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.
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.
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.
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”…