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Boca del Cufré

Montevideo

THURSDAY 2nd MAY. Passport on its way to London. Me westbound on Ruta 1 out of Montevideo toward Colonia del Sacramento. I had over a month to kill before having to return to collect my new passport, so there was no rush to go anywhere in particular.

Colonia lies about 170km west but my eyes scanned the countryside when the buildings dissolved into rural green farmland. Scanning for quiet nooks and crannies for pitching a tent for a quiet couple of nights. I had no plan.

New dual carriageway contrasting with Google’s street view of 2015 which displayed a fairly barren single carriageway. Partly cloudy, the sun failed to provide much warmth during its appearances, the onshore breeze winning each dual. I had no GPS since my phone drowned in Brazil I’d been an hour and a half on Ruta 1, which would put me around halfway to Colonia, A sign to Boca del Cufré looked promising, taking me off the main drag towards the coast, I turned left across the vacant carriageway and 15km down to Boca del Cufré.

The wooded area of Rincon de Francisco offered a promising Plan B, just in case nothing was suitable for camping in the village, and I passed beneath the impressive welcome gantry before turning right along the riverside. I paused at the Municipal Mirador for a few minutes to admire the river and to consider the possibility to camp there. Even though the place possessed a post-apocalyptic tranquillity with not a soul in view, it was too exposed and I cruised down the riverside, past dormant houses, passing the Club Nautico to park at the Jetty where the river meets the sea.

Checking the time on the screen on the back of my camera. it had gone 6pm and the sun hung behind distant cloud low on the horizon. Everything looked closed and deserted. Slotting a pebble under the side stand of the Yamaha to stop it toppling over, I meandered lazily down the jetty.

Jetty

The first few minutes arriving at somewhere new are valuable moments of discovery. I’d got a feel of the layout of the village already and this moment along the jetty gave me the opportunity for a broader overview. Looking back to shore I saw no activity and dawdled back picking up pieces of litter, dropping them into the trash cans along the way. To my left, the river Arroyo Cufré to my right, the beach.

Boca del Cufre

I clambered down the boulders to the sand and picked up a stray plastic bag continuing along the shore filling it with cans, wrappers, bottles and caps. When it was full I cut across the beach to the car park and left the bag next to the overflowing trash can.

Limpio

Remounting the Yamaha, I exited the car park and cruised along the seafront, only a couple of basic looking stores shuttered up and lifeless. To my right, a scenic but deserted tree-lined beach with picnic areas, public toilets and showers. Checking the doors… closed.

Boca del Cofre

Cruising back to Club Nautico y Pesca Yacht Club, there’re pinewoods opposite. This was the campsite set on an unfenced block of land surrounded by streets. The lifeless looking office displayed no opening times amongst the bus timetable and notices in the window.

Boca del Cufre

A tired, converted bus next door looked abandoned. I tapped on the door anyway. No answer. Circling the office, the bathrooms and faucets that protruded through the walls were padlocked. I’d seen nobody since turning off Ruta 1 over an hour ago. Bliss!

Boca del Cufre

I remounted and turned slowly off the road and into the trees opening the throttle for the extra energy needed for riding over the soft, pine-needle carpeted sand and pitched my tent amongst the scattered plastic bottles and cans. Power points dotted about offered false promises of electricity but they were dead. A stray dog trotted up to say hello, sniffed around and trotted off. It had a clairvoyant skill to sense when food was out and would return as soon as it was.

Boca del Cufre

Friday 3rd.The late morning sun painting shadows over the carpet of pine needles. I walked across the road to Club Nautico y Pesca. The door was ajar but the TV on in the corner of the empty restaurant suggested life. “Hola?” A young woman responded by her appearance and confirmed they were open for business and I ordered lunch and coffee, took a seat at one of the tables along the front windows. Since I was alone here, I had no worries about leaving my laptop booting up while I took advantage of the only bathroom facilities available to me.

A child rattled toys on the floor near the counter while children’s TV echoed off the ceramic floor tiles and giant window panes. It seemed the family lived here and I felt almost like I was intruding. I was mystified how they made a living with nobody about. I spent the afternoon on the internet waving flies away and scooping the skin off the surface of my cooling cafe con leche. One other person entered while I was there, a friend of the family. No customers.

The next morning, depressing the handle and leaning on the door, the yacht club was locked. Abierto, the sign beamed in its red and blue LEDs. Means nothing in South America, and I strolled through the trees to the store just 50 metres North of my tent to buy some bread and jam for breakfast. The campsite is an eyesore, a real mess with trash strewn around and I set about tidying it up, starting by dividing the site into 9 zones in a noughts and crosses pattern. Left centre and right – top middle and bottom and set about working one zone at a time: big stuff then little stuff.

Once you get started, Eyes home in on smaller and smaller debris like bottle tops and cigarette ends like I was working down a trashy mandelbrot fractal. The impression I had with my nose to the ground was of making no progress until I stood up and looked back. One of the neighbours walking home along the eastern street noticed me, waved and said Gracias, which spurred me on for a few more minutes.

Late afternoon, I returned to Club Nautico. The door popped open out of its binding frame with a gentle rattle after a more insistent nudge, so Club Nautica might have been open all along. I recharged the laptop over coffee and internet, later returning to the woods to discover a couple of hikers pitched camp maybe 30 metres away. They were focussed on themselves so they never noticed me waiting to give them a wave. I collected wood for preparing a fire for cooking.

Late afternoon, I returned to Club Nautico. The door popped open out of its binding frame with a gentle rattle after a more insistent nudge, so Club Nautica might have been open all along. I recharged the laptop over coffee and internet, later returning to the woods to discover a couple of hikers pitched camp maybe 30 metres away. They were focussed on themselves so they never noticed me waiting to give them a wave. I collected wood for preparing a fire for cooking.

Evenings were gradually developing a chilly bite and I lit the fire near a felled tree trunk so I could sit comfortably and warm myself watching the pasta soften. Eyes watered with the smoke that seemed to find me wherever I sat. My neighbours had formed a circle with logs and camping equipment and sat quietly around their own fire with the clairvoyant dog now orbiting their camp. No meat in my pasta.

Boca del Cufre

Sunday 5th May. Raindrops pattering on the flysheet. Thunderstorms circulated the sky and I stayed hunkered down in the tent. Club Nautico was closed for the day but the store was open. They kindly charged up my laptop so at least I’d be able to watch a movie later.  The showers came and went and I dedicated another spell of collecting trash close by my neighbours in order to perhaps inspire them by osmosis to help out. It didn’t work and was ignored. I stopped for a chat anyway, the guy was alone now and told me his partner departed for Montevideo to get a flight home while he would continue his travel. He seemed happy to remain alone and there was no invitation to share food, wine or company so I continued collecting trash leaving him and the stray dog to whatever they were doing.

Colonia Valdense

Monday. I liked it here in the woods at Boca del Cufré but I would need a shower soon. That would be the main motivator. I struck camp and left to withdraw cash at Colonia Valdense 35km away. No joy. The ATMs were small domestic terminals at small stores and didn’t cater for international cards. Instead, I retreated to Che Paco restaurant for contemplation.

C0oloni  Valdense

Lunch at Che Paco provided the opportunity to search for the next campsite. IOverlander listed somewhere with hot showers that might be free of charge out of season. Only 7km away. it would make for a short day’s travel so I cruised past the tiny village of La Paz to its small rustic yacht club next to the Rio Rosario.

A couple of fishermen stood looking at a boat on the grass either contemplating a launch into the water or loading it on their trailer. Next to the building, a guy turned a handle on a mincing device filling sausage skins. I orbited the clubhouse and into the deserted campsite. Nobody here, so I coasted back to the sausage maker who asked how long I wanted to stay and I replied just one night and he waved his hand saying no problem I could stay for free-gratis. I settled down early enjoying the electricity on the laptop for watching movies until the novelty wore off about 3am.

Tuesday morning, waking to clouds of breath at La Paz freezing cold and humid. I dressed then filled a bowl from the faucet to shaved at the picnic table near my tent. The showers are heated via an open fire but since there were no other people here, there was no fire either. The choice was either a cold shower or nothing. I emerged clean and buzzing, quickly drying and getting dressed.

Seeings I had said I would only stay one night I thought I should pack away and move on, else I would have stayed one more night. I diverted off the main road the 9km to Rosario for cash. No. I tried four banks that had the same network. waste of time but it wasn’t that far off the main road. Lunch at Casa Vecchia. Santa Ana came up with rave reviews as a camping place and had four sites marked. Plan A, B, C and D. 

Santa Ana, picturesque on the coast, consisted mostly of locked up holiday homes. Disappointingly, all the mapped campsite were too exposed, displaying no camping signs.

I probably wouldn’t have had too much of a problem but didn’t want to be so exposed, so I cruised around Santa Ana to enjoy the view before taking off to investigate El Calabrés Beach near Colonia del Sacramento.

The cold wind cut across a bright blue sky and I turned toward the coast before Colonia to arrive at a disappointing car park. These reviews for wild campsites looked all good for motorhomes but poor for tents. A couple of parked cars suggested people fishing off the beach. Probably off the long pier a few hundred metres to the east.

To my left, a couple of hundred meters, a pine forest over a suggestion of a hill. If I could make it through the shrubs, it should be secluded spot and sheltered from the cool wind.

Vague tracks led through the weeds and faded away. I propped the bike on its side stand and trampled a path through the undergrowth and up the slope to the trees. Perfect, If the bike could make it over the soft sand between the shrubs then this spot would be ideal.

I ploughed along a path between bushes and opened the throttle through the soft sand lifting my feet so as to not get snagged by the weeds.

Now sheltered from the low sun warmed my back as I pitched the tent and strung out the hammock. In the distance, to the east toward the sea, the growl of a dirt bike churning through the dunes hacksawed through the tranquillity. The sound ebbed and flowed on the wind as I expected to see it roar through the trees at any minute but never did. I remained perfectly undiscovered.

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Montevideo

FRIDAY 26TH APRIL After packing away on the banks of Arroyo Solis, route 1B effortlessly led me along a muted water-colour painted landscape beneath a mackerel sky toward Uruguay’s capital of Montevideo, claimed online as a “relaxed, vintage version of Buenos Aires.” I was looking forward to arrival, although the cool, colourless air dampened its tacit welcome.

The traffic built, as it does when approaching a major city, and I turned left towards the coast as soon as I sensed the vague outer limits of the city. The indistinct urban boundary, the traffic density and the time it took to crawl short distances from signal to signal made Montevideo feel expansive. Along the coast, the low rise waterfront gradually grew into a metropolitan sea-wall of tower blocks along the low-level shoreline, as charmless looking as it was long. Kilometres of endless Rambla awash with city traffic.

