by Karene Horst, contributing editor
PART I of III on Uruguay, circa April/May 2015. After a month of big city lights and sounds in Buenos Aires, I decided to escape to the beach. I initially planned to take a bus to the seaside community of Villa Gesell about five hours south, avoiding the overdeveloped coastal stretches of Mar del Plata. Then my daughter made the most fantastic suggestion.
“Why don’t you go to Uruguay.”
She had taken a week-long tour with some friends the previous spring and had fallen in love. According to her, tranquilo is the country’s motto and national pastime. Tranquilo: just what I needed after a month’s worth of screeching bus brakes and navigating a concrete jungle.
So one Sunday afternoon I left Argentina, cruising from Puerto Madero, Buenos Aires, across el Rio de la Plata to Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay, on the Colonia Express.
The boat was half empty. I was almost sad watching the skyscrapers of Buenos Aires fade away. Upon landing in Colonia, the line at the ATM prompted me to find my hotel first before securing some cash. At that time in Uruguay I could withdraw American dollars along with Uruguayan pesos; I wanted to stock up on some greenbacks for my return trip to Argentina in addition to some local currency.
Meeting Uruguay for the first time, well, no muy tranquilo
After dropping off my gear, I left my hotel somewhat apprehensive as I began my search for one of the many ATMs the receptionist said lined the main drag. Most everything a tourist could need in Colonia del Sacramento is within walking distance. Of course all the banks were closed, it being a Sunday, and I couldn’t figure out how to break into the lobbies to access their ATMs; I was unaware of the button you have to push when pulling the door open. I hiked back to the ATM at the port.
The touch screen quizzed me in Spanish, bleeped as I tapped in my PIN and blipped, but no cash sprouted through the slot. I pushed the cancellar button several times but nothing happened. The screen shot simply asked me to feed in my card. But the little fucker had just swallowed my card.
I frantically flagged down one of the port uniformed guys. He seemed somewhat disinterested and after pushing the button and repeatedly asking me something in Spanish that I was too upset to understand, he wandered off. Then another tourist sauntered up. I tried to warn him about the ATM, explaining that it had eaten my card. He used the machine, got some money, then pointed to a typed sign with a number to call for people whose cards had been eaten by the ATM.
Fighting to swallow my rapidly expanding panic, I tracked down others in uniform, but everyone seemed so confused by my problem and pointed me toward this person or that person or to this office or that door. As my eyes watered and my garbled Spanish grew more hysterical, one of the uniforms told me in a soft voice to remain calm.
“Tranquilo,” he said.
Sure thing. Calm down. I might not have any cash for the remainder of my two months in South America. But remain calm.
Someone finally called the phone number posted by the ATM for me, and I was told to call back a different phone number at 10 a.m. the next day. They did advise me that the person who services the machines comes by only on Fridays, just five days away. And even then, sometimes the machines destroy the card, preventing it from future use even if retrieved.
I found it amazing how disturbed people were that I was upset that the ATM had eaten my card. The guy at the hotel was initially very helpful but grew annoyed with me and my problem. I guess Uruguay is so tranquilo that when someone’s money is essentially ripped out of their hands and they become upset, no one can handle the ensuing distress.
Thank god I had booked Colonia through Tuesday morning, otherwise my travel plans would have been hopelessly screwed. Maybe the universe was trying to teach me a lesson. Stop planning. Stop worrying. Stop expecting. Tranquilo!
While waiting for my date with destiny the following morning to discover the whereabouts of my debit card and the future of my trip, I attempted to psyche myself up for sightseeing in Colonia. I wandered the empty cobblestone streets, passed pockets of tourists and a local or two, snapped pictures of the ruins, then decided to try my luck with my CHASE Visa at Restaurante Mercosur on Ave. Gral Flores.
I had the waitress run my card before she served me to make sure I could pay for my meal. She didn’t leave room for a tip and I expressed my concern about not having cash for a tip, but she sweetly shrugged it off. No way would I give up my precious few remaining Argentine pesos worth approximately $13 USD; it could have been the only cash I had for the rest of my trip. SHOUT OUT FOR CHASE BANK, as for once, the charge wasn’t declined and I was able to eat. I savored my small success while the dogs roaming free on the main street slunk around the tables before starting up a ruckus.
I nosed around the tourist office near the port for ideas on sightseeing in Colonia and possibly Uruguay. The woman initially spoke to me as if I were a six-year-old despite the fact that I was trying my best in my unsettled state to speak Spanish with her. Once I relaxed and realized her patronizing tone was simply a personality trait, I told her my tale of woe about my ATM experience. Seems that happens quite often in Colonia.
She told me about another female traveller who had also lost her debit card in a local ATM and arrived in the tourist office llorando. She enhanced the story’s visuals by tracing tears down her cheeks. The woman found her retelling of the incident quite amusing. I was not amused. If this was Uruguay’s idea of welcoming tourists and laughing at the way the country’s banking system throws them into financial and emotional turmoil, I might as well go back to Argentina or Brazil; at least there I understood the guys on the motorcycles were coming to rip my wallet out of my hands.
Starting at 10 a.m. Monday I was on the phone for about two hours trying to get some money. The hotel staff reached the company responsible for the ATM and whomever they spoke with suggested I contact a local branch office of Discount Bank to see if they could access the machine. The bank didn’t open until 1 p.m. Still, I was reminded, that the card could have been destroyed if fraud was suspected, so I got on the phone to find other sources of cash.
