We now have a game plan: get to Ushuaia1 (aka the end of the earth) before winter. But first, we needed to get back to Montevideo.
We saw two options: 1) turn around and retrace our steps along the coast; or 2) head inland and take a longer (but fresh) interior route. Both ways involved a stop in La Floresta to visit El Capitán Marcelo. We were interested in seeing the more rural side of Uruguay, so we opted for option number 2.
La Paloma to Rocha
The morning of our departure, we awoke at the crack of dawn in an attempt to get on the road early. We said goodbye to the house, goodbye to the koi pond (which doubles as a birdbath), and goodbye to the neighbor’s yappy-little-shit dog (who had chased us every time we’d come and gone) and hit the road.2
The route from La Paloma to Rocha was familiar — we’d biked it a week prior on our way into La Paloma — and perfectly uneventful. After a week of getting soft in La Paloma, it felt good to be back on our steeds, which were running exceptionally smoothly since we’d given them a much needed clean/tune up the day before. Cat led Kale all the way to Rocha — sometimes by as much as ½ km. This provided a good laugh to a fascinated elderly Uruguayo, who was certainly mocking Kale’s masculinity (if he only knew…)3 as Kale struggled to keep Cat within eyeshot.
We found our way back to the same restaurant where we’d eaten a week earlier, crushed some carbs and beer, filled up our canteens and readied ourselves for the next leg of the journey.
Rocha to Aiguá
As we were heading out of Rocha, an hombre riding his bike pulled up alongside Cat and began to chat. She didn’t understand a word he said and answered, “no te entiendo, lo siento” (I don’t understand you, sorry!) — so he drifted back to Kale. Kale, who also didn’t understand a word he said, naturally responded with nods and the occasional “sí, sí … sí.”4 Apparently Kale’s responses were well-received: the hombre pulled a mentos container out of his pocket, reached inside, and handed Kale a little nugget of marijuana. Well, calling it marijuana may be a stretch here — this thing was brown, muddy, and smelled a bit poo-ish.
When we reached the edge of town, Kale’s new friend gave him a quick “chau” and veered right. At the same time, we said “chau” to asphalt. The highway had turned into a dirt road — dusty, gravelly, and was as soft as us after a week in La Paloma. This was not unexpected; we had taken a look at Google street view (and Jorge and Delia had given us fair warning) that the road from Rocha to Aiguá was dirt and mostly uphill. This didn’t phase us. After all, we were eager to explore uncharted territory and had been off our bikes (and the route) for about a week.
We charged the dirt road, fueled by a lunch of cerveza y canelones con pollo.5 Slight uphill to start — easy. Downhill — lovely. This wasn’t so bad! Then, the hills became more frequent. It’s official, these were rolling hills. Last time we had faced rolling hills and a dirt road, a truck driver pitied us and we hitchbiked our way out of trouble. This time, we were determined to make it on our own, even if the hills were steeper and longer — after all, we’re tour bikers now!
We ventured on. As anticipated, the road was quiet and the surroundings, beautiful. We were greeted by a mountain biker and immediately became envious of his girthier thighs, I mean, tires and his lack of panniers. He was stoked on our journey and the presence of another biker gave us a boost in confidence.
Up and down, up, up, up and down. We found some shade6 and stopped for a break. Señor Thighs passed us again, this time, heading back toward Rocha. He wished us luck and assured us the view at the top was spectacular (if he was talking about the top, we had to be getting closer, right?). After some water, we hopped back on our steeds.
Progress was slow. It made sense. We had been crawling on the uphills, pedaling when we could; alas, sometimes the hills were too steep or just too long.
We were not going to make it anywhere near Aiguá before nightfall. New plan: find somewhere safe to camp. The problem: despite being in the middle of nowhere with expansive green fields (speckled with welcoming trees) in every direction, we could hardly find shade to rest and drink water, let alone somewhere comfortable to pitch our tent. Fences constantly stood between us and potential oases along the route. Stifled by #propiedadprivada.
We pressed on. Pedal by pedal. And sometimes, step by step.
With a few hours left of daylight, we made it to (what seemed to be) the top of the mountain range. Here, the route intersected with a smaller side road,(which presumably lead to more farms. We ventured slightly down the side road to investigate and stumbled upon a farmhouse AND a human. The human was weed whacking outside the farmhouse. Bingo. Cat (having superior español skills and lacking a scary beard) approached and chatted with the weed whacker and a woman, who had emerged from inside the house. With their permission, we would camp on their property. Brilliant!
The spot was great. And there were plenty of birds to keep Kale entertained.
Soon after we’d set up camp, the “owners” of the property jumped on their mopeds and zoomed off — when they didn’t return, we gathered that they probably weren’t the owners of the property. With that, we were left to enjoy a peaceful thanksgiving dinner (a flavored rice mix with some leftover crackers from lunch) alone atop a mountain.
To Aiguá, Day Two
We woke with sore muscles, our canteens < ½ full, and determined to cover the 40-something kilometers remaining between us and Aiguá.
