by Karene Horst, contributing editor
Butterflies in my stomach & stranger danger be damned – traveling wherever the southern winds blow
PART II of III on Uruguay, circa April/May 2015. While in Aguas Dulces, I started a Trip Advisor forum about places to visit in Uruguay other than the standard Colonia, Montevideo, hot springs in Salto, beaches, etc. I received an interesting post from a Michael in Punta del Este. A friend of his was setting up a tour to the amethyst mines near Artigas, Uruguay, on the northern border with Brazil, leaving Uruguay’s capital city of Montevideo on April 24th. He left his email address for me to contact him directly, then he forwarded me the email of the woman planning the trip.
Pam and I traded emails back and forth for almost a week. She recommended I stay at the home of her friends Ted and Lidia in Montevideo, as we were all meeting there noon Friday before driving to Artigas. Prior to leaving Aguas Dulces I had my usual second thoughts. I didn’t want to leave the beach yet and contemplated traveling farther north to Punta del Diablo and to the fortress in St. Teresa. It was still warm beach weather; I’d jumped in the ocean the day before. Colder autumn weather steered its course directly at us, so who knew how long this gorgeous Indian summer would last?
I considered different travel options requiring me to journey away from the enchanting Uruguayan coast, and I wasn’t sure if Uruguay’s rural towns and the hill country of Cuchilla Grande were enough of a draw to entice me to stay much longer in Uruguay. I would have almost three weeks before meeting my daughter in Iguazu Falls, should I just go ahead and fly to Peru for a trip to Machu Picchu? Wander into Brazil’s Pantanal and make my way inland back to the falls? I had little to no wifi to research a trip, as I was down to my dumb phone and temporary use on the office computer at my Aguas Dulces’ hotel.
And who were these people? This was just a private group of individuals inviting me to share their adventure, and in the case of Ted and Lidia, welcoming me into their home. If it sounds too good to be true … My antennae straightened and twitched as I headed south to Montevideo on the Ruta del Sol busline, leaving Aguas Dulces on the 8:45 to Castillo for 49 pesos or 50 cents US, catching the 12 o’clock run from Castillo to Montevideo for $475 pesos, around $20 US. Just what was I getting myself into? I re-read the emails from Pam and contemplated various schemes I could be tricked into by these strangers. I hadn’t provided any personal credit card info to them, not much personal information at all. What could they take from me?
I set aside my worries and decided to toss my future to fate and see which way the wind carried me.
Ted and Lidia live near central Montevideo in a gorgeous apartment building constructed in the early 20th century. Solid wooden beams throughout, high ceilings and art-deco crown molding. Lidia is a fabulous cook, serving me one of the best meals of my trip. Ted poured me one glass of wine after another.
Both left their birthplace in Poland with their two daughters decades ago for New Zealand, then a business in Sydney, Australia, before arriving in Montevideo more than seven years ago. Lidia is also an amazing artist, drawing intricate geometric designs (facebook page: El Portal de Lilah).
After a fantastic dinner, Lidia and I visited in their exquisitely decorated living room. She casually asked me how I knew their friend Pam, the woman responsible for the tour and who had suggested I stay with them. I told her I’d never met Pam before and had only connected with her via the internet. For a brief moment Lidia expressed alarm that I was a total stranger. But she shook it off suspecting correctly, more or less, that I was safe.
The next morning Pam and her friend Jan arrived, having driven in Jan’s car from the beach community of Piriapolis, Uruguay, an hour or so up the coast. I shocked Pam with the news that I had never met Michael from Punta del Este, the man who had initially told me about the tour. She blanched, having assumed that I was a friend of his when she included me. We all chatted while waiting for Nestor, a Uruguayan who lives in Montevideo and a friend of Pam’s. Nestor arrived with a 7-person van and we squeezed everyone comfortably into the van with all our luggage and almost all of my travel gear. I left a pile of my belongings behind at Lidia and Ted’s; I had decided to return to Montevideo with the group and reconnoiter my next destination from there.
