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Friday, 01 March 2019

Uruguay: Cycling on the Other Side of the World

Written by Dale Fehringer
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It was on the third day of our cycling trip up the coast of Uruguay that it hit us: the countryside looks familiar. We woke that morning to fog – a dense gray mist that covered everything; including the lighthouse outside our hotel window, the large dark boulders that faced the waves of the Atlantic Ocean below, and the eucalyptuses forests that lined both sides of the road. It shrouded the countryside as we started our ride. Beneath the fog rolling green hills stretched as far as we could see, cattle grazed on pasture grass, and golden wheat fields waved in the breeze. On the other side of the roads, waves drenched the empty sand beaches. As we rolled along, we were struck by how similar this was to the coast of Oregon, or South Carolina, or Maine. But here we were, on the other side of the world.

 

Como No?


The people of Uruguay have an expression we learned shortly after arriving, which they use for a variety of occasions. When we hesitated while considering dessert, for example, our waiter asked, “Como no?” (why not?) We liked it as a cheerful way to rationalize trying everything, and now, after two enjoyable weeks in this very special country, if someone asks us whether we think they would enjoy traveling in Uruguay, we give them that answer: “Como no?”

 

Uruguay is a small country, about the size of Oklahoma, with a population of around three million people. It’s sandwiched between the much larger countries of Brazil and Argentina, which some locals said can be a little intimidating. But, in some ways, Uruguay is ahead of its larger neighbors. It was the first country in Latin America to legalize same-sex marriage, the first country in the world to legalize marijuana, and it ranks first among its Latin American peers in democracy, peacefulness, lack of corruption, freedom of the press, and size of its middle class. Those characteristics, combined with a constitutional democratic government, free education, and one of the best public healthcare systems in the world make it a relatively comfortable place to live (and visit).


We knew little about Uruguay before we arrived. We had heard about Montevideo, the capital, which is a stopping port for cruise ships, and we had seen a television program about the Uruguayan Rivera, a stretch of white sand beaches along its east coast. We read in school about Uruguay’s cattle ranches (called estancias), operated by gauchos (cowboys). And we had a vague recollection of an airplane crash in the 1970s that stranded a rugby team from Uruguay in the Andes Mountains. But that was about it.


We were enticed by the 'newness' of it all, and by the opportunity to explore a small, progressive country in the Americas. We booked airfare, lodging, and guide services, and off we went. Our flight was direct from Atlanta to Buenos Aires, followed by a ferry ride to Montevideo.


Montevideo


Uruguay’s capitol won us over. While at first glance it seems an old-fashioned city, it is really a large, thriving, technologically-advanced metropolis with lots of history, culture, and a certain mystique. We spent two days touring the neighborhoods on bicycles, and the more we saw of Uruguay’s capital the more we liked it. With a population of around 1.3 million (nearly half the people of Uruguay), and a history of being fought over by the Spanish and Portuguese, there is a lot to take in. As we cruised the streets, we enjoyed hearing the history, and we took in the mixture of old with new, rich with poor, and cutting edge with traditional.

Uruguay 9

 

The people of Montevideo seem proud, and they talk about their accomplishments in art, music, and sports. And, as we discovered, they have reason to claim their barbeque (asado) is the best in Latin America. The streets are clean and generally in good repair, and most people seem content. Nearly everyone has a cell phone, and most have cable or satellite television. There is an extensive and well-used public transportation system, and the streets are filled with relatively-new cars during rush hour, but we also saw horse-drawn wagons picking up recycle plastic bottles for money.

Uruguay 2

In Montevideo we visited the “Andes Museum,” which tells the remarkable story of the 1972 plane crash that killed most of the members of a Uruguayan rugby team and stranded the 16 survivors for ten weeks in the freezing snow-packed mountains. (Their story was made famous in the book and movie titled "Alive.")

 



Punta to Punta


We journeyed a few miles up the coast to explore the resort city of Punta del Este. Alicia, a local teacher and bicycle tour operator, led us around Punta del Este on bicycles, showing us the highlights of this beautiful resort city, which stretches for miles along the coast. She arranged a bird-watching expedition and a visit to the beautiful, white, rambling complex of Museo-Taller de Casapueblo, a museum, studio, house, and hotel designed by and dedicated to Uruguay artist, Carlos Paez Vilaro, a local legend. We were fascinated by his work, which is sort of a cross between Gaudi and Picasso.