Fortunately, the Hotel Riviera allowed me to use their telephone for international collect calls. US Bank assured me they had not blocked my ATM card use. But otherwise, they couldn’t help me with my dinero dilemma.
US Bank’s Western Union online service could send me cash via their local office, but they would only text me the secret code required by the online form; they couldn’t e-mail it. I explained that I had no way to access the text from my Missouri phone number associated with my account as I WAS NOT IN MISSOURI. I even tried to give them a friend’s phone number in Missouri they could text it to, then my friend would e-mail me the code to type into the form, but no, had to be the phone number listed on my account.
Then she suggested using a credit card at Western Union for a cash advance. I ran over to the local office and they were worthless, saying I couldn’t get a cash advance with my credit card and I had to have someone from the US transfer money.
When I called US Bank back I was transferred twenty times; we talked wire transfers, credit card cash advances (I had no pin #, but they could mail a pin # to my address in Columbia, MO). One woman at US Bank assured me I could present my credit card to a local bank and get a cash advance without a PIN, but that didn’t fly at the local bank. I finally begged for help from one woman I spoke with at US Bank who “broke the rules” and gave me a PIN number over the phone after I told her everything any financial institution could possibly imagine about me involving my banking history, my personal information, my first born child, etc.
That scheme worked and I got $300 US and $5000 Uruguayan. Hard cold cash. My blood pressure dropped to pre-stroke inducing levels.
The teller at Discount Bank and I discussed my situation entirely in Spanish. He told me he could find out that afternoon if my ATM card was still inside the machine and intact. If it was good to go, he would have someone bring it to his bank before closing time that evening.
I returned later that afternoon and to my delight I finally had my ATM card safely tucked between my fingers once again. I hit several ATMs outside of the banks still open on the main street and sucked out as many US dollars and Uruguayan pesos as their rules and regulations would allow. Before I left Colonia I was packing around $15,000 in Uruguayan Pesos (at that time worth roughly $600 USD) and $600 in dollar bills. That and credit cards would keep me cruising awhile. I would have socked away more, but every institution and ATM has its 24-hour limits and restrictions in order for you to make repeated visits and pay additional fees.
I hate carrying around that kind of cash, especially as tourists are prime targets for thieves. But between credit card companies denying my purchases requiring a phone call to confirm I was not defrauding myself, cash-only businesses, and ATMs refusing to shell out or devouring my only debit card, I had no other options.
While on my quest, everyone I spoke with said I must have done something wrong to the machine or typed in the wrong PIN or whatever so that it suspected fraud and kept the card. Turns out I didn’t do shit wrong. According to the teller at Discount Bank, it was just my fucking luck to use the ATM when the system went haywire, and the machine’s response is to swallow whatever card is inside. What a genius invention!
I had no fricking idea that an ATM could arbitrarily decide to not return your debit card! I would like to think that if I’d gone to an ATM in the bank lobby, this wouldn’t have turned into the complete 24-hour clusterfuck I experienced. But some of those machines are not actually owned by the bank either and they have to go through someone somewhere else, or so I’m told.
I ate dinner at Mercosur, hoping I’d get the same waitress and leave her a nice tip. Instead, the woman who served me claimed the tip was included in the bill (but I didn’t see it). After finishing my plate of grilled vegies and chorizo, topped with a half-bottle of wine, I decided I was OK with Colonia. I would not have minded being stranded there a few days longer.
The people of Colonia del Sacramento are SO NICE! They’re all relatively calm. Quiet. The tellers at the bank were accommodating and friendly. One even left his office to help me use their ATM once I recovered my card to ensure I didn’t lose it again. The hotel guy was really sweet and had assured me they would feed me if I couldn’t get any money or my credit cards were denied at the local restaurants.
A couple of the older uniforms at the port were somewhat surly and the Western Union office people were neither helpful nor cordial, but otherwise, people acted mildly concerned and for the most part tried to do what they could for me. People seemed almost as if they were on some mild anti-anxiety drug or smoked pot on a daily basis: not too much, just enough to take the edge off.
After some time to simmer down and contemplate the experience, I realized I lucked out that it happened in Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay, of all places. Not only did my hotel allow me hours on their phone to make international calls, but most of the locals were sympathetic although nonchalant. If it had happened in Buenos Aires or during Carnaval in Salvador, Brazil, no one would have cared and I probably would never have gotten my card back.
Even with my limited Spanish I was able to communicate and for the most part, understand what was going on. I did have a couple of people help me with their broken English, which left all of us more confused. A guy at one of the banks spoke fluent English. The bank teller who actually retrieved the card and the hotel staff did not speak English, but I plowed through it all in my jumbled Spanish. It scares me to think if something like this happened in Vietnam, or Greece or China, where I can hardly speak a word of the local dialects.
Plus, Colonia del Sacramento is a tiny place with one main commerical thoroughfare, so I didn’t have to travel far to get help. I can’t imagine having to walk all over Buenos Aires or some unfamiliar megatropolis trying to find the bank that monitored the ATM that devoured my card. Crisis averted, yet it was a rough start to my journey through Uruguay.
I also needed the reminder to calm down. Shit happens. Nothing awful would have occurred if I’d never gotten cash. It would have changed the trip; I would have only used my credit card and not traveled off the beaten path as much. Hotel Riviera takes credit cards and Colonia’s restaurants all accept credit cards, Uruguayan pesos and even worthless Argentine Pesos! Mom and Dad would have wired me money, even though I would have died having to ask.
