Tag Archives: uruguay

Overland Travel in South America

One of the inevitable consequences of long journeys abroad is the period of adjustment afterwards. Everything that’s been put off or ignored while you’ve been off exploring must be dealt with on your return. I’ve done these kind of trips so often that I can mitigate the worst of it, but even so it took about two weeks after my return from South America before I felt that I’d caught up with the life I left behind.

Delivering write ups of my travels was part of that catching up, and that element of the checklist was ticked off about a week ago. Still, there are a few thoughts that never quite fit into the posts that I’ve already put up. So for the sake of completeness, here follow a few suggestions for anyone who might be tempted to follow in my footsteps.


Bring a Guidebook: First off, don’t rely on my words. Get yourself a guidebook. Lonely Planet usually serves me well, but your mileage may vary. Even though the Internet has usurped many of their functions, a collection of suggestions about places to stay, sights to see, and culinary delights to sample will serve as good bus or train reading in the space between places. Lonely Planet’s guidebook for South America added a hefty lump to my baggage, but it did what I needed (except perhaps in Rio, where its broad approach was spread a little too thin).

Pack According to Your Needs: This will depend heavily upon your habits and plans, but it’s possible to minimise what you’re carrying on a long overland trip. I generally go for a daily bag containing everything vital to the trip (passport, electronics, medicine, etc.) and a larger backpack containing clothes and anything I don’t need immediate access to. Judicious trimming of what you bring will make this even more functional: I only needed to use a laundry once during my three-week-plus trip, and I kept dirty clothes separated in waterproof internal bags.

Stray Dogs Everywhere: Start in the west and travel east and you’ll notice a change from canine to feline. Chile and Argentina both have stray dogs aplenty, though most of them look as though they’re well fed, and I didn’t come across any who were unfriendly. It wasn’t until I hit Buenos Aires’ main cemetery that I saw cats in the open. By the time you reach Rio, balance has been restored, though the marmosets on the Sugarloaf are surely an outlier.

Don’t Rely on WiFi: I did without buying a traveller’s SIM card for my phone, figuring that a bit of disconnection would be good for me, and that WiFi would fill any gaps that there were. Which was more or less true: wandering around cities is better if the world doesn’t intrude on your thoughts, and there’s WiFi aplenty in public spaces. However, be aware that most of these WiFi networks are unsecured, and even in hotels, where the networks are more secure, the strength of the signal may not be the best. In short, accept the disconnection and know what you’re going to need before you go online. (And don’t use data roaming except in an emergency—the 30 seconds that mine was active before I remembered to turn it off cost me about €20.)

The Roads are Pretty Good—Mostly: After driving north and south through Chile, my ambition to some day traverse the entire Panamerican Highway is stronger than ever. Probably not all of it will be as nice as the route between Santiago and La Serena, but what I experienced was exceptional in terms of quality and views available. I didn’t have much to complain about when it came to the main roads in Argentina and Uruguay either, so renting a car for travel is a definite possibility.

Don’t be a Competitive Driver: This is more of a general rule, as opposed to something specific to South America. Drivers who overtake at high speed, dive into the tightest of gaps between cars, and are allergic to the use of indicators, are best left to their own devices. Especially when you’re a foreign driver. If there’s going to be any consequences to that kind of behaviour, the further away you are from it, the better.

Carry Cash…: Many places will allow you to use debit and credit cards, especially in and around the major tourist sites, but it’s always handy to have some cash if you’re planning on exploring further afield or if the tourist stuff holds little interest. Of course, if you’re country hopping, that means you’ll need to make use of currency exchanges, either in banks or the smaller cambios. Also, the usual rules for travellers apply: don’t keep it all in one place, and don’t flash it around either. As always, be safe.

…but Beware of ATMs: If you need cash, you’ll likely need to turn to ATMs, of which there are plenty. Most of these will be in indoor lobbies, so they’re safe enough to use, though take the usual care. The major issue is that the fees for using them are not small. Limit your usage accordingly, because those fees do add up.