Finally, as the grey atmosphere began condensing into tangible drizzle, the city centre passed behind my right shoulder and I curled 180 degrees around the Ciudad Vieja (old city) at the tip of the harbour peninsular, past the old Mercado del Puerto, and turned right flowing inland with busses hissing over glossy tail-light streaked pavement to the Plaza Independencia. This could easily be Manchester or Liverpool back home. The mechanical tide drifted around the Plaza to gather at the red light at its junction with the Montevideo’s busy Ave 18th Julio.

Huddled with the cars and buses on the edge of the plaza impatiently waiting for the green light, I lifted my dripping visor to notice the warm glow of cafe lights beneath the dark brow of a colonnade on the plaza across the junction. Additionally, a gaggle of motorcycles parked outside suggested convenient, semi-secure motorcycle parking. Timely, since – although not yet soaked through – I had been slowly losing body heat during the trip.

Swinging open the glass door into the loud Spanish chatter of the crowded cafe, I spotted a vacant corner table displaying the remains of a lunch like it had undergone an autopsy. I stacked the plates across the table to make space for the laptop and plugged it into the nearby socket. A vegeburger and coffee would serve as rent for my stay as well as fuel for my body while I settled down to contact my prospective host.

Juarez Sousa, whom I’d met just over the border in Brazil travelling the opposite direction back to Sao Paulo at a Cafe in Brazil had put me in touch with Kapy Hbl and the Motoratones Motorcycle Group who offered me shelter if I were to visit Montevideo. And here I was: visiting.

I connected to the WiFi and received a reply within minutes. Kapy wouldn’t be there until 5pm so I sat back for a while sipping coffee and enjoying Praga’s post-lunch cosy hospitality.

Still not yet 4pm and Motoratones being 18km away, I set off east on an exploratory urban dawdle, calling in at the viewing platform at the City Hall for casting an eye over the urban panorama. I wasn’t too worried about leaving my fully loaded bike out front of the plaza; I could see it a dozen stories below me across the square but what could I do from the top of a tower if I saw someone unpacking the bike?

20 minutes later I was back on the streets jostling with the traffic and guessing my way northeast to Motoratones. One-way streets and ‘No Left Turns’ made staying on course impossible and morphed into a series of mini mystery-tours.

Out of the city centre, staying on Ruta 8 became easier with the final challenge of which was the last turning to take off the main road being the last obstacle. I guessed correctly turning along the dirt road to Motoratones, and then past it all the way to the Campeón del Siglo stadium at the Ruta 102 junction at the other end, confirming that at least I had been on the right road.

Lack of signage made the anonymous-looking tin hut difficult to identify. Checking the number painted on the front against the one on my laptop, I poked my head inside the door. Manuel had been expecting my arrival and warmly greeted me. His English was thinner than my Spanish but Kapy joined us after about an hour and between his better English and Google Translator we were able to communicate. I told Kapy I might need the British Embassy while I was here and he confirmed my obvious thought that it would be closed until Monday but it would be fine to stay at Motoratones as long as I needed.

Motoratones’ Club House is a large corrugated iron single-story building that looks like a workshop from the outside but contains all the comforts of a house inside. The double doors opened to allow entry for my motorcycle over the concrete floor and next to the pool table. Kapy showed me my comfortable double mattress in a bedroom and around all the amenities before he and Manuel left to go home. I had the place to myself. I’m OK with that. My own pad in the Montevideo suburbs.

27th April, thinking cities are typically busy on Saturdays, I stayed in: alone. I had food with me so spent most of the day hunkered down on the internet. My passport had a few months left on it but was becoming a bit of a concern on how to renew it. Montevideo, being a Capital City, had an Embassy. Buenos Aires across the Rio de la Plata had one too, but I didn’t know how long processing would take and wanted to be away from there in time for the Total Solar Eclipse of July 2nd. I couldn’t do much about it over the weekend, except finding out the location and renewal instructions so stayed in and researched as much as I could. There were two locations listed. Only one would be current and it was difficult to discern which.

Sunday 28th. I’d noticed Sundays are commonly a quiet day by passing through the Uruguayan cities along the way so today offered a perfect opportunity to go sight-seeing along the uncongested streets.

A cool and dry day under another grey sky became windier as I drew nearer the coast. The lighthouse loomed across the Rambla on my left as the buildings along Bulevar General Artigas parted at the coastal junction.

The road forced me to turn right, so I went with the flow to cruise along the seafront for a few kilometres before hanging a u-turn back.

The attendant at the lighthouse offered to keep my helmet on his desk while I looked around. Without any other visitors, I was left to roam freely around the exhibits and up the stairs to admire the view and indulge a private game of spot the manufacturer: often one of the Victorian, Industrial cities of Great Britain. I guessed Liverpool but no, Birmingham.

Now hungry, the La Estacada, next door, is a pricey restaurant, cosy but posh enough for me to feel conspicuous. I stepped in, spotted the serviettes and wine glasses and stepped out again before the door swung closed behind me. Cloth serviettes are red-flags to me, warning of high prices.

I pulled up outside Isadora Libros, a bookshop a little way up the coast from the lighthouse with this idea to buy a book in Spanish to spur me on for learning the language. Sunday: it was closed but I noticed Costa Azul Cafeteria at the end of the road was open. Sheltering there from the sea-breeze with a coffee and chivito.

The Monday Mission, now that businesses were open for the week: solve the mystery of passport renewal. Blue sky and bright sunshine being a good omen, off to the Embassy I rode to ask about the process face to face with a human. I parked on the sidewalk under the dappled leafy shade of a tree, half expecting to be at the wrong location of the two listed on the internet. Fifty-fifty. My lucky day, I rang the buzzer on the gate.

Funny how Embassy security employees never seem to speak English. Karina, the Consular Officer, instructed the guard to let me in and helped with their limited services. They can’t do much and were keen to state it after each enquiry, but what they can do they do reasonably well. I’s arrived with the impression that an Embassy could process a passport in-house, not necessarily while you wait but within a week or so. No, centrally processed online including all the risks and delays associated with international postage.

Karina kindly printed out the instructions I needed for applying online and emailed me authorisation, for printing out and including with the application, that I use the Embassy’s address for delivery. That was about all we could do, the rest would have to be dealt with anywhere that had an internet connection.

I continued with my hare-brained idea of buying a favourite book in Spanish so I could read it and learn the language and cruised up to the wonderful Escaramuza Libros bookshop and bought a copy of Richard Bach’s Illusions. I had already read it in English, twice, and sat in Esaramuza’s cafe courtyard to enjoy coffee and cake while flicking through the book’s pages in bewilderment.

Calling it a day, I retreated back to Motoratones, now familiar with the virtual labyrinth of prohibited turnings and handy rat-runs to get me onto Ruta 8.

There’s a Supermarket on the main road just past my turning not far from Motoratones. Handy for nabbing some snacks and a bottle of wine on the way for oiling the wheels of government administration.

Back at base, I filled in the online passport application and wrestled with the photo requirement rejections for an hour until the lighting and background suddenly and mysteriously accepted a photo I’m now lumbered with for 10 years. I saved the documents into pdf files on a USB stick ready for printing out later somewhere in the city for sending together with the old passport back to London.

Tuesday 30th I rode into the old town to buy an envelope, print off and sign my forms ready for sending over a coffee at another nice bookshop called Librería Más Puro Verso. Tomorrow, the plan was to pack up, call in at DHL then head West toward Colonia del Sacramento while waiting for the new passport, instead of drumming my fingers at Montevideo.

1st May I casually packed away, planning to find somewhere to camp on the coast about an hour west of Montevideo. I had all day so there was no rush. When I got to DHL it was closed. Today was Labour Day: celebrated by closing up and suspending labour for the day.

That was that then. I parked up at Plaza Matriz to connect to the free Municipal WiFi and determine my options. I discovered no couriers outside of Montevideo that would be on my route so would have to remain here until tomorrow and so fired up Booking.com to discover Punto Berro Ciudad Vieja just half a block away and only a block from DHL.

Punto Berro Ciudad Vieja is a cute old City-Centre Hostel, that doesn’t look much from the outside, run by a family from India that served home-cooked Indian food for dinner after the usual argument that I had already paid for the option on Booking.com’s website plus ‘Good Breakfast’ having to show my email receipt on the laptop screen as evidence, a lesson I had still not yet learned with Booking.com. They had no secure parking but I was calmly reassured, with the confidence that the absence of personal risk provides, that my bike would be safe in the street, especially as the holiday had emptied the neighbourhood for the holiday.

As this was my last afternoon in Montevideo, I cruised around the old city centre. The famous Port Market was closed but families were out in the street barbecuing to the thump of their reggaeton throbbing boomboxes. There wasn’t much to do or see, to be honest, and I soon drifted back to the Hostel to relax.

My dorm on the first floor faced the street, reassuringly able to monitor my motorcycle chained up next to the skip across the road outside Cafe Brasilero. I was surprised to find my roommates were three guys of African descent, only noticing because I’d only encountered Caucasian and Indigenous people over the last few months of travelling and it highlighted how less cosmopolitan Southern Brazil and Uruguay appeared to be compared to the UK. We didn’t share a common language but I think they were here for work since the Port was just a few blocks away.

Dinner tasted delicious, and the night passed peacefully in the quiet, street-facing dorm.

Thursday 2nd of May, I packed away and strolled around the corner to DHL and stunned to discover their US$105 mailing fee for a featherweight envelope no bigger than a birthday card. I said I’d think about it and retreated to Cafe Brasilera across the road from the Hostel for brunch and WiFi to discover that FedEx was no cheaper. I couldn’t risk domestic mail… they had me over a barrel. With all the fees, Passport renewal totalled over US$280. How Governments take away a right and sell it back to you.

I resentfully returned to DHL, coughed up the fee and sent the package off, setting my timer to wait “up to five weeks” for processing plus however long for shipping. Meanwhile, I couldn’t leave the country until receiving my new passport and planned to kick over the gravel around the undiscovered western fringes of Uruguay.

Starting the engine, I caught my reflection in the window opposite which reminded me I was still on a big adventure faking a picture to remind myself to not get distracted by daily problems and set off around the harbour, stopping only to buy a feeler gauge for adjusting my own valves, which hadn’t been checked since Asuncion in Paraguay. I hit the road around Montevideo Bay and out to Ruta 1 for Colonia, happy to escape the city, looking forward to camping out beneath sky and leaves once again.

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Punta Del Este

The Fingers of Punta Del Este

TUESDAY 23RD APRIL, I awoke indoors blanketed in a comfortable bed for a change. The spartan breakfast in the cool alfresco space of the RocaMar courtyard let a little air out of my buoyant start. The thing about Booking.com is that you have to understand it’s written in marketing English as opposed to regular English. The “Good” in “Good Breakfast” isn’t an adjective, it’s part of Booking.com’s extended noun for the common term of “Breakfast,” which could equally mean “bad” or “hardly-any,” 

Good Breakfast

“Ask about our optional extended menu.” boasted a sign on the counter.

“No tengo!” came the reply, which means how it sounds. 

