16 June 2015

Colonia del Sacramento to Montevideo via Punta del Diablo: a short tour through the South of Uruguay

Uruguay had always been in our plans, even when we set off from Madrid some 17 months ago. A tiny, not so popular, country that we knew little about. As the clock was ticking for our flight to the United States, we "only" had a couple of weeks to explore. Two weeks, the usual vacation back when we both held "normal" lives, now seemed a real rush...

With our initial plan of audaxing (i.e. clocking up some good km or miles each day) the route some days, we set off from beautiful Colonia del Sacramento, empty of tourits theses days, headed East towards the border with Brazil. Soon after our departure we realised we were in no mood for long days on the saddle, the availability of daylight was greatly reduced from, with light only from 9AM to 6PM, and that Uruguay was not a country to be rushing through. 

So we changed our plan once again, as it has often happened on this trip, and simply sought the less busy, and of most excellent quality, farm roads that abound in Uruguay. With the invaluable help of the GPS, we barely touch pavement and had a wonderful "short vacation" in a country often underlooked by tourists other than neighbouring Brazilians and Argentinians. The last days of pedalling in our beloved South America were wonderful, relaxed, full of bird life and propelled by some great local foods. We´re sure, so sure, to be back soon to this great continent. 

A bumpy boat ride from Buenos Aires dropped us in Colonia del Sacramento, a tranquil (in May) colonial Portuguese town filled with sights.

Rio de la Plata. Hard to believe the megacity of Buenos Aires is only 50 km on the other side...

...surely things get more relaxed on this side of the river
Our only plan upon leaving Colonia was to ride East, without a pre-planned route other than one avoiding the busy roads. The place had a very tropical atmosphere though
Our GPS indicated plenty of unpaved roads setting off from the pavement...and what a surprise to find that they were all of superb quality, totally deserted and a pleasure to ride. More than ever before, the GPS made the experience so much better
As sunset was approaching, we encounter this stream crossing, too deep (or maybe we were too lazy) to cross on bikes and so we turn around for an alternative dirt road...

We stop to ask for water at this house and are welcomed in by Alex and Fafi, a couple of expats enjoying the good life in Uruguay. After plenty of interesting conversation we are put to bed in a private apartment. Too bad we have a flight to catch and can only stay one night!
In Nueva Helvecia, a sizeable village off the route 1, we found this place. Uruguay has a big cycling culture, only surpassed by that of Colombia in South America. Inside, we are given a historical tour of the premises, filled with old photos of racing cyclists. Nowadays it is more like a bar, where locals drink booze in the morning.

Continuing along quiet dirt roads, we come across small settlements which, of course, have a public space to make asados. Much like in Argentina, Uruguayans love their beef. 

But also, they produce pretty decent wines. Tannat is the most typical grape in this part of the world, but they barely export it internationally

Somewhere close to the large village of Canelones, we meet Hugo, a very friendly retired man who now works some Sundays in the gas station that he once owned. Among other things, he tells us how the local election system works, and how he got involved with politics.

In San Bautista, we resupply and Albeto snaps a photo of his well worn out jockey wheel.
Resupplying isn´t much of an issue in Uruguay´s Southern regions - there´s plenty of villages which have everything you need, including that precious hot water for your mate.

Just outside of the town of Minas, we camped in a kind woman´s backyard, cook a feast of polenta with fresh veg and indulge in the last of our Argentinian wines. The hard life of cycle touring in Uruguay...
After Minas we opt for a dirt road that avoids the main ruta 8, and what a surprise that was! No traffic, just the occasional friendly gaucho and lots of cattle. We are in timber country!

There´s even some bumps to keep our long-forgotten climbing legs entertained.

As sunset arrives, and like almost every day in Uruguay, we are treated to a great camp spot in the countryside.
In the morning, the double track we were following becomes single and not much travelled.

We keep pushing and eventually arrived to Los Talas, a rather small settlement where the local policeman invites us to camp in his backyard. 
In the misty morning of the following day, we get on the road, which is in much poorer state than its dirt counterparts, and has a ton of logging traffic! 
As we approach the coast, which we have not seen yet since leaving Colonia, the scenery changes. Palm trees are now all around
As well as cattle...Most of the beef is exported to China these days. 100% free range and grass fed.
We stop at a roadside birdwatching hut which looks out over a vast wetland area. It feels like Nat Geo!

We eventually hit the coast, cycling past this impressive fortress at Santa Teresa

And then finally, there we are! The Atlantic coast of Uruguay! Although we had spent the past days avoiding the coast in favour of the quiet inland roads, we have to admit that it is stunningly beautiful.

In the Parque Nacional Santa Teresa, mushrooms grow in the forest.

We arrive to Punta del Diablo where our warmshowers hosts, Kerry and Joshua, take us in. They live only a few minutes from the beach which means it´s not too hard to take a walk to the beach for sunrise the next morning (joined by their dogs).

Kerry is a great cook and whips up luxurious breakfasts (poached eggs/spinach on home-made English muffin, with avocado!) as if they were nothing. So it´s no wonder we abandon our plans to ride a few more days and decide to enjoy the good life instead, taking the bus from Punta del Diablo to Montevideo in order to keep on schedule for our flight.

Kerry and Joshua are housesitting in a charming house that the owners built themselves from scratch. Here, the outside fridge.

Finally we have to leave this slice of paradise in order to get to Montevideo in plenty of time for our flight.
In Montevideo we are welcomed by our Couchsurfing host Emilio, who kindly puts us up for a few days so we can see the city and pack our bikes for the flight to the US.
Montevideo turns out to be totally enchanting, and unlike the rest of South American capitals, is a manageable size.
We explore the city´s markets...
...admire the city´s art...
...and its architecture.