Trains are good, but buses are your friend: I’m as big a fan of train travel as you’re likely to find, but buses are the better option in South America. The passenger train network is disconnected, and the one I did take was a good bit slower than the bus alternative would have been. Buses go pretty much everywhere, and the major cities are connected by coaches run by multiple companies. Do your research and you can get where you need to go cheaply.

Go for comfort…: On the coach routes, you’ll often have the option to opt for “cama” or “semi-cama” seats. These will be on the lower tier of double decker coaches, and they’ll provide you with well-upholstered seats with lots of legroom and an ability to recline far enough to provide you with an opportunity for snoozing. Pick the right coach provider and you may even be offered snacks.

…but mind the view: The one problem with those cama or semi-cama seats is that since they’re on the lower deck of the coach, you’re going to lose out on some viewing opportunities. You can mitigate these problems a bit by selecting the right seat when booking your trip. For example, when crossing the Andes from Santiago to Mendoza, sit by the right window for the best views, and sit on the left when going the other way.

Avail of “las verduras” where you can: Especially in Argentina and Uruguay, meat is a way of life. Vegetarians are going to have to put a bit of extra effort in, and vegans might find themselves restricted in terms of their dietary choices. (Well … more restricted.) That said, there are some really good verduras and frutas to be had, and if you’re not aiming to pursue a purely carnivorous diet, you should grab them whenever you can.

Brazil is different: There’s a lot of commonality across the three Spanish-speaking nations I visited, but once I landed in Rio, there was enough of a change to inflict just a little culture shock. Whatever preparation I’d done for the start of the trip went out of the window, and I was more or less starting again. Language was a particular issue, with Spanish and Portuguese far enough apart that there was little knowledge to transfer, and few people speaking much or any English. In short, put the effort in to learn a little about the country that you’re visiting. But isn’t that always the way?

It’s absolutely worth it: Sticking to road and rail to cross a continent is something that I’ve done four times now. Seeing the landscape close up is a massive improvement over staring at it out of a tiny plane window. Getting outside of the big cities, or just walking around a city from dawn to dusk and knowing that just a week or two ago you were sat by a different ocean is an amazing feeling. Every trip generates thoughts of things that you could have done or moments that you might have missed, but focus on the good memories. Trips like this will generate plenty of them.

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Uruguay—Montevideo, Across the Rio de la Plata

Ferry ports are rarely impressive things. Thus my first impression of Uruguay was mostly of concrete and rust. I didn’t have time or opportunity to explore the reputedly beautiful city of Colonia either, for we were loaded straight onto a bus for Montevideo (comfy, if a little frayed). The driver wasted no time in getting us going either, taking us out of the port city and onto a main road that was still under construction in some parts but otherwise ran smooth and straight through the countryside.

As for that countryside, it proved remarkably familiar in a lot of ways, with green grass, hedgerows, and both cows and sheep in abundance. These were interspersed with more tropical vegetation, and every so often there would be the glimpse of a bird the likes of which you just don’t see in Ireland, but otherwise I was starting to feel very much at home. When I reached Montevideo, this feeling faded, but only a little. It’s a bustling, active city, like a cross between Dublin and the cities of Buenos Aires and Córdoba that I’d only recently passed through.

Still the most impressive building on Montevideo's main plaza.
The Palacio Salvo on Independencia Plaza.

A long walk along Av. 18 de Julio (July was obviously an auspicious month in South American independence) from Terminal Trés Cruces brought me at length to Independencia Plaza, where the massive and oddly shaped Palacio Salva stands above an equestrian statue of José Gervasio Artigas (itself above his mausoleum). My hotel, the Lonely Planet-suggested Hotel Palacio, was just a street away, and I was soon settled into a cosy, old-style room, with a balcony that offered a view over, well, a man varnishing an expanse of wooden decking.

I had enough hours of daylight left to explore a little, so I spent my time walking out to the end of the harbour’s breakwater as the sun faded from the sky, then having a chocolate caliente at Piwi, before retrieving some money from the bank machines (after a bit of struggle) and eating a Uruguayan speciality, a chivito sandwich, with a Chopp beer, before returning to the hotel. I’d been having second thoughts about the travel plans for the latter half of my trip, and a few hours walking around Montevideo had decided those. As what would prove to be a nine-hour thunderstorm rolled in, I made some changes to the week to come.

