Oriental

November 4, 2011 § Leave a comment

…is, confusingly, the adjective often applied to the people and country of Uruguay. It’s because it lies to the east of the Uruguay river (whose name, wonderfully, means ‘river of painted birds’ in Guaraní).

I made a four-day escape to the Oriental Republic last Saturday, hopping on a ferry across the Río de la Plata. People often make jokes about Uruguay being just another province of Argentina, and about how small it is. Well, it is admittedly quite similar to its larger neighbour, and small in Latin American terms (though still bigger than England and Wales combined).

I went, though, because compared to Buenos Aires, at least, there’s also a lot that’s different. The main thing that attracted me was the tranquility. It seems to be becoming a bit of a recurring theme here that BsAs is a bit too big, noisy and loud for me. So to arrive on Saturday afternoon in Colonia del Sacramento was a very welcome change. Colonia was founded in the 17th century by the Portuguese, and changed hands between them and the Spanish several times over the centuries. Much of the town dates from around the 18th century, and hence looks like this:

I spent a great afternoon wandering around the town, spoilt only by the fact that there was some sort of tree, plant or grass whose pollen turned me into a sniffing, sneezing wreck. But I can forgive Colonia that.

I spent three nights in a hostel in the countryside, in between Colonia and Montevideo (the Uruguayan capital). Waking up to the sound of birds, dogs and horses instead of traffic or shouting was a joy. So was being able to see the stars, and so was the long bike-ride I made one day over seemingly endless rolling hills to arrive at Santa Regina beach, which was deserted and completely magical. Uruguay is, it seems, still a very rural country – I forget how by how many times bigger the cattle population is than the human. Here, at least, the gaucho, the cowboy of the pampas, survives in a form which is not entirely tourist-oriented.

The hostel itself was great too, run by a couple who after years of living in various European countries came back home. Miguel, one of my hosts, was full of grand stories about his grandfather (bomb-maker in the Spanish civil war and French resistance), his adventures in Africa and the consequences of the Uruguayan dictatorship. Oh, and they had a sauna, which was a bit surreal, but very, very relaxing.

Montevideo, while not exactly a village, is far from on the scale of Buenos Aires. All in all, I think it has about 2 million inhabitants (there are only 3 million people in Uruguay!). So it’s a bit more manageable, and best of all, has miles of open seafront and white beaches. There’s also a quirky restaurant area called the Mercado del Puerto, which was apparently destined to be a train station in Rio de Janeiro. The boat carrying it broke down, though, and was forced to offload its cargo in Montevideo. It’s a believable hypothesis, when you look at the place

(here is meant to follow a photograph, but the uploader broke. Watch this space.)

All in all, then, a welcome break in what seems like a lovely country. There are, I’m told, plenty more fantastic beaches to be explored on the Atlantic coast, and probably much more mate to drink – the Uruguayans are even more fanatical about the stuff than their cousins across the water.

For now, though, back to porteño life, which I can hardly complain about.

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