How we ignored an omen and then things got weird. Uruguayo style.
After a quick and efficient bike (read: asphalt) from Punta del Este, we arrived in José Ignacio — a small balneario (beach town) with a population of less than 300 full-time residents (2011). José Ignacio’s faro (lighthouse) was erected on the rocky peninsula in 1877 to prevent shipwrecks, leading to the development of a small fishing outpost. For the next one hundred years, the area remained largely uninhabited — until the 1970s, when a small group of high-society families from Montevideo and Buenos Aires built summer homes on the peninsula, seeking tranquility and to escape the paparazzi that swarmed to nearby Punta del Este. Celebrities followed suit (supposedly, Shakira owns a ranch in the area) — and in 2008, the New York Times (in a terribly bougie article) labeled the town as “arguably the chicest spot in Latin America.”
As we pedaled the dusty streets toward el faro, the town was eerily quiet. This was nothing new — we had biked through many similar ghost towns since leaving Montevideo (although, the absence of stray dogs here was noticeable). The summer season down here begins January 1, when a large chunk of Montevideo’s 1.3 million residents (as well as many Argentinians and Brazilians) head to Uruguay’s beaches for summer holiday. We stumbled upon a handful of tourists at el faro – who (as usual) watched us curiously as we clumsily dismounted and parked our steeds. Kale reattached his walking legs and journeyed up the twisting staircase to the top of el faro (#doitforthephoto).
After a quick pedal through town, we spent the night “wild camping” on the outskirts of the balneario. Deciding on a place to wild camp is kinda like shopping for a house — generally, the qualities we look for in a spot are: privacy (out of view, primarily from the main road), shade (important if we’re hoping to sleep in past 7am) and a solid foundation (especially if we’re anticipating wind). We settled on a spot in the corner of a large, unfenced, unsigned1 lot and pitched our tent. There was one small building in the lot — seemingly some sort of public health clinic/hospital. It was empty, and given that presence of the bandera Uruguaya (Uruguayan flag) and the word “publico”, we felt comfortable camping in it’s backyard. We enjoyed a dinner of potatoes, rice, beans, and peppers as the sun set and the super moon rose. Magnífico!
Rise and Shine, it’s Bird O’Clock
The next morning began normally enough — we fired up our camping stove, brewed some coffee and oatmeal, and discussed the sounds2 of the night before and our strategy for the day ahead.
We were about to begin the arduous process of packing up camp (what originally took us >1 hour is now down to approx. 45 minutes!), when Cat spotted this monstrosity…
It was the largest, ugliest, winged creature either of us had ever seen. It (a Turkey Vulture, we later learned), had perched itself upon wooden platform erected in the middle of the abandoned property adjacent to where we camped. We watched in awe as it groomed itself and occasionally stretched its wings.
After about 15 minutes, it launched itself into the air and very casually flew away, using powerful, slow flaps of its wings (very reminiscent of a dragon).
Exhilarated, Kale, hombre de pájaros, strolled the perimeter of the lot and had an intimate photo sesh with a sassy sparrow. Meanwhile, the coffee (as coffee does) prompted Cat to head to her litter box — which, today, was a particularly bushy area nearby.
As Murphy’s law would have it, this is when the clinic’s morning shift decided to arrive… yep, mid-poop. Fortunately, Cat was well covered and the person who had arrived didn’t seem to notice (or care) that we were (pooping) in the lot. With company and the sun getting stronger, we hurriedly finished packing, mounted our steeds, and hit the road. Our next destination: La Paloma, home of our friends, Jorge and Delia.
Serendipitous Side Note
How we met Jorge and Delia.
We met Jorge and Delia back in July 2016, after we had purchased our tickets to Uruguay. They were taking a stroll up our (very steep) street in Belmont, CA. We were having a garage sale, attempting to sell all our shit. Not many sane people choose to walk up that street (the unforgiving gradient of The Hill was one of the things we blame for not getting on our bikes more prior to the tour) and we hadn’t posted signs for the sale anywhere, instead relying solely on Facebook and Craigslist.
Their son had just moved to Belmont, and the family was heading up The Hill to check out the view. Naturally, they perused our stuff3 and we struck up a conversation in broken English/Spanish. We exchanged contact information and penciled in a reunion for sometime in November/December.
We were amazed at the serendipity of the encounter – neither of us had met anybody from Uruguay4 before. Ever. Yet, there we were, in suburban northern California and some Uruguayo residents wandered into our driveway. Amidst the uncertainty of quitting our jobs, preparing for the tour and breaking the news to our friends and families that we were leaving, we saw this chance encounter as a sign of good karma. The stars were aligning!
On the Road Again
La Paloma sits just up the coast from Laguna de Rocha (labeled as Paisaje protegido Laguna de Rocha on the map), about 50km up the coast from our current location. So, we jumped back on beautiful route 10.
Back in La Floresta, El Capitán Marcelo5 had informed us that we would need to head inland and circumnavigate the laguna in order to reach La Paloma.
As you can see, however, the map indicates the laguna is passable along the coast (via a footpath). Google Maps also indicated that the coastal route (Ruta 10) we had been following for the last few days crossed the mouth of the laguna!
So, in the few days prior, we’d asked locals (including Jorge) if they thought we would be able to cross the laguna at the coast. The tally? Five no’s to one yes. The “yes” came from a security guard at a gated neighborhood located at the fork in the road — exactly where we needed to make the decision to continue straight up the coast or turn inland toward Rocha. Given his close proximity to the laguna and charming smile, the security guard had to know what he was talking about, right?
The security guard’s confidence + the allure of saving ourselves ~50 kilometers in the saddle prompted us to proceed along the coast. Plus, we had a backup plan6: if we couldn’t cross, we’d set up camp somewhere close to the laguna and backtrack around in the morning.