Montevideo harbour, just after dusk.
Montevideo’s harbour has a lot of cargo business.

Even as I was wandering through Montevideo on that first night, I’d been recasting my plans for the rest of the trip. The plan had been to spend just one full day in the city, then head out on the following night on a 31-hour bus trip to São Paulo, spend a night there, then head on to Rio de Janeiro the next day. However, that stretch had already faced some changes—I’d been considering jumping on another bus to Rio after only a few hours. A short stay in South America’s megalopolis held little appeal, and it was time better used in Rio.

But Montevideo deserved better as well, and though it would mean abandoning my bus ticket, I had another option. I could spend a decent amount of time in the Uruguayan capital, then hop on a plane to Porto Alegre on the 15th, with a speedy connection to Rio from there. It was a far more appealing approach, though it would also mean eating some a carbon footprint hit. With my arrival in Montevideo, I’d crossed from Pacific to Atlantic, and that was the ground travel I was interested in. As the thunder rolled, I made the bookings, and the next morning amid the misty remains of the storm, I sorted out an extra two nights in the Hotel Palacio.

A map of Darwin's voyages around the Rio de la Plata.
I’m not the first visitor to Montevideo, nor the most noticeable.

The rest of my time in Montevideo and Uruguay divided into three days and three parts. The first was exploring the Ciudad Vieja (old city) and the headland that it’s built on. The second was using a tourist bus to explore some of the city’s outer reaches. The last, a Sunday, would be a necessary day of rest, though it would have its own points of interest. It wasn’t as complete an itinerary as it could have been—I could have used the city’s extensive bus system to range as far out as tree-filled Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park, and given more time I might have spent a day in the resort of Punta del Este (though at this time of the year it would be a ghost town)—but overall I’m happy with my decision.

The morning of the first day, then, was all about museums. The first of those was also the best. Museo Andes 1972 celebrates the story of the Miracle of the Andes, in which a Uruguayan rugby team crashed high in the Andes in winter, near the Chile-Argentina border, and some of those who survived the crash lived through seventy days on the mountain before rescue. The museum fills its limited space with relics of the ordeal, as well as plentiful descriptions and video overviews, but it also examines the philosophy of survival in the face of such odds and the inspiration it has provided for others since then.

A statue in the Museo Andes 72.
The rescue of the team depended in the end on this man, who rode for help on encountering two of the team members.

More wandering down to the waterfront and around the oldest parts of the city, where relics of the colonial era can still be seen, brought me at length to the Museo del Carneval, a much more open space that celebrates the history and vibrant life of Montevideo’s carnival, a celebration every bit as central to the city’s culture as Rio’s more famous version is to its. There are masks and costumes aplenty, along with videos of past carnivals, but the key to the museum is its focus on the history of the event, from an era when each neighbourhood had its float to the more modern, sponsored era.

The mist wasn’t easing at all as I kept on wandering, and the tops of the taller buildings were lost in low cloud. This at least kept the temperature mild. On subsequent days, when the sun came out, the temperature tended to drop. The last museum also had a familiar name: the Museum of Pre-Colombian Art. This time, though, it had more space than either of the previous two I’d visited, it struggled to fill that space up with pre-Colombian relics, art-related or otherwise. There were things worth seeing there, and the entry fee was paltry, but it was the more modern exhibits that garnered the most interest, such as a collection of masks from cultures around South America and photos of the Mapuche people, one of the few native cultures not completely erased by colonial efforts.

A collection of masks from across South America.
Masks from all around South America, modern and ancient in nature.

After a frankly excessive pork-based lunch at the El Puerto market, which is something of a meat-lover’s Mecca in these parts, I went hunting for a relic from a different age. During World War II, the German pocket battleship Graf Spee found itself pinned in Montevideo harbour after the Battle of the River Plate and was subsequently scuttled in the shallow waters just outside. Some pieces of the ship have since been brought to the surface, but they’re not widely advertised (Nazi paraphernalia are a bit of sketchy topic these days), and the anchor and ranging tower in particular are hard to reach. With the help of a tourist office worker and a nod from a security guard, I got through and wandered around the Buquebus ferry terminal for a little while before snapping some shots of these pieces of the Third Reich lost far from their home.

