This is part 2 of a 2-series story about our impressions of Uruguay. Here is part 1.
While rich Montevideons sped along the highways in their fancy cars, they had to watch out for wooden carts and horses, led by the cartoñeros who were on their way downtown to search the garbage heaps for plastic, iron and the sorts. The contrast between rich and poor was large, and one of the first thing we noticed in Uruguay’s capital.
The old town was badly maintained. Such a shame because it has a fair share of impressive looking colonial heritage, among which some stunning architecture. We visited a museum in an exquisite mansion that was largely decorated in the Romantic style. A caretaker showed us around and we were touched by the way she put in such an effort to speak Spanish v-e-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y, telling us about the former inhabitants and their lifestyle.
Uruguay is a strongly socialist country where the government takes care of everything. For example, we were told that they have an extensive welfare system. However, bizarrely enough, they don’t levy income taxes to pay for all this, which has put the country into enormous debt.
Their efforts to generate more jobs had the side effect of creating a hard-to-penetrate bureaucracy, which by no means was helping foreign investments. Much to our advantage though, especially since we couldn’t find a guidebook of Uruguay, was the crazy amount of tourist information centers (lots of jobs…) dotted around the country.
We got an abundance of tourist information and maps, in Spanish as well as in English. Another remarkable, although not applaudable, thing we saw in the country was the number of zoos. It appeared each town had one, no matter how small, and we felt sorry for the locked-up animals.
Mr. Important is One His Way
When we wanted to visited the modern part of the city, the main plaza was surrounded by yellow fences and policemen. Mr. Bush was coming that night. During the day a battalion of police officers was surfacing in the city center and on the rambla (boulevard).
We lost our free camping spot because, for the coming three days, the rambla was going to be closed off for security reasons. Our unique campsite was in a field overlooking the river, behind a gas station along the boulevard. Other cars would come and go, which was understandable during the beautiful sunset, but the meaning of this while all through the night escaped us, until we woke up in the morning and found the field littered with used condoms.
Back to the Countryside
With our camping spot gone, the rambla closed off and the town disrupted, we decided to leave. We drove 30 kilometers eastward along dunes and beaches until we found a campsite in El Pinar.
Going north via route 8 took us to more rolling plains with grasslands home to cows and sheep. We spotted a sign saying Salto de Agua. Always in for the unexpected we took a turn and followed an inviting looking, unpaved road. I checked my dictionary and learned that salto means waterfall.
“We are now on our way to a waterfall,” I enlightened Coen. This is how we learned Spanish. The waterfall wasn’t a particular ‘must-see’, but driving these roads through the interior, traversing even more desolate places than we had before was quite nice. We spotted birds of prey, flocks of bright green parrots and even ostriches. So much space, such tranquility. We were captivated by such simple beauty as grasslands and birds.
Another sign led us to Gruta de Salamanca, via a nine-kilometer unpaved road and a short climb up a hill. The paradox was that while we were captivated by the plainness of the surroundings we did miss the Asian (religious) liveliness we associated so strongly with caves like these. Where were the Buddha statues, the lingams, the burning incense and the candles? We had left Asia not that long before, and many memories were still fresh.
Back at the Land Cruiser we concluded that in fact this was a perfect place to camp, situated on a rim of the hill from where we had a magnificent view of the plains. We continued enjoying more tranquility – the word that pretty much summed up in our feeling of Uruguay. We camped under a star-filled sky with a sliver of a moon on the horizon. It was only because we were short on food supplies that we left two days later.
Our last stop was Punta Diablo. The Atlantic coast was impressive but we concluded for the umpteenth time that, given the choice between beach and inland, we preferred the interior.
It was time to go. We drove north to Chuy and easily crossed the border into Brazil.