As Christmas approached, I had a small window of opportunity to get to Uruguay before the silly season really hit. I had planned to at least spend part of the weekend there, but then I got news that Fuudis was running a special edition pre-Christmas lunch tour on the Friday that I really wanted to experience.
So I decided to leave on the early ferry on Sunday morning, and come back late on Thursday night. Now, “early” ferry was going to be tough, given the late nights here, and being a Sunday too, but I thought it was an effort that needed to be made and I somehow managed to get there in plenty of time to clear two lots of immigration – Argentina and Uruguay.
If you didn’t look at a map, and your only experience of Uruguay was from BA, you’d almost be forgiven for thinking Uruguay was an island since it is most easily reached by ferry from BA. There are a couple of bridge crossings further north, so it is accessible by bus or car, but it takes a lot longer. You can also fly, but that means stuffing around at an airport, which I try to avoid at every opportunity.
The closest available port from the city of BA is Colonia, or more specifically, Colonia del Sacramento and, if you pick the right, high-speed boat, the trip takes a little over an hour. If you book far enough in advance, you can pick up a one-way ticket for less than AR$200, or about A$40. For this reason, it’s a popular day trip from BA to escape the city and, dare I say it, a popular “hop” out of the country for anyone needing to renew their 90-day tourist visa.
I went to Colonia when I was last in South America, four years ago, so it wasn’t my primary destination. Still, I had a couple of hours before I took a bus further west and wandered around the very pretty old town and grabbed some lunch in a little restaurant off the square. The place is full of cobbled streets, old cars, colonial buildings, and is really quaint. Definitely worth a day trip or a quiet overnight stay as it’s very quiet and relaxing, and very different to BA.
In the early afternoon, I boarded my bus for Carmelo. I had heard there was some nice wine and cheese in the area, and I also wanted to see something different of Uruguay.
I had booked a “hotel de campo”, or a country resort, and it was quite a few kilometres out of the small colonial town of Carmelo. Travelling through the countryside, it reminded me a lot of country Victoria, with gum trees that the driver told me had originally been introduced from Australia and were useful in Uruguay as a renewable resource. Everything was green, and very pretty, with lots of horses and cows grazing in paddocks. At one stage, I could have been driving through the Wombat State Forest near Daylesford. It made me very nostalgic, and sure that I would love Uruguay already!
My hotel, Casa Chic, is very beautiful. It is fairly new, having only opened in May 2012, and has only about 20 rooms, located in groups of two in small cabins separated from each other for extra privacy, and all with a little terrace and a view over the Rio Plata. There is a beautiful central living space, full of interesting things and shelves full of books. There’s an impressive infinity pool, a gym, a pool table, and bikes that you can grab to ride around the grounds or surrounding area. I felt instantly comfortable and relaxed in such a beautiful environment. Even more relaxed when I had a nice afternoon mojito outside the bar area. Unfortunately, mojito rhymes with mosquito, and I was soon to find out that there were plenty of those around too. I was informed afterwards that Uruguay was in the middle of a particularly bad mosquito invasion at that time!
After settling into my room, and testing the bed with a little afternoon siesta, I watched the sunset from my little verandah with a glass of the complimentary wine that had been left in the room. I got dressed for dinner and headed to the living space where I had my choice of seating. Along with a family with two young children, I had the impression that we were the only people in the hotel. Then again, that could just be the privacy of the setting.
I chose to have my meal on a comfortable chesterfield sofa, propped up with lots of cushions, and overlooking the pool area from just inside the doors, enjoying the breeze whilst trying to escape the mosquitos as much as possible. I had heard that Uruguay was renowned for its beef, as is Argentina, so thought I should try the steak in order to make a comparison. Of course, it matched well with a glass of wine from their own bodega, the national grape Tannat, a punchy and highly-tannic but delicious red. The food was amazing, and honestly the best steak I have had in a long, long time, lending credence to Uruguay’s beef reputation.
I managed to squeeze in a lovely dessert too – delicious apple pie in a beautiful short pastry topped with a crunchy nutty crumble, served with a rich vanilla icecream and a salted caramel sauce. Divine!
I slept incredibly well!
The next morning, I grabbed a bike and rode around the grounds, followed for a while by one of the hotel dogs, until he thought I was going a bit far for him. I then enjoyed the complimentary breakfast in my same prime position as the night before, with a beautiful view.
In the early afternoon, I had the hotel driver take me to nearby Bodega Narbona, a winery and cheese dairy. An old general store, refurbished yet retaining its original character, now houses the restaurant and tasting room. I chose a wine and cheese tasting, which was incredible, favourites being the mozzarella de bufala and the parmesan, and I picked up some wine and cheese for a Christmas presents.
After enjoying the incredible tasting, I was given a short tour of the wine making facilities, and the six boutique suites on site, before being picked up by the driver.
I had time back at the hotel for a short siesta before getting packed up to check out. I certainly got my money’s worth out of that comfortable bed! I was driven into the nearest town for my bus trip to Montevideo. The bus trip took close to four hours, and went back through the beautiful Colonia area full of artisan cheese makers, and provided a beautiful sunset before arriving in Montevideo.
It was quite late and I took a taxi to my nearby guest house, where I was met by my lovely host, Ingrid, who showed me my apartment and settled me in with a lovely bottle of wine and some reading material that she had lovingly prepared containing suggestions for the area.
The following morning, Ingrid showed me around the neighbourhood a little and I had time to explore and buy a few groceries, stocking up on the last of the mosquito repellent in the supermarket! Yes, the invasion continued. In the early afternoon, I jumped on a very comfortable bus (with wifi!) to Punte del Este, where I had arranged to join a sunset wine tour. It had been suggested that I meet the guide at the Serena Hotel, where I was able to have a nice lunch and a cocktail in the pool area while enjoying a view over the stretch of beach. Beautiful!
