Why Uruguay?  -  Travel & Leisure Magazine

American Express Publishing Corp. "Travel & Leisure Magazine" - February 2001

Uruguayan landscape

THE SEÑORA WAS NOT IMPRESSED. SHE WHIPPED OFF HER SUNGLASSES TO UNDERSCORE THE INFLEXIBILITY OF HER OPINION. WE WERE STANDING ON A WINDY, ENDLESS RUN OF gorgeous beach - not the famous Punta del Este, where she lived, but far-flung Cabo Polonio, one of the most austerely dramatic and mesmerizing seascapes in the world. A place to worship, I felt, and it brought out the pilgrim in me. On this the señora and I agreed - Cabo Polonio was spectacular - and she was not dismissing this jewel, but rather the box that contains it.

"lt's my country, and I love it," she elaborated, "but nothing in Uruguay impresses me."

Uruguay mapWell ... okay. She had a point, and I confess to a share of it. This tiny nation wedged between behemoths - Brazil and Argentina - a mountainless, unjungled country peopled with descendants of highly literate middle-class European immigrants, could justifiably be renamed lowa-by-the-Sea. The señora seemed to represent a peculiar Uruguayan insecurity - the collective devaluation of a small, good thing - and yet I found myself increasingly at odds with her perspective the more I traveled through Uruguay's strangely Midwestern, not- quite-inspiring landscapes. A wanderer hooked on the exotic for far to, many years, I was surprised by the appeal of Uruguay's ordinariness.

Even if you don't speak Spanish, it's enormously easy to get around in Uruguay. The simple network of coastal routes through serene and untrashed countryside is well marked, with maps on roadside billboards explaining YOU ARE HERE.


But where, exactly, is "here"? Often visitors find in Uruguay the virtues of somewhere else - the order of Adriatic Italy, the pastoral qualities of New Zealand, the civic awareness of Scandinavia, the uprightness of Switzerland, the amiability and panoramic vastness of the American Midwest. The sensation of traveling back in time makes Uruguay feel young, unused, fresh. Imagine - Montevideo's municipal golf course closes on Sunday afternoons so that lovers might stroll its green spaces, and families picnic. Try that in Washington, D. C., and you'd start a riot.

GauchosDespite a psychotic lapse in the cold-war seventies, when all the countries at this end of the hemisphere seemed hell-bent on murdering and "disappearing" their rebellious children, Uruguay has always cherished its democratic spirit, its reputation for enlightenment. Much like a modern-day Greek city-state-or, as it is often and more realistically described, a city with a large ranch attached Uruguay has 3 million inhabitants divided equally between Montevideo and the prairie-like countryside. Taking the high-density glamour of Punta del Este out of the equation for the moment, to be impressed by Uruguay requires a sensibility that is all but obsolete in the United States, despite the hand-wringing over our addiction to accelerated change. The truth is, Uruguay soaked me with nostalgia for a lost America, the idealized America that we all want to believe existed in the not-so-distant past, and that truly seemed to exist when I was growing up on the Middle Atlantic seaboard in the fifties and sixties.


Uruguay seems to have this rueful, backward-gazing effect on visitors. "You are the Buenos Aires we once had, that slipped away quietly over the years," the great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges said of Montevideo. "False door in time, your streets contemplate a lighter past." For Borges, it was Uruguay's genteel, sycamore lined capital, suspended in the brash southern light above the Rio de la Plata's sea of chocolate milk, that nudged his heart into a reverie on other, dreamily remembered times. For me, the catalyst of this swoon was Cabo Polonio.


I HAD MET THE NOT-EASILY-IMPRESSED SEÑORA AT the trailhead of a four-wheel-drive track that led from the interior's pastureland into the national preserve of Cabo Polonio. There pine forests graduallly yield to a magnificent range of high dunes and then the cape itself, an old lighthouse, an isolated fishing village, and a thousands-strong colony of sea lions. As I was stuffing water bottles and tangerines into a haversack, a sedan pulled in behind me, making the place seem crowded. Out stepped the señora, a T-shirt covering her blue bathing suit, then her husband in Bermuda shorts and her college-age son in a Speedo.

