“All I do is keep on running in my own cozy, homemade void, my own nostalgic silence. And this is a pretty wonderful thing. No matter what anybody else says.”
― Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
I love running. I love the “homemade void” as Murakami (one of my favourite authors) describes it – for me that’s the place where worry disappears, thinking itself disappears and you just put one leg in front of the other and enjoy a peacefulness that I find very difficult to recreate in any other environment. I don’t believe I have ever felt worse after a run than I did before it, even after the grueling 20+ milers when training for a marathon (a marathon that injury ultimately prevented me from participating in).
It was the early hours of Sunday morning and the mockingbird soared high above the Rio de La Plata. From that vantage point it looked like the continent itself was trying to swallow the ocean. Mouth wide open, the upper lip the coast of Uruguay, the lower lip Argentina’s eastern flank. As the mouth of the river narrowed, the bird, like many of the people below, felt the magnetic pull of the city that appeared down to its left. Looking from up high the lights of Buenos Aires stretched out along the coast and far inland, like a patchwork of tiny bonfires. The grids of light were occasionally interrupted by darkness where the city’s green spaces breathed air into the congested centre. Vast avenues that cut through the patchwork of roads were dotted with occasional traffic, mainly yellow and black taxis, straddling eight, nine, sometimes ten lanes.
We are now 11 days into our month long stay in Buenos Aires and it’s safe to say we love it here. After changing destination every week since August 26th when we left Rio we were looking forward to the relative stability of an extended stay in a city with a global reputation. So far, despite the fact our explorations have been cut short by Amber’s first illness since being away, we are very happy to be here – the city has met all of our expectations and in many cases surpassed them.
The obligatory photo of the BA sign in front of Obelisco de Buenos Aires (built by Germans in 1936 in just 31 days)
Here’s what we’ve learnt so far.
On Saturday 1st we boarded the high speed ferry from Montevideo to Buenos Aires and thereby drew to a close a wonderful, varied and relaxing couple of weeks in Uruguay. From the Puerto Mercado to Cabo Polonio we felt that despite only being in the country for a couple of weeks we achieved a lot.
As with our Brazil entry we wanted to wrap up our time here with a quick post highlighting some general observations around the country and what we got up to.
Uruguay is quiet. If / when sheep attain a collective consciousness then make a hasty exit because they outnumber humans 3 to 1. It is ranked 198 out of 244 countries in terms of population density with half that population living in Montevideo. Even in Montevideo itself the old town was eerily quiet particularly at the weekend – maybe, like us, everyone was in the Puerto Mercado gorging themselves on beef and wine. On the road we were often the only car. (I will confess that with a mile of straight empty road ahead of me I may of at times gone a little over the speed limit, no mean feat bearing in mind our rental car was a rattly little Suzuki that audibly groaned when it saw how much luggage we were carrying.)
Given our advancing years and inability to go out in the evening we appreciated Uruguay’s laidback, quiet style. There was something innately relaxing about being somewhere with so few people. The fact we traveled out of season helped as by all accounts the coastline swells with Argentinians and Brazilians come the summer months (December to February). This was no better reflected than in Cabo Polonio which felt like an extrapolation of the country’s serenity and peacefulness.
The bustling central square in Cabo Polonio
On Wednesday we went on an adventure. We left our house at the crack of dawn and drove over 200 miles. We walked through shrub and woodland, over sand dunes, and across a misty and deserted beach. We reached a remote and isolated village without roads, electricity or running water. We saw a herd of sea lions. And it was one of the best days of our trip so far.
Our destination was Cabo Polonio. Located on the east coast of Uruguay, the village sits on a small peninsula jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean. With a year round population of 95 (according to a 2011 census) it is less a village, more a collection of huts and houses, a grocery store and as a result of increased popularity a handful of hostels.
The cape is named after the Spanish sailing ship ‘Polonio’ shipwrecked there in 1735. Following the wreck, it became a settlement for sailors and fishermen, and due to its particular geography, rocky shores and fierce seas, it was the site of many more sea disasters. Legend has it that it was renowned among sailors and pirates across the world who believed the cape was cursed, that death would come to those who ventured there, and when in the vicinity of the cape compasses would spin with no direction causing ships to crash into the rocks of the shoreline.
Map of the geography of Cabo Polonio showing its complete isolation and unique lay of the land. Picture taken in the visitors’ centre at the entrance of the national park
Rather than do a blog on Food in Uruguay, (similar to our previous one from Brazil) this time we’re honing in on one particular location that we think encapsulates what food is all about here – the Puerto Mercado or Port Market, situated (unsurprisingly) close to the port on the north side of Montevideo’s Ciudad Vieja (old town).