Driving across Uruguay in one day
I had a blast getting to know my new travel companions during the 8-hour roadtrip across Uruguay. We left Montevideo at the southern edge of the country on the mouth of the Rio de la Plata and drove inland to the small nation’s northernmost point. Once we left the capital we shared the road with few other cars and trucks.
We passed through the Uruguayan countryside filled with rectangular groves of trees that speckled the green, brown plains of grass, usually imported exotics such as eucalyptus or pine, an occasional palm tree, rolling foothills, estancias, cows, sheep, gauchos in berets riding horses, spacious windmill farms, mesas echoing the Devil’s Tower of Wyoming, a spattering of nandu, the large, flightless birds native to South America that resemble an emu.
A black metal statue of a bull greeted us as we left the two-lane highway for a quick drive through Paso de los Toros on the Rio Negro, named after a point in the river that was shallow enough for cattle to cross. The town is also responsible for initially bottling the pomelo-grapefruit drink I discovered a taste for. We ran out of gas just a couple of kms from Tacuarembo, but we coasted onto a shoulder next to a business where Nestor obtained a liter-sized soda bottle filled with gasoline.
Pam made a pit stop in the woods and returned with her black pants and shirt covered with thin, pointy, thorns pricking her. We helped pull out the tiny sticks one by one. “I feel like I’m being de-acupunctured,” she announced. I likened it to primates grooming each other and after declaring her deloused, we reloaded the van and motored away.
We oohed and awed at the most incredible sunset I’d ever seen. The sky turned yellow, then glowed orange and crimson as if on fire before simmering into a purplish-blue. With the brilliant sunset serving as a backdrop, the trees created a lacey silhouette. For miles the view became more and more spectacular with each second.
At the Casino Hotel in Artigas I bunked with Jan, the other single female on the trip. After asado for dinner at the hotel’s restaurant, we visited the home of a woman who had turned her garage into a crystal store, with finished semi-precious stones, jewelry and assorted geological gems.
The next morning we met with our guide Raphe and headed to Le Stage Minerals amethyst factory to watch the workers cut, clean and polish the mined amethyst geodes. We walked along rows of deep purple, violet and lilac hued crystals encased in stone bound for shipment to China. Uruguay is the major supplier of the world’s amethyst; China is the major buyer.
We drove past the outskirts of town to tour the mines. We entered one of several tunnels cut horizontally into the side of an ancient volcano crater. Above ground we clambered through rubble left behind by the quarrying, picking through piles of rock for clear quartz crystals and amethyst. Anything we could carry home we were welcome to take. I gathered small pieces to share as souvenirs, thrashing my goal of traveling light. We all darted around the man-made hills of sparkling stones like kids in a candy store.
Another asado at a restaurant attached to a gas station to thank our wonderful guides, Raphe and Carlos Sanchis, director of Le Stage Minerals. I ordered from the menu upon their recommendation and ate the most tender, best-tasting beef I had encountered in South America.
Then we piled into the van and hit the road for the short jaunt to Rivera, which sits on the border of Uruguay and Brazil. Sunday morning we toured the duty-free shops on the main drag and eventually got sucked into a pseudo Wal-Mart in Brazil. Everyone re-supplied on electronics, chocolate, sardines, tobacco, cheese and wine.
One shop featured a liqueur-tasting and I discovered this wonderful drink from South Africa called Amarula. Similar to Bailey’s, it’s a whiskey cream with Marula fruit. It has an elephant on the label, so I just called it the elephant stuff.
We stuffed ourselves and our new purchases into the van and drove back to Montevideo from Rivera. Jan and I had become buddies and when I told her I had no plans other than probably heading back to a beach in Uruguay, she said “Well then you have to come stay with me in Piriapolis.” I couldn’t pass up a wonderful invitation like that and it was settled.