On the coast, the Atlantic waves crash against the wild shores, making surfer’s dreams come true. Inland, fields and forests combine over the rolling landscape, which, on occasion, exchanges pastures and trees for vineyards. The cows stare at us inquisitively when we stop to take pictures by the roadside, disturbing the peace. Here in Uruguay, the only thing hasty is the wind.
With a surface of 176.000km2 (half of Germany), 3.3M inhabitants (19 per square kilometre while here in Catalonia is 236) and 14 million cows, Uruguay is a very rural country, where the green colour seems to dominate – even motorway ditches and the sides of roads are covered with a luxuriant verdant carpet. Its coast –barring exceptions like Punta del Este or the capital Montevideo – is wild, with sand dunes and an Atlantic surge luring surfers by the open sea, and a total calm on the Rio de La Plata estuary. Inland, the forested hills and the pastures share land with vineyards and chakras – the private estates.
Trapped among two giants like Brazil and Argentina, Uruguay is a quiet unpretentious country. Our guide, Cisel Cardoso, summed it up like this: “We have land here. If you plant, you get food. You will not become rich and you won’t be able to afford luxuries but you will never starve”. In short: meadows and cows, gauchos and horses. And a simple life.
The horses were introduced by the conquerors. The Charrúa natives lived in Uruguay when the Portuguese established the settlement of Colonia del Sacramento in 1680. To shoo them away, the Spaniards founded Montevideo as a military fortress in the 18thC (for some time the whole area would become a game of Civilizations with European powers setting new posts and taking them from each other). It is estimated that 9000 Charrúa and 6000 Chaná and Guarani lived here when the Europeans first set foot in the country. The Charrúa were hunters, gatherers and fishermen. Their refusal to submit would be their downfall – as is sadly the story in all the Americas. In April 1831, the first president Fructuoso Rivera summoned the tribes to Salsipuedes with the excuse that they were needed to help keep the borders, and then he had them surrounded and slaughtered, killing men and enslaving women and children. Curiously enough, Uruguayans are very proud of their Charrúa heritage. Cisel ascribes to this heritage the lack of religious ardour in the country – as early as the 19thC state separated from church – which sets them apart from other American countries.
Then came the migration flows – Italians and specially Spaniards, many of them from the Canary Islands. These migrants introduced cattle. The Hereford cow, with its brown body and white head, came from England at the end of the 19thC.
Here in Uruguay cattle is bred in a free-range environment in the fields, with a guaranteed traceability thanks to electronic tracking. Moreover, we are told the use of hormones, antibiotics and proteins is banned. This produces a fine quality meat, low in cholesterol and high in Omega 3. And of course we also have the milk producers, the Holando-Argentino breed derived from the Dutch Holstein – the raw material for the ubiquitous and extremely sweet Dulce de Leche.
We need to mention vineyards, too. Wine production is strong, with special attention to the tannat variety, introduced in Uruguay during the 19thC by the Basque Pascual Harriage, which produces some elegant wines, with softer tannins than the European, and which is increasingly gaining international recognition.
Lacking in big geographical features – the highest point is Cerro Catedral with 516 m- the country takes its name from the river Uruguay, which acts as a natural border with Argentina and flows into the Rio de la Plata in Punta Gorda. This immense natural estuary was discovered –more fairly we should say first documented- by Juan Díaz de Solís in 1516 and covers 300 of the 500 km of Uruguay’s coast. The remaining 200 facing the Atlantic Ocean.
And here, in the untamed Atlantic Coast, we begin our journey to discover this charming country.
José Ignacio, total disconnection
Our first stop is José Ignacio, a small village (less than 300 inhabitants during winter) of houses scattered over a terrain of sand dunes and bush. It is located on a small peninsula of 2km per 800m encased between two sea lagoons – José Ignacio and Garzón-, inside the Biosphere Reserve of Bañados del Este and a lacustrine National Park.
Nowadays the peninsula is connected to the mainland thanks to a couple of bridges crossing the lagoons at their narrowest point. The Garzón bridge catches our attention due to its circular shape, like a roundabout over the waters (although that is nothing compared to the surreal waving Puente de la Barra, near Punta del Este, which is literally a rollercoaster for cars).
We arrive in José Ignacio on a stormy night and we check in la Viuda de José Ignacio, a cosy two-story hotel of 18 rooms rising amid coastal vegetation, 200m from the ocean. We access it by a dirt road – quickly we will discover that there are no paved roads once you leave the main freeway. This, added to the weather, and the fact that we can only see vegetation around us right now in the dark imbues us with a feeling of total isolation from the world.
