Uruguay is officially the Oriental Republic of Uruguay, which is a little surprising, but I suppose it's because its on the eastern side of South America. It's geographically the second-smallest nation in South America (after Suriname). Also, possibly surprisingly, according to Wikipedia, Uruguay is ranked first in Latin America for democracy, peace and low perception of corruption and is first in South America when it comes to press freedom, size of the middle class and prosperity.
This trip, I'm visiting the countries in Latin America that I haven't been to - so it's a slightly odd journey - Uruguay, Paraguay and El Salvador. Starting with Uruguay. In essence, Uruguay is three giant river deltas. Mostly agricultural, either flat or very gently undulating, sprinkled with silos and cattle. Think Essex livened up with the odd palm tree and eucalyptus. So, the view from the Pan American Highway, Route 1, wending its way slightly inland isn't very exciting. But the sky is blue and the buildings in the small towns are Wild West saloon style clay in vivid colours. Tangerine is a favourite.
And my wine lodge perched on the edge of the River Plate on the eastern side of Uruguay is fabulous. Only a hundred years old but totally preserved in character, complete with stone walls, iron doors and original vehicles. Though the odd John Deere intrudes, as does the electric buggy I'm invited to use. I'm considering that. There could be carnage! Especially as they have left bottles of the honey sweetened estate grappa out for guests to help themselves.
More importantly, at the moment, lounging by the pool, I'm considering what to order from the menu - it's supposed to be one of the best restaurants in Uruguay - all local queso, jamon and pasta and I'm trying to dredge up enough Spanish to do it justice. Nobody speaks English. I'm not sure what I would do without Google Translate.
There is nobody else at dinner - maybe it's because everyone eats so late. Though I think I'm the only person staying here.
Food has become a preoccupation. Sleep is followed by a wonderful breakfast which doesn't augur well for the waistline - jam, yogurt, more ham and cheese, all produced onsite, together with the most sublime croissants baked in the little stone panaderia next to the restaurant.
It's extraordinarily windy, which is just as well, as it's sizzling hot. I feel (and probably look) like a sausage grilling. And I intend to do nothing today, except sit by the pool and possibly wander the finca. There is a relentless cacophony of parrots squawking in the trees and an iguana is limbering up below me. Over the pool a cloud of dragonflies is zig zagging as they struggle to maintain position in the wind - a dash of iridescent humming bird is zipping through them. The next victim of the gusts is my umbrella, which does a Mary Poppins and has to be rescued from the next field by a gardener. He then removes them all in case I'm stupid enough to raise one again.
I'm told that there are views of the River Plate up the hill so I decide to abjure the buggy invitation and hike through the rows of vines. Ten minutes later, lost, covered in dust and pursued by barking dogs I regret that decision. Eventually I stagger up to a small pavilion on the hill top. Even at this narrowing of the estuary the river is huge, stretching to the horizon.
Back at the ranch (good to say that literally!) more adventures await. There's a huge spider clambering up my curtains. The owner assures me it's not poisonous and wafts ant killer (!!) around the suite. But I'm not convinced. It looks just like my internet picture of the South American wandering spiders - described as aggressive and deadly.
Next day, I'm driving back along the edge of the giant Plate estuary. Blue signs suggest it is filled with submerged battleships, from the Second World War, some of them English. Colonia Del Sacramento, a world heritage site, is a favourite day trip for Argentines hopping over the river, on the boat, from Buenos Aires. This is also the route for the Pan American highway - via the ferry.
Colonia was originally a smuggling paradise set up by the colonial Portuguese to needle the Spanish. Until the Spanish annexed the whole country and put a stop to it. The Old City is a UNESCO site. It's all cobbled streets, museums and bijoux restaurants. The highlights are: the City Gate and wooden drawbridge, a lighthouse, church and convent ruins, the Viceroy's House – the Casa del Virrey, reconstructed from the original ruins and an abandoned bullring.
Another two hours along the bay is Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, proper name San Felipe y Santiago de Montevideo. Uruguay won its independence between 1811 and 1828, following a four-way struggle between Portugal and Spain, and later Argentina and Braz. Surprisingly, Montevideo is the southernmost capital in the Americas. Even Buenos Aires is further north. Wikipedia also adds that it has the best quality of life of any city in Latin America. Less encouragingly, the FCO section on Montevideo warns of street crime like bag snatching and pick-pocketing, car break ins, muggings and armed robberies. So much for all the plaudits about Uruguay.