The optional menu was applicable only for high season, and the sign was left out for low season purely for decoration.

I mistook two of the staff for guests, halving the true occupancy, the hotel being virtually empty.

Rocamar Hostel

Marketing trick No.2: During online booking, an alert often pops up “Last one available,” designed to nudge you toward clicking the “Confirm” button, bearing no relation to the stark emptiness regularly discovered upon arrival, and confirmation by the sparse selection of tableware set out for the morning’s “Good Breakfast.”

I soon downed my bread and orange squash and retreated to the dorm to revel in warmth and comfort to blog all day and browse the internet. This otherwise boring activity became a contrasting treat due to the scarcity of electricity, communications, and comfort out on the road.

The next morning, wandering out of my sanctuary for the promise of more good-breakfast. The treat of the day was my first shower since Quebraba a week ago. It’s not as bad as it might sound since Uruguay, being temperate and dry, isn’t the sweaty tropics and we are entering Autumn. The first shower in a while feels almost orgasmic, groaning with pleasure from within the cloud of steam, and the deluge pounding my scalp and rinsing away the dust and odours of the road like the first rains at the end of a long dry summer. 

Punta del Este Flag

I used to shower every day back in civilisation and suffered from dry skin. Not any more. I think my body has found a natural equilibrium now. Although seemingly a less sanitary lifestyle, it feels a lot more healthy.

Without the luggage, the bike feels light and responsive and I wobbled and darted my way along the empty sea-front into the city in search of cash and information. Few things are as satisfying as replenishing your wallet from an ATM except perhaps a good meal.

Rotary Restaurant

The hombre at the empty Tourist Information office warmly welcomed me and listed the top attractions to see around the city. He recommended the rotary restaurant across the road, which I could see if I stuck my head out the door and looked upwards. Eager to please, he telephoned for the opening times. It was closed because of a holiday or maintenance or something so I started my wanderings with a stop off at the harbour just 2km down the road to visit the pampered sea-lions. Fat and lazy through easy pickings – becoming a tourist attraction in their own right for their keep – they burped their fishy breath shunning the fisherman’s excess offcuts being waved at arm’s length by the visitors. I’d never been this close to them before and it felt like being near pets than wild animals.

Sea Lions Feeding

Lunch at the cheapest cafe I could find: “The Family” next door to the more cosy looking “Rustic,” cheaper but which still boasts European level prices. I cruised a lap of the peninsular before committing to visit Casapueblo at Punta Ballena, 14km west. I didn’t feel like riding much but ample time spread before me able to be wasted. I looked across the water for ten or fifteen minutes, in contemplation.

Punta Del Este Restaurants

Punta del Este marks the boundary between the Atlantic Ocean and the Rio de la Plata, which seems odd since its still 220km across its mouth and the opposite shore cannot be seen. Juan Diaz de Solis explored the Rio de la Plata in 1516 in his search for a route to the Pacific which would remain undiscovered until Magellan’s voyage in 1520. Rio de la Plata is the confluence of two mighty rivers: The Paraña and The Uruguay. Much history and, almost unbelievably, I was here now: an ordinary bloke from Northampton on a small motorcycle.

Rio de la Plata

The straight and empty coastal dual carriageway felt further than 14km perhaps because of the lack of visual features and the cold steady wind blowing across the Rio de la Plata urging my mind for cravings of warmth and shelter.

Carlos Paez Vilaro

Casapueblo was the residence of the famous artist Carlos Páez Vilaró, who’s son was featured in the true story Alive when flight 571 carrying a Uruguayan Rugby team to Chile crashed in the Andes. The search was called off after a week but the survivors endured for 72 days until the weather warmed enough for two of the party to hike the 35km across the mountains and get help. Carlos would have been here for two months believing his son to have died.

Carlos Paez Vilaro

What a great house, built by this artist and inspired by nature. There’s not a straight line anywhere on it. The place was busy but not crowded, artworks tastefully lit and displayed throughout the rooms. Coffee and cake on the cafe’s patio was a real delight and worth the stretch of my budget.

I sipped frothy cappuccino looking out across the patios and the sea imagining what it would be like to live there. Tranquil but lonely if it were just me… like a monk in a cave. I’d have to run an AirBnB or something but for today I simply loved the moment, and stayed until dusk before returning to RocaMar.

RocaMar

Thursday the 25th, I considered staying one more day but WiFi died in the night, so no, if I’m going out for WiFi, I’m moving on altogether…  

Expecting La Vista Restaurante Giratorio to be open, it looked firmly closed and I rattled the sliding doors to check. I’d parked my fully loaded bike in the empty car park across the road next to the Tourist Information office and sat amongst the Transformer sculptures on the forecourt, counting down to the noon opening time. After ten minutes, the doors slid open and I walked up to the desk to be greeted by a US$10 entry fee… even before the opportunity of ordering a coffee.

Nah, “Muy caro” I said, span on my heels and walked back across the road, mounted up and hit Ruta 10 along the, now familiar, Baie de Maldonado sea-front, past Casapueblo turning left off the main road as soon as I could diverting along the quieter coastal route through the tranquil resort towns of Punta Colorada and Piriápolis.

Montevideo is only about 135km from Punta del Este: Three hours, easy. but I wanted to savour as much of the coast as possible since it was unlikely I’d ever be coming back this way, so reminded myself that I had plenty of time before the July Solar Eclipse in Argentina and to follow the road less travelled as much as I could. A constant battle with the hangover from the culture I’d grown up with of saving time, I guess.

The wilds were long-gone now, well behind me to the east. This coast was more commercial. Bought, paid for, and fenced off: stained by civilisation. I passed through sleepy Punta Colorada and Piriápolis. Entering Piriápolis reminded me of an English seaside town and I rolled on through without even putting my feet down. Nice enough but holiday resorts aren’t my thing.

15 KM further west, Solis, a couple of promising looking campsites pinned on iOverlander. A quaint, quiet village of mainly locked up holiday homes punctuated by barking dogs in the yards of the few interspersed permanent residents. The camping spots I had looked forward to proved disappointing in reality and exposed too much to local eyes. A dog growled through a wire fence as I dismounted and explored on foot, and a young motorcyclist sitting on a barrier next to the river eyed my meandering reconnoiter, so I retreated inland to the “Ahora Si” cafe for a long afternoon lunch and to latch onto WiFi for forming a Plan B.

Just across the river, Jaureguiberry hides quietly in the trees. A sleepy neighbourhood of narrow lanes cutting between woods and scattered rustic homes.  The camp marked close to the bridge wasn’t marked; I added that later.

Probing the riverside accesses, I discovered a grassy area behind some trees next to the river. The usual evidence of humans: trash and bonfire marks. One man fishing at the riverside didn’t seem to notice me and I didn’t advertise myself. I dismounted and kicked around the grass collecting litter while searching for a flat and level pitch sheltered from the wind eventually settling down in long grass amongst some bushes as the sun began to set.

A catamaran drifting at anchor in the river mouth cast my mind back to my time in the Caribbean. I felt just as happy in the bushes. Over the rustle of leaves in the breeze, as darkness crept over, all I could hear was the light hum of the occasional car crossing the bridge. 

Although not a picturesque camp, it felt snug and private. As I’d imagine a chick snuggling under a bird’s wing for the night.

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El Caracol

San Antonio Beach

FEELING PRETTY LAZY upon awakening. Friday 19th April – Good Friday. I laid in for a while before getting up to stroll along the deserted beach. The sun not yet strong enough to blunt the edge of the chilly morning breeze. I harvested the inevitable discarded bottles, cans and plastic waste that I encountered along the way, which seems to be a universal constant wherever I go in the world.

This week is Easter week, and I hadn’t really noticed since I’d been away from the big towns. It probably explained why the Fort had been so busy on the Tuesday just gone. I was only 120km from Punta Del Este, a city with a reputation as a holiday and party centre for the ‘well to do’ of Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil. Not my scene, which meant I had four days to make half a day’s journey. I had four days to kick over the sand somewhere along the coast.

El Caracol, Uruguay

Years ago I’d daydreamed of places to escape the congested British rat race. Ambitions of being a tax-exile if only I could earn enough money, so somewhere cheap without too much government intrusion and somewhere at a warmer latitude.

Uruguay

My mouse cursor hovered over Asuncion and Ciudad del Este in Paraguay then towards the Uruguayan coast: Punta del Este and Montevideo. I’d already visited Asuncion and Ciudad del Este and here I was now a short ride away from Punta del Este. I never thought I’d actually tread these parts with my own boots half a world and half a lifetime away.

San Antonio Stealth Camp

I packed away my stealth camp from behind the bushes between the empty villas and rode into La Pedrera for brunch at a rather nice cafe I’ve now forgotten the name of. I had an abundance of time to be able to afford to waste and I finally left at three to ride into La Paloma for fuel and to photograph the lighthouse prominent in the Google Maps pages. 

The town was busy with urban bustle with a rough edge that gave me an uneasy feeling. Noisy hot hatches and beat-up cars cruised the streets, booming Reggaeton spilling through the windows.  I wouldn’t be staying.

La Paloma

I photographed the lighthouse and bought some supplies before taking off into the countryside.

On the map, it looked doubtful whether I could cross the Laguna de Rocha inlet along the gravel coast road. No bridge on the map and no ferry on the street view, and I opted for certainty by travelling back inland to the Ruta 9 at the junction at Rocha and skirting the Lagoon.

My mission along the way was to look for a quiet sanctuary close to a store which seemed a tall order passing miles of fields and greenery. Ruta 9 was too busy with traffic and rejoining Ruta 10 south of the Lagoon was quiet enough but still little sign of civilisation.

El Caracol

Puente Laguna Garzón looked promising on the map but, upon arrival, it was busy with visitors. In 80km I had spotted no decent site and the best options here felt too exposed with too many tyre tracks in and out of the spindly bushes.  Further along, the trees had completely disappeared from the landscape and left only bare dunes exposed to eyes from the road and wind from the sea. I retreated up the coast to where Ruta 10 deviated inland and a wedge of forest bisected the road and the beach. Five miles back, a sandy track led from the road to the spearhead of woods on the beach and I was able to plough through the soft pine needle covered sand into the trees.

El Caracol Woods Access

I rode through to the edge of the woods bordering the open beach. Perfect. I pitched the tent and strung up the hammock and tucked into my bread and wine. I wished I had bought enough to last me until Monday because I hadn’t seen another store since La Paloma. And in the 8km between Puente Laguna Garzón and here, all I’d seen was two or three cars on the beach. 

I heard a distant squeal, the sound of children playing and I walked to the end of the woods along the beach to see a family picnicking. They didn’t see me and I retreated into the trees and back to my hammock.

20th April Saturday. The family had gone by the time I got up and I explored the network of surrounding tracks. It looked like the site had been prepared for development as it was laid out in a basic grid of sandy tracks with some pipes crossing for drainage. The area made for a secluded coastal camp spot and I wasn’t surprised to see a couple of fishermen come and go over the weekend. 