"Do you know this spot? " the man asked. I told him I didn't. "You're going to walk?"

"Yes," I said. "lf it's too far, I'll turn around."

They didn't think it was too far, six kilometers maybe, but they'd never been to the cape either, although they'd wanted to for years. Two fellows on a motorcycle pulled up and parked, and I took off in a rush, wishing for solitude and silence. For someone beach-struck like myself, who fell irrevocably in love with the ocean as a child and could imagine no better fate than to live on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, the first steps down that sandy track on the bottom half of the world set off bells of recognition. Hot, sunblasted, alone, I walked back into the Carolina beachscape of my youth, in all its primitive majesty. The exquisite sense of déjà vu crescendoed as the pine forest thinned and the dunes appeared, as high as Nags Head's but more massive, more mind-boggling, more surreal in their Saharan magnitude, and I followed the track through the golden slopes to the beach.

Collectible carTo the south, toward Argentina, the beach arrowed into hazy blue infinity but northward it scalloped into the land for perhaps a mile, hooking out until it formed the cape itself, with a village like a spill of sugar cubes on the bouldery hump of the promontory I walked on, past the occasional carcass of a sea lion washed ashore, studying the waves for the best place to bodysurf on my way back. As I approached the village, more signs of life: a bikinied woman sweeping sand from the patio of a tiny cantina; a couple and two young children with the beach to themselves; a fellow with a surf-casting rod heading up the path toward the cape's rocky point to fish for black corbina and skate, which Uruguayans have turned into a national delicacy.

The beach ended where the cape formed a hard knuckle, grassy on the land side, a sculpture garden of rock toward the water, the gaps between the boulders filled with little stucco or weathered- clapboard cottages, fairy tale-like and primitive-a beach bum's paradise. It wasn't necessary to ask where I might find the sea lions: their noise filled the air. I followed the uproarious barking through the warren of bungalows toward the other side of the cape, deeper into the rocks until I saw the sea again, its swells now lively with what seemed at first glance to be a pack of extraordinarily fat but graceful black Labs swimming after imaginary sticks. The grim old lighthouse was up here and the closer I came to it the more it seemed that I had found the biggest kennel in the world.

With no other person in sight, I climbed down toward the slosh of water through an amphitheater of rocks. Each ledge below me was filled with scores of sun drunk sea lions. Hundreds more napped or brawled in the next cove over, thousands more occupied nearby islets, and a steady flow of commuter traffic slipped between the offshore grounds and the onshore bedroom communities. I sat for about an hour with the group I had adopted, made happy by the sheer fact of them, their sensual doglike personalities and their readiness to accept my presence, until their midday lassitude became too infectious and I felt it was time to move on.

Back on the beach again, there was the señora and her family, just now returning from a long walk. We greeted one another as if we were old friends. She liked Australia, she liked Chile, she liked discipline. The government today was rude, she said, the public servants lazy Uruguayans didn't even speak proper Spanish anymore, thanks in no small part to TV It was hard these days to find reliable help in Uruguay, she said, and I said it was the same in Florida, where I lived. "A-too e-many e Spanish," she blurted out, cackling at her self-mockery, but she looked beyond me toward the village and you could see her heart leap into her playful brown eyes, and Uruguay seemed to expand and enlarge to accommodate her pleasure. "Ah, yes," she finally conceded, "Cabo Polonio is wonderful, perfect, a beautiful dream."

URUGUAY SEEMS TO EXIST IN A SINGULAR STATE OF grace, neither enslaved to if its past, like Peru, nor obsessed with its future, like the United States. For me it was a balm, an aromatic for a spirit overexposed to the planet's most troubled places. I spent my first night near Punta Ballena-Whale Point-high atop a cuchilla (literally, a "blade"). Not a mountain, exactly; more like a hiccup of a mountain, but the cuchillas elevate the coastline between Piriapolis and Punta del Este into a rolling, crested panorama scooped with bays and lagoons and planted with tidy forests.