We are pleased to see plenty of cycling culture in Montevideo.
Uruguayans are so genteel that helmets are provided with the city´s bikeshare program.
Street art is everywhere...
..like a cleaner version of Valparaiso...
...we are truly impressed.

The city´s location on the Rio de la Plata makes for great scenery too.


Eventually, tourist time has to end so we can get down to the business of packing the bikes...

...although first we have time to make fun of the Uruguayan obsession with mate. Here Alberto replicates an actual scene from our time here.

Finally it´s time to pack up the bikes, taking them apart more than usual in an attempt to pay lower fees with the airline.

Route notes:

- We chose to take inland roads to avoid the country's main highway along the coast. See the route here. In general, we found most of the paved roads in Uruguay (even 'minor' ones) too busy for our liking. While traffic volume was relatively low, it mainly takes the form of logging trucks barreling down the road at high speeds.
- Fortunately, Uruguay is well mapped on OSM and Google maps, and we were almost always able to find dirt road alternatives. The dirt roads of Uruguay are almost universally in very good condition.

04 June 2015

Ushuaia and Buenos Aires: Last days in Argentina

Ushuaia is not the most loved place among bike travellers. Not only is it the final stop for many South-bound cyclists, but also an expensive, touristy town that has given it a bit of bad reputation. As much as we had previously worried about riding late into the autumn, our fears never materialised and the weather was with us for almost every day. When we arrived to Ushuaia, we even had some days of warm sunshine! It was indeed a normal town, with just one busy commercial street but with prices lower down than in the worst of the high season. Add to that the magnificent scenery of the city, with snow-capped mountains and a beautiful coast, and you have a recipe for greatness. 

Argentinians claim it to be the Southern-most city in the world (there is still Puerto Williams a bit further South, and arguably a pueblo, in Chile), which in itself already warrants some extra tourists. But what really thrives in the city (apart from the fishing and oil) is the Antarctica business. Just out of curiosity, we found that tickets range from anything between $5000 and upwards of $20.000 for a mere 10 day vacation, surely enough to have a pretty luxurious bike ride all the way from Alaska. But luckily, all that was gone in late April, so we had the city and its surroundings to ourselves. Thanks also to Alba, owner of Alba´s house and a member of Warmshowers, we enjoyed the comforts of a room and a proper mattress, both things we hadn´t been able to enjoy for quite a while. So we spent a few days, soaked in the atmosphere, ate delicious empanadas and alfajores, and eventually cycled to the airport to get on a dreaded plane that flew us back to the warmer latitudes of Buenos Aires. 

Buenos Aires had always been in our mind, so we took a few days to explore some parts of the city, while at same time stuffing ourselves with incredible foods and wines...oh, and also planning the next leg of our trip, laid-back Uruguay. Having an old porteƱo friend in town was indeed much appreciated, as the city is quite big and too fast-paced (for South American standards, that is!). At times we thought we were in Madrid, others in London. With Ezequiel we got to visit some of the typical and not-so typical sites, learning a bit more of what goes on in Argentina. Buena onda all around. It was sad to leave, but we are sure to be back sometime for more Malbecs and asados...there´s just so much of our beloved Argentina that we did not get to see!

After days a couple of days of gray skies, clouds moved on and we enjoyed some summer-ish weather

Ushuaia´s residential neighborhoods and the Martial mountains

In Ushuaia you are sure not to find kind words towards the English - here it reads "prohibited the docking of English pirate boats"

Antartica, so close yet so far (and expensive!)

We´d learned of a coastal route towards Estancia Harberton, best done on unloaded bikes, so there we went on a day ride

The coastal road ends and joins a double/single track

Behind Lucy, 40 km in the distance, Puerto Williams (truly the Southernmost settlement in South America)

At some point we realise our worn out Marathon Mondial tyres are past their mountain biking days - with more than 16.000 km on them they have become slick tyres. Add to that the slippery roots and mud and you have got an almost guaranteed fall. We turned around and headed back...until next time

On a different day we swapped bikes for boots and hiked up to the Martial glaciar, Ushuaia´s main drinking water source

Christophe, the Basque-Frenchie we had been cycling with in the past month, was also there. Gusty winds and snow prevented us from getting to the actual glaciar, but the views over to the Beagle channel and Ushuaia were well worth it!

So we returned to Alba´s house in time for dinner

The day before our flight to Buenos Aires we enjoyed some warm weather and picnicked in one of the parks

But one last thing...we cooked these huge araucaria nuts (monkey-puzzle tree nuts) that had been carrying from Punta Arenas. If you have the chance, get some of these - they are incredibly tasty (boil them in water for at least an hour)

On April 30th we cycle to the airport and get on an airbus plane, and cover more than 4 months worth of pedalling in just three hours. We see Buenos Aires through the window and wonder where the hell we have got ourselves into... we can´t even see the end of town!? 

But luckily we had our incredible host Ezequiel waiting for us in town. So we assembled the bikes in Aeroparque and rode to his house (feels good after our terrible CO2 footprint). We are then treated to some of the best meat cut of our lives - Argentinians have a special relationship with meat.

While wandering about town, we can´t but think we have been transported back to London and our beloved London overground

Ezequiel quickly points that the Brits did most of the railworks and snapped some proof of that. Ipswich!

Sky scrappers 

Buenos Aires´ motorised traffic is some of the worst we´ve seen, and so is great that is also catching up with urban cycling. 

Without many green areas around, kayakists take on the water channels. Another reminder of the similarities with London, here with Canary Wharf

Advertisements were everywhere for this television show... political correctness being slightly different in South America.

Buenos Aires street art always surprised us...

...often with interesting messages

Some protesting 

The Italian cemetery
Next up Uruguay, a tiny (for South America) country that really surprised us with its laid-back atmosphere, educated and friendly locals, and a very cool capital.