Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Circumnavigation of Uruguay

By Jamie Douglas

Most of my readers no doubt are aware that Uruguay is an autonomous country lodged between the butt cheeks of Argentina and Brazil. But many of you may not realize that the country is literally surrounded by water. There is 660 km of coastline along the Atlantic Ocean and the Río de la Plata estuary, and thence up the Río Uruguay to Brazil, and from there heading southeast along the Brazilian border to Chuy and Barra del Chuy on the Atlantic Ocean coastline.

Along the Brazilian border there are miles upon miles of rivers separating the two nations, with the major towns from west to east being Bella Unión, Artigas, Rivera, Río Branco and, after the border passes through Laguna Merín, you finally end up in Chuy, 985 km from the Argentina-Brazil-Uruguay triple border.

Should you feel adventurous, you can circumnavigate the entire country on mostly good roads. (Please invite me along!)

You might first visit the well-preserved historic old town of Colonia del Sacramento, and after a couple of days of marveling at the beauty of this lovely UNESCO Heritage Site, head north through Mercedes, Paysandú and Salto, where you can relax in hot springs that have existed for centuries.

After your soak, head west to Artigas, where you are likely to run into some of the finest amethyst the world has to offer. Now comes the relatively uninhabited stretch to Rivera, then down to Vichadero and onto a dirt road to Melo. A disclosure here: My editor/wife and I were in Tacuarembó , which is in the interior of the country south of Rivera, a couple of years ago; and when we mentioned that we were going to book passage to Melo, people looked at us very strangely and wanted to know why we wanted to go there. They stated that there was nothing there, nothing to do, and the road was terrible. We believed them and returned to Montevideo, instead – the road from Paysandú to Tacuarembó was bad enough! After settling in La Paloma, we made new friends with our neighbors who had just moved from Melo. They assured us that it was not worth the time or energy to visit.

If you are truly adventurous, you can go from Melo to the border-crossing town of Río Branco and then head to Treinta y Tres, the city named after Uruguay’s 33 Founding Fathers, before making your way on backroads to Chuy. Alternatively, you could go straight to Treinta y Tres via highway. You will be well off the beaten path, either way.

The Beaches of Rocha

The department of Rocha reaches along the Atlantic Coast from the Brazilian border all the way to the department of Maldonado, almost to Punta del Este, the “Miami Beach” of Uruguay. It is a 200-mile stretch of uninterrupted sandy beaches, lagoons and rather primitive villages with inexpensive cabins right on the beach. After Barra del Chuy, you will come to a string of charming little place: La Coronilla, Santa Theresa National Park, Punta del Diablo, Aguas Dulces, Punta Castillos, Punta Aguada and Cabo Polonio National Park, where you have to park your car and take a giant WWII-era six-wheel-drive monster truck out to the cape.

Cabo Polonio has recently been designated a national park, and new construction is prohibited. But there is an abundance of illegally built houses (?) covering the sand dunes, some of them very rustic, ramshackle huts, while others are quite nice. Accommodations even in the high season (December through early March) are easy to get and are relatively economical. There is no electricity except for the lighthouse, and water has to be trucked in, so it is very limited.

There are several decent restaurants and a “supermarket” for your convenience, stocking everything you might need to cook your own food. An overabundant choice of wine and beer is also available in mass quantities.

Further south is a real town – with paved roads and all. La Pedrera is famous for its carnival and is a favorite with the young crowd, while La Paloma a few kilometers farther to the south has a little more of a family vibe.

La Paloma is a small city with about 3,000 year-round inhabitants (including us!), paved streets, running water and really expensive electricity. We have untold numbers of restaurants during the season and about a half dozen or so that stay open out of season.
During the high season, La Paloma serves as a vacation destination for about 30,000 people, and the beaches get quite crowded. Our Argentinean friends drive on residential streets as if they are on the highway – they are reckless and arrogant, just like they drive in Argentina.

Between La Paloma and Punta del Este, you have to briefly return to the main highway (Route 9) for a few kilometers until you come to a turnoff about 20 km from Rocha that will take you to the coastal highway to Punta José Ignacio, Punta Manantiales, La Barra and finally to Punta del Este. From there, many small roads branch off that follow the coast back to Montevideo that will take you along the brown, muddy waters of the Río de la Plata – or, you can take the Ruta Interbalnearia, the “inter-resort” toll road.

Enjoy the ride, and remember that the entire Atlantic coastline is one giant sand dune that is ecologically very sensitive. Tread lightly please!

Jamie Douglas
At large in Uruguay

I encourage you to write me at cruzansailor [at] gmail [dot] com with any questions or suggestions you may have. Disclaimer: I am not in any travel-related business. My advice is based on my own experiences and is free of charge (Donations welcome). It is always my pleasure to act as a beneficial counselor to those who are seekers of the next adventure.