Uruguay Travelogue, Day 2

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December 3, 2010, 10:15 p.m., Hotel Argentino, Piriapolis.

I’m turned in for the night, though most of the guests seem to be going out to eat, which I suppose I should explain. Uruguayans have inherited the Spanish pattern of eating: late, sprawling lunches, tea time when I’d be eating supper, and supper when I’d be getting in to bed. Throughout this entire trip, our bodies still functioning three hours later, Don and I often ate late by American standards: lunch at 2:00, dinner at 8:00. Without fail at each of the meals we were usually the first to arrive. It wasn’t unusual to see diners still eating their lunch at 4:00, and in one extreme example (later in the week) I was awakened by my neighbors grilling steaks after midnight!

In any event, this day was just right–very active, but not too much.

We ate breakfast at 8, then packed up and left our hotel. We took a taxi to the airport and picked up our rental car early–with no complaints from the rental company. Although we were supposed to pick it up at 12, we came a little before 11, and were on our way down the road by 11:30. Our goal today was to check out the coastal area leading east from Montevideo. If you look at a map of Uruguay, you’ll notice a couple of peculiarities. The first is that the country is bounded entirely on one side by a river which empties into the ocean like a big mouth, with the result that what appears to be ocean is in fact part of the river bay. The other peculiarity is that the shoreline, because of this, runs west to east, rather than north to south.

Highway 1 would take us out of town today toward Piriapolis, our ultimate destination (and the only other town in which we already had rooms lined up). The highway was a well-maintained, four lane toll road, and a good way to see the country. The drivers use a system that, though initially disconcerting, is actually fairly efficient. Drivers use the right hand lane (if there are two lanes together), pulling up close to the car in front, and then passing around quickly. On a two-lane road, they pull up close, and you’re expected to move slightly off your road onto the shoulder to let them pass. On a four lane road, this system works well.

Along the coastal road are turnoffs for various coastal towns, many with very few permanent residents, just numbers of tiny second homes for city dwellers, postage stamp lots, and very few stores. Some of the beaches had amazing dunes, so tall they blocked the water view, which was astounding considering the water here was still technically river. Nonetheless, given the size and width of the river, there were small waves and even whitecaps at points. We visited Neptunia and Atlantida, the latter being the first beach town of any size. The former has nothing more than shuttered weekend bungalows, a couple of rudimentary stores, and nothing else but beautiful dunes and beach.

Atlantida, however, is a true town with stores and restaurants, though things were still pretty sleepy at this time, during what was effectively the shoulder season.

We moved on to Parque de la Plata, exploring the coast and some fairly nice beaches, though at some points the water would turn brown and you could see the river’s influence.

A little after 1:00, we made our way into Piriapolis. Piriapolis was a beachside resort town founded in the late 1800s, and the only Uruguayans I’ve met who live in North Carolina once told me they were from this town. It’s a nice place, once more popular than now, and what is left is a still-popular beach town for Uruguayan middle-class families, much quieter than the more international and upscale Punta del Este farther east.

Though still early in the season, beachgoers were sunbathing and a few hearty souls were in the water. We’d made plans to meet a developer’s salesperson, and she helped us get rooms at the Hotel Argentino. This hotel, built in the 1930s, would be a relic of what I’d call a Belle Epoque era. A grand entrance, high ceilings, but chipped concrete and peeling paint, the Hotel Argentino is a somewhat threadbare reminder of a grander time, complete with stained glass windows, old-fashioned elevators (the kinds with a metal gate for a door), and views out of the windows to die for. We checked in, and went to eat steaks for lunch.

We came back a few minutes before 3:00, but our salesperson had already arrived–typical of the Uruguayan attitude toward time, which is far more puncutual than most of Latin America. Alex represents Sugar Loaf Resort, a development being marketed to North Americans and Europeans, and we’d scheduled an appointment to go look. Alex, who spoke with no discernible accent, had moved to the States in the 80s, lived in Virginia, and had just moved back five years ago.

Sugar Loaf Resort is located on a hill beside Pan De Azucar (hence its name), a small mountain behind the town of Piriapolis. The development was created by David James, an American who’s lived and developed in Latin America for 15 years. The development was about five minutes away from town, up a hill, past barns and horses, and appears to be unique in Uruguay. It is built on a hill as a gated community with distant (perhaps two miles distant) sea views, a planned clubhouse, restaurant, tennis courts and a Japanese hot spring (whatever that is). The majority of the lots have sold, and seven houses are in varying stages of completion. We were allowed into an almost-finished house of one owner. The home designs are hard to describe (but pictures will follow in a few days): fairly open, but unlike most other Latin countries’ construction in that they use brick. It’s hard to explain the initial effect as we walked into the house, the back patio doors open, and saw the stunning views that we witnessed. Immediately down the hill from the development were peaceful, bucolic country vistas, farm houses, cows and horses. Perhaps a mile past was the beautiful blue sea.

None of the amenities have been built yet, and the road is still dirt, but the developer has high hopes. The first homeowner moved in recently, with more to follow.

After our viewing, Alex took us (and another couple of guys making the trip) up to a small outdoor grill, where we had drinks and met the developer. Also with the developer was Margaret Summerfield from International Living Magazine, who writes about the development and also helps market it. The other two guests were more serious about buying, so I left David to them and had a fun time talking to Margaret about many of the places she’s been, as well as her opinions of some of those places.

After we came back, we spent the late afternoon and evening walking along the beachside promenade (called the “Rambla”) for the length of the town. Some of the stores were not yet open for the summer. Most of the ones that were primarily catered to beachgoers, with bookstores, trinkety souvenir shops and restaurants. We ate an early (7:00) supper of just sandwiches then, back at the hotel, went to the cafeteria where white shirted and black-bow-tied waiters served us cocktails and appetizers as we ruminated on the day. In the restaurant across the hall, we could see fellow guests just starting to come in and eat at the buffet, as we were winding down before going to bed.

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