I’d pigged out in my paradise last night and needed more food. The traffic had been almost non-existent on the road so I had no worries about leaving all my belongings zipped up in my tent while I rode back to Puente Laguna Garzón in search of supplies.

Puente Laguna Garzón

Puente Laguna Garzón has a peculiar circular bridge. A giant 100-metre diameter ring set above the water. I found a couple of restaurants but no store. 8km further on lies the village of Jose Ignacio and, with time on my hands, I continued on. 

Devoto Express

Next door to the Ancap gas station on the main road at Jose Ignacio is a terrace of stores plus a bench next to a power socket out front of Devoto supermarket where I could sit connected to their WiFi, sipping coffee.

I returned to the woods late afternoon along the deserted coastal road and, scanning up and down the way, slipped unseen into the trees, the camp was as I’d left it, undiscovered and undisturbed. The wind had strengthened off the sea and carried with it a sharp Atlantic chill making lounging in the hammock unappealing. I struck camp and retreated about a hundred metres into the trees to pitch at the side of the woods away from the wind but closer to the road. 

Although the scenery wasn’t so nice, the slowed breeze felt less cold. The late afternoon sun stretched its fingers between the trees to warm my face as I lounged in the hammock sipping red wine. It was one of those rare moments that feel better shared rather than squandered on a solo social castaway. 

El Caracol Dinner

My sunset dinner consisted of wine, bread, salami and nuts. I don’t like to cook in pine forests when it’s dry and windy. I don’t really like to cook at all, and only do so when the craving of a hot meal overcomes cooking’s inconvenience.

I noticed the usual trash scattered here and there and invested some time for contribution to my species by wandering about the woods collecting wrappers and bottles. One of the three motor oil bottles I’d picked up dripped oil on my trousers and I resented that as an unfair punishment in return for doing a good deed.

Sunday. What to do… The day stretches out too far ahead for wasting it laying in a hammock. I bagged up the trash I’d collected and set off to Jose Ignacio, dumping the trash bag in an overflowing bin along the way. 

Jose Ignacio Lighthouse

Jose Ignacio is a beautiful village graced with a scenic beach and crowned by an immaculate lighthouse: a more tranquil and refined location than La Poloma. I happened upon Soho Cafe on the corner of a plaza, a couple of blocks inland, serving sumptuous cakes and coffee. A bit expensive but a luxurious location for spending a few hours working online for a while. I think the prices kept the riffraff away… except for me.

Monday 22nd. Easter now officially over, I casually packed up camp, powered through the soft sand to the road turning left on the long straight Ruta 10 and stopped off at the Jose Ignacio Ancap and Devoto for coffee and a recharge. Logging onto Booking.com, I discovered a cheap hostel at Punta del Este now a mere 33km away. I held off booking to leave room for the opportunity of finding a wild camp along the way and set off southwest along the coast.

Lionel Viera Bridge La Barra

Ruta 10 was completely bare of trees now, wild sand and sea to my left, the occasional Villa and fenced-off field to the right. I scanned the dunes in search of wild camping spots. Too open to the ocean wind. Villas condensed into villages that gradually abutted one another as I drew closer to Punta del Este. Through the seaside town of La Barra and over the quirky undulating Leonel Viera Bridge, left only a breezy 5km run toward the highrise skyline of Punte del Este.

Punta Del Este Skyline

Ignoring the junction to the Rocamar hostel, I carried straight on the extra couple of kilometres into the city centre and through to the western shore of the peninsula. Punta del Este now a virtual ghost town. 

Dismounting at the most southerly point in Uruguay. The wind rattled the flags out full-stretch and its chill urged me onwards to the famous Hand in the Sand sculpture on the beach 2KM further up the eastern shore and pointed back toward Rocamar.

Punta del Este Flag

A bored-looking bus driver leaned against his bus and smoked a cigarette in the car park and a handful of windswept stragglers mingled between the fingers of the monument, too many people in the way for me to take a decent photo and instead I ducked into the beach cafe next door for a coffee and to use the WiFi for booking the room at Rocamar after my unproductive scan for a suitable campsite. I like to use Booking.com as it sometimes gives a cheaper rate and gives builds a discount with use. I’ve had the odd occasion where the over-the-counter rate has been inflated.

The Fingers of Punte del Este

Late enough to turn in for the evening, I coasted back along the empty shore, the southeasterly wind blowing hard and cold off the Atlantic under a steel grey sky. I turned left off the deserted dual carriageway a few hundred metres into a sleepy residential suburb. Had it not been painted bright red, I would have passed the hostel, mistaking it for a private villa. Rocamar is an unlikely looking single-story bungalow nestling quietly out of the way of the world in a residential subdivision.

Rocamar Hostel

They had no secure parking but their sleepy location suggested safety in its residential anonymity. Ferrying my luggage into the room, I slumped back on the bunk, alone in the cosy dormitory, listening to the wind rattle the loose gate latch outside my door and the lawn sprinkler tapping lightly on the window every ten seconds and savouring the homely luxury of four walls and a roof.

Exploration of the City could wait until tomorrow…

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Going Coastal

Ruta 14

ROADSIDE CAMPS AREN’T often the best, but this one turned out to be perfect. A clear night sky, the breeze whispering through the eucalyptus leaves and fireflies dancing in the wooded darkness below. The dormant Ruta 14 ignored by the distant traffic on the coast road on the horizon to the east promised tranquillity. Only two vehicles passed during the night, me nestling invisibly behind the undergrowth on the verge.

Ruta 14

The Sun climbed out of the east and tamed the cool air migrating inland from the nearby Atlantic coast. Pitched conspicuously on the roadside without the cover of darkness doesn’t feel appealing, so I started packing as soon as I awoke. 

A short 3km ride brought me to the asphalt of Ruta 9, which seems to double as a landing strip along a certain stretch. Instead of turning south, hunger directed me north to nearby La Coronilla in search of breakfast.

Tuesday 16th April. Turning right in La Coronilla, coasting over the speed humps to the beach revealed a village locked up and still asleep. We were now in the off-season but I discovered a small bakery with a bench in the sun where I could sit and eat pastries washed down with cafe con leche bathing in the bright morning warmth.

Still early, I needed WiFi for a heads up on my new mission along the coast. Quaint La Coronilla offered no substitute to distract me from retreating to the Ancap fuel station back at the junction with Ruta 9. 

Adjoining the fuel station sits a modern-looking prefabricated cafe, glass-fronted resembling an office you sometimes find at new housing developments in the UK. I skipped refueling as I still had a third of a tank. The east-facing windows allowed the sun to stream inside and provide a sultry warmth to the morning. I took a seat next to a mains outlet and obtained the wifi code together with a few more pastries and coffee. 

Fortaleza Santa Teresa sits on the coast just 10km south. I had all day to get there so I remained at the cafe enjoying the sun’s warmth while the shadows shortened towards noon. 

The smooth fast Ruta 9 follows the coast from the Brazil border at Chuy to the capital of Montevideo so it is a more lively route than I’ve recently been used to. Fast traffic overtakes me at my top speed of 80kmh. I watch my mirrors almost as much as looking ahead. No less stressful than riding along gravel.

Fortaleza Santa Teresa is a National Park operated by the military. From the gatehouse I was directed to a separate ticket office, a large shed set about 100 metres left of the entrance. Returning to the gatehouse with my ticket and map, I submit the piece of paper and set about exploring the park. It’s a family holiday park really, many of the stores and vendors now closed until next season. A few campers and families remain, scattered throughout the site. A nice enough place but not my cup of tea, what with having no family.

The fort itself is an impressive attraction that lies outside the park boundary, packed with visitors, I meandered around the interior looking at the photographs explained with foreign text. I got a feel for the place if not the history. I treated myself to a late afternoon lunch at the fort’s cafe adjoining the car park, paying tourist prices since nothing seemed open inside the park.

Choosing my moment carefully I started back to the park and into a torrential thunder shower beating me back to the cafe for shelter and enjoy another beer while watching the storm pass. 

The guard on the gate waved me through so I didn’t have to stop and retrieve my soggy ticket out of my pocket. I scanned through the scattered campers to pitch in a vacant area in some pine woods. Water points confirming a permitted area but nobody else here so it almost felt like wild camping. A restful night within earshot of the Atlantic surf crashing on the beach.

After striking camp mid-morning,  the following day felt empty and purposeless. I filled the time by cruising around getting my money’s worth out of the entrance fee to the park. I discovered a restaurant near the Playa La Moza that was open and enjoyed coffee and pastries for breakfast.

I came across a camping site next to the northern entrance that had power sockets. I strung up the hammock only for the afternoon as I didn’t want to pay for another night. There was no WiFi so i updated my journal while charging the laptop and camera. Punta del Diablo lay only 10km south, so I planned to find a wild camp spot between here and there. 

I set off late afternoon for Punta del Diablo, a characterful fishing village, rich with souvenir shops and tourism, bustling with visitors even now in low season. Exploring the sandy streets of Punta del Diablo for wild camp spots drew a blank adding to the disappointment of not finding any candidates along Ruta 9. Seafront fish, chips, and beer soothed the pain.

As nice as Punta del Diablo is, it is a tourist trap incompatible with wild camping and I decided to backtrack to Fortaleza de Santa Teresa to a quiet lane I’d noticed near the junction and parallel to Ruta 9. In the dark, I lost my way back to the main road and ended up in the rural outskirts of Punta del Diablo on a network of sand tracks. I stopped to ask a local:

“Donde esta ruta nueve, por favor?”

“No entiendo.” came the reply and I repeated my question. 

“No entiendo.” 

“Necisito salir.” I added

“Ah! R-r-r-uta nueve!” making that machine gun “r” sound that the Spanish language has. It sounds the same to me with a normal “r,” I thought, as he pointed out the directions.

Pitching the tent by head torch, trees shielding my position to the traffic and the muffling the tire noise from the busy road helped provide a cheap and fairly restful night.

I awoke the following morning uninspired. I hadn’t really thought much further than Punta del Diablo and from the recommendations, felt mild disappointment from my visit. Entirely due to elevated expectations. Beyond Punta del Diablo, the road faded into the fog of my imagination. Follow the coast was my basic plan, so I didn’t need to think too much about it. I circulated Punta del Diablo once more for the benefit of the GoPro after charging its flat battery from the USB port on the bike. I didn’t stop to put my feet down and rejoined the main road after just one orbit.

25km south lies La Esmeralda. Running around Santa Teresa and Punta del Diablo added up to a fair distance not accommodate in my fuel calculations, and the needle was now about an 8th: probably not enough to get to the next fuel station 40km away and I was reluctant to backtrack 20km to La Coronilla.  Maybe there was a fuel station not marked on the map which happens occasionally. And if not… well, nursing the throttle might get me within a short push of a gas station at Castillos.

