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It´s funny how a traveller can become so emotionally attached to a place that was previously nothing more than another obscure dot on a map of obscure dots. It´s not uncommon to hear someone rave about how Paris stole their heart, or how a visit to exotic India changed their life. I´m the only one I know, however, who´s fallen in love with Uruguay.
When I arrived in Uruguay, the third country of my trans-South American bike trip, I had no idea what to expect. South America´s second-smallest nation, humble Uruguay is wedged snugly between Argentina and Brazil, the continent´s two largest economies and, as I now know, is the region´s best-kept secret.
Although most of Uruguay´s two million yearly tourists, mainly South American neighbours, flock in droves to the crowded beaches of Punta del Este, the endless action of South America´s most glamourous resort stands in glaring contrast to the rest of Uruguay´s tranquil countryside, and the chronically laid-back disposition of the Uruguayan people.
A more “Uruguayan” oceanside ambassador would be tiny Cabo Polonio, only a couple hundred kilometres up the coast from the capital, Montevideo, and surely one of the most peaceful places on earth. Home to about 20 families and accessible only by horse-drawn cart or special four-by-four vehicles, Cabo Polonio sits at the tip of a narrow spit of land flanked on both sides by quiet, sun-kissed beaches and is isolated from the rest of the world by a vast expanse of desert-like sand dunes.
Although tourism has now replaced fishing as Cabo Polonio´s most important industry, a handful of fishing boats still operate from the community´s sandy shores, and Cabo Polonio has all the while managed to retain its old-fashioned charm. With few exceptions, Cabo Polonio remains without electricity or indoor plumbing, and you won´t find any cars or, not surprisingly, streets. What you will find, especially outside of the peak months of January and February, is a peace so profound that you´ll wonder if you could ever be relaxed enough to fully appreciate it.
Between doing as little as possible in Cabo Polonio and taking a side trip to Rio de Janeiro to spend two weeks with my girlfriend, my bike trip sort of got put on standby in Uruguay. (Rio, for its part, is possibly the most beautiful city I´ve ever seen, and yet hardly worth the constant insecurity you feel as a tourist. We were mugged while strolling along Copacabana Beach, and we met a young German backpacker who had been robbed three times in four days.)
After my return from Rio I finally dusted off my bike and cycled nearly 400 kilometres north from Montevideo, a modern yet friendly city that´s home to more than a third of Uruguay´s 3.3 million residents. However, it turns out that cycling nearly 400 kilometres in four days after a month of down time isn´t the best idea, and I ended up with an injured knee that would need at least a couple more weeks of rest. Far from being a nuisance, my injury was instead a perfect excuse for me to get a taste of Uruguayan campo life at the estancia, or ranch, of the family with whom I´d been lodging in the capital.
Every Uruguayan knows that the heart and soul of their country lies in the campo, the vast rolling countryside where the gaucho, sort of an Uruguayan cowboy, is king and time moves only as fast as you allow it.
When I wasn´t sprawled out on a soft couch in front of a roaring fire, I did my best to help out Eduardo, the estancia´s resident gaucho, with some of the chores. My first duty was to help keep the herd in line during a five-hour cattle drive that began at daybreak and culminated with a lunch of Uruguay´s world-class beef grilled on a spit over an open fire, an Uruguayan (and Argentine) tradition known as an asado.
Although I looked sharp in my borrowed gaucho garb, I´m not sure I was very effective at driving the cattle. More than once Eduardo had to chase the herd back into formation while I was preoccupied with a raging power struggle with my horse, a stubborn old brute named Setenta. Naturally, Setenta won, and I earned a nickname that stuck with me throughout my time in the campo: Gaucho Gringo.
Despite my inadequacies, I was nonetheless invited a few days later to help castrate some young sheep, although thankfully my participation was limited primarily to taking pictures. My friend María, a veterinary student armed with what appeared to be an ordinary kitchen knife, assured me that at a clinic in the city they´d use anesthetic and the whole bit, but “out here we do it the gaucho way.” I couldn´t help but feel a bit queasy watching María cut open about 30 sheep scrotums and yank out twice as many testicles one by one with her bare hands.
“Of course,” she said, “this is the hard way. The easy way is to bite them out with your teeth, two at a time.” Pretty funny joke on the gringo, I thought, until I watched Eduardo do just that. And he kisses his wife with that mouth?
I guess they thought I did all right with the sheep because the next day I was recruited to help wrestle down some calves so that they could be likewise neutered. That was all right, but when it came time to brand the larger cows, and my job was to cling tightly to their tails to keep their back ends steady, that the fun really started. You know that smell that you get when you hold a piece of hair over a butane lighter? Multiply that by a kajillion, throw in a bunch of cow´s tails covered in mud, thorns and feces, and you start to get the idea.
Despite some of its unpleasantries, life on the Uruguayan campo secured a place in my heart for this tiny, virtually unheard of country, and strengthened the bonds between myself and my Uruguayan “family.” Although my travels will continuously lead me further away from Uruguay, I have little doubt that someday I will return.
My bike trip was a bit behind schedule after my extended Uruguayan sabbatical and so I caught a lift with a trucker to northeastern Argentina´s Misiones province. Besides walking in on my driver with a prostitute whose age I don´t even want to know (underage prostitution is a large problem in Misiones), it was a fairly uneventful drive.
I´m excited that my expedition is back underway, and that my next stop is Iguazú Falls which, as one of the seven wonders of the natural world, supposedly makes Niagara look like a leaky faucet. Can´t wait.
Sidebar: Yerba Mate 101
Anyone who spends any time in Uruguay will become intimately familiar with yerba mate (or simply mate), the slightly bitter tea that is the epitomy of all things Uruguayan.
Introduced to European settlers in the 1600s by the indigenous Guarani Indians of Paraguay and northern Agentina, mate (pronounced ma-tay) is renowned as a healthy elixir with a wide array of touted benefits, from boosting immunity to aiding weight loss. Today, mate is drinken widely throughout Uruguay, Argentina, Paraguay and southern Brazil, but it´s Uruguayans who drink more per capita than anyone else. Walking around with a mate and bombilla, a thermos of hot water under your arm, is as common to Uruguayans as take-out coffee is to Canadians.
To drink mate, loose tea, or yerba, is placed in a hollowed-out gourd called a mate to which hot water is added. The infusion is then sipped through a straw-like pipe called a bombilla.
Drinking mate is a very social experience, as the gourd is passed around among friends, and an opportunity to share one with a local shouldn´t be missed. However, there are some simple rules of etiquite that should be observed before you do:
Never hand back the mate without completely sipping all of the tea. Once drained, the mate is refilled with hot water and passed to the next person.
Never stir the mate with the bombilla. Although a bombilla sort of looks like a spoon, it´s not, and your Uruguayan host could take offence if you use it as such.
Don´t say thank-you when you´re handed a mate, nor when you return it if you plan to have more. This is the hardest one for us obsessively polite Canadians. Say thank-you only upon returning the mate to signal that you´ve had enough.
Border Bound (a pre-trip introduction)
Against the Wind Through Tierra del Fuego
Hurry Up and Slow Down (cycling in Patagonia)
Chugging Through Chile (cycling Chile's Carretera Austral)
Argentina a Lot Like Canada (crossing the Argentina pampas)
South America's Hidden Gem (travels in Uruguay)
The Bolivian Paradox
Pushing Through Peru (misadventures on a Peruvian riverboat)
Jungle Journey a Drag (cycling the Brazilian Amazon
Grand Finale (cycling Venezuela)
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