For Part I of our (mis)adventure into Uruguay’s rural interior, click here. As a refresher, we are now heading South — first back to Montevideo, then to Argentina. Our goal: make it to Ushuaia before winter!
We pedaled into Aiguá, a sleepy farming town with a population of ~2,500. It was Friday afternoon, and unable to find any sort of restaurant or cafe, we stopped at a corner store for some information (and cookies).1 A friendly lady working there directed us to an unsigned house, two doors down, for a meal. We peeked through it’s curtained windows and saw a room with an open kitchen, one table and a lady who looked like she made a mean empanada. Perfect.
Dos litros de cerveza, cuatro empanadas y dos tortas later, we emerged. We’d been informed by our chefs that there was a muy tranquilo (very peaceful) park on the edge of town where we could camp, so after a quick stop at the town plaza for wifi (almost every town provides free wifi in it’s center plaza — it’s sometimes shoddy, but more than a few times has come in super clutch), we rolled into the park.
It was beautiful — adjacent to a river and full of luscious vegetation. We passed a few families enjoying their Friday evenings and two small tents with bikes (other tour bikers perhaps?) before finding a nice spot at a bend in the river, complete with a concrete table and parrilla. We set up camp, bathed in the river, and gave our clothes a much needed rinse. Despite the quickly diminishing daylight, we sparked up our MSR Dragonfly stove and brewed up a classic flavored-rice meal (“just add water!”) and hit the sack.
If you’ve been following our journey, by now you surely know that Kale loves birds. And what’s not to love? Despite the phrase “bird brain” being a common insult, birds are quite smart — they have been known to use tools and can identify a beat. They’re descendants of the dinosaurs2 and have hollow bones (which help them fly!).
Birds are also our new alarm clock — promptly beginning their chirps and squawks each morning shortly after sunrise.
Amongst the familiar wake up squawks, this morning one particular noise stood out — a weird screech. Intrigued, Kale went to investigate (Cat opted to continue snoozing). The screecher turned out to be one of the coolest looking birds we’d seen yet — a giant wood rail.
A little later, Cat emerged from the tent and we began our typical pack-up routine. The steeds had taken a beating on the dirt road from Rocha so we gave them a much-deserved clean. When we were ready to take down the tent (traditionally the last thing on our pack-up routine) we checked the time — it was almost noon. We looked around; this site was just too darn awesome… We would head to Minas the next morning.
The rest of day involved chatting with our camp neighbors (three Uruguayo jewellery makers traveling their homeland by bike),3 drinking cervezas, playing guitar, and watching local niños play in the river.
At around 4pm, the wind suddenly picked up and ominous dark clouds emerged on the horizon. Despite the obvious signals of an impending storm, we were hungry and the abrupt drop off in temperature had left us craving hot food. After sheltering our gear and bikes we decided to try and whip up some pasta. Before the water could even boil, we heard the crash of thunder and felt the first drops of rain. “Errr, maybe we just crush that loaf of bread and use this water for coffee”…
With thunder booming in the distance, we quickly aborted our plans to cook, grabbed our coffee, stashed the stove under the site’s concrete table, and ran into our tent.
From safely (?) inside our tent, we listened as the thunder grew louder, lightning brighter, and the rain heavier. We made sandwiches in the tent’s vestibule and peered out the window as it grew dark outside and the tormento eléctrico (storm) raged. We’d picked a good location to pitch our tent — sheltered by a small tree and with taller trees close, but not too close. We felt safe in our Hilleberg Nallo 3GT, but each boom and bolt was still quite startling.
Naturally, we’d both neglected to empty our bladders prior to taking shelter. We held and we held, but the storm just wasn’t letting up. Kale was the first to succumb — with a “fuck, it”, he darted outside and (courteously giving the tent a five yard radius) enjoyed the most terrifying and awesome pee of his life. Cat mustered the courage and followed shortly thereafter. #epicpee
To distract from the mayhem outside, Cat was reading Game of Thrones aloud to Kale, when…
(Perhaps Pikachu was punishing us for never jumping on the Pokemon Go bandwagon.)
For a split second, Kale was sure they’d been struck by lightning. It was the brightest and loudest lightning/thunder either of us had ever experienced. Hearts racing and with eyes wide open, we grabbed hold of each other and with nervous laughter, looking up at the ceiling of our tent anticipating the next strike.
Fortunately, the bangs became increasingly delayed from the flashes (i.e. the storm was moving further away from us). As rain and wind continued to pound the tent, we drifted off to sleep, thankful we hadn’t gotten on our bikes earlier that day.
The Next Morning
We awoke to gray sky, but no rain. Time to get on the road. We quickly packed up camp (the harsh winds that came after the rain halted had dried our tent pretty well) and set off for Minas.
This was our favorite ride of the trip so far. Never before had we felt so appreciative for a paved road. Sure, the route was hilly; but the steep uphills now seemed climbable and, having gained confidence on dirty, gravelly downhills, we enjoyed charging the smooth downhills.
