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23-31 October 2013. Iguazu Falls is a hard act to follow, both in reality and on the blog. We researched Uruguay. It’s a nice country with a stable government, a relatively stable economy, and a truly unique president. He is a farmer. Literally. He has a farm close to Montevideo and gets up early every morning to do all his farming things, and then goes into the city to do Presidential things, dressed like a farmer. He gives away ninety percent of his monthly salary of $12,000 to the needy. How can you not love a guy like that? How can you not love a country that would elect such a man as their president? Yet there’s nothing spectacular about Uruguay as far as we could tell. Poor little Uruguay – it’s squished between enormous Brazil, full of spectacular things to see and do, and equally enormous Argentina, full of equally spectacular things to see and do. Uruguay has no spectacular scenery or spectacular ruins, or must-see indigenous communities or even anything special at all really. It has some nice beaches. And a couple of little hills to climb. I do wish we’d known about Cabo Polonia and spent some time there watching the seals instead of going to Colonia, but you never get to see everything.

We didn’t want to go to Patagonia before November 1st because of the weather, and hey, Uruguay is just a short ferry ride from Buenos Aires so we thought we’d take a look. We found Piriapolis. Oh sweet heaven what a lovely treasure we found. We’d looked at Punta del Este, further along the coast, and fortunately Don got a very clear no to that. Punta del Este is essentially the beach resort and summerhouse town of the rich Porteños from Buenos Aires. It’s a beach surrounded by high-rises, expensive shops and restaurants and even more expensive houses: in other words a highly developed piece of real estate offering not much really that would appeal to Don and me.

Piriapolis, on the other hand is a smaller seaside town that still retains a lot of charm and character. We only had a few days there and enjoyed every minute of it. We stayed at a lovely bed and breakfast, hosted by Tom from England, and Mariana from Piriapolis. They’d met while working on cruise ships. Their Casa Bamboo is comfortable and charming and they couldn’t have done more to make us feel at home.

If you take a local bus about thirty minutes or so out of town you can get off at a kind of animal refuge/reserve. It was here that we saw the rodents of unusual size. Really. They’re rodents, and if you google “rodents of unusual size” this is what you’ll find, as well as many references to The Princess Bride. Their correct name is capybara and we saw a big group of them, ranging from babies to old men, tucking into a huge pile of grass clippings. Yum.

We also saw this Southern caracara, a falcon

this woodpecker

this deer

and a group of rheas, easily rivaling the rodents of unusual size for inclusion among God’s more unique creatures.

I’d seen rheas frequently when I was in southern Argentina a few thousand years ago but had completely forgotten about them. Now that I’m back here and seeing them again, I remember. On that first visit, being Australian, I naturally thought they were related to emus, but apparently they are related to the African ostrich (another of nature’s fantasies). I don’t know if emus are also related to the ostrich. Since all continents were apparently once joined as Pan Gaia a few million years ago it’s quite likely all are related even though they eventually developed on three separate continents.

If you walk on through the animal reserve you come to the path up Cerro Pan de Azucar (Sugarloaf Hill), Uruguay’s third highest “mountain”. I use the term “path” very loosely. It was clearly marked with painted yellow arrows. Apart from those indicators there was no path at all but a scramble for more than an hour over rocks and boulders of unusual size to the top and some wonderful views of Piriapolis and the surrounding countryside.

We climbed a couple of the other hills around town for fun and exercise, and of course I couldn’t resist photographing flowers along the way including these two below and the striking red cactus above.

Tom and Mariana lent us their bikes and we rode along the wide boulevard by the sea. We forget how much we love cycling until we do it again. I remember a feeling of completely unalloyed joy arising as we rode along in the sun, boundless happiness spontaneously filling me. And then stopping to wander around the fishing docks and along the beach.

Along the way we met these two lads on holiday from northern Uruguay who wanted me to take their photo and email it to them. 

I’ve never been to Nice, but I’ve seen pictures, and when I saw the palm trees and the beach I was reminded of Nice, though I’m sure rich Punta del Este is probably a better comparison.

And then we went to Colonia del Sacramento. Oops. Most people do Colonia as a day trip from Buenas Aires. Good plan. But we like slow travel so gave ourselves two full days there. Oops.

I have my credit card topped up with some extra cash because of the time I had my bankcard stolen in Mexico. This way I can always get cash from my credit card if I can’t find a bank machine that will accept my bankcard. After having no trouble getting cash from an ATM in Piriapolis (can’t remember if I used bankcard or credit card, and was fine paying the usual $3.00 fee), in Colonia, which probably has the most tourist traffic in all of Uruguay, it was either impossible or a tourist rip-off. We tried five different ATM’s. No matter the bank they were all the same – didn’t accept any foreign bankcards, and only gave out cash on Visa or Mastercard for a $15.00 fee! No thank you. It was not the only time we felt ripped off there.

Our first evening in Colonia we found a restaurant with a “Menu Touristica” comprising a starter, a meat course, a vegetable course, a dessert, a drink and coffee. We were desperate for vegetables. We didn’t want anything on this menu, or the restaurant’s regular menu, except the grilled vegetables, which we ordered and enjoyed. And were then charged almost as much as the full “Menu Touristica” as they added up each separate vegetable as if it was a side order. It’s not the money. It’s the feeling of being ripped off, used, taken for a ride. It doesn’t endear you to a place.

We know that some of the “fancier” restaurants in various places in the world will have a cover charge, and that in France, for instance, there is a 15% service charge (is it still 15%?) We had not had to pay a cover charge at any restaurant in Piriapolis so it came as a shock to us to have to pay $5.00 extra for sitting at a street-side table of a café in Colonia. It’s not the $5.00, it’s that once again we felt that we were being taken advantage of. Which we were of course, but . . . . . it doesn’t endear you to a place.

Colonia itself is unremarkable, except perhaps for the fact that most streets in the central part of town are tree lined. It’s the old town that everyone goes to see, and whatever sources we read online that said one day in Colonia is enough were right.

The old town, founded 400 years ago by the Portuguese, is on a small peninsula jutting into the Rio de la Plata, and is a World Heritage Site. Its location is the shortest distance across the river from Buenos Aires, which was ruled by Spain. Spain and Portugal fought over this town at least ten times, for control of the river, which meant control of the silver and gold being shipped to the old world.

Walking to the old town, the first interesting thing we came across was this red crested cardinal

then this red crested damsel with umbrella and companions

The oldest parts of the old town date back to the 1600’s.

Twenty-first century workers leaning against a seventeenth century wall.

The most fun part of the day was coming across these school kids on a field trip. I love their uniforms – boys and girls alike in white smocks with a big blue satin bow tied at the neck. They were delighted to have us tourists from Canada taking their photo, and I got to ask their names and then try to pronounce them, which they all found very funny. Their teachers were also quite amused by it all.

Street art (not in the old town!)

On our last evening there, at a different restaurant, I was served the strangest (and worst) chicken salad ever. But that’s for another post.

So this just goes to show that travel is not all excitement all the time. The old town of Colonia was quite interesting, but in the end we could have happily missed it (and not missed much) and spent all our time in lovely Princess Piriapolis. C’est la vie.

Next post: A return to exciting travel! Oh wonderful, shivery, windy, glorious Patagonia. Yes!

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted.
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.