Cycling Uruguay: Reheated Cabbage in the Land of Parrillas not Guerrillas

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Country number 7: URUGUAY

11 months in and I finally made the ferry crossing from Buenos Aires to my last stop on two wheels: Uruguay. But alas it didn’t feel like a triumphant final voyage I’d hoped but rather a pleasant footnote to my journey through South America. The Italians have an phrase cavioli riscaldati (reheated cabbage) for when you try to reignite a romance with a former flame. Suffice to say the cabbage never tastes quite as good after a minute in the microwave. When I put foot to pedal in Colonia – the appropriately named colonial port town across from Buenos Aires – I felt contented and happy, but after the emotional arrival to Ushuaia and the sense of urgency of my hitchhiking trip, I found it impossible to get excited about cycling again. It was one ending too many; the cycling equivalent of that hobbit orgy at the end of Return of the King. Hard to believe but it turns out that after 10 1/2 months cycling the length of a continent, the prospect of a leisurely cycling holiday through swelteringly hot flatlands isn’t so inticing. That’s not to say that I had a bad time in Uruguay. Far from it. But all the best times were off the bike.

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Before I crossed to Uruguay New Years Eve festivites were had with new Norwegian and German friends Erlend and Rene.
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It was like a throwback to ghosts of NYEs past. A night getting wankered by a crowded river, kicked out of posh restaurants and bothering strangers. The night culminated with Rene downing half a bottle of vodka, passing out on the grass and me chatting to Venezuelans while waiting for him to sober up. Hours later I walked him home as he shouted “TRANQUILO!” and “CERVEZA!” at every passing stranger.
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We did the customary sight seeing, along with doing something I’d longed to do for a long time: sit around drinking beers in the park.
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Recoleta cemetery was a must see: endless rows of mausoleums for the upper crust of Buenos Aires.
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The place is a goth’s wet dream.
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Ornate coffins are openly on display and in some of the crypts the smell of death lingers in the air.
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After a week of heavy drinking I waved goodbye to Buenos Aires…
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…on the 3 hour ferry ride over to Colonia.
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Colonia: quite literally my first port of call. The pretty historic quarter town me a little of Cuba what with it’s cobbled streets and Spanish colonial achitecture.
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Not to mention the beaten up classic cars. The Cubans take more care of theirs.
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Of course the everpresent shadow of British imperialism hung over the port. A sign informed that a British vessel, fantasically named Lord Clive, was shot down by the Portuguese and now lay at the bottom of the bay.
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In the 35 degree heat I was sunburnt about 7 seconds after I got off the boat.
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I found Mariano through the cycle hosting website Warmshowers.org and he kindly put me up for a few days while I recovered from a cold and waited for the extreme heat to ease off.
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One night we went out to see Jumanji (which weirdly only cost 2 quid despite Uruguay being uber expensive) then Mariano invited me to meet his god parents in their beautiful colonial villa. His god mother stuffed me with empanadas and fernet while his god father volleyed all sorts of questions about English customs, the empire and Brexit. The whole family were so friendly and welcoming and if I’d had to leave Uruguay there and then the trip across the bay would’ve been worth it for that evening alone.

And so after a couple of days of rest I hit the road. I was planning to do at least a week of cycling, venturing into the centre of the country before looping round and entering Montevideo along the scenic Ramblas coastal road to the east. Some cyclist friends told me of how friendly and hospitable the Uruguayans are in the small, rural villages away from the touristy beach resorts. I hoped to see this less travelled side of the country and spend time with the farmers and gauchos.

But within an hour of cycling in the broiling heat down the flat country roads I realised my heart wasn’t in it. I couldn’t bring myself to do any more cycling than was absolutely necessary. The landscape was blandly beautiful but nothing new, like Tuscany only without the hills, the cypress trees and all the other things that make Tuscany memorable. The idea of cycling an extra 300-400km detour through these landscapes in the vague hope of meeting some friendly locals just wasn’t incentive enough. I cut straight east to loop around Montevideo as quickly as possible.

