We crossed the río Plata and entered Uruguay at Colonia de Sacramento, a beautiful old town (UNESCO Heritage). In 2003 my brother Kevin and I visited Colonia on a day trip from Buenos Aires - a stamp in the passport. We were given a fairly cold welcome by the locals and it left me with a bad impression of Uruguayan hospitality. Anyway, fast forward to 2019 and we are in Colonia. If I have bad mouthed the place, I apologise - it is handsome and friendly.
We headed west and a little north, enjoying the amazing sunsets.
If you are of a certain age and British, you will have heard of Fray Bentos. Yes, the pies. Not only an historic brand, Fray Bentos is also a location - a town in Uruguay where the old factory is preserved as a UNESCO Heritage site.
Quickish story - In the 1860s a German chemist, Justus Liebig, working in England discovered how to extract all the goodness from beef. A young German engineer in Uruguay asked Liebig if he could use the process and set up a beef extraction company in Uruguay. The country at that time had a gazillion cattle, bred for their skin and the meat was surplus because there was no storage capability. Think tinned meats, pies and meat extract - the OXO Cube. With the meat left over, with bugger all nutritional value, think good ol' Corned Beef. They had developed a way to process everything, but the 'Moo'!
This factory was nicknamed 'the kitchen of the world'. It was at its most effective in war time. With Uruguay being neutral it did not discriminate against which army it fed. It did well during the Boer, WW1 and WW2. At peak production the factory employed 5,000 people of 50 nationalities capable of processing 2,000 cattle per day. But war's end, production slowed and the factory eventually had to close. This ultra forward thinking company (for its time) had made sure employees could interchange jobs i.e. the butcher could also make the tin cans, be a printer, package etc. When all failed, these people went away, multi-skilled and were apparently very employable. That said, most thought that the factory would eventually be needed again and they sort of looked after it.
We took the tour and enjoyed it so much, we returned the next day and were offered the tour again, this time in English, with the added bonus that we visited a few extra parts of the factory.
Next, we headed towards Montevideo and found an apartment to rent in the magnificent Palacio Salvo, one of Montevideo's landmark buildings. This beautiful Art Deco building is in the middle of the old city. We spent several days wandering around, enjoying the historic area - more than a little care-worn, but interesting. A highlight was the fantastic Museo Andes 1972. This small museum gives the story of a Uruguayan plane that crashed in the Andes in 1972 and how a group of young men survived 72 days in the harshest conditions, on a glacier at 3,600m. Read the book 'Alive'.
We only viewed the ultra modern side of Montevideo whilst taking the coastal route out. Uruguay has a beautiful coastline, with lots of little fishing villages and some magnificent lighthouses. We took a long bumpy ride out across the dunes to visit Polonio, a fishing port and hippy style community. It is a fantastic looking place and there is a sea lion colony amongst the rocks below the lighthouse.
The coastline also has plenty of kitesurfing spots - wind provided of course... It also has some great wild camping. Another great outing was on río Valizes. We were taken up this small river to see the Bosque de Ombúes. The Ombú is a rare tree and in need of protection. The Olivera family, on whose land most of these trees grow, have undertaken a long term project of protection and nurturing growth. The tree is so delicate in its first 20 years, that they fence in any new tree by surrounding it with thick brush. It was a great place to visit. Adding to the trip, the bird life along the river was simply stunning.
We camped a few days in Park National Santa Teresa, visiting the large old fort of the same name, before passing through to Chuy, a town which straddles the border with Brazil - one side of its main street is in Brazil, the other in Uruguay. From there we visited Fuerte San Miguel, the sister fort to Santa Teresa, before turning inland travelling west, heading to Quebrada de los Cuervos. Once there, we spent a few nights camping and took a long hike in the picturesque valley. There were plenty of birds to see and a rather large tarantula.
On occasions our mapping system provides us with some crazy routes - sometimes they work, sometimes not. For a section of the route west, we were given one of those interesting detours and stuck with it for about 20km through field after field.....pretty, but eventually we ran out of luck or more importantly viable track....
We finally managed to cross the río Negra and arrived late evening at a campsite in San Gregorio. The first thing to greet us on arrival was a young rattlesnake. Happily we didn't meet up with it again.
We moved on to the Valle de Lunarejo with the promise of seeing lots of birds. We waited patiently, but saw very few. However on the subsequent drive we were treated to loads. Rachel has compiled a separate blog entry showing Birds of Uruguay.
Further along, we stopped at a disused mine, Ruinas de Cuñapirú, to see the old buildings and colourful turbines.
We made an overnight stop at Balneario Iporá, Tucarembó and slow cooked a huge piece of beef on the parilla (oversize wood fire bbq)....heaven. In any public space in Uruguay, you will always find a parilla or 10.
The following day we headed for the border with Argentina at Salta, stopping the night to enjoy the thermal waters at Termas San Nicador, where we met a lot of overlanders, including Swiss friends, Connie and Roger, all making ready to ship home.
Uruguay is a beautiful country. Its Atlantic coastline and golden beaches are matched by the countryside inland with its huge gaucho culture. It is not as visually striking as Argentina or Chile, but it is worth visiting. I have to say, with that green, green grass, the beef is the best.