There wasn’t much more to the day than that. As darkness fell I learned that political gatherings and protests are much less of a cause for concern in Uruguay than in Chile and Argentina, with one such gathering in Plaza Independencia providing its own musical accompaniment in the form of drums and singing, as well as the odd rocket. That was more or less it though. I retired to Patagonia bar for some beer and nachos and headed for bed not long after.

A fruit stand in a market in Montevideo.
Get your fruits here. All kinds.

If day one was random rambling and stumbling across sites of interest, day two had a plan. That plan wasn’t mine though—it was the tour bus company’s. After peeking at Ciudad Vieja’s cathedral, I headed down to stop zero, where I paid for a 24-hour ticket and climbed aboard. A top-deck seat wasn’t warm, but it offered the best views as we headed out along Av. 18 de Julio, heading for points east. I hopped off at the 1 de Mayo Plaza, where I explored the Legislative Palace and its surroundings, as well as the nearby market, where I grabbed a sustaining ice cream before rejoining the bus tour.

By the next time I jumped off, the sun had come out again, providing a little warmth as long as you stayed in its light. I took a stroll around the greenery of El Prado park, enjoying some sculptures, one of which, the Monumento a la Diligencia, I would see another version of later in the trip and another of which celebrated the native Charrua inhabitants of Uruguay. There was also a photography exhibit in the open air, some parakeets to spot, and a quick look around the nearby botanical gardens, but I was determined to get my money’s worth from the tour bus ticket, so on I went again.

The author pictured within Centenario Stadium in Uruguay.
Me and Centenario Stadium.

After a twist in our course that brought us near to the Trés Cruces bus terminal, we headed into a large area of parkland, the highlight of which was Centenario Stadium, where the first football World Cup was held in 1930. As a kid I’d read about this tournament, which Uruguay won, and it had sparked my desire to visit this nation. Thirty-plus years later and here I was, ducking into the Museo del Futbol to take a tour through Uruguay’s (and the world’s) football glories. “La Celeste” won not only the World Cup but also a couple of Olympic Games back then, so most of those glories were a bit faded, but it’s a jam-packed location, even for a non-football fan like myself, and getting to take a walk around the inside of the stadium, with its massive winged tower, was a treat.

Circling the stadium after leaving the museum, I spend a few minutes watching a kids’ football game on a dirt pitch and an ox-and-cart monument to match the horse-and-cart Diligencia I’d seen earlier in El Prado park. There was a bus calling though, so I was soon back on board and heading for the beach. I stopped off in the naval museum first, for a refresher on the Graf Spee and the Battle of the River Plate (including a deck gun retrieved from the sunken ship). There was plenty more there too, including a cannon from Nelson’s HMS Agamemnon, complete with examples of cannon shot that demonstrated just how heavy and damaging those earlier big guns could be.

Pocitos Beach in Montevideo.
Pocitos Beach, as the sun goes down.

After that, it was all beach, all the time, as I headed south and west, then just west. I fulfilled my transcontinental plan by dipping a booted toe into the sea at Pocitos Beach, then kept on going, following the line of the Rambla coastal road until it brought me to De Las Carretas Point, the most southerly point before reaching the Ciudad Vieja headland. In the late evening sun I passed parascenders testing their parachutes, then went as far out on the headland as I could before returning to the Faro and climbing its 76 steps to enjoy the late evening sun in the company of a few other romantic souls.

I stayed as late as I could, though not quite late enough to catch sunset, before time forced me onwards—rather than walking all the way back, I wanted to catch the last tour bus to Ciudad Vieja. That meant some serious walking at speed in the dusk light, and I motored past the Montevideo golf course and Rodo Park in the dusk light until I came to the amusement park at Punta Carreras. Sadly, I didn’t have time to indulge under the light of the waxing moon, instead just enjoying the cheers and cries of those who did while I waited for the bus to arrive.