Trusting providence, I entered La Esmeralda with the needle touching empty. Esmeralda isn’t so much a village as a grid of dirt tracks through tangled woods dotted with houses. No fuel station. I stopped at a store and asked if they sold “Gasolina.”  I was pointed down the road a little to the next shop. The woman on the till went to fetch her husband who brought out two 1.5 litre coke bottles. I stocked up on supplies while I was there and in the resultant good mood.

Continuing on to Castillos, Ruta 9 veers inland presumably to avoid the inlets and lagoons along this stretch of the coast. I turned right to enter the town, topped up the tank at the first gas station I found, and returned to the junction to cross Ruta 9 onto the less busy coastal Ruta 10 to Aguas Dulces. 

Aguas Dulces is another quaint seaside village. Well spread out with plenty of stores and eateries down near the coast. Barba Negra boasted Wifi, Cafe con Leche and a mains socket. Stayed until 3 checking out camp spots before resuming my journey south.

Cabo Polonio… I’d read a bit about it and an interesting-looking camping candidate. Cabo Polonio has no roads leading to it and is located about 7 km from Ruta 10. It is accessible by either walking through the dunes or by 4×4 vehicles. The village has no electricity or running water for the few houses there, and wind power and a few generators are used to power some of the posadas and its grocery store. Residents collect water from nearby water wells or from rainwater. 

I pulled into the Plaza full of parked vehicles, a bit like a ‘Park and Ride’ system for the village where people can either walk or take the shuttle to the coast. I didn’t fancy either leaving my bike parked or bother asking if I could ride down to the coast, I circled the car park eyeing the souvenir shops before pulling back out onto the road and continuing on. Too touristy looking for me, but I will never know firsthand.

30km further on. Late afternoon, a sign for a beach down a sandy track looked worth checking out. San Antonio. It looked anonymous enough. Between small villages, the scenery was rural enough to be almost barren. Dunes, fields and trees mile after mile. 

I turned down the track towards the sea. Eucalyptus trees to the right, pasture to the left, warm sun on my back. A grassy trail branched off the main track before the beach. I didn’t notice at first but this was the entrance to a house, Casa Dunas de San Antonio. I quietly pitched camp behind some bushes so I was not easy to notice from the road. Across the way, a red ‘Prohibido Acampar’ sign. It seemed quiet enough here and a only a short walk to the deserted beach.

My cautiousness wasn’t necessary. I checked it out on AirBnB a few days later. It turned out the property was a holiday let. Being out of season, it was deserted. As were all the other nearby holiday homes. I saw only one car arrive, turn around and drive back the way they came. I had the place to myself. As tranquil as you can get… just me and the sound of grasshoppers and the Atlantic surf…

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Hell or High Water

Posta del Chuy

WEDNESDAY 10th APRIL. A bright and sunny day for leaving Balneario Ipora for Melo. Joining Ruta 26 east, the landscape spread out from distant horizon to distant horizon. A sea of agriculture over a gentle swell. The scenery struggled to hold my attention, but the scarce traffic and warm dry weather made up for that lack. No junctions to miss through daydreaming made for a lazy 200KM run to Melo. There had been no rush, but I made it by 1700.

Barrio Parque Rivera, a large municipal camping site highlighted on ioverlander as a favourable campsite, appeared disappointingly exposed to the city and exceedingly popular with the locals. Ignoring the entrance and coasting by, across the river into Melo, I now needed WiFi for unearthing a quieter camping spot.

Another unfamiliar city but for the familiar grid layout, eyes peeled for one way signs and cafes. You can pretty much bet that Latin cities will possess a Plaza de Armas or Plaza Independencia, bordered by a cathedral, monuments of war-mongers or liberators, banks and cafes. Even without a Cathedral Tower visible, it isn’t particularly difficult to guess your way to the centre. Central plazas often possess free municipal WiFi but deploying a laptop on a park bench often attracts the attention beggars and is used as a last resort.

Macanudo on the corner of Plaza Independencia satisfied all my immediate needs, cheap coffee, food and WiFi. Camping spots listed on ioverlander are limited to two close to town, one being a truck stop, and three more by extending the radius 15KM. I opted for some dubious sounding woodland 8km south on Ruta 8, due to the fact there’s a gate on the entrance but the onset of evening made it a “beggars – choosers” situation. It was further out of town than I wanted, but I felt better about it than the urban municipal site I’d passed.

I pulled up Google maps and Streetview to try to get an idea of what the gateway looked like. Without a satnav it’s difficult locating an entrance along a lengthy roadside frontage of forest.

I passed lots of gaps in the trees that kind of looked like the gate I was looking for, but not quite. Finally, I recognized it… although not so expansive as the fisheye photograph on Google, plus the gate was open sporting no chain or lock.

Turning left, through the gate the track ran past a disused concrete hut, a possibility for seclusion but too close to the entrance for comfort. A couple of hundred metres further, the track narrowed and descended and a lane branched off to the right. Propping the bike on the stand, I walked down the lane to look for access into the trees, well hidden, the bushes were spaced well enough to allow easy access into the interior. The only obstacle being severed branches lying across the junction.

Coaxing the bike over and through the branches wasn’t too bad with some engine revs and commitment and I soon arrived at a level clearing hidden from the view from any path. I could faintly hear passing trucks on Ruta 8 through the trees. Other than that leaves whispered in the breeze and birds sang unfamiliar songs… a campsite exceeding my expectations from the meagre pickings seen on ioverlander.

The next day I packed away between the warm spears of sunlight between the trees and returned to Macanudo to email Gabriela that I was in Melo for the weekend. I thought today was Friday but discovered it was still only Thursday, inadvertently committing myself to a long weekend. No matter, I hung around Melo for the day and returned to forest camp thinking if I knew what day it was then I could have left the camp pitched for the day… or would I have instead left for the coast?

Friday afternoon, Gabriela arrived early at Macanudo Cafe, approaching my upstairs table before I even looked up from my screen. We shared a coffee and a chat but there was no mention of the weekend invitation to join her husband and friends camping, previously mentioned at Balneario Ipora, and I didn’t mention it either, perhaps to avoid an awkward moment. It wasn’t that important. It was simply an expectation.

We settled for a pleasant twelve block stroll to the river and back leaving the loaded bike parked outside the Cafe. Through our conversation, I learned a lot about health and nutrition as we talked about lifestyle along with my unusual way of life. It heartened me to hear that, out of the two, lifestyle was more powerful than nutrition for health, due to the bad chemicals that psychology dumps into your body. There’s no use living on lettuce if you’re stressed. You’re better off relaxing with a burger.

We returned to the cafe and parted company, leaving my weekend plans adrift as I had expected to follow Gabriela to where she was joining her friends.

Posto del Chuy, a historic toll bridge and inn, now museum, is marked on the map some 15km east of Melo on Ruta 26. I set off just before sunset scanning with hope for wild camping along the way… Nothing.

Arriving at Posta del Chuy, the sun now on the horizon, I could have been in Cornwall. A stone building and bridge across a small river. The bridge was barricaded to stop traffic, but the far side looked ideal for camping. A man next t a building on the edge of the site just before the parking area was watching me so I was reluctant to sneak past the barricade and over the bridge to camp on the grassland over the other side.

Posta del Chuy

A senora was locking the museum door and told me it would open at 9 the next morning so I prepared to U-turn and look for a wild camp back along the road I had come. The man that had been watching me waved and beckoned me over to his gate. Jorge Martinez didn’t speak English, but we managed basic communication. He invited me to pitch my tent in his garden. He was the caretaker for the museum and he and his colleague took it in turns manning the site 24 hours a day in 12-hour shifts.

I pitched the tent in the garden and chatted as much as possible, exerting great effort in translation until the shift changed and the replacement withdrew indoors.

Packing away in the morning and bidding farewell to my new friends, I visited the museum. A capstan inside the main building would tension a great chain across the cobbled road at the end of the stone bridge and collect tolls on this road between Melo and Rio Branco (then called Villa Artigas) on the Brazilian border. It’s a fine museum and free too.

The whole scene reminded me of something from a Daphne de Maurier novel, a smuggler’s inn on the moors. It would have been fun to stay the night in the old dormitory if it were permitted.

Gabriela had recommended visiting Quebrada de los Cuervos National Park and late morning I took off back past Melo, past the gate to my recent camp forest camp, and south to the junction to Quebrada de los Cuervos a couple of hours later.

Turning off Ruta 8 presented 23km of gravel riddled with the harshest washboard I had ever encountered. A phenomenon of ridges so evenly spaced you’d think they were machined into the road but actually caused by speeding traffic over badly graded roads. I called it “The Devils Washboard” in a facebook post and it rattled me down to a tardy 5KMH in order to stop the bike shaking itself to death. That with the occasional speeding car or truck whipping up a choking dust cloud made for a miserable hour, rattling along to the park.

The entrance fee was double since Easter week was upon us. Hard to argue after the last hour of murderous washboard. Consequently, the site buzzed with activity but not packed sardine-style like it would be in the UK. The bonus was, food stalls and restaurants had set up for the holidays. Otherwise, it would have remained just an ordinary field with an office and shower block. I pitched between some bushes for somewhere to hang the hammock and cracked open a bottle of wine to enjoy the sunset.

Quebrada de los Cuervos is well known for its canyon hike so in the morning I rode to the car park and clambering down to the river and back up the other side along with a steady flow of families.

Two nights was plenty of time for me to spend here and I packed away at 10am bracing myself for the hour-long 23KM trip across devils washboard back to Ruta 8 followed by the twenty-minute 28KM jaunt south to Trenta y Tres (a city named “33”).

Espacio Dulce lies on the northwest corner of Plaza 19 de Abril, a quaint bakery-cafe with WiFi and electricity. Just the place for searching for the next camping possibilities and memorise my route. Still only midday, I sipped Cafe con Leche and grazed on sandwiches and cakes at leisure. Sitting in a cafe working online is one of my favourite pastimes. My handy paper map of Uruguay showed a clear route south down Ruta 8 to Jose P Varela then east on Ruta 14 through Loscano. It looked simple enough with not much to memorise and I set off fully recharged with fuel, coffee and electricity at 1530,

A long delay at some road works had me itching to get off. Ten minutes later leading a convoy of traffic across the long works over the causeway bridge crossing Rio Olimar Grande towards my ultimate goal of Fortaleza de Santa Teresa, resting on the coast just north of Punta del Diablo, another recommendation by Gabriela. Usually following traffic pressures me to speed up but i don’t know what happened as I had the road to myself from then on.

Ruta 14
Ruta 14 Junction

I could hardly miss the giant rotunda on the Ruta 14 junction half an hour later and sailed around it eastwards into the wind. Passing the Ancap fuel station at Lascano, I somehow missed the junction to Ruta 14 as it quietly morphed into Ruta 15. The overcast sky obscured navigation by the sun but I sensed the wind was now from my left and after 5km I doubled back in search of Ruta 14 turning right at AgroCentro along a country track hoping to rejoin Ruta 14 east, instead of returning all the way to Lascano.

