Audrey Writes:   (click here to see map of our route)  

The tiny country of Uruguay, situated between Argentina and Brazil, was a lovely surprise, with its historic and modern architecture, gaucho culture, friendly people, pleasant riding and of course, OXO cubes.

On March 30th, 2017, Ekke and I rode out of Buenos Aires, he on his BMW R1200 GS Adventure and me on my BMW F650 GS Twin. The landscape was quite idyllic and perfect for motorcycles, with brilliant green farmers’ fields and picturesque wetlands. The border crossing into our 78th country was fairly straightforward, exiting Argentina by crossing through the Argentinian border control area, paying a 25 peso ($5) toll to cross the bridge over the Rio Uruguay and getting our passports stamped at a drive-through border-control booth. The final step was completing paperwork for our temporary import vehicle permits for Uruguay (good for 365 days - you never know), and then we just rode away. The Gran Hotel just up the road in Fray Bentos, found on Expedia the night before, was right by the river. After a dinner of lentil stew (me) and cannelloni (Ekke) we wandered along the tree-lined malecon. This looked like the after-dinner thing to do, an activity popular in all the other South American countries we’d been to, and we saw many people out strolling the river-front, enjoying the warm spring evening. Benches were strategically placed, perfect for the locals to sit and pour their hot maté from thermoses into decorative wooden cups, using a bombilla or spoon-like straw to sip the hot, bitter tea.

The bridge over the Rio Uruguay

Riverside at Fray Bentos

The Museo de Revolucion Industrial was on our must-see list as it was a UNESCO World Heritage site, so after checking out of the hotel the next morning we rode the few kilometres out of Fray Bentos to have a look, not exactly sure what we'd find there. Parking outside the museum with fully loaded bikes seemed secure enough, and we made sure that the duffel bag was attached with cable locks. A 10:00 AM Spanish guided-tour had just begun and our guide, Nicholas, kindly explained things in English for us. A fellow tourist noticed Ekke’s Canada T-shirt and after explanations on both sides we discovered that she was from Montreal and lived in Montevideo for part of the year with her Uruguayan husband and son. Small world.

Loading Docks

The museum was so interesting. It was a former meat processing plant where 1500 head of cattle, mostly from Uruguay, but sometimes from Argentina or Bolivia, were slaughtered each day. Ships from England used coal or steel for ballast and then exchanged it for meat products like tins of corned beef for the return trip. An electrical room had huge, historic machines with pulleys and crank shafts, complete with marble floors that did not conduct electricity, a safety feature in case of malfunctioning machinery. There was, however, a steel-tiled floor outside the factory, which one would think wouldn’t be that safe in a lightning storm.

Information panels set up in the entrance

OXO cubes were a staple for the war effort

A giant vat for cooking the meat products

(Vegetarians skip to the next paragraph) We learned that, after the slaughter, the fresh beef was sold or canned as corned beef and then every other part of the cow, “except the moo,” was boiled in huge vats, where 32 kilograms was condensed to 1 kilogram of a gelatinous substance. Products like OXO cubes were made from this goo and as it still maintained a lot of nutrients it made for a very useful “food” for British troops in WWII.

A technological university, built to UNESCO standards looked historic on the outside but was modern on the inside and was built next door to the factory, a boon to the locals as their children would not have to leave the region for higher education. The museum showing where the administration of the factory took place featured wooden desks, historic typewriters, period telephones and other cool gadgets. Our guide told us a story of one of the office staff, a two-metre tall man who had worked at a cramped desk for 43 years and with the incessant rubbing of his feet had worn a couple of grooves into the hardwood floor. Ekke was pleasantly surprised when we were taken to an adjacent car museum where we could sit in some fascinating automobiles like a BMW Iseta or a Nazi-era car which was one of only 24 made in the world. Who knows how it ended up here?

