Uruguay 7: Cabo Polonia to Atlantida then on to Cape Town

  We left Fortaleza de Santa Teresa after two relaxing days and idled down the coast exploring the seaside villages. Finally we reached La Paloma where we camped at Wladimir Turiansky Camping, ablutions were not the best – nevertheless it was close to the sea and not overrun by visitors. Jetzt war es an der Zeit, gemütlich die Küstenorte Uruguay's abzufahren. Dabei stiessen wir auf interessante Örtchen - so wie Cabo Polonia. Seelisch bereiteten wir uns auf unsere Rückkehr nach Südafrika vor. A sojurn to Cabo Polonia, we thought, would be a welcome change from self driving. This village behind many dunes was not accessible by vehicle – this is where hippies and surfers found a refuge at the time. Today it has become slightly more accessible and a 4x4 truck shuttle service took us there where we enjoyed the day wandering around and photographing and relaxing. Maybe staying one night is a better idea – it seemed a laid back town with a vibe and many backpackers flock to it. Take your swimming costumes. On our journey towards Punta del Este we took a turn into the town Faro Jose Ignacio – a quaint village with art galleries and modern villas, we did not spot a camping site –maybe too upmarket for trekkers like us. In San Rafael, we decided to camp at El Placer – a cut above the rest with all amenities and well organised. Getting there we passed two extraordinary bridges – one was like a ring with the road separating, the other like a wave.   While we were in the La Barra area, we used the opportunity to visit the Museo del Mar and right next door the Insectario that is part of it (entrance fee covers both). Both are collections of large proportion and extremely interesting and definitely worth a visit. Exhibits also include historical information about the coastal towns.   While visiting the Insectario we realised, that we should have looked more for interesting insects in South America – mind boggling shapes and colours abound. Next camping in Punta Ballena was ok, our last night in the roof tent for the remainder of our journey. The following day we arrived at our school friends Jürgen and Gisa Hecker, who reside in Punta Ballena for part of the year and with whom we explored Punta del Este and its fish market and the surrounding sights worth visiting. This included the Casapueblo hotel Carlos Paéz Vilaró (previously his studio and house) which is popular at sunset where he reads his poem dedicated to the sun (posthum). We sampled the fresh seafood of the area by shopping for fish on the quay at Punta del Este. While staying at Punta Ballena Uwe and Almut, with whom we had prepared and shipped the vehicles originally, also arrived, having completed their second leg in South America. This resulted in an impromptu Namibian reunion with Hagen and Mechthild Stahr, who have settled in Uruguay as farmers for several years as well as Wolfgang "Kücki" Kühhirt and wife Ines who were on holiday from Namibia, where they own the lodge at Rostock Ritz in a beautiful part of the Namib desert ( stop there if ever you get to Namibia –a stunning place).   The time passed quickly while we had fun in Punta Ballena. Soon we had to depart to Atlantida, where we would leave our vehicle with Burkhard and Anke Schleicher, the Namibian farmers that we had visited while en-route to Paraguay. They had relocated closer to the coast and now offer a safe haven for bikes of overlanders and would look after our vehicles. After two days of cleaning and preparation for our return in six months to proceed with our second leg into Pantanal in Brasil and Southern Patagonia, we had to say farewell and we flew back from Montevideo via São Paulo and Johannesburg to Cape Town, where we landed safely on 31st March 2017. Watch this space in September 2017 – our journey will continue into the breath taking region of Southern Patagonia. While we shall have to dress up warmly for the harsh climate and glaciers, you will be able to continue the journey with us from the comfort of your armchairs. This post covers 14th -31st March 2017

