Uruguay (April 21-28): Montevideo, Punta del Este, Punta del Diablo, Cabo Polonio; Brazil (May 5-13): Rio de Janeiro, Foz de Iguacu
4/21/09 - 5/13/09 80 °F
Since we couldn't go to Morocco because Ashok could not get a visa, we ended up spending the extra days in Uruguay. It turned out to be one of our favorite countries (once again proving everything happens for a reason)! The Uruguayan consulates were also the nicest, most service oriented of all the ones we dealt with - proving my other theory that a consulate/embassy provides a good insight for what that country is like. In summary, Ashok started his visa application in Istanbul (he's the first to apply for a visa in Turkey) with the help of a woman from the consulate in Hamburg, and ended up picking up his visa in Buenos Aires.
Uruguay is a small country of only 3 million people which probably explains its laid back culture. Even Montevideo felt more like a small city than a capital city. In addition, the beaches are nice, the people are extremely warm and friendly, and the asados are great... so what's not to love?! Everyone has a place they dream of moving to, and Uruguay is one of those places for us.
Punta del Este is the big beach resort town (reputedly THE place to be seen in South America after Rio), but it was a little too much like any other resort town. What we loved were the smaller beach towns further up the coast that have a lot more character, in particular Punta del Diablo, a former fishing village turned local up-and-coming resort/surfer town, and Cabo Palonio, a small establishment in a national park where there's no electricity or running water, and the only way to get there is in 4x4 trucks.
The coast of Punta Del Diablo:
We met some great people in Punta Del Diablo: Veronica, owner of Elida Elena hostel, was helpful even though we didn't end up staying there (they didn't have rooms with private bathrooms). We ended up stopping by the hostel several times for great food and even better conversation with her, her boyfriend and everyone who works there.
An impromptu photo session with the people that works at the Elida Elena:
One of the amazing BBQs at the Elida Elena, with Gabriel presiding over the grill:
All our friends that love grilling would be jealous to see the huge pit/grill that is built into EVERY house in Uruguay (and Argentina), and the amount of meat that's piled on top of the grill each time. If not for the NYC fire code, we would build one on our roofdeck. While Argentina is known for steak, Uruguay has the best chorizos (sausages). In particular, we loved the Morcilla Dulce, a sweet blood sausage available only in Uruguay (the orange zest tempers the taste of the blood, and it tastes way better than it sounds!). While we're on the subject of food, we were "meated out" by the time we got to Brazil so I can't speak for the churrascaria there. However, the sucos (fresh squeezed fruit juice) in Rio were amazing! The abundance of tropical fruits in Brazil meant that the sweetest, freshest juices are available at any random sucos stand for less than $2. Ashok's favorite was the acai, and I could never decide between that or mango juice.
Sorry I digressed (food has that effect on me). Bernardo, from whom we rented the cabin, is another interesting person we met in Punta del Diablo. Apparently he used the cabin to "get away" from his kids and wife when it's not rented out, so it was perfectly normal for him to come over each evening to sit around and chat with us about everything from surfing (he's a retired surfer) to real estate to local and world politics. For a guy living in a small village where there's no ATM (but has internet connection!), Bernardo is very well versed in what's going on in the world. Another lesson for us - never judge a book by its cover.
Bernardo with his family (courtesy of Ashok who took the family portrait one afternoon):
The cabin that we rented from Bernardo in Punta del Diablo:
View of the ocean, taken from the bedroom of the cabin:
From Uruguay we went back to Buenos Aires for a few days, then headed up to Iguazu Falls and on to Rio, Brazil. We had grand plans of going to Salvador, Ilha Grande, and several other places in Brazil (thanks David for all your reco's), but we crossed over to Brazil at the Iguazu Falls border, got down to Rio, and just settled in. Actually, what happened was that, for one reason or another, we spent more days in Argentina than we had planned so we only had 7 days by the time we got to Rio, and since we were almost at the end of our trip we didn't have the energy to cram 2-3 places into such a short amount of time. Instead, we spent the days exploring Rio at our leisure and left the other places for our next visit to Brazil.
Sun and beach immediately comes to mind whenever Rio is mentioned. However, I think what really sets Rio apart is its location - situated between the lush green tropical mountains and the beach, few cities can claim such a dramatic setting.
One of the best ways to appreciate the view is to watch the sunset from Sugarloaf Mountain. We lucked out and were there on a very clear day with just enough clouds to provide some dramatic color.
One cannot be in Rio without going to Copacabana beach, even if the water is quite polluted these days... so one afternoon we packed our stuff and worked our way there. The beach was pretty quiet and we were able to find a nice patch of dry sand not too close to the water. As I was getting settled on my towel and starting to enjoy the warm rays of the sun, I saw this look of surprise and horror on Ashok's face, and sat up just in time to see this white wave come rolling towards us. The next thing I knew, I, along with everything we had, were completely soaked. The only saving grace was that Ashok was standing with one of his cameras at the time, and was able to grab the other one off the towel before the water washed over it so the 2 most expensive pieces of equipment were saved. I'm sure the locals sitting around us had a good laugh at us, "the stupid tourists", as they watched us scramble to gather up our stuff and dragged all the wet stuff around looking for some place to rinse off the sand. It took about 3 days for everything to dry up, and even longer to get all the sand out of my backpack and Ashok's camera bag. While this was not one of our favorite moments, it was certainly one of the memorable ones!
Copacabana Beach, a short while before we got washed out:
In Rio we stayed in a comfy B&B called Casa 579 in the Santa Teresa neighborhood, an "artsy" area on top of the hill of the same name in the center of Rio (which served a great breakfast - fresh fruit juice and cake baked every morning... yummm). Maybe it's because we had a view of the famous Christ the Redeemer statue (the other iconic landmark) from our window, we didn't make it up to Corcovado mountain to see the statue until the last day.
View of Corcovado with Christ the Redeemer from our window (ok, our bathroom window):
Christ the Redeemer up close (we were the first ones there so no tourists!):
By the way, in case you're thinking of watching the sunrise from there, it's not possible. The park opens at 8am so it is way bright by then.
One other highlight for us was the tour of the Maracana stadium. After all, when one thinks of soccer, Brazil and Pele immediately comes to mind, so it was really cool to walk the grounds where so many famous players have competed:
We also learned an interesting fact: The stadium was built in 1950 for the fourth World Cup, between Brazil and Uruguay. Brazil was so confident they were going to win that they announced that the stadium would be painted with the colors of the winning team. Well, as we know now, Uruguay shocked the world by beating Brazil at the last minute, which is why the stadium is blue and not green.
The only places we had left after Rio were Cordoba and Mendoza (which I talked about in my last post), and thus ended our time in South America, and pretty much our trip. All we had left was a week in Aruba before going back to New York. More on that and some final thoughts next time.