Beach at Punta del EsteOne of the delights of Punta del Este is that development and its absence exist in such gratifying proportions. The peninsula, with its high-rises, shopping districts, casinos, restaurants, and discos, splits the shoreline into a complementary set of possibilities and moods. Punta's Southwestern- facing beach- Playa Mansa- horseshoes around a placid bay; in high season (from mid- December until the end of February) it's packed, a place to see and be seen, a stage for oiled flesh, nubility, sunburned eroticism, shoulder- to-shoulder sandy flirtations.

On the northeastern side of Punta, however, the resort stops abruptly and reverts to raw nature. The beach here goes for miles, exposed to the open Atlantic. Its surf is robust, a bit intimidating.

I stayed at Cumbres de Ballena, a faultless resort where my hostess seemed to be Chloe, an affectionate collie who ruled the enterprise with sweetness. The sunset was as good as advertised- fluorescent orange chevrons slashed above an invisible Buenos Aires-and when darkness came the frogs in the fishponds made a most amazing sound, like mewing cats or babies softly sighing.

I ate a lazy breakfast and went out to Punta Ballena itself to visit the only hotel in Uruguay that was booked solid - the fabulous, surreal Casa Pueblo. Divided into a hotel and the atelier of artist Carlos Paez Vilaro, it is one of the greatest works of stucco in the modern world, an icefall of whimsically shaped adobe like a collaboration between Dr. Seuss and the Anasazi Indians.

Between Casa Pueblo and Punta del Este, I drove east behind a Jeep load of surfers along a beachside dirt road to the peninsula and its skyline of hotels and apartments. Ironically, plenty of Uruguayans refute any claim to Punta, viewing it as an international playground colonized by their neighbors-the elite of Buenos Aires and São Paulo. "Punta del Este is not an Uruguayan beach," the owner of an estancia told me wryly, 11 though some of us keep a small farm there," meaning a flat or cottage to rent to foreigners at rates that subsidize financially troubled ranches.

You have to be lucky to find a room in Punta during high season. On the other hand, avoid the season by even a week and the place is all yours. But to me the amenities of Punta are generic, available almost anywhere. Paul Anka at the swank Conrad Resort & Casino; Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent on the Avenida Golero; six bucks for a bad Bloody Mary at a trendy waterfront cafe-yawn.

I stayed just up the coast at La Barra de Maldonado. My hotel - La Posta del Cangrejo — overlooked an intimate stretch of beach. La Barra is the prototypical seaside town, with funky nightlife and little restaurants and shops, alive with or without tourists. What I found exciting was the architectural energy that had gathered around Punta, expressed not Just in grand projects like the brilliant Casa Pueblo and the Art Deco-ish Conrad, which would be hailed as a centerpiece in Miami Beach, but in the aesthetic palette of the neighborhoods. House after house displayed an eclectic mix of styles -Amerindian chalet, Nantucket estancia, Moorish Palladian, Santa Fe Mediterranean-a living catalogue of design genius.

A few days later the blue Atlantic turned olive-colored, the volatile southern breezes blew in a late-spring cold front, and the surf fishermen hunkered down in the wind. The change in the weather brought to empty Punta a sense of thwarted romanticism. It made me restless, and seemed to push me up the unknown coast, hungry for an experience that might prove quintessentially Uruguayan. Again and again, I turned off the main route down bumpy tracks that led to lost-in-time oceanfront villages. At La Paloma I watched fishermen unload the night's catch of sharks. Then, on the road to Cabo Polonio, I hit the brakes to gawk at a rhea, an ostrich like bird native to the pampas, loping through a hayfield.

As I made my way north through the untamed state of Rocha and its pristine wetlands, the rheas were everywhere, high-stepping toward the grassy horizon. The more I stopped to watch them, the more I noticed other birds-flamingos plowing the tidal flats with scooped bills, pinwheeling flocks of green parrots, blue parakeets in the roadside scrub, flamboyant hawks atop fence posts, great congregations of ducks, swans, and storks in the lagoons.

