Tacuarembo and Salto, Uruguay

Tacuarembo

Honestly, I had no real interest in the town. I wanted to get to Salto but I also didn’t want to spend ages riding from Rivera. Stopping along the way was preferable, and Tacuarembo was convenient. Well, that was one reason. The other is I got to know a pair of (secret) porn stars here in South America, and Tacuarembo was their home town. Curiosity got the better of me. I had to see it.

Tacuarembo is not a pretty town. Or a lively town. Or an exciting town. Well, I suppose parts of it are pretty, like the fountains above, but nothing outstanding or spectacular.

But then I heard about Balneareo Ipora. It’s maybe 8km away and you will know when you arrive. You don’t need a sign. Because it is absolutely beautiful. There’s a massive lake in the middle of the woods with a track around the edge for cars. Follow the track and you eventually get to a hill that overlooks everything and it is a truly gorgeous sight. I found it hard to imagine that earlier in the day I was in a dreary looking town and suddenly I’m in such a stunning location. And there was a dirt bike track just over the hill so I spent some time that afternoon enjoying bikes and bikers, not that I could use my monstrously heavy bike on a dirt bike track but still, it felt good being in a familiar environment.

I still know nothing more about the porn stars though.

Salto

Salto was a bit of an oddity for me. It came very highly recommended by others in Uruguay so I expected it to be akin to Rivera. But it was … different. It’s made up of this odd mix of old an new. There’s a portion of the town that’s really nice, around the main plaza. Then there’s the view of Rio Uruguay that serves as the border with Argentina and riding or walking along the river is very scenic at spots. Centro is pretty upbeat too. But those areas aside, it felt as though Salto was mostly forgotten. All the residential areas seemed worse for wear, and what should have been stunning parks were strewn with litter.

It felt like living in two different cities. Take a walk outside my apartment and I was in the nicer part of a ramshackle little town. But walk 10 blocks and suddenly I was in a very active CBD with a touristy river looking all pretty just down the road. But head two streets back into a residential area and it’s the ramshackle little town again.

I did go for a ride to the outskirts of the town. There was a poorly maintained dirt road not too far away and I followed it to the river where I met up with some fisherman who wanted to talk bike. Argentina was right across the river and though Uruguay had been good to me, I wanted to leave. It was time. I’d had enough of the small, flat, farming country and needed to see bigger, better sights.

I needed to head out of the country via Fray Bentos. Mercedes was a town not too far away, so that would be my final stop in Uruguay.

Melo and Rivera

Melo

I had difficulty finding reasonably priced accommodation at Melo on AirBnB. I travel, but still work. An internet connection is critical wherever I stay. No internet, no work. No work, no money. No money, no traveling.

After scouting AirBnB for a while, I came across Itaka farm run by Robert. The price was right. It was about 30km from town but I didn’t mind that too much since Robert offered to cook, and it looked just fantastic. And as it turned out, Robert is an amazing cook!

As hosts go, Robert was fantastic. He’s very well traveled, mostly to Spain and France, but he’s now settled in Uruguay. He built the entire farm himself, all styled based on his travels.

He has cows. His dogs are some of the happiest I’ve seen, and he has one sheep that grew up with his dogs and acts like one; always trying to sneak into the house, or jump up to play with visitors.

The farm is in a valley between two hills. The setting is gorgeous and if you’re looking to disconnect from the world, Itaka is the place to go.

Unfortunately I wasn’t looking to disconnect which is where I ran into a problem. The internet connection technically exists, but is so poor it’s effectively useless. And as luck would have it, I urgently needed to finish a piece of work on Monday morning, which is how I ended up sitting with a laptop by the side of the road with a motorbike and backpack, cows in front of me, horses behind, getting very strange looks from passers by. Still, everything was completed so no harm done, and it was an experience to remember.

Rivera

I had heard that Rivera was one of the more lively Uruguayan towns, largely because it shares a border with Santana Do Livramento in Brazil. I headed there next.

The accommodation was surprisingly cheap. As it turned out, I was staying in Santana Do Livramento (SdL) in Brazil, not Uruguay. But that wasn’t a problem since Rivera and SdL effectively act as one town. There’s an imaginary line running through the city that separates the countries, but visitors are free to move between towns as they please, without the need for passports or border checks.

In the middle picture above, I’m standing with one foot in Brazil and the other in Uruguay.

The idea of two towns acting as one leads to some interesting consequences. You can buy a pie on the Brazilian side of the border really cheaply, then cross the road to the Uruguayan side and pay twice as much for the same thing.

