A Travellerspoint blog

Tango and Gauchos: Uruguay part I

View Buenos Aires and Uruguay on zzlangerhans's travel map.

We had an uneventful hour-long ferry ride across the Rio de la Plata to Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay. Colonia changed hands during multiple wars between Spain and Portugal, and subsequently between Argentina and Spain, before Uruguay was given independence in 1828. The city is known for its preserved historical quarter and crumbling stone fortifications. We were only there to pick up our rental car and grab a quick lunch before proceeding onward to our estancia a couple of hours away.

When the agent brought us our car, I was sure there had been a mistake. It was a tiny subcompact and I'm always very careful to specify a full-sized vehicle. The trunk of the car was just large enough to fit our main suitcase and nothing else. We still had two other bags and the stroller, let alone the three kids to wedge into the back seat. I reviewed my reservation and couldn't find any mention of the car size. My best guess was that I had changed the reservation for some reason and then forgotten to specify a full-size. The agent told me that car was the only automatic they had available, so we were stuck. We were able to cram everything inside, although everyone but the driver had to rest their legs on top of suitcases. There was just a foot of space between the two car seats in the back but Cleo squeezed in there with her booster and pronounced it acceptable. We drove off looking like a clown car from the circus, but we had all our possessions.

It was a fairly uncomplicated process to get a SIM card in Colonia. Unlike in Buenos Aires, where our SIM card was never activated even after we visited the Claro store, our Urugayan SIM was activated immediately and we had cellular internet and navigation for the first time during the trip. We drove to Plaza Mayor in the center of the old town which was lined with busy cafes. It was mid-afternoon and all the real restaurants had closed, so we made do with hamburgers and fries at a cafe with a very pretty back patio. On the way out of Plaza Mayor our GPS directed us down a short section of road which had a one way sign posted against us. It was a wide street and we only had to go a few hundred feet so we decided to follow the GPS. Sure enough we were immediately pulled over by a police car and we were given a ticket without any regard for my protestations about the GPS. I had a feeling that was an event that happens about twenty times a day, another source of tourist revenue for the city.

There are many estancias in Uruguay that accommodate tourists but I picked Finca Piedra for its good reviews and its proximity to Buenos Aires. Finca Piedra is mostly focused on comfort and relaxation rather than an authentic estancia experience, but the kids weren't old enough to do real farm work. The kids did get to try their hands at milking cows and they got to play with unusual animals like capybaras and rheas which had their run of the farm.

Cleo and Ian also had their first experience with horseback riding. At first we were just going to let Cleo go with Mei Ling while I stayed at the lodge with the boys, but Ian made it pretty clear he didn't want to be left out so one of the other guests volunteered to ride with him.

Although the estancia was practically within sight of the highway, we had great views over the rolling Uruguayan pampas. During the days we explored the fields and the vineyards where the owners grew the grapes they used to make Tannat and Cabernet Sauvignon wines on the premises. Tannat wine is emblematic of Uruguay although the varietal was originally grown in southwest France. Aside from the fact that Tannat grows better in Uruguay than anywhere else in the world, the highly tannic wines the grapes produce couple particularly well with the rich cuts of beef that are beloved to the locals. After dinner we would sip wine around the roaring fireplace while the kids played with their newfound friends.

Down the road from Finca Piedra was the tiny town of Mal Abrigo. We dropped by on our last full day to have parrillada at the only real restaurant in town. On the side streets we saw some very colorful, well-maintained houses. By the rail station there were a couple of small shacks where craftspeople knitted woolen hats and shawls on nail boards. Aside from that it we could have been in any small town of a few hundred people anywhere in the world.

I wasn't disappointed with our stay at Finca Piedra, mainly because the kids enjoyed it a lot and there are worse things in the world than relaxation. Nevertheless, that isn't why I travel and we probably wouldn't do something similar again. There's just too much to see in the world to spend precious days with our feet up around a pool or a fireplace. Fortunately Montevideo turned out to be much more interesting than we had expected.
It was only an hour and half away from the estancia but it was like entering another world after three days away from civilization. Our Airbnb was ideally situated facing Plaza Zabala in the colonial old town but the interior was a step down from our Buenos Aires apartment. We had a somewhat dingy fourth-floor walk-up whose windows wouldn't close completely. It didn't really matter to us much as we weren't planning on spending a lot of time there. We only had two days and a good-sized city to explore. It was time for lunch so we made a beeline for Mercado del Puerto, which was converted some time ago from a market into a hall of parrillas. The fact that it was Good Friday seemed to have no impact here. There were at least a dozen restaurants packed with customers, and the sights and smells of grilling meat were everywhere. By now the kids were all asleep and we had to wedge both strollers around a cramped table in the middle of our chosen restaurant, Spenser's snoring weight on my back was a small price to pay for a peaceful meal without the clamor of the kids, and the parrillada was better than any we had had in Buenos Aires.

We cut back across the old town via the long pedestrian alley Calle Perez Castellano until we reached La Rambla, the wide promenade that runs along the southern coastline of Montevideo. We enjoyed the breeze coming in off the Atlantic for a few blocks before heading back into the city until we reached Plaza Independencia, which marks the transition between Ciudad Vieja and modern Montevideo. The plaza itself is not particularly remarkable but it is surrounded by some of Montevideo's best examples of colonial architecture. The stunning Palacio Salvo on the eastern side was at one time the tallest building in South America and currently houses the Museum of Tango as well as some private residences. Palacio Salvo also marks the beginning of Avenida 18 de Julio, Montevideo's main commercial avenue. On the northern side of the plaza are stately colonial mansions incongruously juxtaposed with modern office buildings. At the western end of the plaza is Puerta de la Ciudadela, a preserved fragment of the walls that surrounded Ciudad Vieja until 1827.

Once through the gate we were back in the old town. We made our way east back to Plaza Zabala where the kids cavorted on the playground equipment until darkness had fallen and it was time to retire for the night.

Posted by zzlangerhans 07:11 Archived in Uruguay

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I loved your photos. I would love to see capybaras and be able to get that close to them.

by littlesam1

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