Auto museum at Fray Bentos

Our ride on the highway along the Rio Uruguay by flat, green fields was very pleasant, and we stopped in Mercedes for empanadas and our first gasoline fill-up in Uruguay. It was a bit of a shock at $2.15 per litre. Ekke found a smaller road by looking at a map on the wall and a local confirmed that it was “pavimento” with a few potholes. It was fun riding the charming, hilly road. After stopping in Carmelo to get some Uruguayan Pesos at the Scotiabank - yes, weird to see a Canadian bank here - we had a cold drink in a lively plaza. A man on a nearby bench was selling jewellery and he looked like he could use some customers, so I went and struck up a conversation with him. He had come all the way from Venezuela which as you know, is experiencing hard times. So, I bought a few trinkets from him and he was very thankful. Our destination, Colonia del Sacramento, was a historic town and tourist hotspot and, as all the hotels in town were fully booked-up we accessed our Airmiles and lucked out with the Sheraton Hotel, just outside of town. When we arrived we asked where we could park the bikes and the front desk clerk was very surprised that I had ridden there on my own motorcycle. Why are they never surprised that Ekke rode there? Taking advantage of the lovely pool, we got a bit of exercise doing a few laps, followed by dinner in a fancy restaurant where we got away with being dressed very casually, as motorcycle world travellers do.

CIBC card didn't work at the Scotiabank but fortunately the Bank of Montreal card did

Audrey buys souvenirs from a Venuzuelan

The Sheraton at Colonia del Sacramento

It’s the little things that one remembers and having real bacon on the breakfast buffet the next morning (advantages of an American Hotel) was one of those things. It must have been a while since we’d had bacon and it was a treat to enjoy some familiar, North American foods. The weather that day was hot and sunny and the options of taking our motorbikes or complimentary bicycles into town were not that palatable, so we opted for an air-conditioned taxi for the few kilometres into Colonia del Sacramento.

Our trusty Lonely Planet Guidebook (no, we don’t have shares in the company - maybe we should) took us to the highlights of the historic colonial town, some of it built in 1680 by the Portuguese, and later rebuilt by the Spanish, going back and forth between the two powers, depending on who was winning which war. At Plaza San Martin it was pretty cool to look out over the wide Rio de la Plata, really an ocean inlet meeting the river, and see skyscrapers in the distance - Buenos Aires! So close, only 50 kilometres away yet we had ridden 500 kilometres to get here because we had to cross way upriver where it was narrower. Puerto Viejo was an old port brick building with a variety of boats in the harbour. At the wooden Bastion del Carmen statue a young tourist whom we dubbed “Miss Colonia 2017” was getting a friend to take her picture while she tried out various poses, and eventually we got our turn for our own poses. The historic quarter of Colonia is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and we strolled the narrow cobblestone streets, walking under the Porton de Campo, a stone city gate with huge chains, which didn’t budge a centimetre when I pulled on them.

Buenos Aires across Rio Plata

Colonia del Sacramento

Audrey opens the gates to the old town

Calle de los Suspiros or Street of Sighs was perfectly picturesque, possibly named after (take your pick) criminals, sailors or prostitutes. A popular tale is that a young woman died there, sighing as she called her lover’s name while she took her last breath. Walking on those rough cobblestones was an adventure in and of itself, causing many sighs as we tried to avoid a twisted ankle, and I couldn’t imagine riding a motorcycle on this street. Purchasing a museum pass made the most economic sense and we then tried to see as many museums as we could in a short time period to make the pass worthwhile. Museo Municipal had ancient tools, weapon points, prehistoric animal fossils and a 3D map of Colonia in historic times. Casa de Nacarella was a small house from the colonial period with antique furniture and a stone kitchen with some really short doors that Ekke always enjoys. But this picturesque town was really meant for strolling, past crumbling stone buildings that had more character because they were not restored, the historic lighthouse ruins, Plaza de Armas with its foundations of old structures and the Cathedral del Sacramento in all its glory. What struck Ekke is that the town seemed to be one big outdoor car museum, as there were so many historic vehicles just parked for anyone to see. If you’re ever in Buenos Aires, I would recommend this historic town as a very worthwhile day trip, a ferry-ride away.

