and there, bought some food, went to the hostel, grabbed some warm clothes. Then we went down to the beach again to watch the sunset and stayed there, two lovers looking at the sun and the surf, exactly like countless couples on countless sunsets must have done since the world began.

Ocultamiento del esplendor (by pablodf)

To be continued...

02 March 2009

Uruguay 2009, part 7: El Prado

Disponible en español: El barrio del Prado

De aquí al cielo (by pablodf)
Church of the Carmelites
We spent our last day in Montevideo visiting the neighbourhood of El Prado, a residential area, very quiet and very old, full of trees, with houses from days of long-past splendour.

The night before, after having a big time eating shellfish and fried calamari, walking several kilometers and skirting disaster on our return by bus after midnight, we were left exhausted. Some of all that must have had an effect on Marisa, because she woke up early with a major stomach pain, feeling very weak and certainly in no shape to go out for a walking tour. Fortunately it turned out not to be (as she feared) a gastroenteritis. Nothing could be done except to get her to rest, something for the pain, lots of liquid and nothing to eat.

The plan of touring some more of Montevideo in the morning was discarded, and I started to fear that we would have to call a doctor, but Marisa would have none of that. So I left her where she was and took a bus to Tres Cruces to get our tickets for La Paloma. The day was cloudy and just a little too warm. I went and returned in an hour and a half, tops, and I saw Marisa was much better. She had something light to eat and we decided we'd try to go to El Prado in the afternoon.

It took us almost 40 minutes to get there, on a bus going first towards the city center, and then north; we traversed unknown neighbourhoods and completely lost our bearings, but somehow managed to get off the bus just one block from where we should. Our informant had given us an exact location to begin (the intersection of Agraciada and 19 de Abril), and a detailed route to follow as well. Probably not in that order, we saw the old houses and tall plane trees of Avenida 19 de Abril, the Church of the Carmelites (one of the few truly large churches I saw in Montevideo), the weird storehouses of the Rural Society, the Miguelete Stream, a great park with a huge pergola and a rose garden (without roses), the Hotel del Prado, the Botanical Garden, the presidential residence, a museum, and thrown in with all that, little houses of archaic style and mansions that went from the austerely severe to the Disneylandish.

En una verde paz (by pablodf)

Casita de chocolate (by pablodf)

We ended up in a bar called Los Yuyos, which must be famous, and which owes its name to the traditional herbs that are added to the caña and the grappa served there. We had no occasion to try such stuff, of course; just a glass of orange juice and a hot sandwich (to the list of things I missed in Uruguay, which started with icecream, let's add carlitos and ketchup).

Ella en el viejo bar (by pablodf)
Marisa at "Los Yuyos"

We had walked about three hours and the tour had taken us to the far end of the neighbourhood, a long way from Avenida Agraciada, the only street that we knew for sure could get us back to our hostel. The idea of crossing the whole barrio again wasn't something we were looking forward to. We were so lucky, though, that only a couple of blocks from Los Yuyos there was a bus stop and the bus took us to the Old Town.

Evening came and my one concern was finding a bed to crash, but Marisa (who had obviously recovered and wasn't sleepy) found Hannibal (i.e. the sequel of The Silence of the Lambs) on cable and decided to watch it whole, so my half-sleep was punctuated by screams, bullet shots and a variety of scenes with guts and brains flying around.

And that's how we said goodbye to Montevideo. Next stop: the beaches of La Paloma.

To be continued...