22nd MAY 2019: I loved my time at Playa la Agraciada. Out of season, it was a tranquil break after city-time. In the back of my mind was the rendezvous with the forthcoming Solar Eclipse in 6 weeks time and I had places to see on the way, so I didn’t want to waste too much time and then rush to catch it.
Even though Burnt-toast had been an annoying presence at times, I felt a pang of sadness watching her in my mirror chasing me out of the park. I felt she would miss me too. She stopped at the gate while I accelerated on my way
At the junction facing my familiar local store with the led sign lit “Abierto,” I turned left onto Ruta 21.
There’s a character named Delores in the Westworld series that I’d just started watching. Dolores is also the name of a city 40km north of here so I thought I’d check it out in case it was a message from the universe: perhaps an important clue in the Great Game of Life.
Plan A appeared to be a promising-looking peninsular on the Rio San Salvador that skirts Dolores’ northern boundary before it flows slowly into the Rio Uruguay.
Circulating the perimeter, past the fishermen and walkers, the level of public activity and feeling of exposure felt similar to Carmelo except that here it was also flooded, the swirling river surface barely a foot below this squelchy plateau. The high water that threatened Playa la Agraciada had been victorious in its invasion here before retreating to leave a marsh-like field, and I cruised into Dolores to the Dolce Gusto Cafe on Plaza Constitucion to assess my options over a hot coffee.
Villa Soriano nestles on the bank of the next tributary upstream on the Rio Uruguay; the Rio Negro and now seemed a slim hope as a viable site. There were good reviews on Ioverlander but from the accounts, it seemed prone to flooding. I’d go anyway and look out for options along the way.
Riding through the centre of Villa Soriano, the fully-loaded little red bike drew glances from the locals. A “Stranger in town” kind of look. Maybe because Villa Soriano is not on the way to anywhere else and is what people in the US might call a Hick Town. The road ran through the town and out the other side and terminated a half a kilometre upstream at a small park on the river bank. I coasted through to the promised paradise and rounded a bend to be met by a flood. Trees and picnic tables poked periscope-like out of the expanse of water encroaching over the river bank the border between land and river. I had seen no other options on the way so I backtracked to Ruta 95.
I hadn’t accounted for any time pursuing Plan C since I felt confident A or B would work out and now the light was fading fast. Mercedes lay 55km northeast. That’s an hour in daylight. I had only a few rules, 2 of which were “Never ride in the dark” and “Never arrive in a city at night” One of those would have to be broken as the sun had already set and the hedgerows were receding into the darkness beyond the edges of the yellow beam of my the bike’s 35-watt headlamp.
A dark space between some bushes caught my eye as I passed it and I doubled back to discover a rustic entrance to a recessed field gate leading to a grassy nook between the fence and the bushes out of sight of the road. I would not be obstructing the entrance and be 90% out of sight from the road. It would have to do, and I pitched in the dark. The road was quiet and I enjoyed a night of chirping crickets.
I awoke at first light and peered out. A cool, damp fog blanketed the field and I tucked up warm again to wait for the Sun to rise and do its magic and warm up the interior.
A slam of a car door and “Hola!” woke me up. 9.30 am “Damn, the farmer,” I thought and unzipped the tent, but no, a Police car and two officers. I pulled on my trousers and stumbled out barefoot into the cool damp grass. One of them spoke English better than I could speak Spanish and asked me where I was going, what I was doing and if I was moving on. I stepped toward the bike pointing to the Peru plate impaling my foot on a thorny twig. One of the officers steadied me by the arm while I wobbled on one leg and prised off the twig nailed to the bottom of my foot. I told them I was on my way to Ushuaia and after they checked my documents (no insurance) they shook my hand and wished me luck before reversing out of the gateway and driving off. Friendly blokes… but I’d have to think about looking into buying some insurance.
Mercedes lay a short 20km hop northeast and I packed away to join the quiet byway continuing northwards. Less than halfway there stood the Parque de la Admirable Alarma and Grito de Asencio monument, which would have made a perfect overnight campsite, either hidden behind the extended monument or way back in the trees. Still, my spot had turned out just fine.
