A Note from the Authors: This post is a little different than the rest… At the date of this writing, we are holed up at a hostel in Ushuaia and at the very end of our Uruguay to Ushuaia tour.
Two weeks into our tour, while relaxing in La Paloma, we scribed our first quite-long, quite-detailed blog post. We’d just emerged from a failed attempt to cross Laguna Rocha and — given the drama, heartbreak and comedy of the event — we decided it deserved a fleshed out post, all to itself. We had a lot of fun writing the post, and it was well received by our fan base (read: parents, grandparents and, of course, Uncle Tim).
From then on, our posts followed suit. Taken altogether, they now resemble something of a story, one we are proud of and we have enjoyed sharing with you.
Since every story needs a beginning, here are the first few chapters of ours.
Day 1: Leaving Montevideo
It was the first time either of us had ridden a fully loaded bike.
We’d owned our Long Haul Truckers (LHTs) for six months prior to departing for Uruguay, but between full-time jobs and the other normalities of everyday life, we had managed about 200 kilometers in the saddles, and never with all our cargo strapped aboard.
The night before Day 1, we’d stayed up late and stuffed our panniers with everything that we (thought we) needed for life on the bikes, shedding, among other items that were too heavy or didn’t fit, a handheld, battery-powered electric screwdriver, which Kale had purchased a few weeks before leaving San Francisco. He insisted it would come in handy. For him, it was a potential way to avoid hard labor, if we found ourselves volunteering on a farm. Cat was doubtful.1
Kale packed the tent, tools and first aid kit,2 and Cat, the solar panel, kitchen, and toiletries. Each of us packed our own electronics, clothes and “luxury items.” Kale, with his guitar and gadgets,3 had the heaviest load, but this wouldn’t always be the case. Cat was in charge of carrying the food — so her load would fluctuate based on what was in our pantry. Some months later, through the guesstimates of friends and other cyclists, we’re now convinced that our fully-loaded LHTs weigh between 70 and 80 kilos. 🙀
Packing the panniers for the first time, we were feeling every kilo.
Of course, the plan had been to leave Montevideo almost four weeks earlier. But with cold feet and a warm home, getting out the door had been difficult. During the month we spent at La Casa de Esquina, we’d grown close with our hosts, Fede and Laura.
Fede, a musician and music professor, was gearing up to release his first album (listen to a track from the album, here). Monday through Wednesday (and one weekend per month), he taught music lessons. The rest of the week he spent writing and practicing music, milking almonds, and baking gluten-free apple pies.
Laura, a dancer and pilates instructor, had been busy rehearsing for an upcoming show, “Otro Tiempo.” She had secured us tickets and we’d joined Fede for an evening of slow motion contemporary dance. Laura’s gluten-free ricarditos were, perhaps, the primary reason we spent so long getting out the door.
Under brilliantly blue sky, we clumsily strapped our panniers to our bikes. After securing the back bags, we did a quick pedal up and down the street to test the waters. Wobbly? Sure. But astonishingly, the steeds weren’t impossible to handle. Finally, it was just Kale’s chinese-made, ¾ size guitar (a recent purchase from a music store in Montevideo) that remained. Fittingly, Fede helped fasten the guitar to Kale’s bike, which, with its yellow and red panniers4 looked very much like a clown car.
With our helmets strapped on, we waved5 goodbye to Fede and Laura and rode down the busy street in Montevideo toward the coast. Our goal for the first day: La Floresta, a balneario about 55 kilometers northeast of Montevideo. There, we would reunite with Fede and Laura (who would arrive via bus) for a relaxing weekend with their family and friends.
We were out of the traffic and onto the rambla6 with (almost) no problems… less than a kilometer from La Casa de Esquina, Cat’s handlebars slipped and Kale’s back panniers and guitar were dangling off the side of his bike. Oops. After tightening the handlebars and securing Kale’s back panniers, we continued on our way. It was a beautiful Friday, and the rambla was full of people, aka potential roadkill for two amateur tour bikers.
Slow and not-so-steady, we followed the ramble for about 25 kilometers — pedal, stop… pedal, stop… take a photo, adjust things here and there… Two hours into the ride, we turned off to stop at Sodimac — the Home Depot of South America. Kale stayed outside with the bikes and Cat ventured inside in search of fuel for the stove. After getting blank looks from employees (“Gas blanco? No se…”), she settled for Kerosene. Somewhere during the trip preparation she’d read that the MSR Dragonfly stove was compatible with kerosene. Not our first choice, but good enough.
