While I’ve written two previous editions of the Bradt Travel Guide to Uruguay and gone to just about every town and sight of any significance, there was one that had eluded me – the Quebrada de los Cuervos, a small national park in the northeast of the country. It’s not a huge canyon, but it’s known for preserving dense (if very low) subtropical forest of a kind that’s mostly only found across the border in Brazil. It’s been protected for a long time, but I was surprised to find that the loop path really is pretty rough – rocky and with steep climbs and descents – and definitely not for everyone. Still, it’s well organised, with maps, signs and rangers leading walks, and it’s easy to get to the main viewpoint without tackling the rough path. I saw a few lagartos (halfway between a lizard and an iguana) and plenty of the vultures that give the place its name (cuervo or crow being the local name for a vulture); there were plenty of other birds about, but I didn’t actually set eye on them. I also found a nice new guesthouse in the area that I didn’t know about, so it was worth the detour.
To get here, I’d spent ten days making my way along the coast from Montevideo to the Brazilian border – it’s well known that Uruguay has fantastic beaches while northern Argentina has none, and as you move north they become emptier and emptier until you find vast swathes of totally empty sand. I hiked from Cabo Polonio to Barra de Valizas and Aguas Dulces and only passed a couple of other people, as well as quite a few dead seals, a turtle shell, a dead penguin and a live but very tired and confused one.
There are considerable differences between the various beach resorts which take a bit of pinning down (they’re not entirely fixed, either – La Paloma used to be overrun with partying youngsters in high season, but they are now moving on). One thing that is common is for a resort to be on a headland, with a Brava (Wild) and Mansa (Calm) side, with surfers on one and families on the other. It’s also worth mentioning that, as you go further northeast towards Brazil, that there are many lagoons and other wetlands that are a haven for birds and a heaven for birdwatchers (the western fringe of the country, along the Río Uruguay, is similar, and indeed the whole country offers wonderful birding).
Close to Montevideo, the beach settlements have largely been absorbed by the city; the first that really has its own identity is Atlántida, an hour from the capital, which has a couple of strange buildings (one in the shape of an eagle’s head, another like an ocean liner) and is strongly identified with candombe drumming at Carnaval season.
After this, there’s a slight gap until you reach Piriápolis in Maldonado department – this was laid out on alchemical principles by the rather odd Francisco Piria (there’s more on him in the book, obviously) and in the 1920s boasted the largest hotel in South America. It all fell apart somewhat after Piria’s death and is now a fairly quiet family-oriented resort; you can visit the ‘castles’ of Piria and his disciple Humberto Pittamiglio and hike up Cerro Pan de Azúcar for great views (especially if you continue upwards inside the giant concrete cross).
The heart of Uruguay’s holiday territory is the Punta del Este area, which is where things get complicated. Punta itself is a mini-Miami with lots of tower blocks, which is packed with Argentines in January; there’s a high-octane blingy vibe, with amazingly expensive fashion shops and restaurants. It’s very much a see-and-be-seen, conspicuous expenditure locale. Sensible people stay elsewhere, for instance in the arty suburbs of La Barra and Manantiales, and the real big spenders stay in luxury villas further along the coast (but still drive into Punta at midnight for dinner and dancing). The end of this strip is the former fishing village of José Ignacio, which is where those Argentines who are truly wealthy and don’t need to show off about it gather – everyone can hang out on the beach and everyone is the same in shorts and flip-flops. Even so, there are some legendary restaurants hidden in the pine-forests nearby, where you dine by candlelight wrapped in blankets.
It should also be said Ruta 10, the main road along the coast, is discontinuous, so to continue northeastwards you have to go inland and take Ruta 9 into Rocha department. South of the city of Rocha is La Paloma, a spacious, purpose-built resort that was very popular with students and school-leavers for a while – up to 20,000 would come for New Year and early January, a dozen or more renting a house together but sleeping very little, with huge discos raving away until the morning – until the authorities forced the discos to move further from the centre and the party animals began to go elsewhere (Punta del Diablo, below, for one). It’s still growing fast, now spreading several kilometres into the forest to the west.
Just a few kilometres to the northeast, its little sister La Pedrera is a place that I just love, for some reason that I can’t put my finger on – I’m not at all a beach person, but there’s something elemental and Cornish about the Atlantic weather, and it’s very close to nature, with lots of noisy birds, and lagartos (like mini-iguanas) popping out of the undergrowth. And here, and in José Ignacio and Punta del Diablo, minimalist white-cube houses are being built in the dunes which I find very attractive (they also sit well with the Deco houses which are quite common in Uruguay). It’s a bohemian arty sort of place which is famed for its carnaval parade.
Continuing northeast, there are miles and miles of empty beaches (with a few tentative attempts at development) until you reach the legendary Cabo Polonio. There’s no road or mains services here (other than power for the lighthouse) – you arrive on the back of a four-wheel-drive truck, and there are a few generators and solar panels, which nowadays even provide a few hours of wi-fi in some hostels. The lighthouse is surrounded by a rag-tag sprawl of squatters’ shacks, basically, some of which are now hostels and guesthouses, and there are cafés serving fresh seafood and seaweed fritters, but the idea is just to hang out on empty beaches, strum a guitar and smoke some weed when it gets dark, and feel the stresses and strains of urban life melt away. In other words, it’s not for everyone.
From here I walked onwards along the (reasonably firm, and totally empty) beaches to Barra de Valizas (reached by a short ferry ride, costing £1) and Aguas Dulces, two small beach villages that are reached by road and mains electricity and so don’t have the allure of Cabo Polonio. Nevertheless, Barra de Valizas in particular is very popular with creative types from Montevideo.
There’s another great swathe of emptiness before you reach Punta del Diablo, a little fishing village that’s become another chic resort for those with money, as well as for die-hard surfers. It’s popular with Brazilians and other foreigners, so the season starts in November, whereas purely Uruguayan/Argentine resorts see no action until late December. In fact it was generally very hard, updating a guidebook in late November, to tell which bars and restaurants would actually open again – but not here.
I was also tracking the opening times for post and phone offices, which are more limited than they used to be, in particular with post offices no longer opening on Saturdays – if this is the only effect of economic slow-down they are indeed fortunate, compared to the decade of ever more vicious cuts we’ve endured in Britain. We now have a broken country and the results that we have seen from that – a bit superficial, I know, but if Brexit ever really does happen I’ll write more about this.
In my post on the last edition of the Bradt guide to Uruguay, I mentioned that a new bus terminal had appeared in Paysandú (it’s clearly under the same management as the one in Salto, with the same excellent website and departure screens, for instance). The one planned for Tacuarembó hasn’t been built, but the current one is fine for now. It turns out that there is a project for the main town of each department to have a terminal, rather than scattered offices, so others have appeared in Rocha, Chuy (another town in Rocha department, as it happens) and Trinidad, and one is under construction in Treinta y Tres, although it’s not sure that that one will open in 2020. They’re pretty decent, mostly with wifi and free toilets, and thankfully they have avoided the problem I’ve mentioned before with new high-speed railway stations that are so far from the centre that you lose all the time gained on the train just in getting to and from the stations. These are all a 15 to 20-minute walk from the centre, which isn’t too bad.
Another change is that zoos, which imprisoned large raptors and animals in tiny cages, are being not just modernised but reformed as Bio Parques, with larger enclosures housing species that don’t seem to suffer so much in captivity – ñandues (the South American ostrich), capybaras (the world’s largest rodent), geese and ducks and so on – they’re very popular family destinations and are definitely an improvement on the previous situation.