Saturday, 14 December 2013


By Sanne

If there was a competition in speed talking, surely the winner would be from Uruguay.
After having struggled through two months of Portuguese we were looking forward to some Spanish which we somehow had convinced ourselves was an easier language than Portuguese. That was until we rocked up at the border town Chuy and were faced with border officials who were talking to us as if someone had pressed a fast-forward button. When they saw the blank look on both our faces luckily they slowed down a bit so we could actually understand them...a bit anyway. Border formalities were super smooth and after being given a temporary import for the bikes and a permanent stamp in our passports (!) we rolled on into Northern Uruguay.

Our first stop for the night was just 35km south of the border - Parque Nacional Santa Teresa where we camped in the forest for two nights. The weather was horrible. We had to strap up all our tarps over the tent so we wouldn't get flooded. Our poor little summer tent is really starting to show its age after having been in one too many snow or rain storm and it's not holding up so well anymore in rainy conditions. Hmm...perhaps a new tent would be in order? Santa Teresa was nice and quiet - a nice change from Brazil where you could always count on someone rocking up and disturbing the peace with their trunk size boombox blasting out some horrid funk music. Here it was totally 'tranquilo' with some beautiful uncrowded beaches that stretched for miles and miles.

After that we followed the coast down to Punta del Diablo, a little fishing/surfing village of wooden cabins and little dirt streets. It was almost like a ghost town when we were there as most things in Uruguay seems to be only happening in the high-high season. As there wasn't much to do there we moved on down the coast via some of the quietest highways I have ever been on, absolute bliss. Uruguay being a very small country the distances were not great either which allowed for us to simply doddle along and doing no more than 100km days. We spent a night camping in La Paloma, another surfer town before heading to Punta del Este where we had been told the mantra was: tan it, wax it, buff it. Not really a mantra we tend to share so we already had our reservations about the place. Well, it wasn't so bad. Probably because it wasn't overrun by tourists when we were there. Which was odd considering it was a long weekend in Argentina (the main clientele here). That could have something to do with the Argentinian President's recent decision to sludge Argentinians with a 30% tax on all credit card purchases outside Argentina. More on Argentina's messed up economy in the next blog post!

While we were in Punta del Este we met a Spanish..., eh I mean Basque, guy, Aritz. He spotted us as we were standing beside the 'Hand in the Sand' sculpture taking photos. Turns out that he was doing a motorcycle trip around South America as well, on a little Yamaha XT225 that he had bought in Rio de Janeiro. He was now heading south like us and although we thought it was unlikely we would run into him again we exchanged contact details.

We stayed in Punta del Este for a couple of nights and then headed to Montevideo where we had arranged to stay with Couch Hosts Lionel and Silvia. Lionel is an Australian from Queensland who for the last three years has called Uruguay home and lives with his Uruguayan wife Silvia in Montevideo. After riding around in circles for a while on the confusing one-way street system that South American cities all seem to favour, we turned a corner and saw a gentleman wearing an Australian flag shirt and we knew we had found our destination. Lionel, an ex-science teacher and Silvia, an IT specialist for the World Bank made us feel at home straight away. First though we had to take the bikes to one of their friends' house as Lionel and Silvia lives in an apartment with no parking. They had kindly made the effort to arrange all this for us so our bikes could be safe.

That night Lionel cooked a lovely vegetarian dinner for us and another Couch Surfing couple who they had invited over for dinner, Carla a girl from Equador and Ole, a Danish guy who had just got married and now were on their honeymoon; their honeymoon being an 8-month trip around South America. Ole, a film director from Copenhagen is like me originally from Haderslev! Small world we live in. After a lovely dinner with good Uruguayan wine Lionel gave us an impromptu performance of some bush poetry which was the first time I had ever listened to this. It was genius and it was all down to Lionel's delivery, although I'm not so sure how much Carla and Ole understood as it was very much based on Aussie slang words. I caught a glimpse of Carla and she had this look on her face as if to say: "What the hell...!" I guess you need to have spent at least some time in Australia to understand bush poetry...

Before we could do any sort of sightseeing around Montevideo there was one problem which needed sorting out: The Camera. By now it had all but stopped functioning and we were desperate to get it fixed. I had been in contact with an Olympus Service Centre who had assured me they had the part I was after, a flat cable diaphragm. When we went to see them however they weren't overly helpful. First of all, they claimed that it would take them 3 days just to get a quote for me of how much the repair would cost. Then I would have to wait another week for the actual repair! On top of that they knew nothing about my email exchange with one of their staff and the camera technician was out for lunch, so sorry, they just couldn't help me... However, right as we're about to leave the shop, who walks in the door? The technician! He was much more helpful, had an inspection of the camera straight away and 10 mins later we were out the door with a receipt in our hands telling us to come pick up our camera in three days. It wasn't going to be cheap, $125 for this small part which controls the opening and closing of the shutter. But it was cheaper than having to buy a new lens for the camera so it was an easy choice.

