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.
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.
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
“Un ano.” came the reply.
That’s more like it, although I only needed three months.
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’ …
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.