What’s was glaringly obvious however, is the quality of life. Everything on the Uruguayan side of the border is well maintained, smart to look at, clean. Switch to the Brazilian side and it feels like entering a very run down neighbourhood. Things simply did not look as good. Everything was a bit of a mess. The streets were not as clean, the buildings were in various states of disrepair, and initially I suspected I made a very poor choice of accommodation since judging by looks alone, I thought I was in a very dangerous neighbourhood. But I was assured the area was safe and that’s just how things looked in SdL. That seemed to be the case since nobody looked fearful, it was common to see people walking around alone at night, all signs of relative safety.

It was an interesting experience, crossing countries on a whim, seeing the differences in language, culture, and living conditions, especially when many of these differences manifested in the space of two or three city blocks. Rivera and SdL are both very lively places by Uruguay standards. I understand why people like it so much. And yes it’s tacky, but I stood with my feet in different countries!

Punta Del Este and Punta Del Diablo, Uruguay

The plan is to travel around South America. Montevideo, Uruguay, was my first stop, primarily so my bike (later named Rodriguez), would have a safe landing. Uruguay has a reputation for low corruption and safety. But those details are covered here.

Punta Del Este

Punta Del Este was next on the list. I spent two weeks there in the off season. It felt like living in a ghost town. Most shops were closed, some even boarded up. Traffic lights on the main road were turned off. I stayed about two blocks from the harbour that was filled with luxury yachts, almost none of which were used. Empty luxury hotels towered over the empty empty beachfront. Yet the locals insist the town is a thriving hub of activity from November to around March. I’ll take their word for it.

The town is superbly maintained. It has all the trappings that attract tourists. Fine dining, entertainment, shopping, are found everywhere. The beach spans the length of the town and though empty when I visited, I imagine it is immensely popular in warmer weather.

Winter, unfortunately is not the ideal time of year for a town like Punta Del Este. The combination of the cold, rain, and heavy winds make for a miserable off-season climate.

Maldonado is one town over, about a 15 minute drive. It is neither as stylish or luxurious as Punta Del Este, and is where the workers of Punta Del Este live. I took a ride through the town and despite it being not as fancy, it felt less fake. It felt like a town where people lived, not just a town people visited.

Punta Del Diablo

I headed to Punta Del Diablo for three nights. The town is small and quaint, and almost every house is unique, which gave it an authentic feel.

The town is pretty small, with the beach close by. Much like Punta Del Este, the town is very quiet in the off season, but is apparently a hive of activity otherwise. The town is perfect for relaxing and taking a break from regular life. I rented a mini house that made very clever use of space, including using a ladder that doubles as a staircase to access the bedroom upstairs.

The nearest fuel stop is 15km from the town and Chuy, to the east, borders Brazil. It’s very convenient for a bit of cheap and/or duty free shopping. About 8km from the town is Laguna Negra, a stunning and huge lake. You either need your own vehicle to get to it, or you’re in for a very long walk, but spending an afternoon there is highly recommended.

After 3 nights in Punta Del Diablo I was off to a Melo, but that’s for the next post …

Montevideo

I arrived in Montevideo on 14 March 2019. It was the first stop in what I hoped would be the start of a motorcycle trip around South America. Montevideo, Uruguay, was apparently one of the best places to ship a vehicle in South America. Corruption is low, and others who have shipped vehicles here have generally had positive experiences. My vehicle was still aboard a cargo ship so I had a few weeks to explore, bike free.

First Impressions

I rented an AirBnB in Parque Rodo. It was a great area. There’s an interesting mix of people, mostly young due to the Architecture University being just two blocks away. The entire area is bustling with university students, workers, school kids, and a variety of people zipping around on scooters, motorbikes, bicycles, skateboards, even roller blades. I thought the roller blade fad died about 20 years ago, but live and learn.

The whole area has a very hipster vibe and a few things became immediately obvious about Montevideo

  • People love dogs. The entire city is very pooch friendly and well behaved, very happy dogs are the norm
  • Nobody cleans up after their dogs. There’s dog crap everywhere. Walking the street at night is like navigating a mine field. As a general rule, never lean against a tree or light pole, ever.
  • The entire area is covered in graffiti, mostly not the good kind. That gives the outward impression of a run down neighbourhood, but that’s far from the truth. I initially thought it very ugly, but soon started seeing it as part of the neighbourhood’s, and later the city’s personality

Everyday Life

Montevideo is the most equal city I’ve ever lived in. I’m assuming this extends to the rest of Uruguay as well.