We dine at La Juana, a wooden structure, very intimate and cosy with a nice tiny garden. A good place to order fish, as we are on a fishing village. It takes us some time to find, it is not easy to see the proper turn in the dark.
We go to bed quite late, it is not raining any more but the wind is howling outside. I wake up with the sunlight on a nice clear day, and the first thing I do is step out onto the huge balcony to take a look around: it’s sand dunes, the sea, a few other houses, and the nice sea breeze. I really feel far away from the world, and it is a gorgeous feeling. I wish I could stay here. Down by the swimming pool I come across another guest, he is working on a computer and for what I can see passing by he is writing a script. I guess it is a fantastic place to come to work and be inspired.
The origin of José Ignacio is a estancia (a ranch) established by viceroy Cevallos in 1763. The first houses were built in 1907 and even though in the 60s it became a summer resort, construction was kept disperse and limited to individual two-storey houses, in non-enclosed plots, open to the street and keeping the natural surroundings. In a corner on one of the streets in the village centre there is a sign: “Aquí solo corre el viento” (the only hasty thing here is the wind). It defines perfectly the atmosphere of peace and quiet that they want to maintain. In fact, the strict urban regulations ban, among other things, night clubs. It helps, I guess, that the season is almost over (it’s the beginning of March and the austral fall is coming) and we don’t see many people around.
And it is precisely this feeling of calm and disconnection that lures famous people to the place – models, actors, footballers, businessmen…- for a holiday; some even own houses here.
By the ocean, rising above the surroundings, stands the José Ignacio lighthouse, built in 1877 to stop the huge number of shipwrecks in this wild and rocky coast. Nevertheless, in 1969, the Brazilian cargo vessel Renner sank in front of the beach and still today the remains of the steel hull hide near the shore – swimming is banned in some spots as many bathers have cut themselves with rusty bits of metal eaten away by the salty waters.
There are two beaches in José Ignacio: Playa Mansa (Docile Beach) – from which the fishing ships set sail in the evening- and Playa Brava (Fierce Beach) –a good spot for surfing. Their Spanish names already give you a hint of the waters in both.
From José Ignacio we are moving inland, among forests, homesteads, cows and chakras. We visit the Fundación Atchugarry, in one of these chakras.
Pablo Atchugarry is a sculptor born in Montevideo in 1954. Having studied in Italy he specialized in big pieces made with Carrara marble. His works are spread around the world (including one piece at the Fundació Fran Daurel in Barcelona).
In 2007 he started this non-profit foundation to promote art, literature, music, dance and creativity in general and to help young artists. It is located in a big state where we find his workshop, exhibition rooms, an auditorium, an outdoors scenario, a teaching space and a 25HA sculpture park, with pieces integrated in the waving landscape among grass fields, forested spots and a pond. It seems having a pond built in the chakra is quite common, as we can see on the other estates from the road – unpaved, of course.
Aguaverde Wine Lodge
Navigating dirt roads among fields and hills – lucky for us our driver Mario (never apart from his mate bombilla) knows the area – we get to the Aguaverde vineyards. A beautiful wooden covered bridge crossing a pond welcomes us to this estate. We attract the attention of some cows in the distance when we stop for photos. Amid the vines, at the top of a low hill, the owner of this winery have restored an 18thC house – an old Portuguese and Spanish surveillance post- to turn it into a luxury lodge to be rented privately for a maximum of 8 people. You can rent it all to yourself (the owner tells us a Brazilian writer rents it for a week every year to get inspired) or choose to share it.
We are not that privileged to sleep here and we are only stopping for lunch, and to taste some of its wines, among them some Uruguayan tannat. One year later we will remember this place while discussing where would we like to be confined during the COVID-19 pandemic. We three agree, it’s here.
Punta del Este
We have to go to Punta del Este because our hotel is there tonight but, basically, it is a touristic coast town with tall apartment buildings by the sea and low houses inland. We will use it as a base from which to visit several points of interest around the city. We go inland, to the vineyards at Sierra de la Ballena first, and to see some gauchos later.
When I speak about Sierra de la Ballena (The Whale Range) you need to remember that the highest point in Uruguay is 500 m. Do not imagine majestic mountains but soft green hills in a very rolling landscape. 15 km inland from the coast, passed the large laguna del Sauce (Willow lake)– 48km2 – we find the vineyards of Alto de la Ballena (Whale Heights), one of these hills that can offer a magnificent view of the surroundings. A good spot to have lunch, and we have the opportunity to celebrate the harvest sharing a parrillada with some locals from the capital by the vines. We have a nice chat, and we get their point of view about the country – they are not happy, but we also need to take into account that they are accommodated people that can afford a day out like this and therefore their political views differ from the ones of humbler people we meet along, like our driver. It’s quite interesting to see their different political views.
