As countries go, Uruguay is not a popular tourist destination. But it happens to top the Overlander list of places to get to at certain points in your trip. This is because the country offers an automatic 12 month stay for foreign vehicles. As well, there are plenty of long term vehicle storage places. This combination allows Overlanders to fly home for any reason, no explanations required, while your vehicle stays safe.
From Buenos Aires, the drive out of Argentina was easy. The land was flat and at times marshy, scattered with tall grasses and shrubs. Cattle pastures mixed with small fields of corn and sunflower. The farm machinery that we did see was pretty basic.
Our first night was spent at a riverside campsite in Gualeguaychú, (pronounced Wally-guy-chew) still in Argentina. It was a popular spot with locals arriving to enjoy a lunch in the shade, sit on the beach, or do a bit of fishing. The señor who owned the camp sold groceries, beer, wine, home made salami, and frozen pizza. He would also change your American dollars. For us it was a convenient stop, and we had a quiet night.
The next day we had the border crossing into Uruguay. As usual, I was anxious, but surprisingly it turned out to be a drive-through. We pulled up to a kiosk labelled Migración and handed our passports through the window. They were stamped and returned in about 5 minutes. The next kiosk was the Aduana, for the vehicle paperwork. Vanna was kind of blocking the narrow lane, so Bob drove over to a parking lot, while I stood at the window. An older guy was manning the booth but he typed like a trooper. The only wait was for the computer to reboot. He took that Argentinian permit that we waited 19 days for, copied the info, and printed a new one for Uruguay. In about 10 minutes. While I stood there, a guy tried to run over me. But otherwise, it was a good experience.
We now had the permit for Vanna to be in Uruguay for a year. And they didn’t even do a search inside.
As we drove off elated, Bob reminded me that often there is a surprise stop down the road, shortly after the border. Indeed there was. We came upon a structure that looked like a road toll, with gated lanes, but driving through was not allowed. We were required to park. Reason unknown.
Ok. So now what. People were milling around in confusion. None of the signage explained what to do or why. Some people were unsuccessfully trying to get information from inside the building, others were struggling with a bank type machine. A lineup had formed in front of a small trailer. We decided on the line.
Once inside the trailer, the woman charged our credit card for about $13 Cdn and handed over a windshield sticker. It turned out that we were purchasing a prepaid road toll sticker, which will be read automatically as we drive through any of the highway tolls. Additional payments can be made online. This makes sense. Just the lack of direction prior to this point was confusing. But it’s often the way.
Back in the van, Bob fussed over where to place the sticker. It came with a lot of directions written in Spanish. Put it 5 cm from the top, but if this is the case put it here but then if this, or this…. so confusing. I stopped reading. Bob finally stuck it near the rear view mirror. As we drove through the lane, we held our breath. The gate opened. Yay, we were through.
The main highway was in decent shape occasionally lined with palm trees. After the excessive heat of Buenos Aires, we really wanted a few days at the beach. Turning off the main highway, we took a narrow road to the tiny town of Santa Ana. What a gem. The sandy pristine beach was wide and stretched a long ways.
The water is still actually the Rio del Plata but the river is so wide at this point that it looks like the Atlantic Ocean, with waves and tides. In high season this small town spills over with beach lovers. But this is autumn. There were a few groups of people, some horseback riding or ATVing on the beach. Others were fishing.
We settled into a barebones campsite, then took a stroll around town. We happened to meet George who was just opening up his restaurant for the evening. We were the only customers. George put on some music, then went to the kitchen and prepared us a complementary appetizer of cubed cheese and tomatoes, sprinkled with oregano. Then he sat down for a chat.
A Uruguayan, George appeared to be in his 80’s, having owned this hotel restaurant for over 20 years. He shared the history of the place and talked about his love of music. Sometimes he would stop mid story and comment on a particular beat or phrase in a song we were listening to. He only spoke Spanish and I wondered if he realized some pieces, with lyrics being in English, were actually Christmas songs. Which was a bit odd for March.
He offered to show us around, so we trooped after him to the pool with a water fall, to the plumbing room full of pumps and pipes, through the cluttered kitchen, over to the backyard fireplace and then took in the terrific view from the upstairs patio. He wants to retire and threw out a figure of about a million, presumably US dollars. We did not enquire further because we are not in the market.
After Santa Ana we headed east to Colonia del Sacramento. A Uruguayan tourist town, it’s on a point of land just an hour ferry ride across the water from Buenos Aires. From the beach, if you look hard enough, you can faintly see the tips of tall buildings in BA.
Our hotel was along the water front, with a balcony offering a nice view of the various boats coming and going.
We also could the wide paved walkway paralleling the beach. It was well used. Locals were out jogging, or walking during the day, and it turned into a kind of patio in the evening. People of all ages met up there, friends or family with lawn chairs, to chat and drink mate.
Uruguayans are obsessed with mate ( pronounced ma-tay). To drink it, you need a special mug, a metal straw, and a thermos of hot water. Sometimes the mug is passed around. One chatty taxi driver, Jorge, told us that mate is the most important thing in his life. Mate first, then his wife. Really!
Bob and I followed the walkway to the town center, a distance of about 3 kilometres. A lot of high school students passed us, out on an afternoon jog for gym class.
We found the vibe in the town center to be really laid back. We hung out in the shade at the park, stopped for a pitcher of lemonade, talked to the street dogs, and then walked around the historical section.
The Barrio Historical, a UNESCO world heritage site, was built in the 1700’s by the Portuguese. It includes an old basilica, a lighthouse, and a stone city gate complete with a wooden drawbridge. The streets are the original cobblestone. Quite interesting and picturesque.
With only a few days left in this trip, it was time to store Vanna. We had already arranged to leave our vehicle with Sandra who has a cattle and horse farm north of Colonia.
We found the place easily using Sandra’s directions. She was not home but her mother-in-law greeted us enthusiastically. She really wanted to talk and I really could not understand a word of her Spanish. I felt bad because she seemed excited to see us.
While we were preparing Vanna for storage, mother-in-law brought out a home made felt beret and scarf for me to try on. She and Bob could not stop laughing when I put them on. Ya, no. I didn’t buy.
Next up is a ferry ride to Buenos Aires and a taxi to the airport. Homeward bound.
Before this trip we had someone in Argentina inquiring about purchasing Vanna. It had been 3 years since we were last here, and we felt out of touch. Should we sell? We weren’t sure if we wanted to continue.
But now, even though we only had 5 weeks for this trip, we are so glad that we took the opportunity to return. It did not take us long to realize that we still enjoy this type of travel. Some days are difficult to be sure, but overall it’s a good life.
We plan to return.