Montevideo is a nice city. Not too big and not too small. I wouldn't go as far as to say it's a beautiful city but it does have some nice parts to it - the old city for example, the esplanade (La Rambla) being another plus the people here seem very nice and the pace here seems much slower than in Buenos Aires for example.
One thing we noticed here was peoples dedication to mate (the tea-like drink so popular in South America). Never have I seen more people of all ages drink mate. Everywhere they go they carry a mate cup and a thermo full of mate. They get on the bus with it, they walk around the streets with it, they even drive in their car with it (while attempting to steer). Personally I don't mind the drink, whereas Mark is not a big fan, but we both love the mate cups which are beautifully crafted things, in fact we plan to buy some to send home to Australia.

We found out that Aritz, the Spanish guy whom we had met in Punta del Este was also in Montevideo and we contacted him. He in turn invited us for his birthday party at his hostel. Here we arranged to ride together from Montevideo to Colonia del Sacramento the following week and from there to Buenos Aires as he was also going south, although not as far as Ushuaia like us.

On the 29th of every month it is 'National Gnocchi Day' in Uruguay. It is an old tradition dating back to a time where Uruguayans didn't have much money and a cheap thing they could afford to make was Gnocchi. So they turned hardship into a tradition and voila - Gnocchi day came about. As we were here on the 29th, of course we had to try it out. Silvia bought all the ingredients and friends were invited (including our new friend Aritz). We all stood around the table and rolled, cut and shaped the gnocchi and the result was delicious. Definitely something I will be trying when I return to Australia.

Lionel and Silvia had asked us if we wanted to stay a few more days to help out with a project they were involved with called Techo (translated: roof). It is a not-for-profit organisation which build houses for underprivileged people in slum areas. The houses they build for them are very basic little timber huts but it is a big step-up from what they live in before which is usually more of a shed made up of plastic and cardboard. The building was to be done over Saturday and Sunday and we roped Aritz in to help us as well. Several groups from the Techo organisation descended on the village Saturday morning and each group went to their location as several houses were being built for different families that weekend. Now I have been in poor areas before, but nothing quite as poor as this village where we were building the house. Slum says it quite well. What I noticed the most was the amount of rubbish lying around everywhere and the pungent smell in the air. Of course it doesn't help if your house is right next to a stable with pigs. We were going to build a house for a young family where unfortunately the woman had just lost her unborn child. We started digging holes, after that we put in timber poles and in the end the floor. The next day we erected the walls and put on the roof and finished the build. It was a nice experience and a nice way to help the less fortunate ones in our society. Plus we got a free t-shirt.

Then it came time to say goodbye to Lionel and Silvia who had been amazing hosts for the week we had stayed with them. Hopefully we will get to see them in Australia some day.

We headed out of town with Aritz in tow (who by now had earned the nickname Shandy Man, which is why I will from now on refer to him as that) on his spluttering, smoking XT 225. It was clear that this bike had some issues but for now we had our eyes set on Colonia del Sacramento. It was a short ride, only about 150km from Montevideo. UNESCO World Heritage Listed, the town was settled in 1680 by the Portuguese right across the water from Buenos Aires to strategically be a thorn in the eye of the Spanish. The Barrio Historico is all cobblestone streets and old colonial houses and very picturesque. We stayed here a couple of nights before beginning our long trek around to Buenos Aires. Actually we had planned to take the boat across as Buenos Aires is only a few hours boat ride away (if you squint you can actually see BA across the water from Colonia). But the ferry was ridiculously expensive if you brought a vehicle so we decided to ride the 450km instead. It was a pretty boring route but at least we had someone else to share it with for a change.

Uruguay had been good to us and now we had a camera which was working again. Time to enter back into Argentina...

Camping in Santa Teresa National Park

The empty, unspoiled beaches of Northern Uruguay

Huge plants

Don't know who this guy is or was but I liked his attitude!

Punta del Diablo

The old fort in Santa Teresa National Park

In front of the 'Hand in the Sand' sculpture, Punta del Este

Having dinner with Silvia, Lionel, Carla and Ole


The children here wear the oddest school uniforms, white lab coat and a big silk bow on the front

Gnocchi in the making

The Techo Team before...

And the Techo Team ready for action!

I dug another hole...

The project coming along

The three stooges

Jose on the right who the house was for and his friend in the window

The finished house

Me sharing a cup of mate (of course!) with Jose

Saying our goodbyes to Lionel and Silvia, leaving Montevideo on a stinking hot day

How not to pack a bike! (Aritz' XT)

Aritz aka Shandy Man taking a break from blowing

Colonia del Sacramento

Mark found himself a new friend

At times I did feel like the third wheel of this loved-up duo, here sharing a tender moment on the beach

The trio


  1. Eskerrik asko Sanne, azken finean badirudi neska on bat zarela...