Gauchos are cowboys, the horsemen taking care of cattle, guiding the herds. Traditionally, Uruguay have always been a cow country. On the 18thC, the Gauchos lived off the horse – which offered them transport – and the cow –who gave them food and leather. Up to the middle of the 19thC they were semi nomadic and used to be mestizos (mixed race). They were actively involved in the independence wars and, basically, they disappeared as such in the 20thC.
But Gauchos created a culture and an identity which have survived, based on equestrian life, meat as a staple food, outdoors life, the pampa air, the clothing style… with indigenous elements. The horse is the soul of this identity and the equestrian practices, like the jineteada, taming, racing… have survived in gatherings, competitions and popular celebrations.
Cisel takes us by surprise to one of these riders’ gatherings, with racing and agility competitions, meat barbecues, mate and local people coming together for one afternoon. Also to play football – the real religion in Luis Suárez home country.
The military governor of Montevideo José Joaquín de Viana founded the city of Maldonado in 1757 and named it in memory of Francisco de Maldonado, a military figure from the 16thC. It keeps some interesting heritage in a colonial flavoured square structured old quarter. One of the most prominent features is the Cuartel de Dragones (Dragoon Barracks), a fortified stone cut structure from the 18thC which was the most important building at the time, spread over a 2.500m2 area. Here, José Artigas , father of the nation, served when he joined the Cuerpo de Blandengues in 1797.
Next to it, at the homonymous square, stands the Catedral de San Fernando de Maldonado, a pink Neoclassic style building from the 19thC. The Madonna presiding the main altar comes from the shipwreck of the “Ciudad de Santander” in 1829.
The squared Torre del Vigía (Watchtower), of 1800, was used to control the Río de la Plata and the ships coming through.
Punta de la Ballena, Museo Casapueblo
In 1958 the Uruguayan artist Carlos Páez Vilaró, a world renowned muralist, decided to build his workshop by the sea at Punta Ballena. He bought the land with the help of friends and acquaintances and build himself a wooden house. As years went by, he kept enlarging it until he ended up turning it into a large white sculpture cut against the blue background of sky and ocean and integrated in the wild landscape. Today it is a massive and labyrinthine building, several stories high, which spreads down the hillside towards the sea. Inside its round edges and rolling shapes, corridors, domes, colonnaded terraces and exhibition rooms are home to all kinds of art works, from paintings, to pottery, sculptures and objects of all sorts by this multifaceted artist. And even though we can also find works by other artists it is basically dedicated to his figure, including a documentary film on the cinema room.
The Museu Casapueblo is a very popular spot and attracts many visitors, who, like us, come to explore all corners of the complex and to notice all the little details and decorative elements, but also to watch the sunset over the Atlantic from the terraces. And with a bit of luck, to capture the green ray.
There is a part of the building that works as a hotel. It would have been another nice place to stay.
Piriápolis, the alchemical city
Fernando Juan Santiago Francisco María Piria de Grossi was born in Montevideo in 1847, and we could define him as a self-made man. At a very young age he started a business buying and selling second hand stuff and later on he moved to textile and real state, thanks to which he amassed a fortune.
His good eye for business prompted him to buy 2500HA of land by the sea in 1890, with the idea of building the first seaside resort city of the country – something known as balneario in Uruguay– at the peak of the Belle Epoque. He wanted to attract the Uruguayan and Argentinian aristocracy to emulate what he had seen at the European summer resorts during a time he lived in Italy.
He built himself a castle and opened the first hotel in 1904. From then on he kept buying land and developing infrastructure, like railway – he had the tracks set. The press started to make fun of him, giving the project the name “Piriapolis” as a joke. And in the end, funny enough, that’s the name that prevailed (the intended name for the city was Heliópolis).
But this is not all. Piria, who was also an alchemist and, as you may have guessed, quite an eccentric character, didn’t choose the location at random. Several curious phenomena converge in the place, which combined to the weird legacy Piria left in the city (he filled it with an array of esoteric symbols) turn this quiet coastal town of around 14.000 souls in a mystical and esoteric pilgrimage destination.
To start with, it is said that at the hill where Piria set the foundation stone compasses go crazy due to a weird magnetic phenomenon. Could be the same that affects the water supply? According to our guide Cisel, a local, it has lethargic properties, so in Piriapolis nothing ever happens as everybody is kind of drowsy because of the water, coming from the surrounding hills. The same water feeds the three transformative fountains of the city. The first one is located under the foundation stone. Today, in that spot, we find an unusual statue, la Virgen de Stella Maris, who, seen from behind looks like Jesus, and from the front is just his pregnant mother, a (weird) symbol of duality.