I’d soon arrived in Mercedes ready for breakfast but first, a quick scout of the municipal camping site on the Isla del Puerto, just off the Rambla waterfront at Mercedes.
The Rambla at Mercedes along the Rio Negro is one of the widest streets I’ve seen anywhere, a grand promenade that came dressed for the ocean but arrived at a creek, and after a brief reconnaissance to the eastern end and back, I crossed the concrete causeway to the island.
I didn’t like it. Not too much flooding but a very busy place and a little run down with no stealth camping opportunities. Even the Municipal Camping Site was on public view through its chainlink fencing. I could see a couple of guys sitting outside reception as I rode by. I didn’t even bother asking how much it would be. Even free-gratis would have turned out to be poor value for what I was looking for.
At the end of the island stood an abandoned house, a monument to dashed dreams like an ever hopeful bride left standing at the altar. Once in virgin white splendour, now tattooed with urban graffiti and torn apart inside, strewn with bottles and cans as if it was the house itself that drank to forget its misfortune. The burnt trash and casual campfires suggested this was still well used by locals. This island would be no sanctuary for me so I scratched it off my list and retreated for brunch at Martiniano on the mainland.
I stopped by at the Tourist Information to ask about alternative campsites. Casa Quinta was recommended just outside of town. I’d seen it on Google Maps so it was a nice confirmation. The friendly staff kept me chatting a while and I complained about having to return to Montevideo to collect my new passport what with there being no DHL or FedEx nearby. They told me to get it sent by bus. It’s cheap and secure and all I had to do was take some ID to the Bus Terminal to collect it. Turns out bus lines are a common courier service as well as for public conveyance.
I expected some resistance from the Embassy but they were pleasantly cooperative after making it clear any loss wouldn’t be their responsibility, common to all government representatives. It would be here Saturday, the day after tomorrow. Saving a 600km round trip.
A pair of bungalows stand remotely in the countryside 6km south of Mercedes. Casa Quinta, so anonymous-looking that I mistakenly approach the neighbour’s house first. A brass bell hangs outside the door and a gentle ring summoned a pretty young lady who indicated me to drive through the gate and park at the end of the drive near the back garden. Her father, Julio, appeared and showed me around the hostel building that was in disarray while maintenance was carried out during the offseason. He offered to set up one of the beds but I wanted to camp so he showed me onto the back lawn and where I could pitch my tent. Chickens and a ñandu (Emu) alerted me to look out for unsavoury, organic mines and I pitched on a clean patch of lawn within an extension cable’s distance of a power socket.
Friday 24th May and I had the day to explore Mercedes. It’s a functional town that could be anywhere in the world, only its Latin grid structure of streets and majestic promenade giving it away. Coffee and WiFi at the Plaza Independencia and a late lunch at Cafe del Sol on the Rambla used up part of the day and there wasn’t much else to do except chill out back at Casa Quinta.
The next day’s mission was to collect my passport from Agencia Central bus station which turned out to be a smooth, cheap and pain-free experience. Handing over about £3.00 and the receipt number and I was fully furnished with another 10 years of global liberty courtesy of the Queen… “liberty” because freedom doesn’t require a document.
Sunday was Julio’s birthday so the house and garden buzzed with guests so I stayed in my tent after returning from town. I thought Julio might appreciate the privacy but he expected me to join them.
I was having some problems with an aggressive chicken in the garden. It would attack whenever my back was turned so I had to face it whenever possible and be forever vigilant.
Returning with food, the ñando would crane its neck around my body like some weird arm and raid my bag, like Rod Hull’s Emu famous from the 70s. It wasn’t shy at all but outrageously audacious.
Monday I bought some oil, fueled up at the Ancap fuel station and serviced the bike back at Casa Quinta ready for departure the next day. Mission accomplished, passport in hand, I felt happy not to have to backtrack to Montevideo and be free to explore the western part of Uruguay.
Tomorrow I would head northeast to Fray Bentos, a name I’d only ever seen on pie tins back in the UK. This was no coincidence since it was the base of the Anglo meat processing plant where 4000 cattle a day marched into the factory and exited in tins loaded directly onto ships at its docks and shipped to the British Empire.