One of the recurring images I would think about before we came on this trip was the three of us in Argentina gorging ourselves on high quality, cheap steak and red wine. And it was only as I began to look a little closer at Uruguay that it became apparent we would have the chance to be doing exactly that a little earlier than expected. Uruguay loves beef. Uruguay loves meat. In a country where close to half the population of 3 million live in Montevideo there are vast swathes of sparsely populated interior plains where cows (and cowboys) are the only living things you’ll come across. Indeed it is the only country that keeps tracks of 100% of its cattle, cattle that outnumber humans by three to one. With that in mind it’s no surprise that beef (and meat more generally) is big here.
Our limited research (a quick read of Lonely Planet South America) told us that THE place to eat beef alongside the locals is in the Puerto Mercado, particularly at the weekend. So last Saturday, the day after we arrived in Montevideo, we took that advice and headed down there.
We left Brazil at the end of last week. In total we spent five weeks roaming around, arriving in Rio and travelling south via Barra da Lagoa (outside Florianopolis), onto Porto Alegre and then finishing in Gramado in the Sierra Gaucha mountains. We can by no means say we have ‘done’ Brazil – there are huge swathes of the country that we did not get to see (saved hopefully for a future trip – the Amazon in particular is a dream, albeit a much less baby friendly one) but what we did see we loved, and we had a pleasingly varied itinerary that included beaches, mountains, cities and a zoo.
We have covered our Brazilian adventures pretty extensively to date so not much more remains to be said. However, there are a couple of final overall observations and experiences that we would like to jot down.
If you’re not bothered about what we have spent the last week doing and just want to know what the title is all about I’d suggest scrolling down the page until you get to the quiz section. For those that are left here’s our quick update.
On 9th September we left Porto Alegre and took a 2 hour bus journey north to Gramado which lies in the mountains of the Serra Gaucha region. As explained in a previous blog entry Gramado received an influx of German and Italian immigrants in the 19th Century who had a significant influence on the town. The resulting resemblance to a European Alpine resort is striking and is completed by a plethora of artisan chocolate shops and fondue restaurants.
With the hot sun and clear skies giving an unseasonable warmth on the day we arrived combined with the European architecture it felt somewhat surreal getting off the bus, particularly after what was a rather wet and cold week in Porto Alegre. A surreal start soon gave way to excitement though as we breathed in fresh mountain air and admired the pristine town centre.
Gramado is a high profile tourist destination, having been voted by Trip Advisor as the 2nd best destination in the whole of Brazil after Rio. A bold claim for a country that houses the bulk of the Amazon rain forest, as well as hundreds of miles of paradisaical beaches but regardless on first sight we were impressed by how clearly well cared for the town is. What with the tourists, the Alpine architecture and a very apparent love for Christmas there could be a danger the town drifts into tackiness but actually we found it upmarket and classy clearly appealing to well-heeled Brazilians (and us).
In Gramado we were staying through AirBnB at Casa Marlene, an annex to a house located about 10 mins walk from the centre of the town. It was Marlene herself who greeted us on arrival and who subsequently provided us with the best hospitality we have enjoyed so far in Brazil – opening up her kitchen for us to use, ferrying us to the zoo and bus station and playing with / cuddling Amber (maybe we should start charging for that…)
Anyway here’s some of the highlights of our week in the mountains:
We assumed upon arriving in Porto Alegre that following our stay we would write some sort of post along the lines of 5 best things to do in PA or How to spend a week in PA etc etc etc. The city is a major urban hub and has a population of nearly 4.5 million, and as such we assumed it would have more than enough to occupy us for our stay. But after a week of near constant rain so heavy that we were virtually housebound, an unexpected flat move mid-week due to a cockroach the size of a mouse, and two consecutive days spent killing time in the local shopping mall (we are not mall people), we started feeling like a post about what not to do in Porto Alegre would be more appropriate.
Amber loving the ball pit in the local shopping mall
Porto Alegre is not on most typical traveller routes. It is the capital of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil’s southernmost state, and the region has more in common with Uruguay and northern Argentina – think cowboys, vinyards and rolling hills as opposed to the white sand beaches or Amazonian forays that are more often associated with Brazilian tourism. The state has a more temperate climate than its northern neighbours, and given it is still winter in these parts at the moment, it was pretty cold for a lot of our stay.
Third on the list of things I love after numbers and plans is food and this was always going to be a major part of our experience.
Before leaving we were intrigued by what we would and wouldn’t find as we went from country to country. Claire and I love food, from the odd Michelin star treat to a hungover Burger King, so we were both excited about the new foods we would discover and how we would adapt from place to place.
The other major factor in our food journey was always going to be what the hell would we feed Amber. It’s safe to say Amber is a typical toddler (it’s taken me quite some time to accept and understand that) in that her preferences seem to change on a daily basis. Just when you think you can always fall back on some bread and cream cheese suddenly both are off the menu and you’re scrabbling around the fridge searching for something she will like. New foods, even new brands of old foods, are treated like extra terrestrial objects – probed, poked and if you’re lucky they may touch the lips before somewhat inevitably being rejected.
So take that fussy toddler and drop her into Brazil with two hyper-sensitive parents and you have a recipe for a rather emotional start to our trip, at least when it came to meal times.