In the boarding area of the Colonia Express are videos of the ferry attendants smiling with manic delight at passengers who look as though they’re on their way to a 5* all-inclusive Seychelles resort. Today’s reality, however, was somewhat different. The attendants held on for dear life as they struggled to distribute bags to ill passengers as the ship was hurled violently about, skimming towards Uruguay.
Glad to be back on land, we found Colonia – Uruguay’s oldest settlement – to be a charming little town. In it’s small cobbled historic area were remnants of the old city wall, as well as a functioning lighthouse. It’s incredibly expensive to eat out in Uruguay and so we shunned the restaurants for the pleasure of cooking for ourselves in the hostel.
Once again we were fortunate to have relatives to stay with. They lived in a beautiful suburb of Montevideo, minutes from endless beaches and wealthy streets lined with characterful houses modelled after Italian palaces, Moorish villas and English thatched cottages. We were also treated to a traditional parilla, which involves burning logs to one side of a brick oven (open on one side and with a chimney) then raking the embers beneath a grill on which rests slow-cooking meat. Delicious.
One of the places to see and be seen in South America is Punta del Este. This city tapers to a point and is flanked by golden sandy beaches. If you’re lucky you may see a whale pass by. Nearby is the wonderfully surreal whitewashed buildings of Casapueblo, the creation of local artist Carlos Páez Vilaró.
Taking local bus 24 to San Carlos, then the 12:10 to Cabo Polonio, we found ourselves at a small bus station with our regular coach on one side, large 4×4 trucks on the other. These trucks are the only public transport between the road and the village 7km away. In an adventurous spirit we chose to walk through the forest, over the dunes and along the beach.
Small white concrete buildings and wooden shacks make up the village of Cabo Polonio. This is a place totally off the grid; no electricity, no running water. What it lacks in services it makes up for in stunning views. Pine forests behind, wide and empty sand beaches either side and rocky islands in front. At the head of this tiny promontory towers a working lighthouse, just beyond rest dozens of bickering sea lions.
Waking up to a view of the ocean and those noisome aquatic creatures splashing about was almost as good as the vast spread of stars visible in the perfectly clear night sky. Sand dunes can be found just beyond one of those vast beaches. Clamber over the dunes and you find yourself in a huge pine forest with not a soul around.
An easy journey on the 3:10 to Montevideo where the next morning I spent an hour talking through my recommendations for email marketing in the travel industry as a favour to Anna’s relative who works in a large Uruguayan agency. Interesting to learn about the Uruguayan market.
Back in Buenos Aires we enjoyed a long, free (tips encouraged!) walking tour and learned about the history of the country and city, marvelled at some wonderful architecture (including a building inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy and completed in 1923 – when Argentina had the 7th largest economy in the world) and were given an overview of why the economy and national politics are in such a mess.
That night the opening of the youth Olympics, hosted by Buenos Aires, took place along the huge boulevard in the city centre. After a superb steak dinner at Parilla Pena we found a place to watch the flame being lit and fireworks shooting into the night. The next day we met with someone who’d been in the Cabo Polonio hostel and, as they lived in Buenos Aires, took as to some of her favourite places including a long street market and tango dancing in a lively plaza.
Night fell on the flat fertile Pampas on our overnight coach journey to San Martin de los Andes. Soon after dawn we watched as snow fell and mountains appeared in the distance. We arrive in time to enjoy a 10km hike to a viewpoint overlooking the large lake as well as pine forests and snowy mountains. Further along the way is a tiny island set in the freezing lake water. We’ve over ten days in this area, I think we’re going to like it a lot.