Uruguayan Road Trip

The view back to Cabo Polonio

Hiring a car is not something we’d thought we’d be doing when we left the UK, South America not being somewhere known for great roads, and backpackers not tending to hire cars on a budget. However, we’ve really enjoyed our road trips, we found them a not too expensive alternative to public transport, and they were all a great way to see the countries outside of the main tourist hot spots. Our fourth and final road trip, despite a few car problems, was no exception.

Day 1: Montevideo to Punta del Este

Our little Geely
Our little Geely

We left our flat in Montevideo and stood in the sun at a bus stop, we’d crossed that road quite a few times in the last few days and pretty much always had to wait for buses to pass. This day however there didn’t seem to be any around. One came past but we checked and it didn’t go near the main bus station so we kept waiting. We got chatting to a guy at the stop and he said there was some kind of strike on. We waited a bit more but in the end, after almost an hour, we decided to use Uber and get a taxi all the way to the airport where we were picking up our hire car. Eventually we made it and were sitting in our hire car and ready to go on road trip number four!

The car was a little different from the last road trips we’d done, a tiny white Chinese ‘Geely’ manufactured car. It was a little flimsy in some ways (we both managed to pull the internal door handles off when closing the doors on the first day and had to carefully slot them back into place!), but very fuel efficient which made a nice change.

Punte del Este in the distance
Punte del Este in the distance

On our first day we didn’t have far to drive, we were heading to the next big city along the coast, Punta del Este (aka PDE). This town is known for being a holiday destination for wealthy Uruguayans, Argentinians and Brazilians, lots of skyscrapers, yachts and designer shops. Not really our kind of destination, but we wanted to check it out as it’s one of the most popular places to visit in Uruguay.

The weather was beautiful as we left Montevideo, apparently unusual for this time of year as they were heading into Autumn. We set off and kept stopping at all the little beaches on route, eating a picnic on one and enjoying a chance to dip my toes in the Atlantic.

Wading in the Atlantic
Wading in the Atlantic

As we neared PDE the weather turned a little, clouding over and the wind picked up. We parked outside our hostel and checked in. This was the first night we’d spent on the whole trip in a shared dorm room without knowing the other people in our room. We’d always managed to find a private room previously or had shared with friends. However, the prices in Uruguay for double rooms in hostels seemed really expensive, plus with the holiday week there wasn’t much available, anyway it all worked out well and saved us a little money.

On our way along the coast to Punta del Este
On our way along the coast to Punta del Este

The hostel staff were really nice and we stopped for a drink at the hostel bar before leaving to get food, they did some very nice local craft bottled beers. After a beer we went out for a wander around the town looking for a restaurant for dinner. The place we ended up at did the traditional parilla (grill) where I had two large skewers of meat and vegetables. Chris opted for the vegetable grill, which was a little disappointing as it was so much smaller than my plate even though it didn’t cost much less. The waiters were all really nice though and there was some excellent live music and good wine to keep us happy.

Back at the hostel and we decided to go for a quick nightcap beer before bed, mainly so that we’d sleep through better if our unknown roommates ended up coming back late. We ended up being the ones out late in the end though, we met a few other backpackers and stayed up chatting in the hostel bar until about 4am.

Day 2: Punta del Este to Punta del Diablo

Alex at the hand in the sand sculpture
Alex at the hand in the sand sculpture

We had great plans to be up and exploring the town before all the tourists arrived for the day, but the late night meant we were just up in time to have the free breakfast before checking out and loading our bags into the car. We still went for a walk around the town, we started by going to see the ‘hand in the sand’ sculpture, five fingers sticking up out of the beach as if a giant was buried underneath trying to get out! It was crowded with tourists posing and the wind had really picked up so we were being sandblasted on the beach and made a quick exit. We continued walking down to the end of the point and back via the marina until we’d had enough of the city.

Chris looking out to the Atlantic
Chris looking out to the Atlantic

It was time to leave the cities behind and start the drive around the coast. We left PDE by the small coastal road and did a short detour to a small village called Jose Ignacio, apparently once the playground for the Rolling Stones and still very popular with the rich and famous today. We parked at the beginning of a line of parked cars heading to the beach, ate our picnic in the car and walked down to the ocean. The closer we got the busier it was, cars and people blocking up the road. We got to the beach which was bizarrely empty, you could see it would be beautiful in the sun but in the cloudy weather everyone was just queuing for a parilla and bar at the end of the road. We left this strange little town and carried along the beautiful coast road.

Kite surfers making the most of the windy day
Kite surfers making the most of the windy day

Further along the coast we stopped to look at some kite surfers on a lagoon, there were loads of them all in one area jumping and whizzing around in the wind. There was a strange circular bridge crossing the end of the lagoon and after this the paved road ended. The dirt road was pretty good though and we continued to drive by the ocean. The road came inland and we turned back to the main highway running north up to Brazil. We continued heading north to a small coastal town called Punta del Diablo, our stop for the next two days.

We were staying in an Airbnb place again, this time a whole house. Our host Melisa was lovely and welcoming, she lived with a couple of friends in the garden of this place where they had tents, a basic kitchen and bathroom buildings. The tourist season here gets really busy and it seemed like most houses had some kind of holiday rental property or room for the summer. We settled in and were going to walk the 3km into town when the rain arrived, it was late and dark so we decided to drive to the supermarket and pick up dinner and breakfast things since we had our own kitchen again. We settled in for a nice evening in with the wind howling outside.