Laguna de Rocha
Onward! Farms, people, and vehicles became increasingly sparse as we approached the laguna. One truck driver (who looked very much like Drake) stopped to inform us that the road ahead was closed. We ventured on, still confident — “of course he couldn’t get through in his truck,” we laughed, envisioning us gloriously biking across the laguna via some type of trail/footpath.
The road became increasingly bumpy, sandy, and birdy. Eventually, we reached a sign indicating we were entering Laguna de Rocha.
The beach was audible, but hidden from sight by rolling dunes. We couldn’t see the laguna yet, but we were getting close.
As we reached the top of a slight incline, the laguna emerged. In the distance, we could see our destination, La Paloma.
First thought: shit, the water looks pretty wide. Second thought: let’s go!
The road ended but was proceeded by a small, sandy trail, which continued down toward the water. We were still confident that we could cross (even if it meant wading our gear across piece by piece) — regardless, we needed a closer look. We ventured down the trail, riding our bikes where possible and pushing them where necessary.
The trail spit us out onto the laguna’s shoreline (about half a kilometer inland from where the ocean and the laguna collided). Here, the laguna was wide and the current, stronger than expected. Certainly not bikeable. Perhaps not even wadeable. Definitely not ideal.
New plan: We would head toward the ocean, where it looked like a sandbridge cut the width of the laguna significantly. Plus, Google Maps showed the route across the laguna as being super close to the coastline, remember?
“That’s probably where people cross,” we thought.
We trudged along the shoreline for about half an hour at a painstakingly slow pace. In order to make any progress in the sand, it was necessary to both lift and push our bikes.
We were about halfway from the trail to our supposed sandbridge when we reality set in. As we neared the “sandbridge,” the laguna was narrowing, the current was getting stronger and the water, deeper. Of course (in retrospect) this makes total sense. We finally put down our bikes and walked the rest of the way to the “sandbridge” to check it out.
There was no path across. Nothing remotely even resembling a bridge. In fact, sandbridge isn’t even a real word. We’d made it up. Maybe because it sounded a lot like sandwich – and we hadn’t eaten since breakfast.
We were at a loss. Having dragged our bikes into the sandy abyss, and with La Paloma within sight, we really didn’t want to turn around. So, we held an emergency band meeting. From our new angle, it seemed like the calmest (and hopefully shallowest) waters were about halfway back toward the trail, where a large rusty object sat, protruding from the laguna, clearly signaling a shallow depth and probably put there so people know the best place to cross (right?!).
A brutal 200 meters and 30+ minutes later, we were in position to test the depth of the laguna. The water was murky and looked deep; however, before giving up, we needed to know, for sure, that the water was too deep to wade our gear across. Kale (being the shorter of the two) bravely volunteered.7
Way too deep. Shit. At this point, we were getting desperate. In a last ditch effort, Kale scampered back toward the sandwich to reassess…
To no avail.
Laguna de Rocha had defeated us. To make matters worse, we were quickly losing sunlight — it was time to get back to the road and find a place to camp for the night.
Escape from Laguna de Rocha
A brutal 30-45 minutes later, we were back on the trail and closing in on the road. Unfortunately, the suffering wasn’t quite over yet… Unnoticed, Kale had pushed his bike over the home8 of some wasps. What felt like a colony (but was probably only around ten wasps) proceeded to freak out — wouldn’t you if your home got crushed by fully loaded Long Haul Trucker? Although they seemed to be focusing their
anger attention on our bright red and yellow panniers, this was enough to send us running. Cat ditched her bike, sprinted 30 meters up the road in a teary eyed frenzy, before turning around, charging back to her bike, picking it up (no small feat in itself) and catching back up with Kale.
Once back to the road (approx. 100 meters from where we’d first encountered the wasps), we leaned the bikes against a post and frantically attempted to clean the sand off our chains. A few wasps still lingered, occasionally investigating the panniers and every now and then preying on poor passing bugs (in incredible aerial attacks). Amazingly, neither of us were stung.
Our attention now necessarily turned to finding somewhere to sleep that night. We decided that we would knock on the door of a house where we’d seen people outside earlier in the day, about five to ten kilometers back along the road.
How to score a yard to sleep in (and maybe more)! Our general strategy, after a quick introduction, is to ask something like “Sabes dónde hay un lugar seguro para acampar?” (“Do you know of a safe place to camp?”). To which the local hopefully answers something like “Ustedes pueden acampar acá!” (“You can camp here!).
We were greeted at the entrance of the property by two smiling Uruguayo hombres — “Agua! Marijuana!” a third hollered from the door to the house. Two more hombres briefly looked up from a pile of dirt about 30 meters away, then continued digging. In broken Spanish, we explained how we had attempted, and failed, to cross the laguna (which they found particularly funny) and that we were looking for somewhere safe to camp for the night. The Rocha hombres (as we coined them) handed us some much needed water (we were down to half a canteen). We could camp in their yard, they said, prefacing that the property didn’t yet have a bathroom9 or running water. Brilliant!
The next few hours were some of the most bizarre of the trip so far.
We watched one of the Rocha hombres play with his cock.
Listened to them dabble with candombe.
Spent some quality time with perros.
And enjoyed another killer sunset.
A weird, awesome way to end another crazy day in Uruguay.
If [a] Vulture has flown across your path … [it] is asking you to be patient with yourself and think things through. Take your time before making decisions and choose paths that support your higher consciousness and your heart. Use all of your resources combined with your past experience to approach the problem from a different angle. Know that you are always free to choose your own path but be flexible while moving forward…” http://www.spirit-animals.com/vulture/