The second is the fountain of Venus, where we are told to follow the renewing ritual that will help us get rid of our baggage and be reborn anew: we need to walk twice around the central stand sheltering the statue of the goddess, surrounded by symbols, in both directions. And once reborn we should go to the Cerro del Toro fountain to welcome the sun. The third fountain is built in a horseshoe shaped slope, with the figure of a bull presiding over a waterfall that is supposed to bring negative ions to those who come to meditate –33 steps take you up to the statue, but they must be climbed up on the left side and down on the right.
The layout of the city itself was to be the most important symbol, as it was originally shaped as the tree of life; unfortunately for Piria, it could not be carried out. The Argentino Hotel, which in 1930 was the most luxurious in South America, hides in its structure numerical symbols and octagonal shapes – the 8 put sideways becomes infinite, a symbol for knowledge; the mosaics on the street sidewalks in front of the hotel show an eight petal rose and other Arab symbols too. And the unfinished cathedral, which was never consecrated, shows an 8 petal rose window. The figures and reliefs in the castle, the fountains… It’s a mix of astrology with religion and Freemasonery… And anything else that can be added to the weird mix…
Piria died in 1933, at the age of 86, in Montevideo, having realized his dream of building a city out of nowhere. That is something you do not see every day.
But Piriápolis is, above all, a coastal village with 25km of beaches and a fishing harbour. And if we want to believe what they say about the drinking water, the ideal place to rest. So quiet that they had to close down the F1 circuit they had in 1952 because the cars couldn’t get up to speed – due to the magnetism, apparently. As I already mentioned, in Uruguay only the wind rushes.
It was the Portuguese, that in 1860 had founded Colonia del Sacramento at the shores of Río de la Plata, opposite to Buenos Aires, the ones who built the Montevideo Fort in 1723. The Spaniards reacted quickly and occupied the area where the Uruguayan capital stands today to force them out.
In December 1726 the first census was issued and the first layout of the city, then named San Felipe y Santiago de Montevideo, was drawn. In the beginning the city was populated by five families from the Canary Islands, Guarani natives and African slaves.
Taken by the English and the Portuguese, before Uruguay became a state on its own, it joined the Provincias Unidas del Río de la Plata – which gathered territories now belonging to different countries during the fight for independence against their respective European powers. It is the southernmost capital city in America.
Today it is the most important city in the country, by far – with 1.300.000 people (more than a third of the country’s population).
The city’s architecture is greatly influenced by the migratory waves: Spaniards, Portuguese, English and specially French, who brought Art Nouveau and Art Deco.
Plaza de la Independencia is the main city square, at one end of the 18 de Julio avenue, a hub originally known as Ciudad Nueva – projected by the end of the 19thC. In the middle of the square we find the statue of José Gervasio Artigas “defender of free peoples”, one of the main statesmen of the Revolución del Río de la Plata and the man who led Uruguay to independence. Under the statue lies the mausoleum where he is buried, always guarded by two – very young- soldiers. At one side of the square we find the Palacio Salvo, which up to 1935 was the tallest building in South America. Today it is the home of the Tango Museum.
Museo del Tango
The Tango was born at the end of the 19thC in the suburbs of Montevideo, Buenos Aires and Rosario. It is the result of the fusion of Afro-American, Creole and European influences. In the beginning it was considered an indecent dance and it was only danced in whorehouses. Men practised in places like Café Giralda, current location of the museum, and the spot where the anthem of all tangos, la Cumparsita, was first performed.
Gerardo Matos Rodríguez wrote this famous tango in 1916 during a fever delirium. As he was not a musician, he needed his sister’s help for the notation. He wrote it for a carnival “comparsa” and the name derives from the way comparsita was pronounced in cocoliche, the mix of Italian and Spanish jargon spoken by one of Gerardo’s friends. It was premiered on April, 19th, 1917, in La Giralda, and it was an immediate hit. It would be the first tango to reach beyond borders. The lyrics would be added later by Carlos Gardel, also born in Uruguay.
The Ciudad Vieja of Montevideo was originally walled and here in plaza de la Independencia we can still see the door from the old Spanish wall. We access the old town through the pedestrian Sarandí street, that crosses to the promenade (the 22 km long Rambla). Here in the old town we can spot colonial and historic buildings like the Teatro Solís (1856), the Cathedral and the City Hall in Plaza Matriz.