Calle de los Suspiros

Casa de Nacarella

Wait, what?  ALF is still popular here?

On April 2nd we left lovely Colonia and rode to Montevideo, noticing that even on the road there were old cars and a lot of motorcycles enjoying the pleasant Sunday afternoon ride. Choosing a hotel with secure underground parking was a priority in the big city and we found one right along the Rambla, a walkway and social hub on the Rio de la Plata on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. It was great for an evening stroll and families were out enjoying a walk by the crashing waves, maté cups and skateboards everywhere.

Lots of interesting vehicles in Uruguay

Entering Montevideo and riding along the Rambla

Ekke took the Buquebus ferry to Buenos Aires the next day for his flight to Calgary where he spent time visiting his family and getting his knee checked out. I opted to stay in Montevideo, which was an adventure for me as I would be by myself in a foreign country, for the first time ever. I jumped right into sight-seeing mode, however, and set a goal to see everything in the guidebook. First stop: The Palaeontology museum. It was chock-a-block with school groups and I felt a bit nostalgic for my teaching job for a moment, at least until I observed the harried teachers trying to herd groups of their noisy young charges around the museum. From the top window I could see Ekke’s water bus pull away from the dock, wondering what the next two weeks would be like without him.

Ekke takes the ferry to Buenos Aires for his flight home

I embraced my alone time by visiting museums like Artes Decorativos and Museo Andes, colourful neighbourhoods and parks and got to know the downtown area quite well, with its leafy plazas, neoclassical and Art Deco buildings and network of pedestrian malls. It was all within walking distance from the hotel, and I would choose a different cafe each day, trying local cuisine like beef and bean stew, fusion and international foods, reading or writing to pass the time. I felt quite safe being by myself in Montevideo - okay, once I walked through a lonely historic cemetery which felt a bit strange - but usually I felt quite at ease walking in most of the neighbourhoods.

Artes Decorativos

Audrey embraces the cafe culture of Montevideo

Architecture of Montevideo

A lonely cemetary

Cathedral Matriz at Constitucion Square is the oldest building, constructed in 1784 and it was beautiful inside, with high, vaulted ceilings and mosaic tiled floors. The city hall building, the Cabildo, had artifacts from Montevideo’s past, including historic maps. Casa Rivera, which housed the National History Museum was in an old colonial mansion and I learned about Uruguay through photographs, documents and artefacts, featuring Jose Artigas and his fight for independence from Brazil in 1825. A huge statue of this Uruguayan hero is the centrepiece of Independence Square.

Cathedral Matriz

Who doesn't love antique maps?

Palacia Salvo

A statue of Jose Artigas in Independence Square

Practical errands were easily accomplished in the city, even with my lack of Spanish skills, as many people spoke English. I managed to get a SIM card for my iPhone, which we had gotten unlocked before we left Canada and it was way cheaper than paying for roaming charges. I also decided to see how easy or difficult the process for getting a Brazilian visa was, and with the magic of the internet, easily found the Brazilian Embassy. I was guided through an online form on the office’s desktop computer, and I came back a day later to pick it up. No problem.

My hotel was totally booked for Easter so I moved to the modern end of Montevideo for a few days, with skyscrapers and air conditioned shopping malls, featuring many international shops. A lovely marina with a variety of sailboats was the perfect backdrop for daily strolls and the nearby Museo Naval was quite interesting with ancient canoes used by the Charrua native people and Uruguayan maritime memorabilia. It also featured a model of a German ship, the Graff Spee, that sank nearby in 1939. Perhaps that old car at the OXO cube museum had been recovered from this shipwreck?