Uruguay 1

The next morning we were a little nervous when we met Alicia and Marcelo, a local tour guide, to set off on our four-day cycling tour from Punta del Este to Punta del Diablo. We fitted out bicycles and panniers, and Marcelo led the way as we cycled north up the Uruguayan coast. In our panniers we carried enough clothes for our ride.

Uruguay 19

 

The first day’s ride was around 40 miles along fairly flat highways, with ocean beaches on our right and rolling ranchlands on our left. We stopped often to photograph the fabulous summer villas, beautiful beaches, upscale resorts, and swanky nightclubs in and near Punta del Este. The nearby beaches are popular destinations for tourists from Argentina and Brazil, and the building boom is expanding from Montevideo up the coast past Punta del Este, La Barra, and even to Jose Ignacio.

 

Day two started with an excellent breakfast of fresh fruit, toast, and yogurt in our charming hotel in the coastal town of Jose Ignacio. We were about finished when the waiter asked us if we would like scrambled eggs. When we hesitated, he offered: “Como no?” and we agreed. We enjoyed the eggs, climbed on our bikes, and headed out into a cool, cloudy day. It was easy, scenic riding on asphalt roads for the first couple of hours, then suddenly the asphalt ended and we were cycling on bumpy dirt roads. We slowed, gripped our handle bars harder, and squinted in the dust when the occasional cars passed.

 

We were making good time, but during a water break Marcelo noticed that Patty's pannier bag (with all her belongings) had fallen off her bike. He rode back to find it while we went ahead to a lake we needed to cross. When we reached the lake we noticed that my bike had a flat rear tire. Marcelo found and retrieved the pannier, he and I changed the tire, and we rode on to the lake, which was so low the people who normally ferry cyclists across it had gone home. So we pushed our bikes in the soft sand three miles around the lake. If you’ve ever pushed a loaded bicycle in soft sand, you know how hard it is, and we were exhausted when we reached the other side of the lake. Fortunately, a tiny cafe was open, and we rested, ate crab empanadas, and watched flocks of ducks, gulls, cranes, and swans dive for their dinners on the lake.

 

Our ride wound up at a seaside hotel in the coastal village of La Paloma, and it began raining just as we arrived. We quickly took off our panniers and ducked into the hotel. Dinner that night was at an Italian restaurant (they eat a lot of Italian food in Uruguay), which we followed by a soak in the hotel's hot tub. We bedded down for the night with our heads filled with memories of an adventurous day and our bodies only slightly worse for the wear.

 

Day three started off well, as the rain that had been forecast fell during the night and we woke to a heavy fog, which shrouded the lighthouse outside our hotel window. As we were preparing our bicycles we ran across Roy Harley and his wife, who were also guests of the hotel. Roy is one of the 16 survivors of the plane crash in the Andes in 1972 that killed most of the passengers and inspired the book and movie (both titled “Alive”) that depicts the 10-week ordeal in the fuselage of the plane and ultimate rescue. Roy is 66 and a very friendly man with a family and a fairly normal life.

 

Our ride along the coast was beautiful, and we stopped to take photos and admire the hedges of yellow daisies, and the nearly-deserted beaches. We reached the national park of Cabo Polonio late in the afternoon, stored our bikes, and climbed aboard an ancient truck for a wild ride up and down sand dunes to the small beach community of Cabo Polonio. A group of 10 Argentinean cyclists shared our ride, and their exuberance (and dangling legs) amused everyone on the bus.

Dangling Legs

There is little electricity in Cabo Polonio (solar-powered only) and no wifi, so we turned off our cellphones and hiked around town, admiring the sea lions gathered on the shore rocks and the groups of young hippies attempting to re-create the 1970s. After the sun set we used flashlights to walk to a local restaurant, where we enjoyed an excellent dinner of ceviche, fresh local fish, and gnocchi. When our waiter asked if we would like to see the dessert menu, we answered “Como no?” We were learning.

