Sunday, 2 September 2012

Uruguay - Sprawling Farmland and Laid-back Colonial Cities

We landed in Montevideo, Uruguay on a very gray morning. We'd elected to fly to Montevideo to make our way to Buenos Aires via ferry from Uruguay versus landing in BA directly and having to pay the steep airport tax. Plus it gave us an excuse to visit another South American country. Uruguay is small both in size and population; only 3.3 million people live there, half of which are concentrated in the capital Montevideo.

The air was considerably colder than that of Rio but it was sort of refreshing in a way. Driving from the airport into the city proper we were amazed at how much the region reminded us of home. The city itself is older than our hometown but the countryside looks a lot like the farmlands of rural Alberta. I'd say it looked like late September or early October with most of the trees devoid of leaves but the grass still contemplating whether to go to sleep or keep up their chlorophyll factories.  

Montevideo airport.
We arrived at Hostel Ukulele - a stunning house built in the mid-1920s, located near the city's Old Town district. The place had a real homey feel but we were still surprised when we met the owner (Patricia) that evening and she told us it had been her family's home before she and her boyfriend (Jope - short for Jose Pedro) decided to convert it into a hostel. They were definitely two of the most friendly hostel owners/staff we've met on our journey. Patricia introduced us to the Uruguayan drink Grapamiel - grapa, a strong, pomace based brandy, mixed with honey - and Jope treated us to another delicious Uruguayan liquor combo of white wine and cider. We'd booked two nights at the hostel but decided to stay another because we felt so at home. The kitchen was good too so we got to enjoy doing some of our own cooking again (though we were extremely pissed that someone stole a yogurt and camembert cheese from our labelled grocery bag in the fridge... grrr).

To be brutally honest, Montevideo is kind of an ugly city though it does have some redeeming qualities, such as the colonial architecture of Old Town, and I'm sure it's prettier in the summer when the vegetation has foliage and flowers to brighten up the otherwise drab gray buildings. We spent most of our time in the cozy hostel but ventured out through Old Town to the waterfront one morning. Montevideo is on the southern shore of the mouth of the Rio Plata - the world's largest river-mouth (here we are again seeing the world's biggest something...). The part of town nearest the shipyard was, perhaps not unexpectedly, somewhat run down and industrial but as we walked along the waterfront it got progressively nicer. Some of the suburbs we saw when we drove in from the airport were darn swanky too, now that I think of it.

One of the highlights of our stay in Montevideo (aside from the hostel) was that Chris found peanut butter in the supermarket. After a 3-month dry spell, we had peanut butter again!! (I think it was only about 3 months since we last had it because we'd carried a jar with us from Costa Rica and finished it up while we were at Las Olas in Bolivia. It felt like a much longer deprivation though. Fellow peanut butter fiends, you know what I'm talking about). The best part of this story is that we'd brought the peanut butter to the breakfast table (duh) and a British girl saw it and mistakenly thought it was communal. She was so ecstatic about finding peanut butter that Chris couldn't deny sharing some with her after he clarified its true ownership.

Courtyard and pool at Hostel Ukelele.
We'd read up on Uruguay and its main claim to fame is a stretch of beaches and vacation towns to the east of Montevideo. Since we're traveling in winter we decided not to make the trip in that direction and initially settled on going directly from Montevideo  to Colonia where we could cross to Buenos Aires. When we started looking for an accommodation in Colonia we found an estancia (ranch) between the two cities that sounded like a great place to see a bit more of Uruguay before we hopped across the river, back to Argentina. We booked it and took a bus towards Colonia but got off near the town of Valdense where Monica, one half of the ranch's owners, picked us up and brought us to El Galope. The setting was undeniably picturesque although the terrain consists mostly flat or gently rolling hills. Once again we were reminded of the prairies back home, especially when it became apparent that we were in cattle country. Alberta looks significantly less green in the dead of winter, however.

We were met at the gate by Tupac, a big friendly mixed-breed dog. As we pulled up to the house, two adorable boxer puppies peeked their heads around the corner to check out the new arrivals. Kida and Roco were as cute as they were troublemakers but we fell instantly in love with them and their big brother Tupac. I would be in the bad books if I didn't also mention the three cats that reside here though we know who's favorite they were.

Kida and Roco relaxing in a chair on the veranda.
We met Monica's husband Miguel, the other half of El Galope's owners, shortly after we'd gotten the tour and dropped our bags in the room. We'd hoped to do some horseback riding during our stay and Miguel had to go to Montevideo the next morning to spend time with their kids for the next 3 days (essentially the remainder of our stay). So it was then or never!

Stylish horseback riders.
Miguel is of a true gaucho breed, raised in northern Uruguay on a cattle ranch. He gave us detailed instructions on horsemanship as we helped him prepare the horses for the ride. The day had been a wet one so we took things easy to prevent slipping and injuries. It was a quiet ride, not so scenically epic as some of our previous rides but still very enjoyable and we saw lots of birds including the rarely spotted Southern Crested Caracara. Miguel was happy to tell us about the area and he and Chris even got into an animated discussion about how the evil Monsanto corporation is taking over the region's rich agricultural lands to cultivate their GM soy bean crops at the expense of traditional cops or grazing lands. Apt dialogue considering both Chris and I just read The Omnivore's Dilemma.

Southern Crested Caracara - sort of a cross between a vulture and a falcon.