Modern Montevideo

Museo Naval

I managed to figure out the bus transit system and made my way to El Prado Park for the Criolla or Gaucho Festival, a big event during Semana Santa or Easter week. It was like the Calgary Stampede, but on a smaller scale, and I felt right at home walking past booths with saddles, spurs and cowboy hats, all for sale. Instead of the mini doughnuts they had chirros stuffed with dulce de leche, a caramel sauce, and arts and crafts were sold in the pavilions. The grandstand show looked like it had just one event, but it was quite interesting. An unbroken horse was tied to a pole and blindfolded, a gaucho got on and then the horse was let loose in a frenzy of bucking. Meanwhile, announcers played guitar and sang funny songs about the gaucho, made up on the spot. As it was all in Spanish, I understood not a word, but the audience was enjoying it immensely. Only one ambulance had to be called when a fallen gaucho found himself on the ground with a horse on top of him. The stadium had an adjacent Botanical garden with lovely old buildings and tropical plants, which I was delighted to see thriving outside in this wonderful moderate climate.

Gaucho Festival in El Prado Park

A rider goes down

Botanical garden near the Gaucho Festival

A long walk up the Rambla on Easter Sunday morning took me to Ramirez Beach, a lovely stretch of soft sand, and an ocean-side park with lush plants covering cliffs, stone bridges stretched across the duck pond, the Faro lighthouse in the distance. As church and state are separated in Uruguay, Easter celebrations here were not a big thing. I looked in on a service at a Catholic cathedral and the celebration looked very much like what one would see at home.

A walk along the Rambla

Rameriz Beach along Montevideo's Rambla

A pleasant walk up tree-lined avenues took me to Tristan Narvaja street market with blocks of stalls containing veggies, CDs, clothes, shoes, household goods, antiques, cannabis and cannabis accessories. Fun Fact: Uruguay was the first country in world to legalize marijuana, in 2013. Which was the second country? Canada in 2018 (The Netherlands never legalized - it is just “tolerated” there). Back at the hotel MotoGP Argentina was on t.v. and I watched Maverick Viñales ride his way to motorcycle racing victory, knowing that Ekke was also watching at home in Canada.

Tristan Narvaja street market

Argentinean MotoGP on the TV

Uruguayans are passionate about art, and the quantity and quality of art museums was a testament to this. I really loved the National Museum of Visual Arts, featuring many Uruguayan painters and I stared in awe at Blane’s beautiful portraits of women in period dress, and Saez and Viale’s Impressionist works. Something I’d never seen before was quite cool: many of the pieces had a metallic detailed outline and braille writing on a stand in front of the painting for people with visual impairments to touch so they could get an idea of what the painting was all about. Accessibility to the max.

National Museum of Visual Arts

Finally the day came when Ekke was to return from Canada and I took a bus downtown, looking forward to meeting him and resuming our trip together. After a big hug, I took him to the marketplace for dinner. I was really looking forward to sharing with him, my Montevideo.

Ekke Writes:

Back home in Calgary I had spent some quality time with my Mom and Dad and even Onno managed to come to visit for a short time.  Also, one of the main reasons for my visit was to have the knee that had been giving me trouble ever since the surgery for the ruptured patella tendon in September inspected by my doctor.  The MRI done in Buenos Aires seemed to show that the patella tendon had stretched and my surgeon in Calgary confirmed it.  Fortunately, he said that I could wait until after the trip to get a second surgery on it to tighten it up.  With that good news I left Calgary on April 17 flying over Toronto to Buenos Aires.

Easter in Airdrie with Mom and Dad

A short layover in Toronto before continuing to Santiago and then Buenos Aires

I arrived in Buenos Aires and had a taxi take me directly to the Buquebus terminal at the port.  The driver managed to complete the 45-minute trip in about 30 minutes, and I was just in time to catch the fast boat across the Rio Plata to Montevideo.  So, 30 hours after leaving Calgary I arrived in Montevideo just in time for dinner on April 18.  Audrey had found a neat area near the docks with some cool restaurants and even though it was quite early by Argentinean/Uruguayan standards a restaurant was open and willing to feed us.  Soon a mountain of meat came off the parrilla and we tucked into the “asado para dos” or BBQ for two.

Ekke's name on the sign board at the taxi company assured a quick getaway

The Buquebus ferry docks in Montevideo

Almost back together!