I like to think I learn from experiences like this. But the only lesson I’ve learned is when traveling to carry cash carry cash carry cash. And of course, my CHASE Visa! My CHASE credit card never abandoned me throughout my trip, unlike US Bank, which would have left me on the street to beg for food. Note to self; never use an ATM unless it’s at a bank and there are bank employees inside who can help when the asshole eats my card. And for my next trip I’ll also set up a second ATM card with a bank other than US Bank. Jerks.
How the hell do you travel outside of the US without carrying mounds of cash if you can’t count on the international banking system? I’m on the verge of sewing dollar bills into the hems of my clothing when I travel next time.
It amazes me that with all our mind-blowing technology, worldwide internet communication access, and global financial networks, I had this kind of trouble accessing my money. I guess some would say, hey, you got your money. It only took 24 hours, multiple phone calls to people who didn’t care, hours on hold or talking to representatives working for the same company offering only conflicting and sometimes downright wrong information, wasted trips back and forth around town to different offices, banks, etc. But I got my ATM card back, and more importantly, my money.
The experience caused me to doubt myself. Whether I could handle traveling, especially on my own. If I’d been with someone else we would have used their debit card. Still, almost every local I had to deal with spoke little to no English (except the one bank teller who was fluent) and I had to discuss my financial crisis in Spanish. Maybe I learned that I can manage on my own.
The road to paradise
April 14, 2015. After breakfast I boarded a bus from Colonia del Sacramento to Aguas Dulces, a village tucked away farther north on the Atlantic Coast of Uruguay, approximately 100 km from Uruguay’s northeastern border with Brazil. I had discovered the tiny community a four- to five-hour bus ride north of the country’s capital of Montevideo while searching online for an affordable place away from the skyscrapers of Punte del Este and the more touristy and expensive seaside resorts of La Barra and Punta del Diablo.
Like Argentina, Uruguay has an excellent system of private bus companies. Unlike Argentina, the bus terminals are clean with less crime and no riff raff eyeing your backpack. I didn’t stick to the bus seat as I had when traveling via coach in Argentina.
However, as in most bus terminals I’ve stumbled across throughout my travels, the people behind the counter usually avoided speaking English and responded to my pathetic Spanish rapidly and in such a way that I could hardly understand them. Winging it with my weak understanding of my transportation options, I bought a ticket for La Pedrera via Tres Cruces Terminal in Montevideo. I assumed that when I reached La Pedrera I could easily find a connecting bus or at least an affordable taxi to Aguas Dulces.
We drove through the Uruguayan countryside: green, flat with scattered trees, pampas grass, row crops, a few wind generators, a house or two. No traffic. I mean, hardly-any-other-cars-on-this-4-lane-highway traffic. The bathroom on the bus to Montevideo was actually not disgusting! They had a urinal for the men and enough room to turn around in, which makes for a somewhat less unpleasant experience than the omnibuses in Argentina. No soap in the dispenser but TOILET PAPER! And I even forgot to bring my spare; usually that only happens when I discover there’s no TP.
We finally ran into traffic entering Montevideo. Turns out it was an accident, so Montevideo usually doesn’t have traffic jams on the freeway like most metropolitan areas. The bus station was crowded, but a sweet older woman with a cane asked me if I was headed to the city of Rocha like herself.
Before leaving Colonia, the owner of the hotel I’d booked in Aguas Dulces emailed me, but I misunderstood the message. He probably had used an online translator, which garbles words and meanings. I interpreted it as a recommendation to take La Ruta del Sol busline to Aguas Dulces from Montevideo or that I could call the hotel for a ride from La Pedrera. By the time I reached Tres Cruces, the last Ruta del Sol bus to Aguas Dulces had already left the station. I again assured myself I’d have no problem finding transportation to Aguas Dulces from wherever my bus dropped me in La Pedrera. Wrong.
After finding the correct bus to La Pedrera – bus employees everywhere seem to assume you know where to go and act quite alarmed and unhelpful when you ask for directions – I headed toward what I thought would be a bus terminal in La Pedrera, 50 km south of my day’s destination. The countryside of rolling hills flowed green, dotted with horses, cows, a sheep or two, low mountains in the distance, rows of non-native eucalyptus and scattered palm trees. We rumbled through rural towns with fruit stands and mothers walking with small children in tow amidst one-story stucco or brick buildings. We passed through the tiny county seat of Rocha. No bars on the windows of homes or businesses, no concertina wire rolling along the roof’s edge. The streets are free of litter, and the city’s main plaza boasts colorful flower beds.
At each bus stop we let out passengers and picked up more. But as the bus rolled toward La Pedrera, my misgivings fluttered about. Surely, there will be buses to Aguas Dulces where I had my reservation at a budget beachside hotel. Surely if there were no buses to Aguas Dulces, there would be cheap taxis. Surely if there were no taxis, there’d be someone who would give me a lift.
Upon our approach to La Pedrera at 5:30 in the afternoon, we rumbled down a wide street with shoulders of gravel and dirt. The bus pulled up to an empty intersection and dropped me off at the side of the road. There wasn’t even a bus stop. This was the end of the line. The town looked dead.
I asked the bus driver how to get to Aguas Dulces and he sort of blanched and suggested I ask the guy at la farmacia. I headed over to a shack crammed with dental supplies, shampoo bottles and candy. The older gentleman running the store left his post to accompany me outside to a nearby community board covered with handwritten notes and a weathered La Ruta del Sol schedule, explaining to me, in Spanish of course, that the last bus to Aguas Dulces had left two hours earlier. He telephoned for a taxi but said that would cost around $65 US. Then he suggested I stay at one of the local places, the cheapest only costing $35.