We get lunch at the Mercado del Puerto, one of the must visits in Montevideo. The pieces of this iron building from 1868 were made in Liverpool and assembled here. It was originally a food market but today is a gastronomic centre, the place for a parrillada. The Uruguayan barbecue includes beef (picaña, bife, asado –the rib) and pork (chorizo, morcilla). The servings are excessive – what they consider a parrillada for two could feed a whole family.
You would have never thought but the first naval battle of WWII took place in these waters. The Río de la Plata battle involved three ships from the Royal Navy (HMS Exeter, HMS Ajax and HMNZS Achilles) against the German battleship Graf Spee, which, after being hit, tried to seek refuge in the Montevideo harbour – which was denied to him. Captain Langsforff would end up sinking his own ship to keep it from falling into Allied hands. His crew was imprisoned in Argentina.
Colonia del Sacramento
The second European settlement in Uruguay – first one is the Spanish mission of Villa Soriano from 1624- was Colonia do Santíssimo Sacramento, built by the Portuguese under the command of Manuel de Lobo at the shores of Río de la Plata, opposite to Buenos Aires, Spanish territory, in 1680. Already on its first year it was occupied by the Buenos Aires governor, who had to return it to Portugal in 1861. The Portuguese used it as a base for smuggling into Spanish territories – who would react by founding Montevideo-, and it kept changing hands until it finally fell under Spanish rule in 1778 – as I mentioned before I can’t help but to recall my old games of Colonization and Civilizations.
40 minutes by ferry separate Buenos Aires from Colonia. At some point there were talks of a bridge – 27 km long- to join both cities (and countries) but it was rejected, among other reasons because the citizens felt it would endanger Colonia’s Uruguayan identity – they feared a new porteño invasion, maybe. Many Argentinian cross the Río de la Plata to spend the day or the weekend in this charming city.
Restored in the 60s after many years of abandonment, in 1995 UNESCO listed the old town of Colonia as World Heritage. A walk around its cobbled streets is a trip back to the time of the Portuguese and the Spanish. It owes to the first the military layout that distinguishes Colonia from the Spanish founded cities.
The old town is accessed through the drawbridge on Puerta del Campo, the door on the wall, restored in 1968. The original was built in 1745 by the Portuguese governor Vasconcellos and it was the main entrance to the town– walled to protect it from attacks by pirates, Spaniards and English. The restored Wall goes down toward the river from the door.
The most iconic spot in Colonia is the steep Calle de los Suspiros, with the Portuguese houses from the 18thC, the colonial street lamps, the huge cobblestones paving it and the estuary in the background. According to legend it is called Sighs Street because the prisoners sentenced to death had to walk down it in his way to be executed (and sighed in despair).
Inside the Old town we find also the Matriz church (o Basílica del Santísimo Sacramento), from the 18thC, considered the oldest in Uruguay. With thick walls, it has suffered several rebuilds along the years. It is located in the Plaza de Armas, by the Rescate Arqueológico de la Casa del Governador, the site were the foundations of the old Portuguese governor’s house destroyed by the Spaniards in 1777, can be seen.
In Punta de San Pedro, rising above the low roofs, stands the white Lighthouse of 1857, with the remains of the Convento de San Francisco laying at its foot. We end our walk by the river, strolling along the old wooden dock, reconverted as a marina.
All in all, a really nice quiet leisurely walk, no rush at all, as is the rule in the country.
I have often seen people in the subway in Barcelona holding their mate bombilla and their thermos. Now I am pretty sure they were Uruguayan. Legend says mate was a gift from the gods to the daughter of an old Guarani chieftain so she would never feel lonely, a plant that would always accompany her. Because mate, in fact, is an excuse to socialize, a pre-Columbian tradition still strongly rooted today. You take it with family, with friends, you offer it to visitors. Halfway between tea and coffee, mate is the dry crushed leave of the ilex paraguayensis, and it started out as a country custom but ended up conquering the cities, by storm. Everybody goes about their day with their hot water thermos and their bombilla. It is a very sour (extremely bitter for my taste even with sugar) and invigorating drink, vasodilator and rich in vitamin A. Our driver Mario went nowhere without it. Our guide Cicel would talk to us about the thermos her daughter had chosen as her 13th birthday gift… It is deeply embedded in their identity, like beef and dulce de leche (its total opposite in terms of sweetness).
We leave Uruguay, this beautiful green country, crossing the Río de la Plata, this massive estuary that separates it from Argentina. Without a hurry. You know that here, in Uruguay, the only thing rushing is the wind.