Dinner for Two

Wow, that's for two?

The next day Audrey showed me a few of the sites that had kept her entertained for a couple of weeks.  First up was getting my application in for the Brazilian visa.  It was so easy since Audrey had already done the legwork to obtain hers.  A gaucho museum in an old mansion was really interesting as we come from cowboy country ourselves.  The biggest difference seemed to be a much greater interest in tea, or maté .  From there we made our way to Palacio Salvo, Montevideo’s most iconic building.  The building was originally planned as a luxury hotel with a lighthouse on top and was the tallest building in Latin America when it was finished.  Now it is a residential and office building with a small museum dedicated to La Cumparsita, the song most associated with the tango.  Visiting another mansion-turned-museum we found an amazing collection of Greek artefacts in the basement, afterwards visiting Teatro Solis.  We were just a bit too late for the 4:00 PM tour but joined a tour already in progress.  Too bad we couldn’t visit the theatre itself since they were setting up for a rock concert that evening.  Museo Andes, dedicated to Flight 571 was incredibly fascinating in its story of the Uruguayan rugby team that crashed in the Andes.  If you get a chance to see the film or read the book “Alive!” have a look, it is a truly astonishing story of survival.  Before we finished our time in Montevideo we rode (the first time on the bikes in a couple of weeks!) over to the local Touratech shop to check out some of the motorcycle toys.  The owner of the shop provided information for our trip north to Brazil, including mentioning Touratech Brazil, with whom we would end up shipping our motorcycles home.

Most intricate spurs ever?

Maté is a big part of the gaucho culture

Now those are fancy maté cups


Maté at a construction site

What amazing mansions turned museums

Greek artefacts in the basement of a mansion

Spectacular theatre

At Palacio Salvo (tallest building in Latin America at time of construction)

Independence Square

Tour of Palacio Salvo

Now Palacio Salvo is a residential apartment building

The classic tango music (La Cumparsita) originated in Montevideo

Ekke checks out the tango scene on the 100th anniversary of La Cumparsita

Museo Andes chronicles the crash of Flight 571

Two of the rugby team managed to hike out for help

Checking out Touratech Uruguay

On April 22 we packed up and got back on the road.  Audrey had spent 3 weeks in Montevideo and was itching to get the wheels rolling again.  We rode east along the Rio Plata on a beautiful sunny day, stopping for a picnic along the road before reaching Punta del Este’s Atlántico Boutique Hotel.  OK, 130 kilometres might not be our longest day, but it seemed that half of that distance was riding out of the city of Montevideo.  Uruguay is South America’s second smallest country (after Suriname) and the distances aren’t great.  

Heading east out of Montevideo

A Dutch overland vehicle on the way out of Montevideo

Riding along the Rio Plata

Stopping for a picnic

Audrey discovers that dolce de leche is delicious with a banana

Exploring small coastal roads

Entering Punta del Este

Sunday we donned our walking shoes and set about exploring the beaches and city of Punta del Este.  We walked all around the point (after which the city is named) taking in a surfing competition, a Canadian totem pole and also finding the right hand rising out of the sand that matched the left hand of Mano del Desertio in Chile.  La Mano (The Hand) was created in 1982 by Mario Irarrázabal as a warning to swimmers for the rough waters on the eastern beach.  Mano del Desertio was created ten years later.  On the 24th we rode out to visit the home of one of Uruguay’s most famous artists, Carlos Páez Vilaró.  I had the same feelings as when we visited other famous artist’s homes such as Pablo Neruda’s home in Valparaiso and Oswaldo Guayasamin’s home in Quito even though Casapueblo itself wasn’t even remotely similar.  They were all so eclectic and an extension of the owner’s talents.  Physically Casapueblo looked more like something created by the Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí.  The home, built in stages to resemble the mud nests of a local bird, was filled with Vilaró’s art and had an area dedicated to his son, Carlos, who was one of the 16 survivors of Flight 571 that crashed in the Andes.