Although I bet my hotel in Aguas Dulces would have given me a break on the missed night as I was staying for almost two weeks, I was feeling adventurous. It was late afternoon and the sun was out. A beautiful day. I was sure I could hitch a ride for the 50 km trip. I asked the gray-haired shopkeeper if he thought I could find a ride. He shrugged in a manner I found hopeful and didn’t blink an eye or try to talk me out of it.
So I retraced the path of our bus to Ruta 10, the main highway that runs northeast and southwest inland along Uruguay’s coast. A beat up old car immediately puttered past my outstretched thumb. I continued walking the remaining kilometer or two to Ruta 10 and started backing along the shoulder to flag down a ride.
A few cars passed, one indicating he was only going a short distance. Then a young guy stopped and after clearing a space for me in the front seat, he sipped mate while informing me in Spanish that it was a long way to Aguas Dulces. But I was determined. He was only driving about a kilometer but I celebrated my first successful hitch, thinking “now that’s the ticket.”
As I hiked along the shoulder of Ruta 10 with my loaded backpack and my frontpack cradled across my chest, I remained vigilant for the occasional passing car. Dozens zoomed by in the opposite direction. Surely some would head my way. Several just roared past. I saw a sign for one of the hostels that I had deemed a possibility, but decided I couldn’t quit; I had just gotten started.
Then an older guy in a pickup truck pulled alongside and I started in with my broken Spanish. He shook his head wearily. “English?” he asked unenthusiastically. He spoke English fluently in what I took as a European accent. He told me that it was a long way to Aguas Dulces and he was only going three km to where he lived with his girlfriend. He suggested I stay at the corner near his house for a ride and if I didn’t get one to Aguas Dulces I was welcome to stay with them for the night. He didn’t sound thrilled while presenting his invitation. But he warned me that I was heading into a pretty uninhabited area and I might not have any luck hitching a ride.
While waiting at the corner as several cars and trucks zoomed past, I grew dejected. I resumed walking rather than accepting the local’s lackluster offer. Then a car that had passed me circled back in my direction and signaled they would pick me up. A family with a pre-school-aged child. They weren’t driving all the way to Aguas Dulces, but I decided the only way I was going to get there was to keep on keeping on. They said they lived in La Pedrera but were heading near Cabo Polonio for the evening. The father, Pablo, sandwiched my backpack in the car’s trunk. I slid into the backseat next to their son, Dylan. I told Dylan I had a nephew named Dylan. They all spoke Spanish and I understood most. I couldn’t remember the word for nephew, sobrino, but the father understood what I was trying to say and helped me piece together my sentence in Spanish.
We drove awhile and I was gratified to see the road signs indicating the approaching towns of Cabo Polonio 8 km away and Aguas Dulces 20 km. Then the father pulled off the highway where they would be turning and I offered my gracias and we shared our goodbyes. By this time the sky was darkening, but it was still a perfectly pleasant evening. I started walking; if I didn’t have a ride by the time I hit Cabo Polonio less than 8 km away, I would stay there for the night.
It grew darker and the stars came out. I passed a house near the unlit highway with dogs barking wildly at me and became nervous when one made it through the fence after me. I talked to him and he calmed down. I saw a dead snake flattened in the road. Three or four cars passed me and I became quite dismayed by humanity. I was wearing a dress! A woman walking by the side of the road alone with a backpack at night! What were they thinking?
In the opposite direction five cars zoomed by for every one steering my way. I couldn’t believe my bad luck. I started to grumble at myself for being so thick-headed and not just paying extra to stay in La Pedrera. I almost cried thinking I would not reach wifi in time to call my son and wish him a happy birthday; he was turning 20 half a world away from me.
Even with the stars out, it was turning pitch black and I couldn’t see the road except for the faint white dividing line. Sometimes I walked on the shoulder, other times I walked on the broken asphalt as I worried over a snake secreted in the weeds, stubbing my toe on a rock or tripping over something, thrown off balance by the weight of my backpack.
Hauling my gear seemed the least of my problems. I was actually quite pleased with how far I hiked with my stuffed double-backpack and the front pack on my chest. The cheap pack I bought in Mendoza worked much better than the over-the-shoulder tote I’d been using. I’d already stuffed my backpack beyond full, so I used the flimsy Road2Argentina “freebie” bag for some extra space and tied it onto my regular pack. Difficult to turn in a bathroom stall but overall, not such a bad system. And yes, it was flat terrain, but still, a good long hike with a heavy load in the dark into the unknown.
I reminded myself that I was having an adventure and this was exciting to march into the unfamiliar in a strange land at night. Then I told myself I was an idiot and how could I be so stupid. I was still amazed at how hard it was to hitch a 30-mile ride. I met a woman at the hostel in Mendoza who had hitched through Argentina from Patagonia by herself. And of course who could forget the odiferous French traveller we picked up outside El Calafate who managed to wrangle rides across the world. And here I am, I can’t even make it 30 miles?
I could barely read the signs that indicated I’d reached Cabo Polonio. But I remembered my daughter said they had to ride in a 4WD drive jeep to reach the seaside town and that most places had no electricity; the hostel she stayed in used gas lanterns and candles. So maybe I wouldn’t be able to even find the place, let alone find a room for the night. I decided to push on toward Aguas Dulces. Only 12 km to go.