A funfair in Montevideo by moonlight.
By the light of the no-longer eclipsed room.

My tour having taken up the entire day, I found myself too late to indulge in another meat extravaganza (probably a good thing) at the Mercado, but a little way uphill I found Alvarez, a restaurant offering more civilised options, including pizza and fine beer, and enjoyed those heartily instead. A street party provided a nice surprise instead of dessert, complete with dancers and drummers, but the last of the night was spent in The Shannon Irish bar, not too far from the Hotel Palacio, so I didn’t have too far to stumble to bed.*

If Sunday was sunnier than Saturday had been, it suffered from the fact that Montevideo isn’t really a Sunday city. Most places are closed down, though I did secure some orange juice and avocado toast from Piwi**. I popped into Teatro Solis for a look around and a fridge magnet, and I descended into the Artigas mausoleum under the equestrian statue in the middle of Plaza Independencia, which is an impressively large and solemn space. However, some skimming of WiFi networks had told me that there was sporting drama to be had, and I returned to Hotel Palacio to watch the end of the fifth set of the Wimbledon men’s final.

The Palacio Salvo monogram in the floor of the hotel.
Some of the richness still lingers.

Which ended up taking several hours. When it was done, I re-emerged blinking into the afternoon light and headed for the Palacio Salvo, the largest building on the plaza and once (though only briefly) the tallest building in South America. A concrete edifice with an oddly bulbous tower, it served first as a hotel and then later as apartments and offices, in which station it still exists. Our tour guide took us around several floors, from the roof to the mezzanine, showing off the view, the fine fittings that guests were presented with, and the slightly shabbier side of the servants’ quarters.

I wasn’t quite done with walking though, and I headed downhill and south from the plaza to the shoreline, where the day was ebbing away and I was determined to catch the last of it. A stroll past some of the few parts of the seafront that I hadn’t walked yet brought me to somewhere more familiar: the harbour breakwater that I walked out to on my first night in the city. This time I arrived in time for sunset, and I climbed up on the concrete harbour light for a better view, once again joined by several souls in search of a view worthy of ending a day.

Montevideo harbour at sunset.
Everything lines up sometimes.

We got that, though I didn’t have much luck in the rest of the night. The lack of places to eat that were still open forced me to resort to McDonald’s, and it was only afterwards that I discovered that the Patagonia Bar was not only open but serving pizza. That would have been a nice thing to learn a little earlier. Still, I had one last beer to round off my stay in familiar style and headed hotel-wards for a final night of comfort amid this most pleasant city.

Packing and checking out took little time the next day, and after more avocado toast and orange juice at Piwi**, as well as a poke around the gorgeous bookstore beside the Hotel Palacio, I hoisted my bags and headed out along the Av. 18 de Julio. Trés Cruces Terminal was quickly navigated and I found myself on a COT bus heading for Punta del Este. Unfortunately I wasn’t heading for the beaches, and after a run through the very pleasant looking suburbs of the city and the equally appealing Roosevelt Park, I encountered the last of the pleasant surprises Montevideo had for me.

The interior of Carrasco International Airport.
One airport, airy and spacious on the inside. Well worth passing through.

I’ve been to my fair share of airports at this stage, and I have to say that I don’t think any of them are as appealing to see or experience as Montevideo’s Carrasco International Airport. A graceful arch of concrete conceals an open and airy space within, and checking in and getting through security is so easy as to be almost a delight (comparatively speaking anyway—the security theatre doesn’t require you to take your laptop or liquids out of your bag. Almost before I knew it, I was through duty free and in the queue to board a tiny Embraer 190/195 jet, only heavier by a couple of souvenirs and treats.

Uruguay was done, Brazil awaited.


*If my mum is reading this, I don’t drink too much on holiday, especially not when I’m drinking alone, and I do eat properly. Well, I eat whenever I’m hungry anyway.

