The road meandered through rolling plains and low hills cultivated with corn, wheat and sunflowers. It felt like driving in north France. Easy, tranquil, peaceful. No stress, no thinking. Slouched in my seat I thoroughly enjoyed where I was. The rest of the world belonged to another universe.
Sweet Town #1: Mercedes
In Mercedes we found a camping spot under an enormous, shady trees that bordered a river. At the nearby police post we asked permission to stay here. The friendly policeman unfolded a long story in Spanish of which I understood zero, but after asking several times in my best Spanish, “Can we stay, yes or no?” I believed the answer was “Yes”.
Right after we took down the tent in the morning, the sky opened with thunder and rain. By the time we drove downtown, the deluge had filled all gutters and drains. The streets looked more like a big swimming pool than a place where we should drive. It was the start of Uruguay’s raining season.
No more Asian, daily monsoon downpours that stop after a few hours, but rain showers that could go on for 24 hours, including fierce winds and lower temperatures. Since continuous rain was expected for the coming four days we decided to leave this otherwise so inviting town and continued our journey.
Sweet Town #2: Carmelo
More meandering hills, visible through a grey sheet of rain. By the time we arrived in Carmelo the rain had stopped and we went for a walk, wandering the streets lined with small, plastered houses. The pace of life appeared unhurried and unaffected by the hustle and bustle of a big city. Noticeable was the open atmosphere, evident not only in the kindness of the people, but also the absence of barred windows. In fact, many doors were open, as were the windows of cars, with keys in the ignition and the owner out of sight.
Although you could hardly call them cultural highlights, Carmelo had some historical landmarks. They referred to the arrival of the first settlers from Buenos Aires in 1708. We checked out the church, and the adjacent museum where a local collected everything that at some point in time had been part of Carmelo and its inhabitants, varying from fossils to pots and pans to a typewriter and the tools of the family doctor in the 19th century.
We met three Argentineans who had arrived here by boat. They invited us inside to share a yerba mate with them. When they spoke slowly enough we could understand them just fine.
We camped at the Camping Municipal, shady and clean, and bordering the Rio de la Plata, the river that separates Uruguay and Argentina. It appeared a favorite place for locals to get together. They ambled down the boulevard, enjoying their ever-present yerba mate and watching the day coming to an end.
From Carmelo we returned to the hills, now covered with vineyards. Blue grapes were ready to be harvested. Every now and then a ray of sun peeked through the clouds and colored the surroundings.
Sweet Town #3: Conchillas
Even more strongly than in Carmelo we felt we stepped back in time. In Conchillas it was easy to imagine the atmosphere and since of the past. Old houses made of stone and clay walls (without the use of cement) lined cobblestone streets.
In front of a house, underneath a lemon tree, old men sat on a bench, watching the day go by – this appeared a favorite pastime in this country. We absolutely loved the vintage cars here. We had seen a few already, but this village was a living museum of beautiful old cars, dating from the 30s up to the 70s. Many of them were impressively maintained or restored.
At the edge of the town we visited the local graveyard. Weathered gravestones from the 19th century and modern graves were abundantly decorated with colorful plastic flowers. Further down the road was a tiny, clean, white beach. We were about to have our lunch there, when we noticed black clouds heading our way over the Rio de la Plata. They came so fast that we had hardly time to get into the car and close everything up before the sky opened and a tempest erupted.
The river, beach and a street sign, only two meters in front of the Land Cruiser, all disappeared from sight. A thick white wall hemmed us in, with the wind vehemently rocking the car back and forth.
Twenty minutes later the wind died down and the world became visible again. We turned around to drive back to the main road, although not by the route we had planned. This was now barred by trees that had been completely uprooted by the storm.
Sweet Town #4: Colonia del Sacramento
In 1680 the Portuguese established Colonia del Sacramento. It was a strategic point of defense and disputed by the Spanish. Through time both powers ruled the town, which was, for example, visible in the way the streets had been constructed: the cobblestone streets with a drain running characterized the Portuguese style, while the ones with drains along the sides had been constructed by the Spaniards.
It was by far the loveliest of villages we came across in Uruguay, albeit the most touristic as well. The Buquebus, the ferry from Buenos Aires, does good business bringing loads of Porteños to visit for a day or weekend. The town was charming with cobblestone streets shaded by trees, lovely painted houses, terraces to enjoy a cup of coffee and a complete feeling of tranquility.
Maybe our Land Cruiser should become a UNESCO World Heritage Monument too, like Colonia del Sacramento. Our home on wheels seemed to be the most photographed object in town and it was hard to get away from it at all. We were constantly surrounded by people who wanted to know who we were and what we did.
Among them were MaryAnn and Frank, a Dutch couple with a Toyota Land Cruiser who had just arrived in Uruguay to start their discovery of this continent as well. They were the first overlanders we met since we arrived in Buenos Aires two months earlier. As it goes when meeting kindred spirits, we sat down on a bench and talked. And talked. And talked.
This is part 1 of a 2-series story about our impressions of Uruguay. Here is part 2.