The trickle of cars that had passed me before waned to almost nothing. Then I saw headlights coming in my direction and I waved my hat in the air to flag them down. The driver dimmed his brights, swerved around me, and kept on going. A fricking van! A few minutes later a motorcyclist stopped for me. He said he couldn’t take me but he reassured me I was on the right track for Aguas Dulces. In Uruguay as in many parts of South America, motorcycles are the family minivan; oftentimes you see groups of four, including babies, traveling on two wheels. But I didn’t want to argue with him in Spanish. At least he had checked on me to make sure I was OK. Then he zoomed off.
I used my lighter to read the next road sign for Aguas Dulces. 12 km to go. How did they slip in an extra km or two on me? My feet started to whimper and my legs to ache. I focused on counting off the calories I was burning. This is a good workout. You can do it.
Then another car puttered toward me and I waved my arms. He slowed down. A guy with dreadlocks and facial piercings in a pickup! Martin. I told him I was going to Aguas Dulces and he said he was going to a place just 5 km shy if that was OK. That was OK with me as it would shave off 7 km on foot. I tossed my backpack in the truck bed and hopped in the cab next to him with my front pack. We spoke in Spanish and I gave him my spiel about my trip so far, where I was from, etc. His dog Tigressa sat quietly in the extended cab seat behind us.
Then Martin announced he was going to take me all the way to Aguas Dulces as it wasn’t that far out of his way. I told him he didn’t have to, that I could walk, but if he could that would be wonderful! And damn I was glad he did. He dropped me off on my doorstep, an additional few kilometers from Ruta 10, which would have stretched the advertised road mileage. Martin restored my faith in humanity!
I thought it was around 10 or later, but the time was very confusing. Martin’s truck said 9 p.m. but he told me it was actually 8 in the evening. The woman who welcomed me to Complejo Arinos, Emily, said it was 7:30. It had only taken me 2 hours to get about 30 miles. I think I walked about 7 of those miles.
I connected with the hotel’s wifi and caught Nick in time to celebrate his birthday with a kiss goodnight.
Serenity by the seaside
My adventure hitchhiking to Aguas Dulces ended happily; still I’m trying to decide if it was a truly stupid idea or just another learning experience dressed up like an adventure. Either way, next time I’ll spend the night and wait for the bus to come the next morning.
The cozy studio space I rented from Complejo Arinos had room for a twin bed, a mini-fridge, microwave, gas range and oven, kitchen sink and private bath. I even had a TV but I couldn’t find anything on it I wanted to watch. The wifi hit and missed on my computer although my dumb phone found the connection. Through an open window I could hear the waves crashing on the sand.
I slept like the dead, woke around 8:15 and went for a walk along the beach, as the door to the main office was locked and Emily had said breakfast was served from 9 to 11.
I had arrived just in time for off-season autumn in Aguas Dulces. Most of the cottages were shuttered: some with alquilar or se vende signs. Almost all are single-story and made of weathered wood or crumbling stucco.
I’d found nirvana. I dipped my toes in the Atlantic Ocean and found it tolerably cold. The beach stretched unoccupied as far as I could see in either direction except for some dogs frolicking momentarily in the surf before running up the beach barking. I watched a lone figure gradually emerge from the sand farther north. Otherwise, I had the ocean, the sky, the purple seashells and the dunes all to myself.
I walked south toward Cabo Polonio. I reached the end of the oceanfront bungalows and my caffeine withdrawals kicked in, so I steered back toward town along a street of sand. A man on a motorcycle with jet black skin and dreadlocks motored by, returning my wave with a smile. I found the hotel office door open, ordered my café con leche and pulled a beach chair and table out of my room to enjoy my breakfast of pan dulce on my breezy front porch. A local dog begged and sniffed, wandering in and out of my room before giving up hope on a handout.
While soaking in the salty air, I tried to visit with my neighbors. The people here speak so fast! I needed to find some local stoners so I could maintain a conversation. The couple running the hotel, Emily and Sebastian, appear alarmed by my requests for a second cup of coffee and my questions about the town or how to access the spotty wifi. They responded in such a quick clip that I couldn’t catch exactly what they said. I tried to clarify, but nope, I couldn’t get it. These Uruguayans speak Spanish demasiado rapido! My ear picks up a different timbre than traditional Spanish, almost as if the proximity to Brazil has cast a Portuguese tone on Uruguayan speech.
I parked a beach chair and a towel in a private alcove surrounded by the eight to ten-foot rock seawall where the houses perch on the dunes next to the ocean. I immersed myself in the music of the waves. The sun shone past wispy cloud cover. I used the rest of my sunscreen and concocted an idea to smear sand over my skin as a sunshield. I dug out a reclining chair in the sand and lounged for hours.
A few surfers with long sleeve wetsuit tops tried to catch some of the washed-out waves. A few people walked by. Some dogs sniffed and pranced around. The guy in the house near my alcove rapped a percussion instrument, which sounded like a cross between an upturned pot and a wooden slab. His enthusiasm for his solo jam session sputtered, as he took frequent breaks before quitting completely.
Not too hot, the sun slipped behind the clouds often enough to let the breeze cool me. This is it. I made it into heaven.
I meandered into Provision Estela, a corrugated metal structure attached to a home advertising as a store, and bought some fresh-looking vegetables and packages of crackers, cookies and pasta, olives, cheese, a can of green beans, olive oil, salt and a cheap bottle of wine. Almost 800 Uruguayan pesos, around $32 US. They were not giving it away, but Aguas Dulces is pretty out of the way and off season. I was grateful to find her door open. Most of the businesses were locked closed. My supplies would feed me for a few days at least. I would only have to restock on wine and chocolate.