It turned out that we were the only guests at the ranch on account of it being low season. Hence, that evening we enjoyed a romantic dinner, prepared by Monica, all by ourselves at the long dining table in the common building of the hostel. Although the weather was a tad chilly, a massive fireplace in the corner kept not only the common space toasty but our room benefited from a shared wall as well.

Our second day at the ranch began with a breakfast including honey from a bee-keeper neighbor and fresh milk from the dairy farm next door. Feeling lazy in the late morning sunshine, we elected to read and relax, taking breaks to entertain the puppies now and then. We also helped Monica roll an enormous hay bale into position so it could be served to the horses.  

In the afternoon we snagged a ride with Monica to the town where we wandered around a bit before visiting the supermarket to pick up some snacks and lunch for the following day. Everywhere we went we were watched. Not many blonde-headed foreigners in these parts... though Monica is a red-head and there are lots of fair skinned people in this area on account of it being settled by Swiss immigrants who traveled here on the promise of free land more than a century ago. Still, it's a small town where everyone knows everyone so we stood out like sore thumbs.

That night Monica prepared fondue for dinner using two types of cheese produced by neighboring farms. It was magnificent. We ate every last bit and washed it down with wine made by a retired enologist who lives near the beach. It was a tannat-merlot and it too was delicious. The side salad Monica served had herbs and other produce from her garden and she'd made some lemon ice cream which she served in natural cups made from the lemons - lemons from her own tree. The fact that our meals were primarily comprised of locally produced goods was such a treat and a major reason why we enjoyed our stay at El Galope so much.

One morning Monica decided to teach us the Uruguayan way of drinking maté - a hot beverage prepared in a small gourd by combining hot water with yerba (herby tea-like mixture of loose, dried leaves). Each person in turn (and always in the same order), sips the entire liquid contents of the gourd through bombilla (a porous metal spoon-straw). It's a ubiquitous ritual in both Uruguay and Argentina, though both countries assert that their practice is radically different and superior than that of the other country. We enjoyed the maté and remained silent on this international controversy.

Mama goat content to share her milk.
The next day we dodged rain showers to visit Victoria's Goat Farm, run by one of Monica and Miguel's friends. Victoria has a soft heart for animals as evidenced by the seven dogs that announced our arrival - she later told us that city people dump their dogs out in the country when they no longer want to care for them. 

The goats had given birth in July so there were two dozen adorable kids bouncing around a muddy pen, clambering over eachother to get closer to us as we ogled them from the other side of a short fence. It was also milking time when we arrived so we got to see just how that operation was carried out. Then Victoria took us to the small production area where she makes goat cheese and let us sample a few types. It was more sour than goat cheese I've had before but still good. She was about to make jars of cheese with oil and pepper and promised to bring us one in the evening when they were ready.

See? Chris wants to adopt every animal we come across. Fair enough, they want to adopt him too.

They were so cute!!

For our final night we decided to try out the sauna. Designed in the Finnish manner, Monica and Miguel's was a steam sauna paired with a cold dunking pool in the yard. For therapeutic purposes, one completes cycles of 10-15 minutes in the sauna followed by a dip in the icy pool and a few moments of rest in the open air. I was hesitant to fully submerge myself in the cold pool but it did feel extraordinarily good. We didn't last for too many sessions having indulged in another bottle of Tannat-Merlot with dinner but it was still very enjoyable. Also, when else do you have the opportunity sit around naked with your hostess and not have it feel remotely awkward? ...maybe our lack of modesty also had something to do with that bottle of Tannat-Merlot.

One of our chaperones on the walk back from Victoria's Goat Farm.

The other chaperone.

Uruguayan cows. Miguel told us that many are the offspring of Alberta livestock. Or at least a tube of their sperm.
We were sad to say goodbye to the pets and the relaxed atmosphere of the farm but the next day Monica drove us back to the hiway where we caught a bus to Colonia. The Old Town of Colonia is actually a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Despite the dreariness of the day we arrived it was not hard to see why. A few days in the countryside had lulled us into a slow pace so we didn't really get up to very much. We wandered down to a small marina to watch the sun set and then stopped in at a boutique winery where I was easily convinced to buy a bottle of Uruguayan Tannat-Pinot Noir. It was alright but not as good as the Tannat-Merlot we'd had at El Galope and it was twice the price. Oh well. You win some, you lose some.

Abandoned train station at the riverfront of Colonia.

City Gate with drawbridge, c. 17th century.

Old Town Colonia looking down toward the river. 

Convent ruins and lighthouse of Colonia.

Colonia street.

Old car in Old Town, Colonia.
A thick fog rolled in overnight and resulted in us being even lazier for most of the day. We finally ventured out in the late afternoon to take some photos and visit a tiny restaurant tucked into the low-ceilinged main floor of a colonial building. Cinderblock walls held up shelves of locally-produced cheeses, preserves, wine, dulces (sweets) and other assorted goodies. Dim overhead lighting supplemented by the warm glow of a fireplace set the perfect cozy ambience for indulging in a bottle of wine and a shared platter of cheeses, salami, sausage, savoury tarts, and tiny spheres of ricotta encrusted with crushed walnuts. It was far too much cheese even for someone with my voracious appetite for the dairy treat. But it was oh so delicious. And a great way to end our short jaunt through Uruguay.


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