 

The final day of our ride started early, as our hostess, Carmela, showed up at 7:30 with our breakfast of bananas, coffee, and bread. We caught the 9:00 AM truck back to the national park entrance, retrieved our bicycles, and headed north, battling a headwind that would be with us most of the day. We cycled over hills, past rolling green fields filled with cattle and sheep, and for the first time saw palm trees. Marcelo told us they are natural to this part of Uruguay, and some of them are hundreds of years old.

 

The afternoon involved a long ride into the wind, and we were relieved when we arrived at Puenta del Diablo a little after 5:00, with 48 miles under our belts. The welcome sign at the edge of town is covered with stickers – a tradition of cyclists, motorcyclists, fishermen, and others. A long, hot shower and dinner in a local restaurant renewed us, and we were happy to tuck into bed with the “Punta-to-Punta” cycling tour behind us!

 


 

West of Montevideo

Map Of Uruguay


There is another side of Uruguay, too, if you have time to explore further. West of Montevideo there is a vast open area that contains small towns, ranches, and wineries. This is the heart of the country. We boarded one of Uruguay’s clean and efficient busses for the hour-long ride to the small town of Carmelo, which became our base for the next four days. We explored the 17th century port town of Colonia del Sacramento, across the Plate River from Buenos Aires, which was founded by Portugal and fought over for a century. Today, it is a tourist attraction with a well-preserved historic section and good opportunities for shopping and dining.

 

The ranches near Carmelo compare with those in the middle of the U.S., and they reveal the lifestyle of many Uruguayans. We spent a day at a ranch north of Carmelo, where we studied their farming and ranching business, met the family, and enjoyed a traditional asado lunch, cooked over coals from a wood fire.

 

Uruguay is developing a burgeoning wine industry, which is becoming comparable to those in Chile and Argentina, featuring excellent, full-bodied red wines. We hired a taxi to drive us to four family-owned wineries within a few minutes of Carmelo where we were greeted by friendly family members who toured us through their establishments. The low-key nature and open dialogue reminded us of winery tours in the Napa Valley in the 1980s.



After we had our fill of wineries, we suggested to our driver that we might want to see the nearby Punta Gorda, the spot where the mighty River Plate (which separates Argentina from Uruguay) begins. We weren’t sure he would want to spend more time with us, but he said “Como no?” and off we went. It was fitting that we saw the beginning of the river since we had seen the end (where it empties into the Atlantic Ocean) when we started our bicycle ride. Jacaranda trees were in bloom and puffy clouds greeted us on the riverbanks as we looked across to Argentina. It was a beautiful end to a perfect day.

 

There to be Enjoyed

During our time in Uruguay we discovered friendly people, interesting things to do, excellent food and wine, and beautiful sights. This small country on the other side of the world has everything for tourists, and we suspect that it will become a more significant destination for Americans. But in the meantime, it is there to be enjoyed – uncrowded and inexpensive. We recommend it to cyclists as a place where they can enjoy easy-going and uncrowded cycling, good food and wine, and friendly people. And, if they ask whether we think they should put it on their travel bucket list, we use our new favorite answer: “Como no?”

Uruguay 3


©Dale Fehringer

 


Resources

Guidebooks


The Guru’Guay Guide to Uruguay by Karen A. Higgs, Gugu’Guay Productions, 2017


Guides, Bicycle Rental, Tours


Bike Tours Uruguay: www.biketoursuruguay.com


Hotels/Hostels


Montevideo
Punta Trouville: www.puntatrouville.com.uy/


Punta del Este
Hotel Castilla: www.hotelcastilla.com.uy/


Jose Ignacio
La Viuda del Diablo: www.hotelesdelaviuda.com/


La Paloma
Proa Sur Hotel: www.uyhoteles.com/proasur


Cabo Polonio
La Posada: www.portaldelcabo.com.uy


Punta del Diablo
Terrazas del Diablo: www.hotelesdelaviuda.com/


Carmelo
Los Muelles Hotel: www.booking.com/hotel/uy/boutique-los-muelles


Ah’Lo Hostel Boutique: http://www.ahlo.com.uy


Museums and Attractions


Museo Andes (Montevideo): www.mandes.uy


Museo Taller Casapueblo (Maldonado): www.casapueblo.com.uy


Museo de Madera (Carmelo): http://escultorjosecastro.com.uy/


Wineries


Campotinto: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


Almacen de la Capilla: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


El Legado: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


Narbona: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

Last modified on Thursday, 28 February 2019