Around the world by bike
(596km - 11days - 27 February - 9 March 2011)
27 February - Buenos Aires, Argentina – Colonia De Sacramento, Uruguay - By ferry
Colonia dated back to 1680 and was a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was mostly known for its Barrio Histórico, lined with buildings from its time as a Portuguese settlement.
A narrow cobblestone path led through the city gate and down to the harbour with its historic lighthouse. At the local campsite, the price and the quality of the facilities came as an unpleasant surprise. A decision was made to wild-camp from then on.
28 February - Colonia De Sacramento – Colonia Valdense – 58 km
Our first day of cycling in Uruguay turned out to be a pleasant one. The countryside seemed more lush, green, and the weather more humid than in Argentina. Stopping at an ATM to get Uruguayan peso, we met Jo, who lived with her South African daughter and son-in-law. We were invited for tea and ended up having supper as well as camping in their garden for the night. Jo, Abigail and Andrew, together with their small child, Lucy, sailed the South American coast for a good few years. With Abigail being pregnant, they came ashore in Uruguay. On our visit, their three-month-old baby, Sarah, was the picture of health and seemed quite pleased being Uruguayan.
1 March - Colonia Valdense – Playa Pascual – 93 km
Reluctantly, we left our new friends and headed east towards Montevideo. A headwind picked up, and we battled into the wind for the rest of the day, stopping ever so often for a drink and a bite to eat – including snacks Jo packed the previous evening.
In the late afternoon, and about 33 kilometres before Montevideo, a petrol station with lawns outback, a shop and toilets made good camping for the night.
2-3 March - Playa Pascual – Montevideo – 37 km
A service road made for a comfortable ride into the capital. Montevideo was a relatively small city with a population of just over one million, and it was easy finding our way around. We headed straight for the old part of town where it was effortless locating suitable accommodation.
With its location on the Rio de la Plata, Montevideo had a holiday feel, and people seemed relaxed. Mate, like in Argentina, was still the drink of choice and one seldom saw Uruguayans without a flask clutched under their arm and cup in hand.
It was a pleasure strolling the historic Cuidad Viejo. Most of the old buildings had been renovated, and in a way it reminded of Eastern Europe. The many pedestrian malls, with street cafes and lively squares with craft markets and statues, made me want to linger.
4-5 March - Montevideo – Piriapolis – 110 km
Montevideo had a 20-kilometre long beachfront and on leaving the path was shared with joggers and other cyclists. Our route led past plenty of beaches and small villages which made for enjoyable cycling. The wind picked up, making pedalling hard to reached Piriapolis. Andrew, from Colonia Valdense, arranged for staying with Laurence and Elisa, where we pitched our tents in the garden.
The next morning, there were rumours of an evening barbeque, and we stayed for the party. What a delightful mixture of people; four South Africans, two Canadians, two Americans, one English, one Spaniard, two Swedes, an Irish and only one Uruguayan. It was an authentic Uruguayan asado with more meat than anyone could eat. The Uruguayans sure knew how to party.
6 March - Piriapolis – La Barra – 52 km
Due to our late night, it was a slow start and, after scoffing the leftover food, we reluctantly waved our very generous hosts goodbye and cycled out of town.
First up was Punta del Este, one of South America’s most famous and expensive coastal resort towns and the place where the River Plate meets the Atlantic Ocean. Four colossal cruise ships anchored in the bay, and the rich and famous were doing their thing on the many beaches around the city.
A safe 10-kilometre distance from the glitz and glamour of Punta, a campsite provided camping for the night. It was a Sunday afternoon and, thinking the weekend camping crowd, who filled the campsite, would soon be packing up, we pitched our tents. That assumption was, however, a mistake, as the next week was Carnival week and campers were there for the weeklong holiday. Surrounded by mate-drinking campers, continually tending to their asado fires, we were the odd ones out. It was fascinating, and sometimes amusing, watching the Uruguayans enjoying themselves.
7 March - La Barra – Rocha – 91 km
The Uruguayan lifestyle of going to bed late and rising late was very suitable for Ernest’s lifestyle, and it was around 12h00 before he was finally ready to leave. Our late start meant cycling into a stiff headwind to Rocha.
This smallish town came as of a surprise as it was an old settlement established in 1793. With its cobblestone streets and rows of old, semi-detached houses and people still going about in horse carts, it appeared not much had changed since 1793. A lady offered accommodation in one of these old semi’s (at quite a steep price – it was carnival holiday, after all). The tiny, low-ceiling cottage had two bedrooms, a lounge, bathroom and kitchen, as well as a courtyard for stashing the bikes – it made me want to read “The House of Paper”, a novel by Carlos Maria Dominquez. By the time we’d finished our beer and scoffed the pasta Ernest cooked, it was 01h30 – way past my bedtime.
8 March - Rocha – La Esmeralda – 75 km
Coffee washed down the leftover pasta, and it was afternoon by the time Mr Markwood was ready to hand in the key. The wind was even more intense than the previous day, and I had no intention of going very far. The road continued to be undulating, and it was up and down into the wind all day long. A friendly Uruguayan stopped and offered a lift to the border - he looked perplexed when we thanked him but declined his offer.
The day turned out scenic day past farmland and the ever-present pampas grass until a road sign indicated camping four kilometres off the road. The sign promised a restaurant, pizzas, and so forth. The path left the tarmac and led down a dirt road, which I didn’t mind as I was dreaming of a luxury room and pizza. On reaching the promised land, it was, however, a somewhat rustic setup amongst dunes that looked positively Saharan. It took pushing the bikes over the dunes to a suitable camping spot. After the initial disappointment and after settling in, the place wasn’t all bad, after all.
9 March - La Esmeralda – Chuy – 80 km
The following morning it was the same process of pushing the bikes through the thick sand to reach more solid ground and then it was onto the Brazilian border. Although it was still windy, the route flattened out, and cycling was past vast fields of grazing and wetlands. I was more than surprised and impressed to meet Jorge, from Spain, who drove his little vintage Citroen from Spain via Asia, Australia and South America - very much along the way we’d cycled.
Chuy was quite a remarkable town as the Uruguayan border was one kilometre south of the town and the Brazilian border one kilometre north, making Chuy a bit of a no man’s land. The town itself was, however, divided in half, one part being Brazilian (Chui) and the other half Uruguayan (Chuy). One side of the main road was, therefore, Brazilian and the other side Uruguayan.
It took a while to find a budget ground floor room in one of the back streets and, with that, we reached the end of our very short visit to Uruguay that felt more like a very large farm than a country.