The country provides free health care to all citizens, along with free education at public institutions, including university. As a South African, this was amazing.

There are a number of interesting differences however that make Montevideo unique. Some examples:

  • In general, people don’t have fancy things. Sure some people have luxury cars and nicer clothes, but big name brands aren’t popular here. Most cars are “middle class” cars, in South African terms. Nobody wears fancy jewelry. My neighbour Susan, who has considerable experience dealing with fine jewelry, pointed out one day that she didn’t see a single decent jewelry shop in all the time she visited. Nobody wears ridiculously priced clothing.
  • Shopping malls are few and far between, and they aren’t on the same scale as the malls you find in first world countries
  • It’s not always easy distinguishing the wealthy from middle class or poor people. That’s an effect of equality. I made a friend who’s a very successful radiologist. She doesn’t have a car of her own and borrows her mother’s when necessary. My AirBnB host is an architect but doesn’t wear a smart suit like you would expect of that profession in South Africa; he dresses like a day labourer. Despite having his own vehicle, he uses a bus when traveling across the country.
  • Everyone appears to be well educated. In South Africa, you can often tell the well educated from the poorly educated. Not so here.
  • Material possessions seem to be less important. People don’t seem overly eager to get into unnecessary debt
  • In general, people appear to be happier with their quality of life. They have less than people in other, better(?) developed countries, but they have enough, and they seem to appreciate the simple things in life. They also take their relaxation VERY seriously. Easter, for instance, is celebrated for an entire week.

But more generally, here’s some everyday tips on Montevideo

Safety – I found it funny that everywhere I went, people insisted that other parts of the city were very dangerous. In Ciudad Vieja they insist Parque Rodo is terrible, especially at night. In Parque Rodo, they warn you about Ciudad Vieja. That’s where all the robbers live. Personally, I found it safe everywhere I went. People always lock their motorbikes and bicycles, but I never noticed a single person fearful of violent crime. I was out walking passed midnight on several occasions and passed people walking alone on the street. At no time did I feel even slightly unsafe.

Transport – Buses, taxis, Uber, electric scooters, and bicycles are the preferred ways of getting around. There is no rail or subway system used in the city. Buses are everywhere and a single trip costs a little under 40 pesos. I never took a taxi, nor did I rent a bicycle. Uber is available, but the quality of the service varies a lot. In popular areas Ubers are plentiful, but the wait time varies from 2 to 15 minutes. Once you get out of town, for instance to the fort at Cerro, Uber becomes a problem. Drivers don’t typically service that area so you’re only likely to get an Uber if someone from town is being dropped off. Electric scooters are everywhere. I used the Grin scooters. Simply download the app, scan a barcode, and away you go. Transport is definitely not a problem. This is helped by the fact that Montevideo is really small. If you have your own vehicle, the fuel price is extremely high; around 57 pesos per litre (around R28 per litre)

Download the Grin app, scan the barcode, and zip around the city on an electric scooter instead of walking

Food – This was tricky for me. I’m Muslim and Uruguay doesn’t do halal food, so I was limited to vegetarian and vegan food, and fish. There are a number of places to visit, but finding them aren’t always easy. I suggest getting the Happy Cow app, which shows restaurants in the area with vegetarian and vegan offerings. However if you’re a meat eater, Uruguay apparently does the best steaks. Sadly, I haven’t tried one. Food is expensive. By South African standards, food costs twice as much as I would pay at home. And it’s relatively healthy, but largely tasteless. Or perhaps saying it’s an acquired taste is more forgiving. They never seem to use any spices. Regardless, the cost makes going out regularly prohibitive, and most people cook at home. The positive here is most people I’ve met are pretty good cooks. For reference, a vegetarian pizza typically costs around 320 to 400 pesos (around R160 to R200). A 2.5L bottle of soda/cool drink is around 110 pesos (R55). A sit down meal at a moderately priced restaurant (one main course and a cool drink, no starters or dessert) will easily set you back 500 pesos (R250); halve that for a tuna mini sub and drink at Subway. Sushi is ridiculously priced, typically around 320 pesos (R160) per plate though oddly, sashimi was really cheap relatively speaking.

Other expenses – Pretty much everything in Uruguay is expensive since most items are imported with something like a 70% import duty. Very few items, such as fabrics, are manufactured locally and are available at reasonable prices. But in general, expect to pay a lot for almost everything. Again, this is from a South African’s perspective. Susan, my neighbour/buddy was from San Francisco and generally didn’t mind prices all that much. It is also worth noting that she was on holiday while I am traveling; the difference being she has a lot more money to spend on whatever she wants, while I still tried to remain within my monthly budget.

