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Posted by Tim on Mar 15, 2005
I held up a bus in Montevideo!

La Paloma is the most idyllic place I think I’ve ever seen. Just a few short weeks ago, this tranquil beach town would have been swamped with vacationers from neighboring Brazil and Argentina. Today, just outside of high season, there is only the 5,000 or so residents (spread so thinly along miles of coast that it’s hard to believe it’s anywhere near that many), a handful of other visitors, some friendly dogs and horses, and the two of us.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Leaving Buenos Aires

We woke up early on Saturday morning in Buenos Aires, quietly packed up our things, left a heartfelt note for our friends Paul and Caroline, and set off for the docks. We were carrying our full packs (25 or 30 pounds each), and were somewhat exhausted and sweaty when we got to the launch. There we entered a room absolutely packed with people, and stood in line with them for a half an hour or so.

We checked in, and I should perhaps take another moment here to marvel at Jessica’s Spanish. She hasn’t taken a Spanish class in well over a decade, and will tell you at every opportunity that she can’t speak any Spanish. But it certainly wasn’t me who checked us in for our ferry ride across the Rio Uruguay. With the aid of her Spanish, we’ve also filled prescriptions at a farmacia (so much cheaper than in the states, by the way) and quizzed the operator of a ferretaria (hardware/electronics store) about a problem we were having with our outlet adapters (more on this in another post). I assure you, these were two situations not covered in our phrase book: these were all her. And she did spectacularly.

Anyway, we checked in (cost of these tickets, which we had booked the day before: $22 each), and made our way first through security screening, then through customs. We had to fill out the standard Visa questionnaires, which we then handed with our passports to the two young ladies at the customs desk (again, after waiting in line for a bit). The first stamped our passports to indicate we were leaving Argentina, and the second stamped them again, to indicate we were entering Uruguay.

The ferry was huge, containing five decks, hundreds of cars, an arcade, a gift shop, three food counters/bars, dozens and dozens of little round tables surrounded by low-back chairs, and hundreds of enormous, plush, high-backed reclining chairs (think of the seats in the first-class section of a plane). With the help of Señor Pig (our much-beloved travel pillow), Jessica was able to sleep most of the 3-hour trip to Colonia. I passed the time reading (The Flanders Panel, if you were wondering).

Colonia and the bus to Montevideo

At Colonia, we disembarked and made our way to the bus that would take us to Montevideo. Along the way an animated customs agent took from us the sandwiches we’d prepared in Buenos Aires. He sprayed them with red spraypaint (presumably so that we knew he wasn’t confiscating them just to eat them himself), and sent us on our way. We boarded the most comfortable bus I’ve ever been on, and began our 2½-hour ride to Montevideo.

Uruguay is a small country by South American standards, large by European ones. It’s roughly the size, I read, of the state of North Dakota. It has the South American superpowers of Brazil to the north and Argentina to the west. The south and east are all beaches and ocean.

And it’s a heartbreakingly beautiful place. We rode for hours without seeing much but rolling hills and the occasional farmhouse. The fields were dotted regularly with evenly-matched patches of trees and cows.

Riding through Uruguay is like going backwards in time. There aren’t any SUVs here, just the occasional rusty VW Microbus or 70s-era Ford pick-up. The policeman who passed us going the other way smiled and waved at our bus driver. We passed more horses on the road than cars. It feels like you could go into any of the little shops we passed, and the person behind the counter would know absolutely everything there is to know about everything in the store. I fell in love with it at first sight.

Then the bus pulled in to Montevideo.

Montevideo and the back end of a horse

We both hated Montevideo, with a passion that bordered on murderous.

Nearly half of the residents of Uruguay live in its only real city, and I can’t for the life of me understand why. Montevideo is grimy, glum, and unfriendly. The hostels were unwelcoming and overpriced, and at the first restaurant we tried to go to we were studiously ignored. After a long day in transit, it wasn’t what we needed. Jessica took a photo of the backside of a statue of a horse to represent how we felt about the city. The only nice thing I can say about it is that their public buses make change, which is wonderful. (Cost of a bus ride from the station to the center of town: about $0.60.)

We booked ourselves at the Hotel Las Angeles, where the manager was nice and friendly (he joked that we’d need to pay the rate for three people because of Señor Pig), but the hotel itself was irredeemably spooky. It seemed like it might have been quite a posh place back before the economic collapse that just killed Montevideo, but now it was large and creepy and empty. I think we were the only guests staying on the fourth floor: I deduce this from the fact that all the lights on that floor were off until he took us up to show us the room. The elevator was antiquated and noisy, and we could hear it moving up and down all night. We both had nightmares there.

But we were tired, and it was only $22/night (including a free breakfast). And hell, the hostels had wanted $10 each for a night in a mixed dorm. We took it, bought some pasta take-out from the pizza place next door ($12), and fell asleep watching X-Men 2 with Spanish subtitles. I’ve learned most of the Spanish I know from watching subtitled films over the past week or so.

Escape from Montevideo

We woke up Sunday morning at 10am or so (at this point, we were three hours ahead of EST), had our complimentary breakfast, and checked out. We took the bus back to the station, and tried to book a bus to La Paloma, which seemed promising from the description in the Lonely Planet guide. At first it looked like none of the lines had anything running to La Paloma until 4pm (ugh), but then we discovered that if you ask them (again, Jessica did the talking), some of the buses go to places not listed. Places like La Paloma. It was 11:48am, and we were able to book ourselves on a 12pm bus. Beautiful.