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A typical country road in Uruguay.
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Over 95% of Uruguay’s energy is powered by renewables and many of the fields were covered in wind turbines.
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At a campsite in La Paz I randomly bumped into Santiago and Daphne, two of Mariano’s relatives I’d met the previous night.
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There I got my first taste of Uruguayan asado, which I was assured in much better than the Argentine version.
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They even gave me my own mate and thermos flask! Finally I could use the brick of “yerba” I’d bought back in Rio Gallegos to bribe the truck drivers to give me a ride.
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Back on the road again. It was so hot I’d stop to drink mate and nap on the side of the road. Were it not for the odd palm tree it could easily be mistaken for central Europe.
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I passed through sleepy railway towns.
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Passed gauchos in the distance.
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And Slept by the riverside in Santa Lucia. I read online that this spot could be loud due to kids racing bikes over the bridge but assumed as it was a Sunday I’d be spared. As I drifted off to sleep at around midnight suddenly the motors started roaring and didn’t stop till deep into the night.
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I went for a quick dip in one of the lakes.
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House
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And at the end of the 3rd day I hit the coast. The beach was filled with Brazilian and Argentine revellers who invade Uruguay en masse this time of year; so much so that the population of the country effectively doubles from 3 to 6 million during the month of January.
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This abandoned campsite would prove to be my final camping spot of the trip.

5 years prior I’d sworn to visit Montevideo if I survived that fateful ride along the treacherous lakeside road in Northern Italy. Now here I was, a mere 50km from my destination. Yet I felt listless and uninspired. I don’t really believe in fate and I started to question my reasoning for coming to Montevideo in the first place. What was the point? Was it just some romanticised bollocks to make the trip seem more interesting? Then I realised I couldn’t end my trip like that. If I arrived feeling miserable I’d have a bad time. So I decided to pretend that it was all happening for a reason and I’d find some great sense of meaning and purpose in Montevideo. YEAH! FORCED FUN!

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And so I had a great final few hours of cycling into the capital, singing and smiling like an idiot as I bopped along the Ramblas.
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I knew I was getting close when the grandiose buildings started popping up.
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And after doing what any refined Uruguayan gent would do and stopping for an afternoon mate…
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I pulled into the plaza de independencia. (I may have got lost for about 45 minutes looking for the plaza but let’s pretend that didn’t happen)
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And my journey on 2 wheels was finally over. HURRAH!
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First things first: I rid myself of 11 months of matted hair/nest, regrettably making a small family of squirrels homeless in the process.
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New barnet acquired I set myself an intense programme of doing nothing.
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Spending a couple of days at my hostel reading books and playing guitar. Each day I’d go to the supermarket and drop 5 quid on a giant steak and a bottle of wine then have a little Uruguyan feast.
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Cat. In true South American style one of the cat’s was simply named Gatito (aka. Little Cat)
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I went and checked out the posh central market – a converted train station bought off the British.
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Uruguayans make a mockery of other carniverous nations consuming 124.4 pounds of beef a year per capita: the most in the world.
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Media y Media: a Uruguayan favourite made by mixing champagne with white wine or rose.
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The so-called “penis park”. I wonder why?

Uruguay’s an island of progressiveness and tranquility amid the sea of dictators and economic collapse that stain much of South America’s modern history. Weed is legal, no-one really bothers getting married, crime is low and the economy is the most stable on the continent. My friend Gabriel affectionately called it “the country of parrillas (BBQs) not guerrillas” and I got the feeling that if the rest of the world got eviscerated in a nuclear apocalypse, Uruguay would somehow keep trotting along as if nothing had happened, the people blithely munching steaks and biscochos while the rest of the world burned.

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And so my true reason for visiting Montevideo was revealed: to once again meet up with my drunken German friend Rene!
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We went to the Uruguayan museum of football.
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Saw the stadium where the very first World Cup was held.
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And had a ganders at the trophy. Unfortunately the original was stolen and melted down for gold but hey, the replica looked pretty good to me.
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I spent a few days staying with Gabriel who was the absolute best host. A really funny bloke, we just talked nonsense, watched documentaries and lay around.
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A couple of nights we we went out with he friend Luis to drink wine on his penthouse suite terrace and eat ice cream, forging some of my best memories of Uruguay in the process.
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And so after some final beers with Rene on the Ramblas…
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…and in the park.
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I caught the bus back to Colonia to spent one last night with Mariano. A Spanish cyclist who was 2 years into a round the world trip, having cycled the length of Africa, was also there and we drank wine and shared stories into the night.
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Before I hopped back on the boat.
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And the sun set on my cycling trip *cue violins and credit scroll*

 

 

Now I’ve just got to sell this bloody bike.

Tunes: Jeff Rosenstock – Post-, Minutemen – Double Nickel On The Dime, Against Me! – Searching for a Former Clarity, Alkaline Trio – From Here to Infirmary

Reads: Fire and Fury – Michael Wolff, Lonesome Traveller – Jack Kerouac, The Underground Railroad – Colston Whitehead

 

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