As I came to the Brazilian border at Chuy. its checkpoint clogged with 18-wheelers, I turned reluctantly away from the coast and stopped for the night at El Fortín de San Miguel, a stone lodge favored by hunters. The staff warned me against the route I had outlined across Uruguay to the city of Durazno. "Don't try it," they advised. "The roads are very bad."

They weren't, really, if you don't mind a few ruts and potholes. Half the time, though, I didn't know where I was, with no one to ask except the occasional gaucho on horseback, riding the interminable fence line of the range. No gas stations, no place to eat, very few haciendas, the sky silvery and the air muggy-this was wild, wide-open country pure and lonely.

Late in the afternoon I arrived at Estancia Caorsi, on the outskirts of Durazno. I'd arranged with the ranch owners, Helena and Julio Caorsi, to rent a rustic cottage 80 miles north of their house, on the bank of the Río Negro. When the family expressed curiosity about my journey from the Brazilian border, I spread out my map on the verandah. The eldest son, who owned a ranch nearby, watched my finger trace the route across half of Uruguay. "Not very interesting," he remarked, and I had to laugh at this by-now-familiar Uruguayan infidelity. True, traveling hour after hour through endless grassland has a dulling effect, but the day had given me a set of images to relish: the uncultivated sweep of the prairies; rheas flocking like cross-country track teams, and what appeared to be a rhea day- care program (one adult frantically tending to dozens of scurrying fledglings); a hawk lifting a twisting cat-size lizard into the air; a mustachioed gaucho astride a chestnut mare, sipping maté from a small gourd.

Helena and her gentle, smiling husband invited me inside for a look around-at rooms remodeled to accommodate tourists mantels crammed with national and international awards for the estancia's champion Normandy bulls, walls adorned with antique oil paintings passed down through the family.

Helena vanished and reappeared. She had changed from her dress and pumps into boots, culottes, a wool sweater. "Bob and I are going to the river!" she announced merrily to her son. News to me. I had expected to be given a hand-drawn map, a dinner pail with bread and cheese, and a bottle of vino tinto, then sent on my way for a quiet, meditative evening in the campo. No, I'd never find my way alone, she said. She'd have to take me there, and by then it would be too late for her to return home. The men piled gear into a pickup truck, the intrepid señora climbed behind the wheel, and off we went, stopping first in Durazno to collect Rubén, a cowboy who once worked for the estancia.

Now we were three. Cómo no? I thought - "Why not?" - the Uruguayan response to everything. Off we went again through pouring rain. Finally, near twilight, we left the paved road and passed under the white arch of a gate into a pasture. I soon understood why even with the best of maps I would have gotten hopelessly lost. There was nothing but rolling prairie in all directions, not even a clearly discernible track through the fields, and a wicked storm was blowing up from Patagonia. We drove through a maze of pastures and fences; down gullies and across streams, Rubén hopping out to open and close the barbed-wire gates; by mile after mile of cattle, sheep, handsome horses, purpling sky. Eventually we came to a large box of towering eucalyptus trees, a windbreak for the old estate house of the estancia. Helena grew up here, but the house is now abandoned, a few antiques moldering in dusty, deserted rooms. A caretaker and his family live in one of the outbuildings, and we stopped to arrange horses for a morning ride.

"Now I want to show you something beautiful," Helena said, and we drove still deeper into the nowhereness of the pampas. When we reached the crest of a high hill, the land dropped off to reveal the spread of the Rio Negro through the lowlands. One wave-scraped finger of its reservoir filled the river basin below us, at whose tip a white cottage nestled in a copse of trees-Helena's El Olivo, one of the enduring loves of her life. It was the sort of rustic sanctuary you might imagine D. H. Lawrence retreating to, to harvest words out of the bare eloquence of the landscape.

