Uruguay, A Cure for Arachnophobia
Our short tour of the Ibera wetlands was filled with wildlife and adventure. Unfortunately, we couldn’t stay as long as we wanted. Our driver, Ezekiel, loaded us into his vehicle for the return trip. We again took the opportunity to hijack his sound system with some of our music.
The trip to town passed quickly and we asked Ezekiel to drop us off at the bus station. Our plan was to make our way to Concordia, Argentina, a small town on the border of Uruguay. From there we would cross the border and spend a few weeks exploring Uruguay.
Our bus was scheduled to leave at 10:00 pm. It would be a six or seven hour overnight ride. We could have taken earlier buses, but our bus was the only one that stopped at the terminal. The other busses didn’t stop at the terminal and simply let passengers out on the highway outside of town. I was worried about the logistics and being left alongside the highway at 2:00 a.m. and trying to figure out how to get to the border.
We spent the next few hours hanging out with the local dogs who roamed freely through the bus station. Our bus didn’t arrive at 10:00 pm and by 10:30 we were worried that it might have been cancelled. All of the offices were closed and there was no way to get information. Should we leave and get a hotel room for the night? Should we wait?
We decided to wait, and at 11:30 our bus pulled into the terminal. It was an hour and a half behind schedule. We were exhausted from a full day of exploring the wetlands and immediately settled into our seats for the long overnight ride. It didn’t take long to fall asleep.
Six and a half hours later we pulled into the terminal in Concordia. We had read that the “Flecha bus” takes passengers from Concordia across the border to Salto in Uruguay. When we got off the overnight bus we spotted the “Flecha bus” which was loading passengers. We hurriedly purchased a ticket and were soon on our way to Uruguay.
The border crossing from Argentina to Uruguay was our easiest crossing yet. Border agents from each country sat at the same desk and we were quickly stamped out of Argentina and into Uruguay. There were no questions and no searches of our luggage, just a friendly smile and a warm welcome.
In another 30 minutes we arrived at the bus terminal in Salto, Uruguay. The terminal anchors the town’s mall, grocery store, and bank. Conveniently, right next door was the rental car agency where we had reserved a car for a week long driving tour of the country. Our plan was to drive throughout Uruguay and camp along the way. Uruguay has many national parks and beautiful beaches and there are free campsites everywhere.
Uruguay is the size of Washington state and has just over three million people, about the same in population as Mississippi. It is known as the “little Switzerland of South America”, for it’s strong democracy, liberal policies, and secret and secure banking laws. Economically, Uruguay is one of the most prosperous countries on the continent. It has a temperate climate and is known for some of the best beaches in South America. Environmentally, Uruguay is one of the cleanest countries in the world.
After doing our research for the trip, Uruguay is one of the countries we were most excited to visit. Everything we read mentioned how “European” Uruguay felt. The articles all claimed that it was modern, clean, peaceful, and prosperous.
So after Ol and I checked out our car, we were ready for a road trip along the Atlantic coast. The plan was to drive from the border town of Salto, through central Uruguay, and make our way to the coast. Other than that we had no specific plans. We didn’t know where we would stay or how long we would be there.
We got in the car and found the highway out of town. We had been driving for about fifteen minutes when I heard Ol yell. “What is that!!”
“I didn’t see anything. What are you talking about?” I asked.
“It looked like a giant tarantula crossing the road. But it couldn’t have been” he said excitedly.
With that, he had my attention. I hate spiders! I can take snakes and lizards, but spiders? No way! And, giant tarantulas? I can’t even think about them without getting chills running up my skin.
After a few more minutes, I saw it! A giant tarantula in the middle of the road. Then another. And, another. And, another. There were hundreds of giant tarantulas crossing the highway! If we could see this many tarantulas on the road I could only imagine how many were in the grass and the fields along the road. This was the stuff of my worst nightmares!
In Mississippi we have love bugs to contend with when driving down the highway in the springtime. Uruguay apparently has tarantulas!
Ol wanted to get out and take pictures, but I wouldn’t let him. I was totally freaked out at this point. I then started worrying. What if we had a flat tire? Who would get out to change it? I had chills running up my spine even though we were safely in the car.
We also noticed some strange little birds that kept popping out of the grass along the road. They were cute as they darted on and off the road. I realized that they were trying to eat the tarantulas. I noticed one standing in the middle of the road, frozen. I thought that Ol would swerve. Ol thought that the bird would fly or move. Unfortunately, we were both wrong. So far, this road trip was not getting off to a good start.
While Ol was driving, I went to Google. I wanted to know if this tarantula thing was going to be a problem. In all of my research on Uruguay, tarantulas never came up. I had only come across gushing and charming descriptions of this small latin American country.
After a few minutes on the internet I did find that Uruguay has about forty different species of tarantulas. We just happened to be lucky enough to visit during the mating season, the two months of the year when the male tarantulas go looking for love.
After about an hour of driving, we didn’t see anymore tarantulas. However, I still refused to get out of the car to switch drivers, and instead climbed over the console. I wasn’t taking any chances.
The rest of our drive was beautiful. The countryside was picturesque, with white puffy clouds floating over a serene pastoral setting. We saw gauchos herding sheep and the cattle for which Uruguay is famous. Uruguayans love their delicious wood smoked and barbecue beef which can be found on menus at “parillias” throughout the country. After several hours of driving we had only seen a few other cars. The interior of the country is very sparsely populated.
