When we arrived at Carrasco International Airport after an overnight flight from Lima the sun was just coming up. We had managed to doze a little on the bumpy flight over the Andes, but we were still a bit groggy as we sleep-walked through the motions of getting our passports stamped, finding our luggage turnstile, and making our way through customs to the car rental booth.
Already though, we could tell things were a little different here. For one thing, the passport and customs people were friendly and smiling. At 5:30am. What’s up with that?
Next, as I filled out the rental information to pick up our reservation, I saw my first mate (pronounced MAH-tay),as the agent was nursing his calabash gourd. In the middle of our transaction, the night shift agent was on his way out. I couldn’t help but notice that he casually bent over so he could kiss his relief on the cheek, and receive one in return.
Ok, so really friendly people.
He walked us out to our car, did the walk around inspection, warned us about speed cameras, and bid us adios – with a kiss on the cheek for each of us.
We fired up our trusty Waze app on the iPhone, and took off for the coast. Although it was hardly necessary. Carrasco is not a large airport, and when you exit, you really have only two choices; turn right to go west into Montevideo, or turn left to head east up the Atlantic coast.
East we went, and within a few minutes we were in the countryside. Uruguay is not a large country, only about the size of Missouri. There are less than 4 million people living there, and almost half of them are concentrated in and around the capital city of Montevideo. Needless to say, there is elbow room.
The first thing you notice are the verdant, gently rolling, green hills. It was actually hard to believe we were still in South America. The landscape and vegetation looked more like rural Pennsylvania.
Our musings about the countryside came to an abrupt halt when I saw the sign – Peaje 2km – telling me there was a toll booth less than a mile ahead. Not that I mind tool booths in general, just that I forgot to get some Uruguayan Pesos while I was at the airport. All I had on me was US dollars and some Perúvian soles.
Fortunately, the guy at the booth said no problema when I told him solo tengo dólores. We have found this to be true in general when traveling in a country on a different money standard. The US$ is strong right now, so they not only accept it, you can sometimes get discounts for using them.
On the other hand, you also have the issue we now encountered. He was happy to take a $20 bill for the toll, which was about 46 U$ (Uruguay Pesos) – call it a buck and a half US – and then give us our change in U$. So at the exchange rate, that meant I got back U$575.50 or so. A 500-peso bill, three 20’s and a handful of change.
Oh well, at least I had some local currency now.
The rest of our drive was pleasant and uneventful. We passed some of the towns we wanted to see during our time on the coast, like Atlántida and Piriápolis, and just generally enjoyed the terrific scenery.
Our home for the next week was to be the Solanas Resort, a group of condominiums and homes just a few miles west of Punta del Este. It turned out to be an older but pleasant place, in a great location. It was not on the beach, but it was just off the main highway (1B) and convenient for our explorations. Remember, we were on the last two weeks of our big five-week visit to three countries, and we were still carting around all of our Inca Trail hiking equipment along with everything else. So it was great to have a nice, big condo to be able to unpack and stretch out a little.
But first things first – after an overnight flight and an hour and a half drive, it was time for a little nap before lunch.
Refreshed, hungry, and ready to get a good look at the coast, we set out for our first visit to Punta del Este.
For those of you who may not have heard of Punta del Este, it has an interesting history. In 1896 Antonio Lussich, a Uruguayan sailor and writer who also had a love of plants, purchased 4,447 acres of land that was mostly barren sand dunes. He started a botanical garden, planting trees he gathered from all over the world. They began to spread on their own, and now the points of Ballena and del Este are covered with pines, eucalyptus acacias, and many species of bushes.
A an unintended consequence of Antonio’s passion, this set the stage to make Punta del Este one of the most popular beach resorts in the world. Every year, the population swells from 10,000 to over 700,000 during the high season months (roughly November-May). Uruguayans represent just a portion of those visitors. The beach is a mecca for Argentinians, who come from Buenos Aires across the Rio de la Plata to enjoy the sun and sand. It is a popular hangout for movie stars and European royalty as well.
Punta del Este is a gleaming strip of high-rises, jutting out into the Atlantic. Further inland, there are neighborhoods like Pinares full of single-family homes, many with thatched roofs, which seems a little out-of-place when you first see them. But soon you realize that the variety of architectural styles reflects the diversity of the European cultures that make up Uruguay’s population.