AgroCenter

At a dog legged T junction, a broad gravel road presented a route straight on northeast to Lascano or right turn southeast unsigned so I turned southeast in search of Ruta 14. Wide gravel surface and fast moving trucks raced between the huge fenced off industrial farms of giant grain silos but I could see no signs offering clues of route or destination.

This is where I miss having a phone for navigation. I pulled into a farm coasting past the parked grain trucks queueing up to the security gate and asked the guard
“Donde esta Ruta catorce para Punta del Diablo, por favor?”
I don’t know what he said but he pointed the direction I had been travelling. I assumed it must be further on. At least I was heading in the right direction.

Out of the farm, turning right down the road, rounding a left-hand bend brought me face to the wind. If it was still blowing from the same direction, I was now travelling east so I kept going, trusting that time would eventually bring me to the coast.

The Wide straight gravel road was free of the bone-shaking washboard ridges of yesterday and easy to keep up momentum. On and on, my speed gradually climbing above 70KMH over rust-colored compacted dirt and loose gravel, the front end lost its grip then over-corrected to the other before settling straight and upright again, easing back to 60. It was a close call that upped my heart rate, level of concentration and caution. Even so, 60KMH was a reasonable pace.

With the sky overcast, twilight came early, and still trusting the direction of the wind I finally reached a sign: Ruta 16 right and Ruta 14 straight on. Checking the map, I had been on 14 ever since the dog-legged T junction, even on the section where I stopped at the farm to ask the way. In fact, the only stretch that wasn’t had been the 2KM link turning off Ruta 15 to look for it.

I hadn’t been lost at all, I just expected Ruta 14 to be the same asphalt surface all the way since the colour of the route on the map didn’t change with the surface type. From here, there was only 30km to Forteleza de Santa Teresa, but the lost time at the bridge and missing the turning to Ruta 14 meant I wouldn’t make it before dark.

Ruta 14, hemmed in by fences, presented few opportunities for wild camping until 20KM further east when encountering a slight bend over a gentle crest. The verge widened over shrubs to knee-high grass leading to eucalyptus trees and a gate to a field providing an area that appearing hidden from view. I pulled onto the verge and rode behind the shrubs as far as I could. The state of the grass suggested the gate entrance was seldom used. A perfect stealth spot for both me and the bike.

The tent was up just before dark and, looking to the east, red and white lights twinkled along the horizon. The Ruta 9 coast road, I estimated less than a couple of KM away. Perfect, and I settled down, pouring myself a glass of wine and boot up the laptop to watch the fabulous movie “Hell or Highwater”…

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Uruguay

Balneario Ipora

28th MARCH 2019. After three nights at Hotel Ermitage in Sant’ana do Livramento, I check out and head for the Receipta Federal building at the unmarked border on Plaza Internacional, changing my mind about skipping customs with my severely expired Temporary Import Permit.

Hotel Ermitage
Plaza Independencia

Inside, the office echoed its ceramic emptiness save for one non-english-speaking official that retreated to seek assistance after wrestling with my initial inquiry in spangtugueselish. The amiable reinforcement casually scanned the document for a moment then said “No problem, we’ll just change the date on the computer,” instantly rinsing away all those concerns brought up by the internet search warning of accruing and exorbitant expiry fines. A striking contrast in friendliness to the stern attitude of the Customs officer that took so long to produce the said document at Foz do Iguaçu 3 months earlier. 

Aduana

Fully legal, I happily hopped on the bike and cruised south out of Rivera on Ruta 5, eyes peeled for the Uruguayan customs as soon as the remnants of Rivera city dissolved into balmy countryside.

There’s a buzz about crossing a border into a country for the first time by motorcycle. It’s difficult to explain but the feeling of adventure increases in proportion to the level of uncertainty and unfamiliarity of currency, culture, and customs. 

Speaking of customs, Uruguayan Aduanas is a small white hut to the right of the road in the middle of nowhere 15km south of the border. Cones down the centre of the road together with presumably a collection of confiscated vehicles across the way that could be mistaken for a scrap yard alerted me to the unmistakable presence of government and eased my worry of accidentally cruising past.

In the office’s cool shade, I produced my documents to wait patiently for the Temporary Import Permit. I was the only customer and chatted with the trio of border officers. A tap on my arm, a cold bottle of mineral water offered and gratefully received. A pleasant interlude on a hot dry start to the journey.  I received the document asking
“Cuanto dias?”
“Un ano.” came the reply.
That’s more like it, although I only needed three months.

Uruguay

Short on bank funds, neglecting to change Reals for Pesos and failing to top up fuel in Brazil. Aduanas told me 30km to the next fuel station and my gauge was already below a quarter.
“I should make it” I kept thinking for the following half-hour…
and I do, with the needle nudging E.

Presenting my visa card with crossed fingers, staring over the shoulder of the pump attendant at the LCD screen of the card terminal, pockets empty of cash seemed to lengthen the wait.
Finally… Beep! ‘Aprobado’ …
“Get-in”.

I noticed the fuel is more expensive in Uruguay and berate myself for not topping up in Sant’ana do Livramento before setting off, as much to save the worry of making it to the station, and having the ability to pay, as much as for saving cold, hard Pesos.

The smooth asphalt undulates southwards over rolling green fields, between aromatic eucalyptus and pine plantations. A bright sunny day warmed into  mid-20s/70s C and F, as you please. The silver-grey asphalt rises and falls over the sage-green landscape tinged at the edges with an afternoon yellow under the cloudless powder blue sky. 

Without a satnav, I rely on a memory vulnerable to daydreaming. I had my eye on some free camping marked at Tranqueras. No ATM is indicated and I wonder about my lack of cash for food, although I can always resort to my emergency stash of pasta and peanuts.

Tranqueras lies only about 50 or 60km south of Sant’ana to make for a short day but I’d daydreamed my way past the junction and soon after realising, created a plan B taking a turn east up the dusty ripio 29 towards some enticing looking Cerros on the way to Minas de Corrales. ten minutes of dusty and fenced off verges prompted me to turn back toward Ruta 5 continuing toward Tacuarembo.

Relentless fences began to limit my hopes for wild camping. I suppose because Uruguay is a smaller country, there is less spare to leave for nature. Just a guess as some areas of Brazil had similarly been claimed and fenced off too.

Crossing the bridge into the Tacuarembo. I receive a toot and a thumbs up from a following pickup as the driver noticed my Peru plate, reminding me how far from Peru I have come, and I weave around the warp and weft of the low rise urban landscape, guessing who should give way while searching for a bank. Bingo, cash at Itau from only the second ATM I queue at, then onward to continue in search of WiFi. 

What I thought was a small town soon expanded into shops, restaurants and bank lined plazas the further into the grid I ventured.

La Sombrilla

I discovered the Sombrilla Confiteria with WiFi on the corner of Plaza 19 de Abril and prop the bike on its stand outside to take a seat in order to scan the area for camping over coffee and cake. 

Balneario Ipora

Balneario Ipora lies just 6KM north, Free camping by a lake. I sit back, releasing the tension that rising uncertainty sometimes brings as afternoons wear on, and now fully enjoy my coffee and cake. 

6KM no rush. The sun was still two or three hand widths off the horizon.

Balneario Ipora is a virtually deserted natural recreation park. Only a handful of people here. It looks too small to be a national park although complete with woods, lake, camping, and restaurants. I circled the lake, riding in and out of the woods spoiled for choice for ample free camping spots complete with BBQ pits. My laptop was low on charge so I scanned the picnic spots for electric sockets. Nothing…

Just up the hill from the lake, nestling in some tall trees, perches a campground complete with a swimming pool, showers, a combination store/cafe with patio. Everything seems pretty much closed for the season, although the camping and store are open. A one-off £5 for the tent and then about £1.50 a day per person meant I could stay a week for under £15 and wait for some funds to hit my bank account. Perfect choice. The restaurant accepts visa and I make myself at home.

Balneario Ipora

I booked one night, then three more, and then three more, etc. The showers at the bottom of the hill were a bit beaten up but offered limitless hot water. Just beyond the shower block in the trees lies a ramshackle tent of giant tarpaulins over a wooden frame, littered with kids’ toys, drying clothes, and various items you normally see tucked away in your garage at home. It looked like someone had made a home here for quite some time. Why not? Hidden in the pines, surrounded by nature… I was curious but resisted approaching, leaving the occupants in peace.

Patio

I establish a routine of breakfast on the store’s patio followed by some writing. A pack of 5 dogs barked at me each time I passed the office but soon got used to my presence, one shaggy dog occasionally burrowing into my tent’s vestibule to sleep for the night. I don’t like them invading my space, but they were friendly and harmless.

Washing

I was often the only person camping, except the weekend when the regular boom, boom music crowd invaded from the nearby city.  This was easy and cheap living but not really what I’m here for. Rent was due in from my tenant, so I decided to coincide my move with that hitting my account, which would make my total stay 12 days. My next big target was the Total Eclipse of July 2nd so I had almost three more months in hand.

April 9th tapping away on the PC with the afternoon sun slanting into the patio outside the store, a woman’s voice “Do you live here?” She had seen me on previous days before her evening walks around the lake. 

Dressed in leggings and trainers, Gabriella and Anna invited me and my walking boots along. Gabriela speaks fluent English but Anna doesn’t. Gabriella is a scientist at the local University so English language comes with the territory. 

Perro

Shaggy dog tags along with me and I tell them it’s not mine. Anna told me that dogs are attracted to people who, I thought she was going to say something like – people who are kind-hearted or spiritual, but she said: “…people who need looking after.” An anticlimax and moment of deflation.

Ipora Lago

Gabriella asked where I was going next and I told her eastwards toward the coast. She said she was meeting friends near Melo for a weekend camping on private ground if I would like to join. Melo is en route, so I said I would head there and send a message if I’m still around at the weekend and so with my short-term plans coloured in a little, I reluctantly packed up to head 200 km along Ruta 26 towards Melo the very next day… it felt like I was leaving home.

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Happy Port

Porto Alegre

After a final Buffet Livre with Peter, I set about leaving upon returning to his house. As much as I like company, I tend to feel confined by expectation and convention. Rolling toward Porto Alegre, I felt liberated again, even as the buildings and urban landscape gradually closed in around me.

The absence of signs to “Porto Alegre” or “Centro” led to an irritating mystery tour across the unfamiliar signposted districts punctuated by a stop or two to check the map on the laptop. The urban traffic and multitude of traffic signals conspired to make the journey a long one.

Cuidade Baixo

Somehow I ended up at Cuidade Baixo which I’d recognised from peering at google maps and stopped at Boteca Cotiporã cafe for juice and internet in order to locate the hostel I’d selected from iOverlander. Villa Sophia Hostel turned out to be around the corner, although accessed via a convoluted circuit out to Parque Farroupilha (Redenção) and back.