Sebastian got my gas stove started for me. The thing scared me. Rickety as hell perched on a wobbly stand. I was certain every time I bumped into it the connections loosened, allowing a thin stream of gas to leak into my room. Every time I lit it to cook I prayed I wouldn’t blow myself up.
I often left the door to my first-floor room open during the day for fresh air. I ran the AC during the night as the place seemed stuffy and had a slightly humid odor, plus I needed some airflow. With the door open I got lots of flies. They had oval wings and acted quite harmless. They attached themselves to the wall and waited. They didn’t pester me. Although they made excellent targets as sitting ducks, I decided not to kill them as long as they refrained from bothering me. I saw some smears on the wall that could have resulted from a previous, less conscientious visitor. I had quite a few spend the night with me. I grew concerned about what they were waiting for, as they already outnumbered me and the swarm multiplied while the door remained open. I flashbacked to the pivotal scene in Hitchcock’s “The Birds.”
The main road into town from Ruta 10, Avenida los Palafitos, is lined with trees and has a huge grassy divider. Other than motorcycles, a few cars and the police van, I haven’t seen or heard any buses rumbling through Aguas Dulces. The street in front of us that runs parallel to the beach, Cachimba Y Faroles, is paved with sandy shoulders and runs into the sand strip that leads to the beach. Sand alleys slice between the houses as they lead to the beach, apparently for public use, with wooden steps down the ten-foot bluff to the beach. The packs of dogs running along the seashore and through the streets usually barked at me menacingly but quickly lost interest.
My second day in Aguas Dulces turned colder and windy with gray cloudy skies but no rain. Only the dogs were out and a few stray people, some on bicycles carrying bags of groceries or whatnot. By mid-afternoon I wondered if it was time for a glass of wine.
Just another amazing day in Uruguay
I woke up to someone hollering out my door. I thought it was my hotel neighbors, but they had already checked out. It was the workers on the property next door. Later in the morning they hammered on and off, hauled some shit along the path between us, but otherwise, no more hollering. Only at 8 a.m.
The door to the office was locked so I took my morning walk. I steered north. Just a few other beachcombers out. I passed by a sea turtle marooned on the sand. It was still alive, but I decided to let mother nature decide. Then I saw a man with a pack of dogs and wondered if I should alert him to the living creature the dogs would surely molest. Again, I decided to let mother nature decide. That bitchy little white dog chased up behind me and barked at my heels, scaring the shit out of me. I snapped back. Damn! First time I’d found South American strays so unfriendly.
Breakfast included orange juice, a delicious selection of breads and a pot of jam, but the coffee was pretty bad. Instant microwaved. My second cup was even worse.
After trying to sunbathe for about an hour on a cold, windy morning, I packed my bag for a hike south along the coast. I headed off fashionably late at 11 a.m. toward Barra de Valizas. Nothing more than wooden shacks, some abandoned, some shuttered, some occupied. A guy riding a mountain bike passed me. A man with a pack of dogs and a saddled horse trotted along the shoreline and across the dunes.
I found a restaurant with a VISA sign close to the beach with a couple hauling boxes in and out. The woman said they were closed for the season but there was a restaurant in town near the supermercado across from the bus station. I chose to save that restaurant for another day and pressed on for Cabo Polonio and the sea lion colony. The sky was full of clouds but nothing too scary and the day felt young.
The quicksand in the Arroyo Valizas sucked me down, so I found a shallower point to cross. I waded through the stream, with my satchel on my head and my wrap tied higher around my waist, and the woman watching me gave a thumbs up when I reached the opposite bank. I rounded the rocky point but still no fricking sea lions. I did find a marker for the 1750 Treaty of Madrid signaling the point agreed upon by the Portuguese and the Spanish for divvying up South America.
I rounded yet another small peninsula and found more rocks, no shacks or human development denoting Cabo Polonio or any damn sea lions. So I stopped for my pack lunch and decided it was probably time to head back. I’m glad I did. By the time I hit the “Bienvenidos Aguas Dulces” turnoff my legs ached and all I could think about was a drink. If I’d continued on I wouldn’t have made it back until dark. The sea lion colony of Cabo Polonio was barking for a bus ride.
During my day’s trek, I passed several carcasses of sea lions or seals, a sea turtle, a Magellanic Penguin even, and a vulture picking on a dead fish. A ferocious wind ripped through the plastic bags trapped in the sand, making them hiss like snakes. At the boulder-strewn headland my loose satchel bag cover whipped around, scaring the shit out of me. I felt completely alone at the rocky end of the bay, the farthest point I’d wandered in search of the sea lion colony. Sandy dunes cascaded down toward the water’s edge. A handful of cattle grazed in the distance and I worried they’d become aggressive like the local dogs.
The wind was cold but the water warm as I headed back to Aguas Dulces. The wind swept the foam toward the drier sand, sending it scurrying like a living thing, a bubbly creature that darted and skirted across the film covering the wet sand.
Aguas Dulces seemed like a safe place to wander day or night. During the day a couple of police officers patrolled the streets in a small marked car or a van. The village actually had a police station; it looked like it had been converted from a private home. I wandered alone night and day with impunity. It wasn’t until I returned to the US that I discovered why the tiny hamlet with a population of around 400 felt the need for a vigilant police force. Four months before I arrived, a teenaged girl visiting Barra de Valizas was found dead, half-buried in the sand on the same stretch of beach I walked almost daily during my stay in Aguas Dulces.