Montevideo is compact and very easy to walk round. It's a café society, supplemented with a few old palaces, a sprinkling of art deco and some hefty colonial buildings. It revolves around the Plaza de la Independencia and the Ciudad Vieja (the old town). The most impressive palace is the Palacio Salvo, with a huge unwieldy tower. It was briefly. the tallest building in Latin America. Another must see landmark is the neo-classical Solis Theatre.
The Mercado del Puerto is an old port market, now transformed into another foodie haven, a maze of steakhouses. Perhaps the pleasantest part of my exploration is a wander along the Rambla, an esplanade that hugs the many beaches of Montevideo Bay. It turns out to be the longest continuous sidewalk in the world. The sand is good for a nap before I turn back. It's a shame that there is a faint whiff of hydrogen sulphide over the whole bay area - and an even stronger smell in my bathroom.
My hotel, the Alma Historica, is well placed in the old city and has character - themed character. My room is named after an actress - Dona Trinidad. There are chandeliers and display cases packed with fans and travelling alarm clocks, like the one I had when I was a teenager.
Another day and I'm heading east now. This side of Uruguay is reminiscent of the south of France - pine trees, dunes and mile after mile of sandy yellow beaches. It's a huge international playground overlooked by the little hills that gave Montevideo its name. I haven't seen anything remotely approaching a mountain. My destination is a beach resort called Jose Ignacio, an upmarket fishing village, the St Tropez of this Riviera.I 'm told.
My posada is described as stylish, set back from the beach in beautiful gardens with little swimming pools. No one has passed on the information that it was almost destroyed in a bush fire last week. It's not exactly picturesque. The surrounding vegetation is charred, the little pools are half empty with specks of charcoal floating in them, the umbrellas and sunbed cushions are pocked with ember burns and workmen are clearing away the ruins of surrounding buildings. Everything reeks of smoke. I suppose it's better than bad eggs.
The guys running the place have me organised in a jiffy, though. Three taxis booked for the next three nights to take me to three different restaurants. I'm not allowed to go before 8.30 or it will be too quiet. OMG that's 11.30 at home. I will need matchsticks.
My room has a glass multi coloured wash basin, a wood burning stove and a jacuzzi that looks over the sea (and the blackened landscape). It's a surreal scene.
There are towels, chairs and more umbrellas, and I'm told that the beach is 200 metres walk. Double that. The chair is heavy and keeps trying to unfold and the umbrella even more cumbersome. It's slow going on the sand trail through the dunes, so I take off my flip flops. The sand burns my feet and evil little prickles attack my toes. When I finally arrive the beach is beautiful but deserted. The perpetual wind is blasting sand so fast that dunes are appearing in front of me. The umbrella takes off. I should have known better.
The next day I wander up the beach to the lighthouse and the little town. The waves crashing on the empty sand are energising, but the Atlantic in Uruguay is murky and uninviting. It's also icy. One toe dip is enough to convince me that there won't be any swimming. It's a great view from the top of the lighthouse.
The three restaurants are all amazing. Michelin starred chefs, Spanish staff wintering here, log fires and bags of atmosphere. It’s definitely very Mediterranean, with prices to match. Who would have thought the Uruguayan USP would be the cuisine?
Later, I take out my cash stash from the separate little wallet I've been keeping it in only to find that I've been robbed - 300 dollars or so! Whoever did it was very crafty and lifted six fifty dollar bills from the back so I didn’t notice till I took it all out just now. Also, I think some sterling and euros.
I’m distressed and shaken but there is nothing I can do about it as I don’t know where it went. Perhaps I should have taken more notice of those FCO warnings. My bag has been left out in the room a couple of times. There was no safe in Narbona and the one in Montevideo wouldn't work for a while. So I don’t suppose I can claim on insurance either. I just hope I have enough cash to last me till the end and I'm really cross with myself for being naïve and trusting. I hope I do better in Buenos Aires. The omens aren't good, my flight has been cancelled.
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