The Simple Life

I always thought I was cut out for the simple life. Not right now of course, but I always saw myself as someone who would be content with living in a small town some day.

Montevideo changed all that. Holy crap was I bored. Which really says more about me than the city, but I very quickly ran out of things to do. There are numerous tourist attractions that you can easily find on Google, so I won’t rehash that information here, but they mostly fall into the categories of art, food, and sightseeing.

Make no mistake, I loved being in Montevideo. But two weeks is sufficient to see everything you’d like as a tourist. If you’re in a hurry, you could squeeze everything into a week; Montevideo really isn’t very big. My problem, which has nothing to do with the city whatsoever, is that I was there as a tourist for seven weeks. It was supposed to be four weeks, and if all went according to plan I would have had my bike for two of those weeks, but that’s not how things worked out.

Life in Montevideo, apart from your vocation, consists of

  • Visiting the park or beach
  • Hanging out at the Rambla (the very long road along the beach)
  • Visiting Ciudad Vieja

The parks and beaches are great. Everything is well maintained, there are often little events taking place like free classical music concerts, and it’s all very scenic. Sculptures and statues are common. Every evening friends and families gather and just hang out, sometimes playing games, often just sitting and chatting.

The Rambla is a long road that runs along the beach and is one of the prime activity spots in Montevideo. People go for walks, runs, and cycle for kilometers on end.

There are little exercise parks every few hundred metres that are always busy. Open areas like roller skate rinks are common. Soccer is huge, beach volleyball less so. You often find people fishing, even at night. There’s no shortage of people young and old trying to stay fit, going for a walk, enjoying the sunset, or just hanging out on the Rambla. Things become very busy on public holidays.

Ciudad Vieja, which translates to the Old City, is the touristy part of Montevideo. And very obviously so. It feels similar to every tourist trap you’ll find in every tourist city.

The single biggest attraction is Plaza Independencia which showcases a massive statue of General Artigas, the hero of Uruguay. The tourist trap starts immediately behind the statue, with street vendors and fancy stores selling a wide variety of generic stuff you probably don’t need. It’s definitely worth visiting, but the novelty wears off fast. Once you get off the main road, especially towards the end, the city has a distinctly old and rustic feel, and you’ll understand why Ciudad Vieja is a fitting name.

A little gem in the middle of Ciudad Vieja is the 11:11 cafe. Susan and I discovered it accidentally. There was just a little board on the street, but the actual restaurant was about three floors up a narrow stair case that would make a perfect ambush spot for organ thieves. Still, the climb was worth the risk. The food was great. You could sit at a table or lie on the couch, or relax on the floor and play with the cat. And there were an odd assortment of miscellaneous items for sale ranging from board games to possibly second hand clothes. The pot brownies were pretty good. The lemonade is extreme. They don’t use sugar, but what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger …

The Verdict

Visit Montevideo, but don’t stay too long. Appreciate all it has to offer. Enjoy the simple life while being part of a big city. If possible, avoid fancy hotels and restaurants and live with the locals. Experience a different version of modern life. It’s not less or worse than life in other countries, just different.

Someday …

I always thought that someday I would travel. It was never a plan, just the idea of seeing the world, trying new things, breaking away from regular life.

But there was always a reason not to. I had a demanding job. Where would I go? Who would join me? What would I do? How would I pay for it? Going on a two week vacation to touristy places isn’t my thing. So the idea of travel remained just that, an idea.

I’ve been riding motorbikes for around 12 years now. Back in 2013 I traded in my totally awesome 2006 Kawasaki Ninja ZX10R for a slow and clunky KLR650 with the idea that if I had something more practical, maybe I would ride more.

Riding the KLR introduced me to the world of adventure riding. Suddenly I had riding buddies. Dirt roads were fun. We were traveling hundreds of kilometers a day exploring mountain passes and service roads. Falling down became part of the adventure. Soon after I upgraded to a Yamaha Super 10 and the adventure continued. I was traveling.

Not far. Not even out of the country. But strapping tools and luggage to the back of my bike and heading out, often alone and off the beaten track felt right. I didn’t stay in fancy hotels. I didn’t visit touristy places. I loved riding out in the middle of nowhere, with no one around. I loved the solitude, the scenery, everything.