But no one warned me tener cuidado. One moonless night I ambled through town, my head thrown back watching the stars as I strolled the empty sand streets. I steered as usual toward the beach. The darkened cottages set the stage perfectly for stargazing. Shooting stars and the Milky Way soared across the sky. I plopped my backside down on the dry sand to enjoy the awesome view. A sky full of glory. I saw the stars as I don’t ever remember having seen them before. I’ve spent plenty of nights in the mountains and in the deserts, camping out under the stars. But either altitude sickness, the cold, fatigue or some other distraction kept me from soaking it all in like I did that night. Living in a city you don’t have the chance to see such a sight. Often I only get to enjoy the moon.
Another night around midnight the sound of drums and bongos awakened me. A drumming circle had relocated temporarily to the sand volleyball lot next to my hotel with howling dogs in accompaniment. I found the impromptu concert entertaining before drifting back to sleep.
I rose the next morning to a sky of gloomy clouds with spotty rain. A good day for hunting sea lions, but the bus station was closed and I had no idea if there were any buses shuttling to Cabo Polonio and back. I considered hiking to Cabo Polonio the following day and taking the bus back. I waited for the rain to ease before venturing to the bus station when it opened between 1:30 and 3:30. The woman behind the counter was beyond unhelpful. I managed to glean a sliver of information from her about the local bus service to Cabo Polonio and elsewhere. I checked on the hotel’s computer for the Ruta del Sol website and obtained much more assistance.
I wandered down to the beach in a very happy mood and watched the waves awhile before meandering toward the plastic bird sculpture. Somewhere along the way I picked up a friendly dog, or he picked up me, and we walked along the almost deserted strip of beach beside the sand dunes. I named him White Spot Scar. He had a collar. Then he discovered a family with dogs and adopted them instead, abandoning me without a backward glance.
That day’s beach trek under overcast skies featured a man holding a flailing seagull while several vultures paced impatiently several meters away. The man settled the bird into a hollow he had scooped out of the sand and rode off on his mountain bike. The bird squawked and struggled to get out of the nest. I left before things got ugly.
Earlier in the day I noted a sandwich board heralding the chef’s specials placed next to the road. By the time I returned to the restaurant around 6 p.m., the front door was shut with a combination lock latched through the metal eyehooks. I fixed myself the remainder of my stir-fry veggies and finished off another bottle of wine, taking a break to enjoy an amazing sunset outside my front door.
After dark I walked down to the shoreline and listened to the waves. The stars were blurry from the cloud cover. Many of the cottages and shacks lining the coast did not have lights on, sitting either abandoned or still empty for the weekend.
A beautiful sunny Saturday greeted me when I left my hotel room the next morning. Little wind. Aguas Dulces was so quiet you could hear the dogs barking most of the night. It was only 7:30, way too early for my 9 a.m. desayuno, so I heated water for organic green tea and strolled toward the beach with a hot mug warming my hands.
Outside my room three local dogs barked at el gato, who had fled to the shelter of a single story rooftop. I coaxed the dogs into following me to the beach. For a spell they hung around before chasing each other’s tails down the sand. The ocean was still rough from the storm the day before and the offshore breeze flung spirals of water back out to sea. No surfers out yet; they sleep in around Aguas Dulces.
I wandered back to the restaurant from the day before, Lo Del Maestro, and found it open for business with a few customers. A painted portrait of Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow adorned the main interior wall. I ordered shrimp with rice, una jarra de tinto vino, and finished up with una postre de flan con dulce leche. Riquisimo! The shrimp had probably arrived frozen, but otherwise, a delicious respite from my own cooking. I planned to support Lo Del Maestro as long as it remained open. I paid about $20 US for the meal, which is steep compared with Colonia, but that was a deal for me. I had to return to my own barely edible cooking starting Monday. The food at the grocery store was expensive enough, and I enjoyed the break from chopping vegetables and washing dishes.
After breakfast I lounged on the beach before undertaking an ambitious jog up the coast: running shoes, baseball cap and all. I made it maybe a kilometer or two. I found a smooth expanse of fine sand. I did some ab exercises, some stretches, and two sets of plank pushups. Feeling more energetic I tried to jog back but I didn’t have it in me. I needed to rehab more slowly. Walking is great, and I’d been doing tons of it, but it’s not jogging.
More people out and about on Saturday; probably weekenders up from Montevideo. Some more tourists like myself maybe. I’d had the hotel all to myself except for the first night I arrived. Saturday night a quiet woman checked into a room next to mine and left without a fuss on Sunday.
The following night I was the first and I believe only customer at the restaurant. An hour after I left at around 9 p.m. the place was still empty.
By Sunday afternoon the temperatures started to rise and I basked in the sun until I felt hot enough to jump in the water. I bodysurfed, catching several mild waves. The water wasn’t too cold, the wind not too strong. More people strolled on the beach: more weekenders I assumed. Families and couples with dogs or children. The surfers were out of course.
I almost started to feel like a local. The older guy drinking on the porch at the local tavern, Galeon, chatted me up as I wandered by after days of only eyeballing me. A little boy standing outside a cottage introduced me to his dog and babbled on about how he was here on vacation. I just smiled and nodded and then waved as I tossed him a “Buen Dia.” He regarded me with confusion and then stared off into space. The old fellow who always went out of his way to smile and greet me as I puttered past his cottage – we conversed on and off in passing, and I could almost understand him as he attempted to speak slowly. The women pretty much ignored me but always returned my “Hola.”
I went to Lo Del Maestro for lunch again and ordered the seafood paella for two, planning to return home with the leftovers for lunch or dinner some other day. Several other customers stopped in to eat or drink. The older woman with the cane from the day before hobbled into the dining area, chatting me up but fortunately she did not expect a response as I couldn’t understand a word she said.
