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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…