After settling in, Ruben heated water for his maté, then began splitting wood. Soon flames rose from the gaucho's campfire, and Helena and I sat down on the veranda with a bottle of whiskey. She began to unscroll the tumultuous, Marquezean history of her family, German and Italian immigrants who had built the modern Uruguay with both their labor and their betrayals. Helena herself seemed like the protagonist of an Isabel Allende novel as she recalled her girlhood and adolescence and coming-of-age and motherhood and grandmotherhood in such an isolated place. To live your life on an estancia in the middle of nowhere meant that only birds would ever hear your secrets.

But now she felt a shift in her world. The impuesto al patrimonio - the national property tax-was wearing down the old families, and ranches were being bought up by wealthy foreigners.

"Even the gaucho no longer exists," Helena said, nodding at Rubén's silhouette as he tossed meat onto the grill. "He's just a myth, a thing of the past. Now they ride in jeeps to work the cattle."

Beef is a religion in Uruguay. Across the entire country I had feasted in the parrilladas, the steak houses devoted to the gaucho tradition of grilling all variety of meats over an open fire. Now, with the sparks wheeling into the wet darkness, Rubén was pulling our dinner off the flames, a true parrillada - offal (stomach, intestines, heart, kidneys), chorizo, entrecôtes -serving us both the meal and the experience of an all but-vanished lifestyle.

In the morning it was raining. Gale force pamperos blowing down from the Andes made the sound of ocean surf in the eucalyptus. Rubén, the last of the gauchos, drank a steaming cup of maté, fixed a black beret on his head, and went off to see about the horses. But we wouldn't be riding today across the stormy fields. Helena and I returned to our chairs on the veranda to continue the stories', the rich, true stories of Uruguay, from the night before. "Oh!" she exclaimed, taking delight in the thumb-size birds that had sought refuge in the bushes around us. She told me she adored waking in the morning to the tender cooing of El Olivo's pigeons. On a different day maybe I would return, saddle up a strong mare, ride to the horizon, and fish in the river for golden dorado. Cómo no?

Helena talked on, as I imagined she would to the pretty birds once I had gone. Helena, Uruguay-you listened to both with your heart, or you heard nothing. When the rain slackened, we hugged good-bye and I left for Montevideo.

MONTEVIDEO is a cozy, likable city, with just enough museums, cathedrals, renovated palaces, plazas, and architectural monuments to keep you well occupied for a day or two. But plan your visit to include a Sunday-morning trip to the capital's Tristán Narvaja street fair. Begun 50 years ago by Italian immigrants, it is an everything-for-everybody market: antiques, rare books, vegetables, cheeses, cheap clothes, military surplus goods, and estate jewelry. The fair's most striking sight? The bird vendors. Clumps of baby parrots all a-huddle, roosters that look like comic book fantasies, psychedelic pigeons, hapless falcons, and cage after cage of birds I'd never imagined, much less seen. Take it all in, then buy a chivito - Uruguay's incomparable steak sandwich-from one of the stalls.


Plaza Fuerte Hotel 1361 Bartolomé Mitre, Montevideo; 598-2/915-9563, fax 5982/915-9569; doubles from $115. A historic building in the Old Town with only 24 rooms, each decorated in its own style.

Hotel Cumbres de la Ballena Punta del Este; 598-42/78689, fax 598-42179241; doubles from $240.

Casa Pueblo Ruta Panoramico, Punta Ballena, Punta del Este; 598-42178485, fax 598-42179386; doubles from $180.

La Posta del Cangrejo La Barra de Maldonado; 598-42/70705, fax 598-42170173; doubles from $165.

El Fortin de San Miguel Ruta 19, Paraje 18 de Julio, Chuy, 598-47014037, fax 598-47412207, doubles from $90.

El 0livo de Rio Negro Durazno. This rustic three-bedroom cottage in the middle of a private 2,500 acre estancia rents for $500 a week for two people, and includes food for three meals a day (you do your own cooking), unlimited horseback riding, hunting (in season), and fishing (the cottage comes with two boats; the river is right out the front door). To book, call Helena and Julio Caorsi (598- 99/362198 or 598-36/23762).


United fly into Montevideo; the best time to go is between December and March. 


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