We merged off of Ruta 13 (hilly but lovely and relatively quiet) and onto Ruta 8 (flatter, busier, more of your traditional highway). With about 30 kilometers under our belts, we stopped for lunch — galletas de arroz con tomate. While Cat ate, Kale hung out with his new favorite bug, El Guitarrero:
Though we were moving much faster than the previous days, Ruta 8 was still challenging in its own way: long, straight, and slightly uphill. And today, instead of battling the sun, we were battling the wind. Nonetheless, we felt good as we closed in on our next destination.
Our Biggest Fan
By now we’re accustomed to the honks of cars. These are usually supportive, and can provide encouragement and a much needed shot of energy. As we neared Minas, we received one of these — a light, friendly “beep-beep-beep.” A kilometer or so later, the same car was parked on the side of the road. It’s driver, an older gentleman, stood outside with his camera readied, waiting for us to pass. We cruised by, attempting to look badass.
A few minutes later, the chap passed us again — more honking. As we rounded the next bend, there he was again — parked and ready with his camera. This time we stopped and said hello. He hailed from Minas so we began dropping subtle hints4 in hopes of scoring a backyard, roof or perhaps even a meal (this was, after all, our biggest fan). No luck. We gave him our contact info so hopefully he connects with us soon so we can share the footage!
Exhausted, but in high spirits, we entered Minas.5
The idea of a city in this area was first raised in 1753 by Jose Joaquin de Viana, the governor of Montevideo, who wanted to create a population center in “the zones of the mines“. Naturally, in English, minas translates as “mines”6 and we’d ridden past some enormous rock formations and (apparent) mining operations earlier that day.
We checked out a park recommended to us by our biggest fan. It was holding a rally car racing event that day — not an ideal location to sneakily camp! So we biked down the city’s main street in search of food and wifi.
When we arrived to eat, we consulted Google Maps (earth view ftw!) to try and find somewhere camp-able to pitch our tent.
We gathered that our best shot was to head to a park at the edge of town, which ran alongside a river. We checked it out and it seemed promising— that is, until we passed a large sign reading “PROHIBIDO ACAMPAR”. Grrr!
Reluctant to get back on our steeds and without any other leads, we sought local counsel. We approached a family enjoying a Sunday afternoon in the park and explained our situation. They assured us it would be fine to camp in the park — just wake up early! So we waited for the cover of darkness, quickly set up our tent, and set an alarm so that we’d be up and packing at first sunlight.
Minas to Solis de Mataojo
Success! We awoke the next morning, initiated the pack up routine earlier (and faster) than normal, had a little breakfast, and hit the road. It felt good being on the road early; though the route, along a semi-busy, two-lane highway (Ruta 8), wasn’t our favorite.
We made good time and arrived in Solis de Mataojo for an early lunch. The town was small (~12 by five blocks) and centered around Ruta 8, which seemed to make it a popular stop for passing truckers. Google Maps (earth view, obviously) revealed a road leading to a nearby river, so we set off in search of a place to make camp. Our instincts were correct and we were rewarded with another great wild-camping spot: next to a river, surrounded by native bush (and pajaros), and this time, zero “PROHIBIDO ACAMPAR” signs. We spent the day enjoying the river and hanging with the locals (humans, animals and birds).
Solis de Mataojo to La Floresta
The next morning… On the road again! We were getting into a rhythm, and it felt good. The highway toward La Floresta was busy (it also led to Montevideo) and aside from the occasional (bone-rattling) experience of rolling over some rumble strips, the morning’s ride was fairly uneventful.
Rumble strips are bumps in the road that shake your vehicle (and you) if you’ve drifted out of your lane. Ruta 8 has some particularly nasty rumble strips which emerge on the shoulder approximately every 100 meters. Each set is comprised of three abrupt bumps which blend in annoyingly well with the rest of the shoulder. In the department of Lavalleja (where we’d been since Aiguá), each set of rumble strips covered only half of the shoulder. In the department of Canelones (where we were now), each set covered the whole shoulder — aka our entire bike lane! Super annoying and difficult to avoid.
We exited Ruta 8 and entered the small town of Soca. After snacking on some treats we’d picked up from the panaderia in Solis de Mataojo, we turned left on a small, country road that led directly to La Floresta.
We arrived in La Floresta and headed to the beachfront home of our friend, El Capitán Marcelo. There, we were met by his old buddy Jaime.
We cracked a few beers, shared stories and reunited with Qepa and Zulu.
El Capitán arrived and we enjoyed the sunset…
… and some parilla — a great way to conclude our tour of rural Uruguay.
Since El Capitán had offered us a ride to Montevideo, the next morning we packed our bikes and gear into his auto and cruised the final 50km to Montevideo.
One final destination remains on our tour of Uruguay: Colonia del Sacramento. We head to the tourist hot spot on Monday for a little R&R before saying goodbye to Uruguay (sad panda) and beginning our tour of Argentina.