There are two large white sand beaches open to the public, one of which sports the iconic “La Mano” (The Hand) sculpture, also known locally as “Los Dedos” (The Fingers). Four fingers and a thumb poke up from the beach, in what the artist conceived of as the hand of a drowning man, to warn swimmers to be careful in the waters. You will also find plenty of shopping, restaurants, casinos, and nightlife. Even in low season, things do not shutdown completely in this vibrant peninsula.
After visiting the famous fingers, we were ready for our first meal in Uruguay. We stopped in a bar and grill just across the street from the beach sculpture called Indiesito. I was looking forward to trying a chivito, which I had read was the national meal of Uruguay. Its name actually means “little goat”, and in Argentina it is made from young kids (the goat kind, not the human). The story is that once upon a time, a visiting Argentinian ordered a sandwich of barbecue kid meat for a quick hand-meal. The restaurant owner did not have any goat, so he substituted grilled beef fillet steak instead, and a star is born.
Chivitos come in a variety of forms. My first that you see above, is one of the simplest presentations: no bread, just a grilled steak with a sunny-side up egg on it, served with a simple salad and fries. They can get complicated. There’s the chivito canadiense that comes with Canadian bacon. The chivito can have any combination of ingredients like mozzarella, tomatoes, mayonnaise, black or green olives, bacon, fried or hard-boiled eggs and ham. Other ingredients, such as red beets, peas, grilled or pan-fried red peppers, and slices of cucumber may also be used in some regions. And of course, it can be served with no bread, as a sandwich in a bun or fresh-baked bread, or open-faced.
Rita went with what she thought would be a simple hamburger. Pausing only a moment when she found it came with a fried egg on top, she dove right in. A look of astonishment came over her, and she insisted I taste it. We were both experiencing Uruguay beef for the first time. It is exquisite. Her hamburger tasted more like ground filet mignon than ground beef. Really, the beef we had both in Uruguay and Buenos Aires were the best we’ve ever had. Incredibly tender, and full of flavor that I never knew beef possessed. A real revelation.
We were the last guests to leave as they were locking up – good tip, in Uruguay restaurants tend to close between about 3pm and 7pm for siestas – and the owner gave us some friendly advice as visitors. Uruguay has a rather high 22% sales tax. However, if you pay with a credit card or debit, you pay only half the tax on some purchases.
After many thanks, hugs, and promises to return, we went to our next stop: time to do some shopping. Our condo had a kitchen with a full-sized fridge, so we wanted to get some basics for our week’s stay. We both prefer to have our breakfast and coffee in our own space, before braving the world.
We found on our trusty Waze a nearby grocery store called Tienda Inglesa (English Shop – a good omen!) that was part of the Punta Shopping Mall.
As you can see from the picture, this is a large, modern mall with everything you would expect find; movies, food court, clothing stores, banks, and something you might not expect to find – a casino.
This was a great chance on our first day to get an idea of prices in Uruguay. Of course you have to keep in mind that mall prices can be higher anyway, and this was an upscale mall in an upscale resort community. But still, we could start to get a feel for things.
The first problem we ran into of course was the exchange rate. It is rather jarring to see, for example, a box of cereal “on sale” for $220, or a can of beans for $62.
It takes some time to get used to the exchange rate. With one peso equaling about 32 cents, it take a little brain effort to work it out. The closest rule of thumb I came up with was to drop the last digit and divide by 3. That gets you close. For example, the cereal came to $7.01 US, the can of beans $1.97. My method would get you an estimate of $7.33 and $2. Close enough for jazz.
So as you see, a little more expensive than what you would expect to pay in US grocery stores (or even Ecuadorian ones). That doesn’t tell the whole story though, as like in most foreign lands, some things – especially local products – were cheaper, and some were not. It also depends on where you shop; prices in a resort chain store are naturally higher than in a local mercado.
All in all, it was a successful first day in Uruguay. We had a home base and a car, we were finding it surprisingly easy to understand the local version of Spanish, we loved the food, we had met friendly people everywhere, and we were looking forward to the next two weeks of exploration.
More to follow ….