**See? Healthy eating.

Black Sun Odyssey

It’s that time of year again. (It’s not—that time of year would be September, if I hadn’t skipped it last year, for reasons.) The travel itch has overtaken me. (The travel itch never really goes away—what does overtake me is available money and time.) I’m about to go somewhere I’ve never been, see something I’ve never seen, and tell the story of it all here. (Those bits are true enough at least.) So sit back and let me explain what’s going to be.

A bit more than a year ago, one of the podcasts I follow, the ESOcast, flagged up something interesting. A total solar eclipse was due to pass over Chile in 2019, more specifically directly over one of ESO’s mountaintop observatories in the Atacama Desert. More relevantly, they were going to sell tickets to this event. My travel plans for 2018 having fallen through, the combination of viewing an eclipse, venturing into the southern hemisphere for the first time, and getting to visit and perhaps cross South America was too tempting to resist.

From darkness into light. A tale of two mountains.
A map of my own folly.

This time though, I did something unusual for me when travel planning. I reached out to a couple of friends who I knew to be astronomy buffs and suggested a joint trip. When I got positive responses, I booked three tickets. A year ahead of time, I was locked into a big trip. It was the longest lead time I’d ever had for a trip like this. The only question is what shape the entire trip would take. The result is the shape on the map above.

Santiago in Chile is the starting point, where myself, the Doctor and the Lawyer will congregate. Chile’s an awkwardly shaped country, thin as a ribbon and stretching across a good portion of the world’s latitude, north to south. The eclipse event is due to happen at a mountaintop site called La Silla, at the southern end of the Atacama Desert, so we’ll be driving (or to be more precise I will) five hours north, first to La Serena on the Pacific coast and then a further two hours north on the day itself to La Silla. As the Atacama is one of the driest spots on earth, this is as close as possible to a sure thing as regards eclipse watching, but either way it’ll be a unique experience.

After this, things don’t get any less interesting on the trip. Another night on the Pacific coast and a few more in Santiago, and then the Doctor and the Lawyer depart for European shores, whereas I go on my merry way. Once again, road and rail are my carriers, but South America’s rail system being as disconnected as it is, there’s only one rail section of this trip, from Cordoba to Buenos Aires in Argentina. To get there, I’ll be hopping two buses, crossing the Andes to the wine district of Mendoza before reaching Cordoba itself.

Buenos Aires comes highly recommended, so it should be a highlight on the trip, and I’ve set aside several days to explore it. Plus, it’s only a ferry trip away from another goal on this journey—the less-visited country of Uruguay and its capital of Montevideo. Like Moldova and Mongolia on earlier trips, Montevideo is an inexplicably personal requirement for a place to visit. Maybe I have a thing for locations starting with “Mo”?

Anyway, if things were otherwise, the trip might end there. I’ll have crossed another continent to add to Europe, Asia, and North America (and I have plans for two of the remaining three), and Pacific to Atlantic would be enough for me. Except that when I was booking flights, departures from Montevideo or even Buenos Aires were prohibitively expensive. So I made a somewhat rash decision that gave birth to the ludicrous-looking line on the map that runs north from Montevideo to the metropolis of São Paulo.

It’ll be the middle of winter when I hit Brazil, but a 29-hour bus trip will drop me into heat matching anything that an Irish summer can muster. For this last part of my trip, I don’t know how much time I’ll spend in São Paulo or Rio de Janeiro (from whence my relatively cheap flight departs), but for my mum’s sake I’ll at least try to climb the hill overlooking the city to visit the Christ the Redeemer statue.

So that’s the plan. Another continent-spanning, mostly land-based odyssey, with a lot of freedom to improvise around some pre-booked fixed points. It’s been too long since I’ve been on one of these trips, and it’s going to be a novelty to be kicking it off in company for a change. My Spanish being as limited as it is, and the prevalence of English speakers being probably less than you’d find in Europe, I’m expecting to face a few more challenges than I have before, but challenging myself is part of the reason why I like to travel solo. You don’t learn anything new by doing the same old thing, again and again.

As always, I’ll fire up travel highlights here as often as I can, and more detailed travel journals will follow in their own good time. There’ll be photos and maybe even some videos, especially of the eclipse. I hope you enjoy it all. I know I will.