Uruguay 6: Fiesta de la Patria Gaucha & Fortaleza de Santa Teresa

Since we now had about 4 weeks left before our return to Cape Town, we decided to take a second look at Uruguay. Our first impressions were dampened by rainy season when we arrived in May – maybe the country had more to offer that flat cattle ranches?   Noch hatten wir genug Zeit, uns in Uruguay genauer umzuschauen. Ist dies Land wirklich so langweilig wie unser erster Eindruck war? Wir beschlossen, gemütlich entlang der Küste in Richtung Montevideos zu fahren.     We crossed the Uruguay River via the Salto Grande dam wall which forms the border between Concordia in Argentina and Salto in Uruguay. At the joint border offices, customs officials of Uruguay advised us that our vehicle never officially left Uruguay when we originally drove into Brazil the previous year – we should have handed in our vehicle paper to customs. This now could not be rectified on the spot, so next day we again had to emigrate back into Argentina where we drank a coffee at a gas station, then returned to the border once more – this time round we got the paper for our vehicle with validity in Uruguay for full 12 months. We entered Uruguay and briefly stopped at the Termas del Dayman where there were just too many visitors – so we continued to a beautiful and quiet stop at Termas San Nicanor further on. It was a pleasant camping site with good ablutions and many birds around including the Ñandu, a smaller version of an ostrich. While we held our braai at the camping site, the dog belonging to the lodge shook and possibly killed a skunk next to us – it was not a pleasant sight nor smell – a strong odour similar to carlic lingered on into the early morning hours. Nevertheless the evening bath in the termas under clear skies was absolutely magic.   Following our successful exit and re-entry in Uruguay, we finally had the correct papers to leave the vehicle until March 2018. We drove on to the Termas Guaviyú, our next stop for the night. The area was huge – we camped a little distance away from the crowd of holiday makers and had a large area all to ourselves. Some mozzies in the evening, customary shower of rain early morning. We continued on Ruta 3, then turned off at Lorenzo Geyre towards Tacuarembó and after a pretty boring stretch, did some shopping in Tacuarembó and found an idyllic spot at a Laguna to the north, inside a small forest of pine trees. A local gentleman came to run his dog in the forest and informed us, that the well-know Uruguayan national Gaucho festival/feast, the Fiesta de la Patria Gaucha, would start on Thursday. As we decided to stay and pass time, we starting looking for the cave Gruta de las Helechos (ferns) but never found it, the drive through the hills nevertheless compensated for the effort. As we did not want to wait in Tacuarembó until the Gaucho Festival would start, we drove to an old, disused gold mine, the Minas de Corrales that was operational between 1867 to 1970 and is a protected sight now. Originally mercury was used to process the gold, later they switched to cyanide. Camping was free and drinking water available at the Ruinas del Cuñapiru. (This is the site of the first hydroelectric system in South America.) Here we met campers Darren Robert and Natalie Beltrán with son Teo (both had worked for Continental in Brasil) enjoying the drive through Uruguay and looking for new work opportunities. Since the showers were cold at the camping site we stopped at a service station next day, had lunch in the Gaucho steakhouse and took a hot shower at the truckstop for 45 Peso. By evening we were back in our little pine forest outside Tacuarembó, again we had another very quiet night. Not so the next : by late afternoon armed police searched for a villain in the area – we decided to move camp after they had requested us to phone 911 if he pitches up. It was the first time in 10 months that we felt it would be safer to stay elsewhere. So we camped at Valle Edén some 25km away, close enough to return to the Fiesta de la Patria Gaucha in Tacuarembó the next day. This national Gaucho festival was a sight to be seen, especially since the riders starting at age 5 are already participating. We sometimes wondered whether they had been glued to their saddles, so proficient at this young age. We spent the day enjoying the Gaucho atmosphere and traditions and watched the youth perform. A small village had been erected to display the way of life and old traditions. For the night we returned to Valle Edén. Next morning the heavens opened up. We briefly visited the Museum for Carlos Gardel – (1890 –1935) who was a French Argentine singer, songwriter, composer and actor, and the most prominent figure in the history of tango.   Visiting the gaucho festival this day seemed impossible due to the incessant rain so we decided to continue via Ansina Melo to Trenta-y-Tres where we found free camping on their municipal site. A fairly noisy night with lousy ablutions. Our Spanish teacher, José, had taught us, that a beautiful woman in South America is "guapá" -we started understanding this expression.   We decided to drive on via Pedro Varela, Lascarno and in the direction of Coronilla on a rural dirt road. On the way a large agricultural machine came towards us, it was as wide as the road and we had to pull off to the side – promptly sinking into mud and down to the axle. An oncoming truck had to pull us out as we could not get back up the embankment. As Coronilla had no camping possibility we pressed on to Fortaleza de Santa Teresa (1762-1793), a beautifully restored fort that saw much action between the Portuguese and the Spanish. Not far from the fort is a large natural camping area along the sea which can host probably 500 or more campers in the season. Since school holidays were over, it was empty and we found an ideal spot among trees close to Playa Grande – in walking distance (2km) over a dune or two to Punta Diablo where we already had been 10 months earlier. The water was warm here and offered safe swimming with no currents. This post covers 2nd  to 13th March 2017