Exploring Punta del Este

Surfing Competition

Audrey decides to try it out too, getting a little more wet than she bargained for

La Mano is the right hand that matches Mano del Desertio in Chile

A Canadian totem pole in Uruguay

Those are delicious looking cappuccinos

A ride out to Casapueblo

Casapueblo is the home of famed artist Carlos Páez Vilaró

Build to resemble a local bird's mud nests

The artist's son was on the doomed Flight 571 into the Andes

Striking a dashing pose with Punta del Este in the background

On the way out of Punta del Este on the 25th we stopped off at La Mano in the hopes of getting a photo of the bikes in front of the hand.  Just as we were trying to figure out the logistics of taking that photo a friendly woman came along and offered to take the photo while standing in the median of the road.  Nice.  Riding northeast we stopped at José Ignacio to admire its lovely lighthouse and then continued down a dead-end road to visit Laguna Garzón Bridge.  It looked for all the world like a roundabout except it was over water and only had two entrances.  The apparent purpose was for traffic calming but considering it was on a dead-end road there wasn’t a whole lot of traffic that needed calming.  Pretty though.  Back on the main highway we stopped at a roadside gas station for lunch since the lovely seaside towns were shuttered for the season and continued to La Paloma.  We made quick work of the remainder of the day’s ride, all 120 kilometres of it.  (Did I mention it is a small country?)  At our hotel we found a hose in the parking lot and decided that it would be a good time to give the bikes a bit of a bath.  After all it had been since Peru (just before entering Chile) that they had last seen a soapy bucket.

A last photo of La Mano as we head out of Punta del Este

OK, what's this then?

A roundabout on a deadend road over a lagoon.  No, it doesn't make any sense to us either.

Riding through ranching country

First good wash since Peru!

April 26 looked miserable enough with rain and a strong wind.  Fortunately, after we finished breakfast the rain had quit, and the wind had dried out the bike covers so it was pleasant riding as we continued north.  We stopped at Cabo Polonio where it is possible to take a six-wheeled truck out a few kilometres to the seaside town.  At the visitor centre we asked about the truck and were told that we needed a minimum number of ten people before the truck would make the trip across the dunes.  We waited about an hour but only one other person showed up, so we decided to cancel the trip to this unique village and continue riding north, ending up at Punta del Diablo.  We found a nice apartment on the edge of town and thought to ourselves we might want to stay a while.

Gaucho country

Still think it looks weird to see cattle and palm trees

A beach walk along Punta del Diablo

We did a bit of laundry and then rode out to Fortaleza de Santa Teresa the next day.  The fort, built by the Portuguese in 1762 and later taken over by the Spanish, was nicely restored with lots of interesting exhibits.  It was fun exploring the ruins on a beautiful sunny day.  Upon leaving the fort we popped across the street and picked up some picnic supplies before riding out to the nearby park to watch the Atlantic waves crash ashore while snacking on a sandwich.  Sometimes life is pretty darn fine.  After lazing around for a bit, we swung by Laguna Negro with the hopes of seeing some of the wildlife (no luck) and then returned to town where we went out to the actual Punta del Diablo.  It was obvious from the way the waves pounded ashore and rushed through multiple surge channels how the Devil’s Point got its name.  We picked up some groceries on the way back to the apartment and enjoyed making our own meal for a change.  With strikes in Brazil we decided to spend an extra day in Punta del Diablo, walking along the beach, before heading for the border on April 29.  We had enjoyed our time in Uruguay and learned to love this small, laid-back country with its rich history.

Ekke whips up breakfast in our apartment in Punta del Diablo

A ride out to Fortaleza de Santa Teresa

Built by the Portugese in 1762 and taken over by the Spanish

Audrey reprises her famous pose from Crac Des Chevaliers in Syria

Picnic along the seashore near Punta del Diablo

Botanical Park

The actual Devil's Point with smashing waves and surge channels

A day of walking on the beach as Brazil has a day of strikes

Map of our route  

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