After witnessing the giant tarantula migration, our original Uruguay camping plan was out. There was no way that I would be sleeping outside with thousands of giant tarantulas on the move! We stopped for lunch and immediately started looking up accommodations. For budgeting purposes, we were willing to forgo food if it meant sleeping inside.
We found a very nice and economical hotel located in the beachside town of Piriapolis. This charming coastal town is where the hills of Uruguay meet the ocean. It is located on the Atlantic Ocean in southern Uruguay and is famous for its large and tranquil beaches. The harbor is filled with beautiful and expensive yachts.
The town was founded in 1890 and is an elegant beachfront resort. The slow pace of life must be what Miami’s South Beach was like in the 1920’s. The town compares favorably to resort towns in the south of France.
After resting there for two days, we then drove north along the coastal highway through many charming towns, each with it’s own personality. Our destination was Punta del Diablo, a small seaside fishing village known for its surfing and cool hippie vibe. Fisherman and artisans comprise the majority of the 500 full-time residents.
We found a cheap hostel with a funky atmosphere that perfectly matched the town. Our host was a young man who floats back and forth between Australia and Uruguay. He sells smoothies and other vegetarian treats from his outdoor bar located on the property. After visiting with him for a while, he recommended that we visit his favorite beach.
In Punta Del Diablo the beautiful and pristine beaches are practically deserted and go on for miles. The town’s brightly colored buildings and beach shacks are filled with restaurants, bars, hostels, and shops. Due to strict building codes there are no resorts or high rise condos. There are however plenty of guest houses, cabanas, and boutique hotels.
During the summer season, December through March, the population of the town rises to over 25,000 residents. Uruguay’s beaches are a popular vacation haven for people from Brazil, Argentina, and many places in Europe.
Just outside Punta Del Diablo is Parque Nacional Santa Teresa (Saint Teresa National Park) which hosts Fortaleza de Santa Teresa (Fortress of Saint Teresa). This is where we would have camped (had it not been for the giant tarantulas! Did I mention that Uruguay is home to many tarantulas? Yes, it is even home to the largest tarantula in the world!). We did enjoy exploring both the beach and the fort.
Admission to the national park was free. It comprised over 3,300 hectares. It is located five kilometers from Punta del Diablo and has over 60 kilometers of hiking trails, sand dunes, and beautiful beaches. During the summer months whales can be seen playing offshore. The fort played a major role in Uruguay’s battle for Independence and is a source of pride for the country.
After enjoying a couple of days of perfect beach weather we headed back south to the incredible and must-see destination of Cabo Polonio. This is a remote community built on sand dunes, on a cape jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean. Cars are not permitted and the town can only be accessed by hiking seven kilometers from the highway, or by large 4x4 beach vehicles that ferry tourists in and out several times a day. We didn’t want to walk, so we boarded the park’s large trucks which drove us through the sand dunes and alongside the beach to this remote outpost.
The entire town is off the grid. Everything runs on solar power, wind, or the occasional generator. Without lights, there is no light pollution and the nighttime sky is breathtaking. The town is very romantic with candle lit lanterns lining the walkways to the charming oceanfront restaurants. We spent the evening star gazing and watching the shooting stars streak across the Milky Way. The next morning we woke early to walk the beaches, explore the lighthouse, and visit one of the largest fur seal colonies on the Atlantic.
We had originally planned on camping, but ended up staying in a small cottage by the sea. We didn’t have any reservations, but were lucky to meet Maria who took us to a cottage she rents.
After enjoying this quirky little commune, we got back on the road again heading south. The highways were smooth, clean, and well marked. They seemed more modern than interstate highways in the states. The roads were landscaped and well maintained, and lined with palms trees and palmetto grass.
The vast majority of the country of Uruguay is rural, and this area is home to the many gauchos who tend to these vast farmlands. In Uruguay there are more cattle than people. I quickly got over my obsession with llamas and penguins. Gauchos are my new obsession.
The Rocha region of Uruguay is filled with vineyards and olive trees. The area has begun marketing itself as the next Tuscany. Beautiful wineries and vast expanses of farmland dominate the landscape. Several large ranches that stretched from the highway to the Atlantic Ocean were for sale. It reminded us of the Florida panhandle before Destin and Watercolor exploded with tourists.
We stopped for lunch in a little beachside town just outside Punta Del Estes for a wonderful meal of fresh fish. We meandered through the streets admiring the architecture of the beach houses and compounds.
Punta del Estes is the Miami Beach of Uruguay. Tall condos and hotels line the beachfront. Major corporations from around the world have a presence here. The rich and the beautiful come to Punta Del Estes to see and be seen. A large billboard plastered with the likeness of Eric Trump dominates a construction site erecting the latest Trump Tower ( this was as scary as the tarantulas). While we were there, many of the downtown streets were blocked off to accommodate the international Gran Prix racing event that this cosmopolitan city hosts.
After that, we decided to make our way along the coastal highway to the capitol city of Montevideo. Over half of the population of Uruguay lives in the city of Montevideo, more than a million and a half people. While it sounds like we did a lot of driving, everything in Uruguay is relatively close and only a few hours away.
If it sounds like I am infatuated with Uruguay, you might be right. After seven months in South America, and two weeks in Uruguay, we both fell in love with the country and the people. I could easily see ourselves using Uruguay a base for our future travels. That will have to be another post.
And so, even though I am deathly afraid of spiders, and Uruguay is home to the largest spiders in the world, I could actually see myself living in and enjoying this enchanting country filled with beautiful and friendly people.