Argentina 5: Che’s hometown Alta Garcia and the Iberá swamps

  Since we had already visited the town La Higuera in Bolivia where Che died, it had roused our interest to understand how he grew up. Auch die Sümpfe Nord Argentiniens wollten wir noch gern besuchen. So beschlossen wir, diesen langen Trek auf uns zu nehmen – noch konnten wir nicht ahnen, dass es etwas anders verlaufen würde. After a sumptuous breakfast we took course to Alta Garciá, where we visited the museum house in which Ernesto Che Guevara grew up and where he spent his youth and we also saw the bike which he used to travel around South America (remember The Motorcycle Diaries?). The museum is well kept and very informative – worth a visit if the topic is of interest. From here we drove through large soya mono cultures (via Rio Segundo, Pilar and Villa del Rosario up to Arroyito on the R19) and turned off at El Tio, as we wanted to reach Laguna Chiquita. We stopped at the formal camping site, but when we disembarked, we were immediately attacked by swarms of aggressive mosquitos – we fled the scene and reached a service station at Balnearia, where we got permission to camp behind the gas station.   Next day promised an early start, landscape again very monotonous with Soya, we drove via Sunchales, Nelson, through Santa Fé, then Paraná and Federal, at which point Willy and Gaby turned towards Concordia and we aimed to get to the Iberá swamps. For the night we stayed in Federal on Camping Municipal Federal – a neat park for the locals, free camping for visitors, free Wifi and good ablutions. We were the only campers and Mariana Kinderknecht of the municipality visited to ensure we are ok – what an experience! We filled up with diesel, found gas at Ferro Fe in Federal and headed north to Mercedes (the 2 police control points gave us no grief). As we got closer to Colonia Carlos Pellegrini in the Iberá swamps, we saw snakes, red deer, various birds, Capibaras, Cayman, fox and storks. When we reached the town we noticed the municipal camping site was quite busy and we decided to stay next door at Hacienda Camba Cua – a good decision. Family owned, Pedro ensured everything functioned and camp was clean and well kept. He offered us a boat trip next morning into the swamps. On this trip we saw Capybaras, Caymans, Southern Screamers, Blackbirds, Herons and Bittern as well as a number of smaller birds among the reeds. Also Cumba Cua offered many opportunities for bird photography. While camping here in the swamp, we found the number of mozzies quite bearable and not as aggressive as we had experienced near Laguna Chiquita on our way. It seems that the soya mono culture had something to do with it: the area is very wet and ideal for mosquitos. However, due to the vast mono cultures, virtually no birds or any other animals could be seen – a case of nature out of balance. Up here in the Iberá swamp all is intact – plenty of birdlife and other insects, fish and rodents.   At the various camps in Carlos Pellegrini there was no Wifi. A local gave us the password for the Municipal system and we got on the internet for essential work – albeit slow. So we managed to book at the Iberá Lodge deep inside the swamps, to which we would drive by vehicle in two days – so far the plan. Like the few nights before, we were overwhelmed by the sheer number of fire-flies at this time of year – simply beautiful. After a somewhat noisy night (somebody’s birthday started at midnight, so we had plenty of fireworks from the town until 3 am) we were concerned about the thunderstorm that set in relentlessly. Guides at the ranger office were concerned about our sortie into the swamps to the Iberá Lodge. The rain intensified until the road became a river. 77km of dirt and mud road and it took us 3.5 hours – the conditions forced us to head back to Mercedes. Many smaller vehicles got bogged down along this road, we could not stop to help. It was a nervy drive. At Mercedes we treated ourselves at Cremoletti to a large ice cream and then retired for the night at Camping la Gauchada, less of a camping site, more of an entertainment complex on a farm. It was better than the Municipal, we were alone and sheltered from the rain in a barn structure.[shower and loo in one...] Parrots woke us up early and the rain drops in a spider's web were beautiful in the morning light.   We had breakfast at the small café Abuela Lala in town. Then we went south to Curuzu Cuatia, along Ruta 14 where we bought at a bus-like farmstall Deer Escabeche – a glass of pickled meat, fairly expensive. But it did not quite tickle our tastebuds. Escabeche seems to be a local delicacy in this area, made from all types of meat: cayman, armadillo, beef, deer, duck, chicken, pheasant etc. Next we turned in at a large farm stall at La Alemana – apparently German emigrants settled successfully there. We found nothing that exited us other than the unique signboard for their take aways, prepared in a kiosk that had plenty of flies. For the night we reached Federacion on Embalse Salto Grande and camped along the dam at Las Palmeras. The dam invited for a swim – warm and clear – but a paranoid lifesaver did not allow us deeper than our belly button. This post covers 23rd Feb to 1st March 2017