I took my usual table out front and watched people cruise Cachimba y Faroles on foot, bicycle, motorcycle and slowly by car. I had the delicious homemade flan with dulce leche and my usual jarra de vino tinto and lo and behold, the owner bought me yet another glass of wine! I was already quite tipsy and that about sent me over the edge.
Cabo Polonio or bust
My designs for a day trip to Cabo Polonio finally materialized. I ventured out on the bus with plans to return along the coast by foot. I didn’t return by foot. Too damn far.
When the 4WD shuttle truck dropped me off on the beach at Cabo Polonio I could see the farthest point I had viewed days before way in the distance. Plus, by the time I got to Cabo Polonio it was already around 1 p.m. so I wouldn’t have had any time to hang out and watch the sea lions sun themselves on the rocks, climb up to the top of the lighthouse or drink a glass of wine beside the ocean at Posada Mariemar.
I caught the 11:15 bus from Aguas Dulces to Cabo Polonio for $49 UR, roughly $2 USD. We passed by cows grazing in the shade of palm trees. We stopped in Barra de Valizas for a 15-minute break before heading along Ruta 10 to the park entrance. I had still planned to walk home at that point along the beach, but the cost for the shuttle into the park was $170 UR whether you went one way or roundtrip. The driver told me it takes at least two hours to walk into Cabo Polonio’s commercial area from Ruta 10. Another pat on my back for not attempting to hike in that first night!
The trip on the 4WD truck was like a Disney ride; buckled into our seats, we held tight while the open vehicle swayed back and forth as it lurched over the sandy road ruts through a section of Cabo Polonio National Park full of pine trees and sand dunes. The other tourists whooped and clamored as the truck pitched in every direction.
The beach on the southwest side of the peninsula includes shacks constructed of recycled corrugated metal and driftwood. On the hill beneath the lighthouse the construction quality of the cottages improved, with most made of stucco and painted white or pastel colors with sturdy-looking roofs.
Except for the lighthouse, the homes and businesses of Cabo Polonio are off the grid. Most have no running water or electricity, relying instead on rainwater and wells, while only a handful of structures use generators, solar panels or wind power.
I toured Viejo Lobo, an “eco hostel” right on the beach. The hostel’s brochure (in English and Spanish) lists activities such as surf lessons, surfboard and wetsuit rentals, sandboards, snorkeling, horseback riding, an organic orchard, bonfires, live music, trekking and hiking, “natural” and organic products. The place was not packed with guests but included several barefoot, shirtless men lounging in hammocks. This was the hostel sporting the rainbow colored roof. It offers a double room with private bath and sea view as well as dorm rooms.
I caught the last 4WD shuttle at 6 p.m. back to the entrance and waited about 45 minutes for the 7:10 Ruta del Sol heading to Aguas Dulces as the stars and a sliver of moon rose. I must have just missed that damn bus when I neared the park entrance that first night I hitched into Aguas Dulces.
NOTE: All prices and some info provided is from 2015 and has definitly changed.
COLONIA DEL SACRAMENTO
Keep the paper ticket for the boat trip from Buenos Aires, Argentina, to Colonia, Uruguay, with your passport; this is your customs entry proof and you’ll need it when leaving Uruguay. At the embarkation point you get stamped out of Argentina by their customs, then stamped into Uruguay. A one hour trip for $28.56 USD booked online at coloniaexpress.com
If you lose your debit card at the Port Banred ATM Cajero #285 go directly to Discount Bank on the main street in town. It is open from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday. They will contact the unhelpful assholes in Montevideo directly and get your card back for you that day. Hopefully if you use an ATM you’ll have better luck than I!
Because of my ATM issue in Colonia del Sacramento, I missed out on many of the historical and cultural sites in Colonia, all within walking distance and most free to enter, including:
Lighthouse and Convent of San Francisco – ruins of the 17th century convent
Basilica del Sanctísimo Sacramento – the Basilica of the Holy Sacrament, built of stone by the Portuguese in 1808
Portuguese Museum – constructed in the 18th century, it exhibits Portuguese furnishings, jewellry, uniforms and old maps of Portuguese naval expeditions
Casa de Nacarello – an 18th century Portuguese home
Municipal Museum – rebuilt by the Spanish in 1835 as the Casa del Almirante Brown, it exhibits artifacts and documents of the city’s different periods and cultures
Viceroy’s House – the Casa del Virrey, reconstructed from the original ruins
Iglesia Matriz – the oldest church in Uruguay, dating from 1695-99
Plaza de toros Real de San Carlos – a bullring included in an old tourist complex now abandoned.
BUS TRANSPORT WEBSITES
Travelling costs and times across Uruguay, for example: I took the 9:15 a.m. COT bus from Colonia to Montevideo, scheduled to take 2.5 hours at a cost of $311 Uruguayan pesos, around $12 USD, then connecting for a 1 p.m. bus at Tres Cruces Terminal in downtown Montevideo for La Pedrera costing $428 pesos, at that time another $18 USD or less.
complejoarinos.com For my 10 nights in a studio apartment booked on booking.com, I paid around $225 USD. I was told that would have been the same price for two guests in a larger room.
Posada Mariemar room rates range from 1800 to 2000 UR pesos/night in April 2015 firstname.lastname@example.org viejolobohostel.com features two kitchens, lots of common space and a library, natural mineral water and a laundry service.
Hostel Lo De Marcelo email@example.com