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Tango and Gauchos: Uruguay part II

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In the morning we had a few mosquito bites from the open windows in the Airbnb, but nothing too terrible. We went back to Mercado del Puerto for breakfast and then set off for Mercado Agricola, or the Agricultural Market, in the center of town. We had hopes for a bustling produce market but what we found was more like a mall with some grocery stores and specialty food stores inside a renovated, atmospheric old market building. It was a decent place to wander around in for an hour but we probably would have preferred its previous incarnation.

I had uncovered our next destination via an exhaustive Google search for special events in Montevideo. It was an arts festival in Parque Prado in the north of the city that was only mentioned on a Spanish language website. Once we arrived it was pretty clear we'd found the most fun thing to do in Montevideo on Easter weekend. Cars were parked bumper to bumper in the entire neighborhood around the park. Inside we found the arts festival with some very beautiful and creative displays of handicrafts. One popular theme was thermos and cup sets for drinking yerba mate, the herbal tea that many people carry around wherever they go in Uruguay.

There were plenty of other things to do on the festival grounds. There was a crafts area for the kids, live music performances, a rodeo, and the biggest open air parrillada we had ever seen. Not many tourists make it to Montevideo in the first place, and there were absolutely none besides us at this community festival far from the old town. It was a very enjoyable way to appreciate the Uruguayan national character.

Around the corner from the festival was the Botanical Garden of Montevideo. It had a beautiful Japanese garden with ponds and bridges that were illuminated by the afternoon sunlight that filtered through a dense canopy of trees. It was a pleasant consolation for having missed the Japanese Garden in Palermo in Buenos Aires.

Back in Ciudad Vieja we stopped by Plaza Matriz for a better look at the beautiful fountain in the center. The peaceful park is in sharp contrast to the sculpture of a violent battle between horsemen. On the sidewalk a group of elderly dancers were executing a delicate tango and naturally our kids joined in.

Dinner that evening was al fresco at a cute seafood restaurant we'd noticed that morning next to Mercado del Puerto.

That night we made another futile attempt to close the windows and keep out the mosquitos. Although we covered ourselves with repellent I was awakened in the night several times by the insistent whining of the obnoxious insects around my ears. In the morning we were horrified to discover that despite the repellent all the kids had dozens of bites. By far the worst was Spenser, who was absolutely covered in welts even in the places which had been covered by clothing. Fortunately it was our last night or we would have had to change locations after that experience. The bites looked horrible but the kids weren't too troubled so we wedged all our belongings back into the car and proceeded onward to Feria de Tristán Narvaja, a Sunday market in the center of Montevideo. This was the first real outdoor farmers market we'd encountered since arriving in South America a week earlier, and it was a welcome sight. Aside from the produce there was artwork, food stalls, and even an assortment of musical instruments handcrafted from gourds and bamboo. The stalls extended over several intersecting streets and included a large flea market as well.

We weren't in any rush to get back to Colonia so we decided to let the kids spend a couple of hours at the beach and the little amusement park next to it by Parque Rodo. It was overcast, the water was icy cold, and the beach was strewn with garbage but the kids didn't seem to mind. Despite my pleas Ian went waist deep into the water and was promptly bowled over by a wave. The amusement park was surprisingly expensive but we made sure the kids got their fill of rides for being such good sports about the abundance of mosquito bites we had subjected them to.

The only odd thing that happened on the way from Montevideo to Colonia was that we almost ran out of gas. We had half a tank when we left Montevideo and at Mei Ling's urging I started to look out for a station when we still had about a third of a tank. We drove for about sixty miles after that with no sign whatsoever of a gas station or a town. Eventually it was clear we couldn't go much further while we were still about fifteen miles from Montevideo and I had to search for a gas station using Google Maps. The navigation took us off the highway and another five miles of driving over local roads before we finally found the gas station with the needle pinned on empty. I can't remember ever encountering such a long stretch of highway before without a gas station. I don't know if it's something specific to Uruguay or just weird luck but I'll certainly be paying more attention to keeping my tank full on international road trips in the future.

Colonia is tiny compared to Montevideo but has many more tourists, mostly daytrippers from Buenos Aires who want to add another country to their lists. It was already dark once we were settled in our apartment so there wasn't much to do except dinner. The following morning we had several hours before we needed to catch the ferry which was more than enough time to explore. The old town is quaint and well-preserved, with pastel-colored houses, stone walls, and generous clumps of bougainvillea. It's a very pleasant place to walk around in but hard to escape the sense of an artificial environment designed to cater to the tastes of tourists rather than locals. Most visitors tend to congregate around the short, picturesque alley known as Calle de los Suspiros, the street of sighs, and Porton de Campo, a preserved portion of the old city wall. It was a good place to stroll around and relax for a morning but I would take Montevideo any day. We had lunch in a cafe that wouldn't have been out of place on a Caribbean island and then hastened back to the port to drop off our car.

I didn't want the hassle of spending another night in Buenos Aires so I had fixed our schedule so that we would go straight from the ferry terminal to the airport. If we had some kind of delay with the ferry we could have missed our red-eye back to Miami, but fortunately everything went off as planned and we had an extra hour in the airport for a leisurely dinner before our departure. We had taken a small risk flying such a long distance for just a nine day trip but it had paid off. We had enjoyed ourselves, eaten well, and learned a little more about the variety of life experiences in the amazing world we live in.

Posted by zzlangerhans 11:27 Archived in Uruguay Comments (2)

Tango and Gauchos: Uruguay part I

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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 Comments (1)

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