17 09 2008

Sitting on the deck with the wind in our faces, we watched Buenos Aires disappear from view. Having met a couple in our Hostel, Robin and Emma, who were heading across to Uruguay, we decided to tag along for the ride – another stamp in the passport and another country to explore!

The first thing we noticed as we boarded the ferry was the fact that they were still laying the concrete on the deck, not the most reassuring start! The journey continued however, and before we knew it the lush Uruguayan shores appeared up ahead. We decided to head straight to the Capital city – Montevideo. The first thing that struck me was how green and lush Uruguay was; looking out of the bus window all you can see as you head away from the port are fields upon fields of fertile and orange groves. Tiny little farming abodes are spattered along the route –so far so good. Soon though the fields started to fade out, and not before long we found ourselves in the concrete jungle that is Montevideo. The bus terminal is pretty far out of town and in a effort to save cash we decided to walk to where we were staying, straight through the busy city with our backpacks strapped on, further impeded by the sweltering heat. I would not recommend it! There is very little in the way of decent hostels in Uruguay, so we decided to stay in a little hotel just off the main plaza. It was basic but clean and had view of the sea and theatre from our room. It also had the tallest ceilings ever – about 18ft high, with doors to match!

We spent a couple of days in Montevideo, seeing all that the city has to offer. Which, without sounded too critical, isn´t much. Two days is more than enough time to get a feel for the place and explore. Its a shame as the place has so much potential – a sea view is 5 minute in most directions yet nothing has been done to reap the benefits of such a location. The area is full of run down shipping containers and the ´promenade´ daubed in graffiti. The area is noticeably less affluent that its neighbour BA and it is obvious that the economic disasters have it harder than most. However there is a distinct lack of spirit or pride in the city which is a shame. Whilst effort is being made in some parts to rebuild and improve the facilities, an awful large majority of the city has fallen into disrepair. One of the things that we wanted to see was the Iglesia de San Francisco, most notable for its font which is made out of giant clam. Unfortunately the church was closed as it was deemed unsafe due to structural damage…

The other problem we came across was the lack of cashpoints that accepted Visa. Having had no problem in BA we were a little bemused to find that we could draw no cash out and had to resort to paying where we could direct with our cards. The highlights of the city for me was firstly the main square – Plaza Independencia. The square commemorates the emergence of Uruguay as a sovereign nation. In the middle of the square stands a massive statue of General Jose Gervasio Artigas, the nationally revered man who did most to bring about the independence. Below the statue stands the marble based mausoleum of the man. Its particularly impressive and also very communist. Everything from the lettering to the clean cut look. The square itself contains some of the city’s most architecturally exciting buildings, such as the Teatro Solis and the Casa De Gobierno. Sadly at one end of the square they decided to build the most offensive office block I have ever seen, a building that would look more fitting in a Peckham housing estate as oppose to the main plaza in a country’s capital city. The Casa De Gobierno is also worth a visit. It advertises itself as a modern museum, fully reaping the benefits of modern museum technology… by this they mean they have a television in one room with a VHS of the history of the city. Which is interesting. The highlight of the museum for me though was seeing the embalmed body of Coquimbo, the trusted canine companion of Venancio Flores, who was briefly president from 1854 to 1855. The last place we visited was Casa De Rivera, an interesting museum which traces a fascinating journey through Uruguay’s history from prehistoric times to modern day. Of particular interest was the display of Rompecabecas (headbreakers) carved stone objects in the shape of 3D starfish that were used by indigenous peoples as weapons some 7000 years ago.

Our last night in Montevideo we decided to eat out – most restaurants located around the city centre are overpriced and touristy. It got to the point that we were starving after looking up and down a number of streets for somewhere that looked slightly authentic and affordable, that we ended up at random parilla. The place we found I would not recommend. Compared with the restaurants in BA, the selection we came across here was incredibly basic and dear. As a whole, Montevideo is very expensive and this restaurant was a prime example. For the amount you pay in Uruguay you don’t get much in return, in my experience anyway.

The next day we headed to Colonia. Founded in 1680 by the Portuguese it soon became an important centre for smuggling goods into the Spanish colonies. Today it a sleepy but equally lovely seaside town. Whilst there is little to do apart from wander around the quaint main square and take a trip up the light house, it has a lovely sleepy feel and there a number of nice cafes and restaurants to sit and people watch. One day is more than enough though.. however due to a national bus strike that day very few buses were leaving the town. We had decided to head from Colonia to Salto where there a number of natural thermal pools, however there were only 3 seats left on the bus that day and 4 of us. Despite asking if one of us could stand in the aisle, we were told that we would have to come back tomorrow the next day, so we were forced to find an affordable hostel for the night which we luckily managed to do. Once on the bus the next day, we were dismayed to find a number of Uruguayans standing in the aisles – at one stage the aisle was completely full. I was even more dismayed to find that the bus company had double sold my seat number and got prodded awake and asked to move by an angry local waving his ticket at me. In my broken Spanish I explained and showed that I too had a ticket for the same seat. Frantically hoping the conductor would sort the situation out, I was astonished to be told that it wasn’t his problem and was up to us to sort it out ourselves. I mumbled something and pointed out the opposite window, then pretended to very quickly fall into a deep sleep… this proved effective and the rest of the journey thankfully passed without any further incidence.

As a result of catching a later bus though, the day of relaxing in the hot pools was not to be, we only had a couple of hours, even less once the local bus turned up. However we spent a relaxing couple of hours in the world´s only thermally heated water park, complete with jacuzzi and kamikazi slide! Before we knew it was time to head back to catch our bus back into Argentina. As the buses were so unreliable, we decided to try and hitchhike back into town. Eventually a pick up stopped and we ran towards it – in hindsight we should have walked away, as the window wound down the first thing we noticed the car contained four blokes, and we were hit by a waft of cigarette smoke and stale beer. However the driver seemed fine and it wasn’t too far into town…. The girls got into the backseat and we piled into the back of the pickup. The moment we were seated, the car started up and we were off, incredibly slowly at first then suddenly at break neck speeds. It seemed even faster hanging on too the back of the pickup, the air streaming into our faces causing our eyes to water up. Suddenly the car swerved into the opposite lane, in the distance we could see a car coming towards us, at the last minute it pulled back in, cutting onto the dirt track that ran alongside the road. Our knuckles were white from clinging on. After what seemed like an eternity we slowed down and came to some traffic lights, not wanting to leave the girls we leaned over and opened their doors and out we jumped. Unbeknown to us, the girls had been having a nice conversation about home and travelling, the speeding was to impress them. This lesson was learnt the hard way, if in any doubt walk away. Arriving at the bus station we tried to get some food for the bus journey only to find no where that accepted visa, so we boarded the bus out of Uruguay – hungry and tired.




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