Villa Sophia Hostal

Villa Sophia Hostel is an anonymous-looking magnolia coloured semi-detached house having no signage and looks like any other private home along the street. I clapped my hands for attention, as I had learned in Paraguay and a short Brazilian woman clutching a cellphone let me in and opened the gate to the drive, allowing me to seclude the bike round the back next to the BBQ pit. 

Juan and Rodrigo gave me a friendly and amiable welcome and spoke a comfortable vocabulary of English. Rodrigo had taken refuge here while dealing with a heartbreaking separation similar to my own over a decade earlier. He’d recently found sanctuary in the hostel.

Me and Rodrigo

I recalled the pain of separation and it brought back my memories of despair and emptiness before it slowly condensed into the launchpad of my life into ultimate freedom. I’d written a book about it years ago but abandoned it during editing since that part was expensive. Technically, I’m an unpublished author.

Through all that memory and introspection, I knew there wasn’t anything I could really do to help apart from to listen and simply connect. It’s a path that one has to tread alone, with or without help available in the wings.

There’s a Decathlon camping store a couple of KM away and I wandered out via the river taking in the scenery to see if I could find replacement poles for my constantly breaking Coleman Rainforest Tent. No, none in the correct size. I noticed the same Quechua Quick Hiker as I’d found in Cânion das Laranjeiras listed for £180 so I didn’t feel too bad about the unproductive hike to the store. 

Sauntering back to the city centre empty-handed beneath the baking southern sky, I wandered around in tourist mode, ageing shins aching through the recent city mileage. There’s a famous central market within a palatial looking colonial building, full of colour and bustle. A charming place to sit and enjoy chicken and chips, cool in the shade for watching people go about their daily business.

Four nights in the six-bed dorm of Villa Sophia. I always closed the windows before bed for keeping out the city noise and mosquitos, despite the warm weather. I’d awake to find them wide open again after people crept to bed in the early hours. 

All six bunks were occupied. Souls sharing a space of trust during excursions away from our physical bodies into the land of nod. A man snoring like a charging bull woke us all, one by one. It was so bad, one of us almost said something. I got up and went downstairs for some respite and a refreshing midnight glass of water for company.  Rodrigo was already downstairs agitated by the disturbance ensuing upstairs. How can someone snore so loudly without waking themselves up? Our discussion drew a blank. Thankfully, the oblivious guest checked out the next day…

African Grass Rash

Both my arms were inflamed with agonising rashes from the weeding of rampant invasive African grass at Peter’s. The steroid cream I´d bought at the Farmacia had no remedial effect but the mechanical action of applying stimulated an eye-watering itch. An excuse to rub the cream in harder until the pain could get no worse. An allergy, most probably. Different to the Poison Ivy episode I’d suffered from the mountains of Sint Maarten.

Sunday, 24th March. Four nights in Porto Alegre was enough for me. As much as I enjoy the contrast of city, after the rigours of nature,  it becomes soporific for the soul. The Boiling-Frog syndrome where the comforts of civilisation boils away the zest for living.

BR290

Leaving to head west along Peter’s recommended route of the BR290, the route out of town was easy to memorise as I’d already ridden along it in the opposite direction and all I needed to do was to take the exit ramp that curled west over the highway and marshes feeding the River Guiaba and into the afternoon sun.

Caçapava do Sul was a speedy 260km away, boasting the only entry for a campsite on iOverlander of the rural ‘Chacara do Forte’ campsite. 20km of that was a perpendicular detour off my route. The town looked nothing special but I wouldn’t be staying long enough to judge properly.

Camp Site

Entering the campsite, barking dogs followed the bike past the throng of locals enjoying the Sunday sunset view and into the woods, leaving me in peace to pitch camp as soon as the engine stopped.

Their cunning plan appeared to be to retreat until the middle of the night before creeping up and pissing on the tent. I’d awoken in the dark to the unmistakable patter of drops on fabric and got up to rinse it straight away to avoid toting the persistent aroma of dog-piss around Brazil.

Puffy Eyes

I awoke mid-morning, cold in the shade of the woods and dozed tucked up in my sleeping bag until gone 12. the rash on arms not so irritating but now I was sporting swollen, itchy eyes. all I could do was wait out this kind of allergy.

Forte Pedro II

I Rode out with the barking dogs chasing me to the cattle grid and stopped briefly to visit the monumental Fort Pedro II. Basically, a giant broken-walled lawn.  retracing my route back through the town, I pressed on westwards.

Lying-in shortens the day somewhat. Late afternoon I stopped at Churrascaria Ungaratho near Villa Novo do Sul for fuel and refreshment. Peering at my screen through puffy eyelids, over lace tablecloths and hot coffee, a few people drifted in and out noticing the Peru plate on the bike parked next to the door, stimulating conversation.  Juarez Souza – a man in his early 20s, riding a beautiful green Honda Trans Alp, introduced himself taking a break here himself on his way back to his home in Sao Paulo. He said he’d give me contacts in Montevideo Uruguay when I got there.

I think back to when I was his age, I wasn’t courageous enough to take mammoth solo tours back then… what with the illusion of having too much to lose and putting at risk an imaginary future… 

Stealth Camp

The hour approached five before I got going again. Topping up the tank with Shell’s finest distillation and accelerating westward into the blinding setting sun for an hour brought me halfway to the Uruguayan border somewhere between São Gabriel and Rosário do Sul before discovering a likely-looking hideout for the night: a farm track off a layby doubling back into fenced-off fields, finding a recessed gateway to field, hidden by tall grass. I pitched at sundown and settled inside the tent cradled by a comfortable tractor tyre rut for the night.

Stealth Camp

Resurfacing into a bright, dew-soaked morning, an unseen truck rattled past and down the lane as I slowly packed away. I was away by 10am.

45km brought me to Rosario do Sul. The lack of detail on the paper map sucking me into the heart of the speed humped town in search of the southerly final leg to Uruguay. The junction I needed turned out to lie a few kilometres out of town, not apparent on my photo of Peter’s paper map.

Cafe

I stopped for brunch a small nondescript cafe on BR158 south of Rosario. The vendor folded his arms and pretended not to understand my attempts at Portuguese but took my order after I pointed at another customers plate and I suspected overcharged me. After a brief exchange with two more bikers outside the cafe, I left but they quickly caught and left me in their wake.

Twenty minutes later, two bikes on the shoulder in the distance. Coasting up, they were repairing the top box that had broken free of its mountings and hurtled down the road into the undergrowth on the verge. It looked a sorry state, being held together by bungee cords and string.

Entering Sant’ana do Livramento, I didn’t know where I was going or even where I was going to stay. In my mirrors, the two riders still followed. I adopted a strategy of choosing the busiest direction at junctions before finally stopping at a likely looking central plaza, the two bikers finally passed with a wave.

Plaza Internacional

Cruising around closer to the centre, I soon noticed all the buses had Uruguayan licence plates. I’d wandered too far south so turned back North ending up at the Plaza Internacional, bisected by an open border, similar to the cities of Ponto Pora and Pedro Juan Caballero on the Brazil and Paraguay border, instead flying the flags of both Brazil and Uruguay.

Plaza Internacional, Sant'ana do Livramento

I settled for coffee at Restaurant Don Caggiani on the Brazilian side of the joined cities of Sant’ana do Livramento and Rivera: one urban mass bridging two countries.

Hotel Ermitage

Hotel Ermitage is indicated just down the road. Short of hostels, it appeared to be the cheapest option for a few days in the city. Marcia, on reception, gave me a friendly welcome ‘sem ingles.’ A big private room, secure parking, nice breakfast… I booked 3 nights and, after dark, wandered to a mini-market for some medicinal Cachaça for taming my itchy eyes through which I could watch a movie.

Cachaca

The second day in Sant’ana, I checked out where immigration was located and noticed the customs at Foz do Iguaçu had given me only 30 days Temporary Import Permit on the Bike whereas I had been granted 90 days on the Passport… and I started to worry about what the penalty would be.

Aduana

The immigration office here is separate from customs. The map gives both an old and a new location. Brazil and Uruguay immigration is now located in a shared building but Brazil customs is the police office on Plaza Internacional with the Uruguayan Customs is some 15km south of the border on Ruta 5…

I decided to take a flyer on the Brazilian Permit and skip customs when I leave…

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Itapúa

Camping Praia das Pombas, Itapua

A DRY WEDNESDAY 13th March had me packing away as happily as I could summon for this burdensome task, high with the risk of losing small and useful items. Last call at the Tenda do Umbu for breakfast and an internet fix before humming south down the Rota Romantica.

The air felt heavy with moisture and soon enough, condensed into tangible droplets of drizzle. Before passing through Novo Hamburgo and the borderless industrial scenery merging into Sao Leopoldo and Canoas.

Porto Alegre

Approaching Porto Alegre, the stream of traffic expanded into a 5 lane estuary along the coastal arterial 290 flowing toward central Porto Alegre.

Porto Alegre


Past the colosseum-like Arena do Gremio, one of two gladiatorial Soccer bases for fierce local rivals Gremio and Internacional. Too busy to stop, I was busy with my own personal chariot race, checking mirrors and signs as the throng pushed me into the city, the priority for survival rather than to steer a predictable course. Consequently, I couldn’t swear on my route around the lanes and underpasses that brought be into the colonial interior of European looking statues and monuments of Porto Alegre.

Steering into a side street to check the GPS, It felt like central London, busy with activity, cafe’s swelling with social activity. The map told me that In theory, following the river would bring me to Peter’s house. Peter had been a neighbour of dear departed Debbie in Northampton whom I’d also met years ago just before he put his house up for sale talking of maybe growing avocados in Brazil. No concept at the time I would ever get anywhere near South America. The other coincidence being the guy who bought my Rocket Red, Triumph Sprint ST upon his return from Australia turned out to be Peter’s son. Small world, as they say… at least until you try riding around it.

The route to exit southern Porto Alegre proved no easier than the northern route in. The River Guaiba soon disappeared from view while the streets funnelled me from traffic light to traffic light providing a labyrinthine mystery tour. Towards the river roads morphed into dirt track cul de sacs and to find my way out I followed the routes sporting speed humps.

In the days before GPS, I learned from my truck driving days that Speed Humps were a reliable giveaway of a rat run for traffic between key destinations. Installed to deter through traffic, they inadvertently became a valuable clue for a way out of a city planner’s maze. And so,
I trickled south through the Porto Alegre suburbs of Tristeza and Ipanema.

Itapua

Bright, warm and sunny when I finally arrived at the address, provided by Peter’s son but no answer to the bell at the gate, apart from a trio of barking dogs, prompting me to return to the rustic cafe ‘Bar Cris’ about a mile back. After sipping a beer and returning to the gate, a couple pulled up in an old white Renault. They didn’t recognize the name I offered and I turned around to consider now where to stay.