A little heavier, we made our way back to the route. On the way, we passed an American couple out walking, excited to see some tour bikers. “Oh! How many kilometers have you gone?” they ask… Us: “Uhhhh…” 🙂 Funnily enough, we had a ton of people along the rambla cheer and clap and ask us how far we’d gone, where we started, etc. Twenty kilometers in and going strong!
We hit some road work on the rambla and before we knew it, we were pedaling through a mix of dirt and sand. This caused Cat’s bike to slip out from under her — the first of many bike drops and bruises. She called out to Kale to help pick her bike back up.7 Searching for better road conditions, we made our way inland and to a parallel side road. This took us through a small neighborhood. Sweaty, hot, and starving, we found a cheap spot for lunch and a cerveza.
Once back on the road, we merged onto the IB: Interbalneario — a highway we would follow for a good chunk of the journey along the coast of Uruguay. There was a lot of traffic, but the shoulder was wide. Plus, we were getting into a groove… except when we would encounter a bridge — there, the shoulder disappeared. Not confident enough to merge into the lane, we would stop and opt for the pedestrian walkway, which would have been easy, had it not been raised. Since Cat couldn’t lift her steed (yet), the process was slow and (surely) comical to onlookers.
We reached La Floresta at around 6pm and stretched (!!!)8 as we waited for Fede and Laura to arrive. We were exhausted and exhilarated and our legs were like Jell-O. We’d done it. “We’re tour bikers!”
Our two nights in La Floresta were filled with parrilla, sunshine, and great company. La Floresta is a small, sunny balneario where Fede’s family gathers for weekends in the summer. The water here changes colors depending on the currents — some days it’s green, like the Atlantic, other days it’s brown, like the Rio de la Plata. We accompanied Fede and Laura to casa de El Capitan Marcelo (Fede’s uncle and a captain in the Uruguayo navy) for a family gathering. There, we gorged on delicious asado and chivitos, while attempting to converse in Spanglish.
On Saturday night, Fede’s father, Aldo, took us on an adventure. We drove to the neighboring, slightly larger balneario of Costa Azul where we enjoyed an awesome view of the ocean, stars, and distant lights of Montevideo. Just across the street, contrasting starkly with the surrounding beach houses was a large, white building. Aldo informed us that this was the house of Isha. From what we could gather from Aldo, Isha was a woman who had cultivated some sort of spiritual following. This was one of her centers — a place where her followers lived and worshipped.
“Do you want to enter?” Aldo asked enthusiastically, motioning to the building. “Uhh… sure”, Kale responded, completely unsure. That was all Aldo needed to hear and he approached the building. By now it was dark and the center was certainly closed, thus, it was unsurprising that nobody answered Aldo’s knocks at the front door. Fede, Kale and Cat timidly waited at the outskirts of the property, Aldo continued to wander around the building — a few minutes later, he motioned for the others to join him. He’d found the back gate. It was locked but there was an intercom. Aldo pushed the intercom button, which was answered some long seconds later. Some incomprehensible (to Kale and Cat) Spanish was spoken, and we were buzzed into the property.
We entered through the gate nervously, Aldo at the helm. More white walls, but we could make out the muffled sound of a speaker in the distance. With only one way to go, we moved forward through the white hallway. The audio grew louder. 50 meters or so later, the path opened up and we could see into a one-roomed building, where a movie was being screened. A smiling woman appeared from another building and greeted us with a kiss on the cheek. In a hushed whisper (given the proximity of the ongoing movie), she introduced herself as Alexia, one of the teachers of the Isha Judd System at the center. She was from Mexico (where Isha’s other center is) and spoke excellent English. We said we were interested in learning more about the system and Alexia offered us a tour of the center.
Alexia showed us a few rooms and the center’s lobby, whose centerpiece was an aquarium containing a seahorse. We followed Alexia upstairs, and she began pulling together some chairs — we looked at each other wide-eyed. Were we on the verge of conversion?
We learned that “Isha Judd designed a method of inner transformation, without beliefs or theories, which allows us to cultivate unconditional love, starting with oneself and therefore, transmitting it to our environment.” People visit the centers for meditative retreats. Kale asked about the price of such a retreat, and Alexia was vague in her response.
Eventually, we escaped. Kale left his email address with Alexia. All in all, from what we could gather, the Isha system isn’t so much a cult; rather, it’s more like a meditation and mindfulness retreat center (with all the feelings of a cult).
On Sunday, we relaxed during the day with Fede and Laura. It was a hot one, and we weren’t quite ready to hit the road. Marcelo, El Capitán, gave us some great pointers for the coastal route (e.g. go around Laguna de Rocha… ) and Laura gave us a recommendation for a place to camp for our first night, 25 kilometers up the coast. Sometime between 3 and 4, we finally said our goodbyes and hit the road.