I was met at 5pm by my guide, Ryan, and one other guest, Melody, and we were driven to the first winery while taking in the countryside and hearing stories of how our Rhodesian-born, South African-accented, British-heritage host came to be in Uruguay.
The first winery was Alto de la Ballena, or Heights of the Whale, a fairly new winery with the first vines planted at the beginning of this century. We took a little walk up the hill and through the vines. The countryside was very rocky and hilly, and along with the gum trees, reminded me of where I grew up, not far from Heathcote, and you can see from the land why they have had success with similar varieties as that area. We returned to the rustic open tasting room, where co-owner Paula gave us a delicious tasting of several of their wines, along with some more delicious local Uruguayan cheeses.
Our next stop was Playa Vik, an award-winning resort in Jose Ignacio, a beautiful beach area with fishermen boats dotted along the shore, much less developed than the crowded main beach area of Punte del Este.
Here, we were welcomed with a refreshing cocktail and shown around the luxurious grounds. As the sun started to set, we were equipped with comforting wraps to protect us from the cold, and Ryan led us through a tasting of three different wines, including a beautiful aged tannat, and some more lovely cheese and olives. It was an idyllic setting, and a nice way to end the tour.
As Ryan had a wine tour booked in a different area the following day, I decided to tag along again, and was picked up early the next morning from my guest house, this time headed for the wine region of Canelones, just outside Montevideo. Ryan gave us a little explanation of the city as we drove out of town, and we soon arrived at our first winery, H Stagnari, a family winery with a large number of awards. We were given a tour of the facilities where we saw the girls still labelling bottles by hand, super busy at that time of year with customised Christmas orders, before being treated to some generous tastings.
The next stop was Bodega Bouza. Yes, Bouza, except it’s not pronounced “Boozer” but still, a good name for a winery. This winery was established by a family who made a large fortune in the processed food business and, well, really had nothing better to do with their money. Luckily, they make some decent wines. Here, the tour was more extensive with our cute multi-lingual Dutch guide taking us through the beautiful grounds and vines, visiting the barrel rooms and facilities, and ending in the personal vintage car museum before hitting the restaurant for the tastings.
The setting was fabulous, and I could quite easily have stayed for a lazy lunch, if they didn’t once again fill us up with delicious cheeses and other local products while we enjoyed the wines.
I chose to be dropped in town a few blocks from my guest house to give me the chance to explore a little more, and walk off a little of the food and wine. Back home, the hammock in the courtyard proved too tempting and, although I equipped myself with plenty of reading material, I was soon napping away.
In the evening, I wandered off to the Christmas markets that had been set up in nearby Parque Rodo. An amazing array of local products, and a great community atmosphere, with lots of families out together. I marvelled here that, overnight, the stalls were shut up with little more than canvas doors and small locks, and yet remained in tact in the morning. I somehow doubted that would be the case in Australia.
I decided to check out one of the restaurants that had been recommended by both Ingrid my host, and Ryan the tour guide, La Cocina de Pedro. After so much cheese over the last two days, I could hardly do it justice, but the food was wonderful and the place was full, predominantly of locals, which is always a good sign.
Arriving home, I managed to finally catch my other host, Marco, who had been working most of the time since I arrived. Marco is passionate about Uruguay, and knowledgeable about it’s history and political situation, so was able to give me quite a bit of information about this beautiful country and it’s current situation. Although their President, with an interesting history, is considered by some to be a little strange due to his informalities, he is well regarded by most for giving away the majority of his salary, living simply, and organising fund raisers for local charities. Although Marco told me about some of the local issues, there certainly doesn’t seem to be the same problem of inflation, or the same complaints that are often heard in Argentina, and life seems a whole lot simpler.
Marco and Ingrid also showed me their “party” room in the basement of the house, which was created after unexpectedly discovered an extra room during a major renovation of the house. Bonus!
The next morning, I was up relatively early, and took a walk to nearby Pocitos to find a coffee and walk along the boardwalk. The weather was threatening rain, but in the meantime, it was so humid and sticky, it was almost unbearable and my clothes were wet through! Still, I enjoyed my walk along the esplanade where any whisper of a breeze was most welcome.
After wandering home through the local neighbourhoods and parks, I freshened up and got changed, and headed into the old town area for lunch and further exploration. Marco was kind enough to give me a lift as the wind had lifted and the storm threatened to land any minute. Based on that, I decided to lunch first and explore later and, sure enough, no sooner had I sat down than the rain came in great force.
I had chosen a restaurant called Corchos, being one of the few, if not only, restaurants that offer a range of wines by the glass. I chose the wine flight, which was four small serves matched with four different tapas. I was attended by the owner, who explained each of the wines and their pairings. It was delicious, and I followed the tapas with a refreshing wine icecream made from Tannat.
After lunch, I had time to explore the Mercado del Puerto, or Port Market, then opportunistically decided to jump on the new hop on/hop off bus that was passing just as I came out of the market. The bus gave me a bit more of a perspective on the further reaching parts of the city before I got off about halfway, and walked back to the house.
I had time for another nice walk through the Christmas markets with Ingrid before it was time to get a taxi to the port. I checked in and took the late ferry from Montevideo to BA, which took well over the scheduled 3 hours and got into BA after midnight. By the time I eventually got a taxi and got home, I was exhausted, and very happy to be sleeping in my “own bed” again, albeit having sweet dreams of idyllic Uruguay.