Uruguay: City and Surf
After spending two weeks among icebergs, penguins, and glaciers we needed to warm up. Uruguay was the logical place. Its coastline is the summer destination for neighboring Brazilians and Argentineans, and being in the middle of South America, was a natural stopping point on our journey to the top of the continent.
Being in a colder climate made us forget how hot it was further north. Uruguay’s capital, Montevideo, was unbearably hot. We were melting as we walked through the city from the Centro neighborhood to the Mercado del Puerto port area. We tried to stay in the shade as much as possible – stopping only briefly at the Plaza Independencia to see the Palacio Salva (once South America’s tallest building), and a remaining wall of the demolished colonial city.
Uruguay felt very similar to Argentina, from the city’s layout to Spanish pronunciation of food. (Argentinean’s eat the most beef per person in the world but Uruguayans are a close second.) What set Uruguay apart was that nearly every other person held a mug and metal straw in his hand and a thermos in the crook of his arm. They were all sipping mate (pronounced mah-TAY), a hot tea like drink made from the leaves of the yerba mate plant. While the gourds were sold everywhere, mate wasn’t served in restaurants – apparently the preparation was too complicated.
We only were in Montevideo for a day before continuing five hours east to Punta del Diablo, a fishing town of one thousand that swells with tourists in the summer. The town had several guesthouses and hostels, but no paved roads, banks, or ATMs.
Visitors and residents alike were unpretentious and laid back, full of surfers and hippies with dreadlocks. Shirts were optional – we felt quite overdressed walking around town not wearing swimwear.
Even with all the tourists, fishing is still a large part of the town’s economy. Boats return from the sea every afternoon and unload their catch onto horse drawn carriages.
Several brought back cratefuls of two foot long sharks.
The beaches were packed all day.
But scared by the sharks, Sarah only made a quick dash into the water and didn’t join me surfing. It was all for the best though – I didn’t catch a wave during the hour I rented the board, and she had a better view of the kids in surf school faring much better.
As in Montevideo, mate was the rage in Punta del Diablo. It would have been a shame to not try it ourselves, so I bought a gourd, the metal straw, and the smallest package of mate I could find. Our guesthouse lent us a thermos and gave us a crash course on how to prepare the drink: After filling half the gourd with mate, we were to add a few ounces of hot water from the thermos, take a sip, and repeat until the water ran out.
We tried it…it tasted like grass.
I was having a bit of buyer’s remorse, regretting my $20 purchase, but we persevered. Amazingly enough, we began to like it and found both of ourselves reaching for the gourd.
Our stay in Punta del Diablo was at a guesthouse just off the beach. owned by an Uruguayan-Spanish couple that had given up the busy city and now extolled to us calmness of life by the sea. During our few relaxing days with them, spent sipping mate while seeing and hearing the waves break a hundred yards away, we had to agree.