We were now on our own now, unsure of what the road had in store for us… Well, not quite. Just as we reached the outskirts of La Floresta, we heard a familiar voice. Fede emerged, on bici, from a side road. He explained that we’d left a small plastic piece of our bikes. We took a look. The piece didn’t look familiar, but we took it anyways, just in case.9 One last extra long hug later, and we were on our way.
We were making good time until… our first flat!! It seemed that Cat had run over some glass on the shoulder of the IB. She pushed her bike to a gas station and we (slowly) changed our first tire.
Back on the road, a local guy named Marcelo (also on bike) caught us and chatted with Kale for 10km or so. Marcelo gave us some good information about the balnearios and was super curious about tour biking.10
Though it was a short distance, we had left La Floresta late in the day. That, plus us being tired from Friday’s ride and sluggish from our weekend in the sun (read: lunch beers), meant that by the time we made it to the camp spot recommended by Laura in Solis, the sun was setting.
With confirmation from two Uruguayos sipping mate in front of their motorhome that camping was okay, we chose a spot for our tent. Racing against the dark and mosquitos, we frantically slid the poles through and pounded in the pegs. After our house was ready, Cat grabbed a headlamp and rode back out to a stand/restaurant we had passed earlier to snag some dinner. She didn’t have enough cash with her, but the Señorita working the stand gave her the two chivito plates and cerveza all the same. We huddled in the vestibule of our tent, surrounded by our panniers, and inhaled our food before blowing up our mats and going to bed. The sounds of frogs and other things with tiny feet, strangely new.
Solis to Las Flores
It was a bit of a restless night; we weren’t used to our bags or mats (not to mention, Cat held her breath with every little noise coming from outside the tent). Morning came, and at first sunlight, our tent turned into a sauna. Lesson learned: if you want to enjoy a morning sleep-in, pick a spot in the shade! We emerged from the tent and explored our free campsite in the daylight, wandering down to the ocean and taking a dip.
Without a plan and low on food,11 we decided to continue on. It was a windy afternoon along the coast and we were tired, so using our handy GPS, we scouted out a campsite less than 20km from our starting point in Solis, on the outskirts of Piriápolis.
When we arrived to the Camping ABEU, Cat went into the office to learn the cost and secure a spot. After some difficulty communicating with the unforgivingly fast-talking employees, we found a spot in the back of the camp and settled in.
Dinner tonight: A just-add-water rice mix. Not the best, but it was our first camp dinner and the first time using our MSR! The kerosene seemed to work fine, but it left a lot of residue on the bottom of our pot. Next time, we would search harder for gas blanco.
The next town/city, Piriápolis, was a short 5km from camp. We skipped breakfast (would have been some crackers and jam… like we said, we hadn’t really figured out the food situation quite yet) and planned to find a restaurant in town. Anyway, it was lunchtime by the time we we packed up.
We found a cheap pizza place not far from the coast. The man working was extremely grumpy and put us in a really shitty mood. Not to mention, another passer-by grumbled at us when our bikes were in his way outside the restaurant. But, we were starving and didn’t want to find a new place to eat, so we settled for a cheese pizza served with a side of attitude. After lunch, we pedaled quickly out of grouchy Piriápolis.
That morning, using wifi at the campground headquarters, we’d checked the weather and learned that we might see thunder and lightning that night. There had been a big storm during our stay in Montevideo, destroying pieces of the rambla and hitting balnearios along the coast of Uruguay particularly hard. Cat was nervous, so as a precaution, we booked an Airbnb (the only Airbnb within miles) for two nights in Punta Negra. The short ride from Piriápolis to Punta Negra was one of our favorites, through the wind had blown some of the beach sand along the route, the road was smooth and we were bothered by only a few cars. The road took us along the coast and through several small balnearios, all of which seemed to be deserted.
Spoiler alert: No storm came. We know nothing about the weather in South America. But, we made the most of our time at the Airbnb, hosted by a guy named Juan and his dog, Junia. He was slowly making improvements and repairs around the house (the actual storm a few weeks ago had left some pretty bad damage to his hostel/casa). Helping him, through a site called Work-a-Way (a site that matches travelers with people who need help around their property our house — in exchange for work, you receive shelter and food), was a couple from France, Alice and Henrick, traveling South America by van.
Well, planning to travel by van. Unfortunately, the couple had been plagued with a bit of bad luck. They had been in South America for about two months and had started on moto. When that broke down, they purchased a van in Montevideo. In between Montevideo and Punta Negra, they had some issues and wasn’t operational. By day, they slaved away hammering, mowing, weed-whacking, and each evening they made repairs to their van.