Half an hour into the day’s ride, we were treated to a spectacular view of the terrain ahead.
We were cautiously optimistic. From our vantage point, it seemed we were at the route’s peak altitude (spoiler alert – we weren’t). Ahead of us lay an epic downhill into a forested region, followed by a climb over some drier, rocky mountains.
We charged the downhill and entered the forested area that we’d seen from atop the mountain. Immediately, it became clear that this massive area was a plantation — a forest farm. The crop? Eucalyptus trees.
Eucalyptus trees are not native to Uruguay — they’re Australian, mate — yet, they excel here.7
During the last 30 years, boosted by pro-plantation legislation passed in 1987, large swarths of Uruguay’s pampas (grasslands) have been replaced by plantations, primarily eucalyptus but also some pine. The eucalyptus that is grown is principally used to produce pulp (the mixture of wood and chemicals used to make paper), although some is used as lumber.
Plantations are terrible for the environment. Monocropping an ecosystem destroys diversity. Entire acres of rows of the same kind of plant – and all the same age 🙁 Diversity, whether in your stock portfolio or in a classroom, is a good thing. Furthermore, replacing grasslands with eucalyptus plantations dramatically increases the acidity level (pH) of the underlying soil from approximately 6.5 – 6.8 (“slightly acidic”) to 4.5 (“strongly acidic”).8 Finally, Uruguayo plantations have a negative effect on atmospheric carbon levels – the uprooting of grassland vegetation releases carbon that is stored in the soil and roots of the fertile pampas (we don’t have long-term data here, but studies suggest that the carbon absorbed by the planted eucalyptus does not offset this). 9
As we trudged through the forest, our encounters with passing camiones (trucks) became increasingly frequent. Initially, most of these camiones were empty loads, but as the early morning hours waned, we began to get passed by huge camiones, fully loaded with eucalyptus and pine. Most shared the road as much as feasible and some provided terrifying loud honks of encouragement.
We began a gradual ascent.
Eventually, the forest gave way to more natural terrain. With the sun directly overhead, we searched for a shady place to enjoy some galletas de arroz (rice cookies) con marmelada frutilla (strawberry jam) and a few drops of water10 — yet with fences, once again, restricting us to the road, shade was hard to come by.
With each pedal, the landscape became more desert-like. It reminded Kale, who hails (at least partially) from the suburbs of northern Los Angeles, of the Angeles National Forest — harsh, yet beautiful. We rounded a bend in the road and were met by a scattering of some big ol’ birds.
Birds of Prey
We had interrupted the lunches of some birds of prey (three or more turkey vultures and a badass hawk/eagle/osprey creature). They had been tearing apart a reptile (~18 inches long) after it had presumably been the unfortunate victim of a passing truck. Kale couldn’t pass up the photo opportunity, so we gave them a bit of space and watched as they apprehensively returned to the carcass and resumed feasting. There was a clear pecking order. The hawk/eagle thing (which we later identified as a southern crested caracara) was in charge. The vultures were left with the tidbits that were detached from the main carcass.
Eventually, the southern crested caracara dragged it’s meal off the road and out of sight. It was time for us to continue, or else we may be next on the menu 😉
Stumbling through a Desert
Spirits were low. More steep uphills required us to walk and push our bikes. A narrower road made the dust clouds caused by passing camiones more intense. Down to a few drops of water and with turkey vultures constantly circling overhead, we pushed forward.
Sidenote:11 As terrible as things seemed, at all times we had a backup plan. The prevalence of passing trucks meant that if things got really dire, we could hail a truck and request water and/or a ride to Aiguá.
Nearing a breaking point, we rounded a bend and rejoiced when we saw an expanse of farmland on the horizon. Though we gladly welcomed the lengthy downhill, the bumps were unforgiving. The road was a severe washboard — deep ripples covered its surface and created an extremely uncomfortable ride. En route down the hill, Kale’s bottom waterbottle cage (which held a can of black beans) was shaken from his steed. Fortunately, Cat was able to stop when the hill leveled out and backtrack to rescue the beans + cage (now missing a screw).
The Home Stretch
Roughly ten kilometers later, we were finally out of the desertous mountains! A white horse emerged alongside the route and inspired us to give one last push. A few rolling hills later, we could see Aiguá. We rolled into town and located a corner store (civilization!)… Mission accomplished.
We sat down at a bus stop, guzzled down some much needed water/fruit and chuckled.
This wasn’t the first time we had been caught unprepared (cough, cough, Laguna de Rocha, cough). So, what went “wrong” this time?
- Perhaps we had enjoyed one too many beers over lunch in Rocha, leaving us overconfident and dehydrated.
- Perhaps we should have created more space on our steeds for water.
- Certainly we underestimated how much gravel and dirt roads (especially hills) would affect our speed.
Regardless, these “mistakes” sure made for an adventure. And since we can’t make any promises on cutting back our cerveza consumption, in the future we are going to make an effort to bring more water with us.
P.S. For you data junkies out there…
Elevation Summary: Rocha to Aiguá