In 2017 I decided to visit Chile. It’s one of those places I always wanted to see so I bought a plane ticket and for 10 days, I rented a car and headed off in a different direction every day, never knowing in advance where I was going, where I would sleep, what I would find, or when I would stop. Every morning I would pick a direction and drive off without a plan. It was awesome. And for 10 days my biggest regret was that I was in a car, not on a bike. I was on vacation and a car was both more practical and much MUCH cheaper to rent. The trip was excellent and when I left, I decided I would return with a bike someday. I just wasn’t sure yet how to make that happen.

So the idea of a long motorcycle trip was my next big goal. I wanted to see Patagonia. I had seen relatively little of Chile, but that short trip left enough of an impression that I knew I wanted to see more. Of course there were complications. Like money. Like my work. Like how do I see a continent on a two week vacation? And, as someone from South Africa, how would I even get my motorcycle to a different continent? Of course it could be done, but nobody I knew at the time had done anything like that. These were all things other people did. The idea was there, but how to get started?

By 2018 I’d done almost nothing towards my bike trip. The truth is the problem was just too big. There were too many unknowns. One of the biggest was would I even enjoy traveling for so long? I mean, it’s great thinking about traveling the world, but actually doing it means leaving home for a really REALLY long time. I’d never done that before. What if I went to all the effort and all the expense and realized that it’s just not for me?

So in early 2018, with a whopping one week of planning, I decided to head off to South East Asia. This trip was a test. I wasn’t going on holiday, I was going to travel. That meant I needed to work to ensure I still had an income. This limited where I could live to places with WiFi. I wouldn’t travel around much. I would be in the capital city only of four countries, in a stable environment that would allow me to continue my life from South Africa, just in a different location. I would need to travel (relatively) light because you can’t fit large suitcases on a motorcycle and that was the final, albeit distant goal. My expenses while traveling would need to be similar to my expenses back home. Every day I would get up, do whatever work was required of me, and once completed I would be free to explore my new city. The trip would be for four and a half months and cover Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, and England. I hadn’t visited my sister in forever so I figured since I was traveling, I may as well stop by England.

The test was a huge success. I absolutely loved it. There was always something new to see, to do, to learn. It didn’t matter that I was alone. It didn’t matter that I hated the heat. The monotony of daily life disappeared. I knew this is what I wanted to do. I returned home towards the end of August. My final flight from Dubai to Cape Town was awful. The flight itself was fine, but all I could think of was that it was over. That evening I would be back in my boring flat, living my boring life, being bored. Suddenly a motorcycle trip around South America wasn’t an insurmountable problem. It was just the next challenge.

I took a week off everything travel related after getting home. I was tired and I needed a bit of a break. On 1 September 2018, I started working towards a South America trip by motorbike. The plan was simple. Get rid of everything, buy a motorbike, go to South America, and see what happens. That was considerably more difficult than I expected.

Over the next few months I sold, donated, and threw away almost everything I didn’t need which, as it turned out was almost everything I had. I sold all my vehicles (2 dirt bikes, a bakkie (pick up truck), and bike trailer), and replaced it with a KTM 1090 Adventure R (a dubious choice for a South America Trip, but what a spectacular machine!!). I notified my landlady that I would not be renewing my lease. I got a new passport, driver’s license, credit cards, and generally spent far too much of my life dealing with admin related tasks. I notified my clients that I would be leaving the country again, but that work would continue as normal, just with a few timezone adjustments. And that even though I was not emigrating, I was not booking a return ticket.

My bike was dropped off for shipping on 24 January 2019, from Cape Town to Montevideo, Uruguay, via Rotterdam. I arrived in Montevideo on 14 March, with no place of my own to return to in South Africa. Sure I can crash with friends or family, but there’s something about not having a place of your own to return to that drives home the idea that your old life is over. Something different has started. Yes it’s very new. Who knows how long it will last? Who knows how successful I’ll be? But none of that really matters right now. It’s like ending one chapter of my life and starting another.

After many delays. And problems at customs. And having to extend my accommodation twice with a host who thankfully was exceptionally understanding, I received my motorbike on 30 April 2019 in Montevideo. I connected the battery and it started without any problems. It was as if a weight was lifted off my shoulders.

I left Montevideo a week later. I’m in Punta Del Este now. In the next three weeks I plan on visiting a few more cities and heading off to Argentina. This time last year I was in Kuala Lumpur, without the slightest notion of how much my life would change. A year prior in 2017, I had a vague idea of a motorcycle trip I’d like to do around South America. And back in 2016, these were all just things that would happen someday …