Punta Negra is a tiny town. A pueblit-it-ito. A tiny store and not much else. We enjoyed Juan’s wifi (slow, but something) and let Juan use his deep frier to make us french fries. It also happened that while we were staying there, the election was happening back in the US. We passively followed (it was late and the internet was slow) via Cat’s phone while Juan and his buddies from his band jammed out downstairs.
Two nights later, we were ready to leave. Not only were we anxious to get back on the road, but, while at Juan’s, we’d been attacked by bed bugs and eaten alive by mosquitos. Itchy and a little pissed off, we continued on.
(Update: Alice and Henrick finally made it out of Punta Negra (about a week after us). As far as we know, their van is still working and they are having a great adventure 🙂 )
As we pedaled out of Punta Negra, Junia gave us a grand exit. She dutifully ran alongside us till the edge of town – for a few minutes, we thought she would be joining us for the tour!
The route out of Punta Negra took us along the coast and then slightly inland, before rejoining the IB (we had turned off the IB when we exited for Solis). The smooth asphalt of the IB was a welcome feeling, after the bumpy coastal road.
Cat pulled off the road rather quickly (without any kind of signalling) and came to an abrupt stop (she doesn’t remember why). Kale, riding just behind her, slammed on his brakes but his momentum pushed his stomach into his handlebars and into his squeaky croc. Alas, since then, he hasn’t quite squeaked the same.
As we rejoined the road, Cat realized that she had another flat tire. WTF! We found some shade and changed tubes.
Juan had told us there was a big, steep hill just before Punta Ballena — and sure enough, we rounded a bend and there she was. It was our first real climb (although, still only maybe 50 meters) but we conquered it without having to push. Win! The view looking down on the coast and ocean made the climb worth it.
We made for the peninsula for some more spectacular views and where there were plenty of tourists and a famous hotel/museum.
And this guy!
After exploring the small peninsula and chatting with some American tourists heading back to their cruise ship, we turned back toward the route. We were getting hungry, so we headed a different direction, toward the “town” hoping to find something cheap to eat in Punta Ballena. After some steep downhills, we discovered that the “town” was completely suburban and a vast majority of the houses, seemingly empty. We pushed our bikes back up the hill then luckily bumped into some locals who gave us directions to a supermercado. We grubbed, hydrated then rode/pushed our way uphill and away from the coast, to Punta Ballena campgrounds.
Sweaty and tired, we jumped in the campground pool, showered, and gave our dirty clothes a hand wash in the sink.
Punta del Este
The next city along the coast: Punta del Este, a glamorous city filled with beach clubs and resorts — basically, Uruguay’s version of Miami’s South Beach. Fittingly, on our way into the city, we passed a large billboard picturing the face of none other than (a much younger but equally smug) President-elect Donald Trump, signaling that a Trump Hotel was coming soon.
The weather was great and the day’s ride was short and easy. At the city’s outskirts, we stopped at a tourist information office. We needed to purchase some chain lube, so were given the coordinates of two bicicleterias: one in Punta del Este and one mas barato (cheaper) alternative in neighboring Maldonado.
Deciding to check out Maldonado, we detoured inland. The bicicleteria, Leonel Coussan Bicicleteria, was closed for the traditional midday siesta, so we had a bite to eat then returned. The owner of the store was extremely nice and after hearing of our adventure, offered us the lubricant for free!
Freshly lubed, we zoomed back to the coast and followed the road along the beach. As we entered Punta del Este, we noticed that although the beachfront apartment buildings and hotels were huge, they were, quite apparently, vacant (#offseason).
Punta del Este’s scenic coastline is divided into two regions: brava (fierce) and mansa (tame). The limit between the two marks the end of the Río de la Plata and the beginning of the Atlantic Ocean. We pedaled around into the brava side and took our first glimpse of the Atlantic Ocean. The wind was noticeably stronger here and the water, noticeably choppier.
It was getting late, and with limited camping options, we found a coffeeshop with wifi and, via trusty Airbnb, booked a room about 6km up the coast.
Our host, Gabi, was great! She’d lived in Hawaii and California for a few years. And she was very understanding when Cat accidentally triggered her home and perimeter alarm… twice 😇 oops! We took a day off and explored the beach a block or two from her house and even saw some local surfers in action.
Gabi gave us a tip to stop in Jose Ignacio — the next balneario along the route. It was a short 20-something kilometers down the beautiful coastline. She also said her son would go to the laguna and camp along the beach, no problem. With that, we decided we would find our first wild camp.
Sure enough, as Gabi promised, we made great time to Jose Ignacio. Excited about the flat, paved route, Cat clipped in12 and lead the whole way.