We boarded our bus, got situated, and then Jessica sprinted back into the station to use the bathroom (the one on the bus was irredeemably awful). Of course, that was the moment that the driver got on board, closed the doors, and started to pull away. I rushed to the front of the bus, and with my limited Spanish pleaded something along the lines of “Not yet! Not yet! My girlfriend is in the bathroom!” My wild gesticulations left no doubt that I was not referring to the fetid receptacle in the back of the bus, and he obliged me by putting on the brakes. A blissfully short time later, she sprinted out of the station and aboard the bus. And then we were off.

We felt better almost immediately. As soon as we’d exchanged Montevideo’s gloomy alleys for the rolling hills and frequent cattle to the east of it, I was back in love with Uruguay. And after three and a half hours or so, we were pulling in to La Paloma.

Paradise Found

La Paloma is everything we were looking for. There are more bicycles than cars here. You can see and smell the ocean from everywhere, which makes sense, because it surrounds us on three sides here. We walked from the bus station into town (about three blocks or so) and wandered down Avendia Nicolás Solari, the main drag, and soon found ourselves in front of the beautiful Hotel Bahia. A lot of the hotels and stores here were closed (most of this town closes down at the end of February), but the Bahia is open all year round, and comes pretty highly recommended in the Lonely Planet. We stepped inside to have a look.

The young lady at the front desk couldn’t have been friendlier, and the hotel is beautiful. We splurged a little, and booked a room for $30/night, but it’s a great room. It’s a triple, and comes with a table and chairs, cable TV, private bathroom, and (most importantly), a nice big terrace from which you can just see the ocean. Next to the terrace is the flat stucco rooftop of a shed next door, and we’ve appropriated that as part of our terrace as well.

Since then, everything has been blissful. We spent the first day relaxing, walking along the beach, reading, getting ice cream, and then treating ourselves to one of the best dinners I’ve ever had (also a splurge at $21 for two main courses, a dessert, and a bottle of wine). During dinner, there was the sounds of drums from off in the distance, which then got louder and louder. Soon a crowd of men and women were dimly visible in the streets, all of them carrying drums and banging away at them madly. I love drum circles. There’s something so powerfully primal about the sound of drums, it just gets my adrenaline going every time. We tried to ask our waiter what it was, but because the Spanish here is so mixed with Portuguese, we couldn’t understand him. Whatever it was, it was great.

The next day was spent in great part sitting out on the rooftop beside our terrace, reading. There was also more napping and walking along the beach, and a delightful lunch consisting of a burger and fries for me, and some unidentifiable manner of fried fish for Jessica, who was playing it reckless and daring and ordered something we couldn’t identify from the menu. (Total cost for the meal, including a liter of nice beer: $11) There was also a longish nap in the middle of the day, perhaps the most enjoyable nap I’ve ever taken. For dinner, we had pasta take-out ($7) and ate it in our room, along with a bottle of wine we’d bought at the grocery store the day before ($5).

Which brings us to today. In hindsight, this entry was longer than it needed to be, and should probably have been broken up into a few smaller ones. But the beach is calling me again, so I’m going to stop here. :)

Ciao, everyone.

March 15, 2005 at 9:42am
Im the first one to post, oh yeah
March 15, 2005 at 9:45am
oh I found Henry the mascott duck !
March 15, 2005 at 9:48am
that hotel sounds awesome REDRUM
March 15, 2005 at 10:30am
la paloma sounds dreamy,beautiful, and just what you needed! i love hearing about the people you're encountering. days spent reading and relaxing. dreamy. the horse's ass is quite funny, too. glad you guys got out of their fast.
Terp Fan
March 15, 2005 at 3:09pm
If ever anyone needed to make an artistic expression of how he/she felt about a place just leave it to Timmy and Jessica. I love the picture of the horse's arse! What a polite way to tell those rude people to *bleep* off. I'm so glad you two are having fun enjoying the finer things in life. I'm also glad that Jessica didn't get left behind in the awful town, with the awful bus, with the awful bathroom. Super Tim rises again! Enjoy the beach you two love-birds and be sure to drink a glass of wine for me…

Much love now and always,

Terp Fan

March 15, 2005 at 5:58pm
Just wanted to say that you are guys are so good at this! Your entries are genius. '-)

Glad you're getting that much deserved beach vacation time.

March 15, 2005 at 9:51pm

Glad you guys got out of their fast.

der. there fast. Sorry, couldn't let it rest.

March 16, 2005 at 10:13pm
Hi guys its Seana again. Again that was some beautiful writing. Very well writin and so enjoyable to read cant wait for more. Ok love you both. Bye bye
March 17, 2005 at 9:29am
Between you and Jessica, this site is providing a much-needed distraction from both my cubicle and the current Maryland climate (38-degrees, cloudy)…

"La Paloma is the most idyllic place I think I’ve ever seen."

Based on your description, I'd certainly believe it. :)

~ Rachel

March 18, 2005 at 9:00pm
Red spraypaint? Dadaism has taken its time to percolate down to the southern hemisphere but im glad to see it made it there intact.
March 19, 2005 at 3:21am
Montevideo was like that when I was there 10 ago. It is reassuring that some things do not change!
March 19, 2005 at 10:04am
Dear Jess,
wow, it's great what you guys are doing, I'm so jealous, it reminds me of me a few years ago, keep on having a great time.


Carried away
March 22, 2005 at 5:42am
Subtitles ARE a great way to familiarize yourself with a new language, but from the sounds of it, Jessica has surpassed that point.

Shame about Montevideo, but it sounds like La Paloma more than compensated.
*sings Una Paloma Blanca for you*

March 23, 2005 at 2:09pm
I am trying to get all 3 weeks in today. I am so happy for the 2 of you! Again, you look sooo happy. Leave it to Jess to hold up the bus!
March 28, 2005 at 11:26am
thank you. i'm just catching up on entries… but now apparently i am with a strong desire to follow your footsteps around.

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