Cris Bar

Opposite the Bar Cris, I’d been admiring the huge sign to Hotel Caminhas de Nazare set in vast grounds barely visible from the road over green fields. I coasted along the narrow drive with the intention of using the WiFi at the Hotel Restaurant and ordered a Coffee to neutralise the soporific effect of the earlier beer.

Hotel Nazare Sign

The proprietor refused payment and insisted I enjoy the coffee for free. Sending messages over the WiFi brought no prompt responses and I called it a day and booked a room at the empty hotel for a reasonable tenner. Well worth the sanctuary plus the luxury of a shower after my Ben Hur ride through Porto Alegre.

Hotel Nazare

Breakfast: Table for one in a restaurant for one. No further information drifting out of the ether had me bid farewell to the friendly proprietor and pause at Peter’s gate for one last try. No answer, and I took off to visit the lighthouse I’d spotted on the map near Itapua.

Nazare Proprietors

The Officials at the gate told me it was a government installation and wasn’t open to the public but I could see it by boat… for a small fee naturally. A pickup pulled up and offered camping at his site of Camping Praia das Bombas. I followed along a bumpy remote dirt track to a deserted campsite. It was neither expensive or cheap. It was just OK, and I pitched under a shelter with the wind whipping over the expansive Guaiba River.

Camping Praia das Pombas

3am, Adrianne, the partner of the owner woke me from a deep slumber and sat on the sand outside my tent nursing a glass of wine while keen on talking. Politeness prevented me from sending her away, an attractive young lady if a little inebriated. Eventually, the conversation fizzled out and I escorted her back to her home at the gate and left her hammering on the door of her house to be let in while I retreated through the shadows of the trees back to my tent.

15th March, I awoke at 11 in the morning after the night’s rude awaking. Nobody about. Robinson Crusoe-esque… A deserted leaf-dappled site with a couple of wrecked boats in the trees. I left a note at the gatehouse together with half a packet of cigarettes I’d found outside my tent, and set off back towards Porto Alegre, abandoning the intended rendezvous with Peter.

Checking messages near Lami 10km North, there were a few downloaded complete with directions. It turns out that the address I had been given was wrong. Peter had left that one after three months of arrival in Brazil and the new directions put him closer to Itapua, not too far away.

Returning south, the route took me to the yellow bus shelter given in the directions, and then between fields and up an overgrown track to a forested escarpment. A white-haired old man appeared from a shack and I surprised myself by recognising him from our brief encounter those years back.

Peter's

Across the yard stood a grand building built from the red eucalyptus grown in the grounds and he showed me the mezzanine floor where I could sleep complete with a mattress and bug net. Minimalist and spacious. A lot of work had gone into the construction using felled trees from his land taken to a local sawmill.

House

I embarked on a guided tour. Hiking up the hill, it wasn’t easy to match this man’s energy. I tottered up behind him to witness the remains of a granite quarry that suddenly ceased operating because of government intervention to preserve the area. Reputedly these are the oldest hills in South America. The tracks and excavations are now swamped with rampant vegetation.

Saturday 16th March. Peter made me muesli with fresh fruit which became a daily treat, and then on to meet his friends at the Marina in Itapua. Peter has a sailing background and has friends with small yachts in the shallow harbour. The Guaiba River has sandbanks so mainly shallow draught craft here. They invited me for a sail next weekend but I wasn’t planning on staying that long. We enjoyed BBQ and beer before returning home.

Itapua Marina

The following day it rained, and I spent time in the hammock sheltered on the veranda writing and sharing space with the big hairy spider that caught my eye wandering past.

Spider

We spent the following days collecting firewood from fields down the lane, battling the incessant ants undermining the buildings and carving up a fallen red eucalyptus in the garden.

Wood Gathering

I left on the 20th becoming paranoid that overstaying my welcome might become an issue. One more Buffet Livre together. Cheap and good food at the local restaurant. And then I set off, after photographing a map of the region to help with my lack of GPS. Peter recommended the route To Santana de Livramento on the Uruguay Border, instead of the more obvious route to Jaguarao and Rio Blanco. And with that being my plan, I returned north to Porto Alegre.

Peter and Me
Map
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Full Circle: Bento Gonçalves

Mirante Picada Café

EIGHTH OF MARCH. Autumn in the Southern hemisphere. Poking my head out the flap to dewy grey weather over a layby on the Rota Romântica. Slim chance of drying out the tent anytime soon so I pack up the soaking wet camp, pronto, and ride the 300 metres up the road for breakfast at the Tenda do Umbu to recharge myself and my laptop.

Emerging an hour or two later into dry air, refuelled coffee and up to date up on messages, I return north across the valley to visit Nova Petropolis. The day glows bright and warm as I cruise around the town. It’s a pretty enough place, clean and Germanic, but there’s nothing for me here. Too touristy. I have lunch at Cafe Colonia Serra Verde. I thought that meant ‘Cafe’ but ‘Cafe Colonia’ is a kind of full buffet. In the south region of Brazil, sweets and cakes feature at breakfast. Colonial Coffee is a type of breakfast that is almost exclusive to the south and means colonial breakfast. It looked to me like a wedding feast with me as the only guest. Too much for me to eat but the staff were kind enough to offer me a slice of cake and a coffee.

Humbly finishing up and thanking the staff for their attention, I hit the road the 70km to Bento Gonçalves. The road sweeps north down billiard table smooth curves with vistas of distant waterfalls and up again towards Caxias do Sul, where the traffic thickens and becomes aggressive in the usual nature of large cities. 

From there, the road to Bento Gonçalves is fast and furious with trucks buses and cars. The promising looking wild camping site found on iOverlander looks unappealingly industrial and too close to this busy route, and I head straight into Bento Gonçalves.

Late afternoon with nowhere to stay, wandering down a street looking for somewhere for a coffee and WiFi for searching for accommodation, I catch sight of a couple of adventure bikes, a Ducati Multistrada and BMW GS parked outside the Dall’Onder Grande hotel. After coasting by, I slowly U-turn amongst the slowly drifting traffic, coast onto the forecourt and introduce myself to Renato, Gennaro and Regiane.

Renato, Gennaro and Regiane.

Renato speaks comprehensive English and offers me wine, but I only accept the cheese as first hours in a new city are the most vulnerable for me. It feels great to be in the company of this chilled trio, different from the family feeling of the Ruppenthals back in Tres Coroas but equally enjoyable. I am warmly welcomed to their table. Eventually, I have to apologise for my rudeness and connect to the hotel’s WiFi to search for accommodation and while the Dall’Onder would be a real treat, a night at Pousada Thiany a couple of km away landed within my budget.

I socialise for a while longer before I’m reluctantly navigating the twilight to the hostel.  Booking in, I’m handed a remote key for the basement parking area. I can come and go at will and I click the up and over door into lice and roll down the ramp clicking it closed behind me before unpacking the dewy tent and draping over the bike to dry,

This is a hotel with the ground floor at the back partitioned into cubicles. We hostel clients enjoy the exact same benefits of the privateers, barring seclusion and ensuites. The lobby is clean, spacious and comfortable as you would expect from a self-respecting hotel. Fruit, grapes and tea are free and I spend a bit of time in the lobby blogging, grazing on grapes before venturing out to a food court in a nearby mall for a vegeburger.

A British kind of rain sets in all day. After breakfast, I take advantage of the facilities to catch up on writing while grazing on grapes.

2am, I wake with a raging fever and boiling, liquid stomach ache. I don’t really want to cause a disturbance in the middle of the night but I pad along the corridor barefoot, triggering the motion sensors for the blue LED lights that spill over the partitions of the cubicles, scuttle across the animal skin rug in the hostel lounge and just make it to the bathroom.

Relieved after the purge but feeling ill to my core. Unsure whether or not this is the end of a phase, I curl up quietly groaning on the couch beside the door to the bathroom, wishing I had brought a blanket but not daring to stray too far to fetch one. After a time, the cold air over my skin suggests the storm has passed and I pad back down the hall, flicking on the blue LED glow and to bed to crawl under the covers.

Tree of Marcela in the centre of the table of herbs

Late for breakfast in the lobby late morning for tea. I book more nights and say I’m not well. Maria, the owner, instantly recommends Marcela tea and cuts off a few home-grown twigs and drops it into an infusion. Pretty soon I feel miraculously better.

Later, the sun peeps through the soggy blanket of cloud and I venture to the laundry and get my much-needed batch washed. Still feeling a little fragile, I turn in early to update my blog in comfort.

While sitting up in bed, I feel something fall like a beer mat on my neck. I brushed it off and looked around and there was a huge spindly brown spider on the wall the size of my hand. I blew on it expecting it to lumber away but it moved so fast it resembled a magic vanishing trick. It shot under the bed amongst my stored bags. Apparently, March is spider month and spiders in Brazil can be fairly dangerous.

Twelfth of March and I remember it’s my sister’s birthday and make a Skype call in the brief interval between breakfast and check out, I set off at 1pm remembering to swing by and collect laundry. I avoid Caxias do Sul in preference of the route back to Tenda do Umbu via Garibaldi, Bom Principio, Feliz and Linha Nova.

With the rainy weather and everything else, I never felt inspired enough to visit the main attraction of Bento Gonçalves: the wineries. Now I had resolved to return to my southerly course, the clouds dispersed and revealed the warm brightness of the Brazilian sunshine.

I’d memorised how the key junctions looked on Google street view but things had changed between the visit of the Google car and now. An unfamiliar junction appeared near Linha Nova. No worries, I had preloaded the web page so I could check the map on the laptop but it had switched itself off and boots up to a fresh session losing all my stored browser pages.

This means no maps until WiFi so I have to guess whether this is the junction where I’m meant to turn left or whether to keep following the signs to Novo Hamburgo… It’s a 50/50 decision so naturally, I choose the wrong one and I turn right to Presidente Lucena. Entering the town, I take advantage of the uncertainty to grab a pastel, coke and WiFi at a Bar y Lancheria opposite the school.

Tenda do Umbu lies only 13km away despite the wrong turning and, after my refreshments, I backtrack past the junction, along the valley floor and up the hill to Tenda do Umbu and plug the laptop into its life-support before enjoying a coffee.

Carlos and his wife from Sao Leopoldo are on a ride out relaxing at Tenda do Umbu, and we talk about bikes, adventure and the Rota Romântica, after they leave and before dusk, I return full circle to where I’d started my mini adventure to Bento Gonçalves: the layby down the road at Mirante Picada Café. This time there is a car with a couple picnicking at the opposite side of the plateau, but I pitch the tent and settle inside as quietly as possible and pretend I’m not noticed.

The car leaves after dark and a few minutes later, footsteps heard across the grass and the splash of a flashlight over tent fabric as someone browses my pitch. Maybe just a curious passer-by, maybe something worse?

I lay quiet. This is worse than beer mat sized spiders and shrieks in the woods. You never can be sure of the intention of humans, the most dangerous creatures in the world…

Mirante Picada Café

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