Day 3: Exploring near Punta del Diablo

Fortaleza de Santa Teresa
Fortaleza de Santa Teresa

The next day the weather had improved a little first thing, none of the glorious sunshine I was expecting for our week on the coast but warm and nice enough to get outside. We drove a little up the coast to the Santa Teresa national park. We stopped to explore the Fortaleza de Santa Teresa, originally built by the Portuguese in the 1700s as a border guardpost between Uruguay and Brazil. Later it was taken over by the Spanish and eventually it was restored as a tourist attraction in the 1920s. It was interesting to walk around, we felt very British going to see a castle on a cloudy Easter weekend!

Amazing foam blowing in from the sea
Amazing foam blowing in from the sea

After the castle we drove on to explore the park, it runs along the coast so we drove down and went for a walk on a beach. The whole place is obviously geared up to huge numbers of tourists in the summer, but was lovely and deserted when we were there. The wind had picked up again on the coast and was whipping huge bits of foam from the water up into the dunes. I’ve never seen anything like it. We ran between the flying foam and climbed along the rocks on the shoreline, watching the crashing waves.

Our trip to the park was cut slightly short as it began to rain heavily whilst we were finishing a late lunch, completing the British bank holiday feel to the day! We went back via Punta del Diablo town centre which is designed for summer tourists, it’s brightly coloured street bars and craft stalls looked a little sad in the rain. Given the miserable weather we decided on another cosy evening in.

Day 4: Rocha and Caballos de Luz

Cloudy skies looking over the fields of Uruguay
Cloudy skies looking over the fields of Uruguay

We set off late morning, driving along the main road heading south again. The road was busy with traffic, it was Easter Sunday and everyone was heading south again after the holiday week. We were happily driving along when the car made some very loud noises and we realised we had a flat tyre. Chris pulled us to the side of the road straight away, unfortunately the hard shoulder was pretty narrow and the flat was on the road side. We moved all the bags into the back seat and found the spare and jack. Chris then began the long process of changing the tyre, having to get out of the way whenever a car came past. I tried to call our host for the night but couldn’t leave a message so I just sent an email explaining we’d be late.

Chris managed the tyre change successfully and we carried on driving to the next big town of Rocha. We topped up with fuel and phone credit and stopped at a tyre shop (known as a ‘gomeria’). They didn’t have any inner tubes the right size so told us to buy one in the centre then come back when we were leaving after the bank holiday and get it sorted. All of this was said to us in rapid Spanish and the mechanic had to take apart the tyre to demonstrate the inner tube as the word for it (cámara) was not in our vocabulary, it didn’t help that I didn’t know car tyres could have inner tubes! Now we had a plan, we decided to make our way to our home for the next two days.

Caballos de Luz
Caballos de Luz

Our destination was Caballos De Luz, a horse ranch about 13km out of Rocha owned by Austrian Lucie and her Uruguayan husband Santiago. We’d found them last minute when in Montevideo, there was a Lonely Planet in the flat and we’d been reading about where to go on our road trip. This place stood out as pretty much perfect as it offered the horse riding and countryside we wanted to see, but without the meat heavy gaucho experience, as it is entirely vegetarian. We’d booked without even reading any reviews, unusual for us but it just seemed perfect for us. Lucie had sent us some directions by email and we arrived only just over half an hour late for lunch in the end, perfectly acceptable South American timing.

The view from Caballos de Luz
The view from Caballos de Luz

We settled into our room, basic but comfortable, ensuite and with a lovely balcony overlooking the countryside. The whole place is off-grid, with solar heated water, solar power and a backup generator. We had a lovely lunch of pancakes with a DIY choice of cooked up veggies or sweet stuff. Lucie has had two volunteers staying with her for the season to help with the cooking and horses and lots of other jobs, they were a young German couple called Till and Livvy and they were also both very friendly and welcoming.

Alex riding the fiesty Patricia
Alex riding the fiesty Patricia

We’ve both been horseriding a couple of times before, only for an hour at a time and just a basic walking route. We’d enjoyed it each time, although I’d always found horses made me a little nervous! A French couple were joining us for the afternoon, one of them had lots of experience and the other none so it was a good mixed group. Livvy ran through the basics of how to approach a horse, how to mount and how to control them while riding. Chris was given a lovely big tan horse and I had a slightly fiesty black horse called Patricia, she was in heat and falling in love with every horse we passed!

Chris getting into the ride
Chris getting into the ride

The ride was brilliant, we started off walking down a narrow track and getting used to the horses. We then had to cross a river, which Patricia was not happy about but the horses are so well trained she did follow Lucie across in the end. The river was pretty high and I immediately got my legs wet up to the knee! After the river crossing we had a go at trotting, then later on we learnt some more techniques and tried out ‘posting’ where you kind of stand up and sit down in time with the horse’s trot. Both Chris and I got the hang of it in not too much time and it made the whole ride more comfortable and fun. We stopped to see their other horses in a field and got to stretch our legs whilst they swapped a horse to bring back to the paddock. On our way back we crossed more rivers, and got to trot some more as the sun went down. The light was really low by the end which was exciting and a little nerve wracking to ride in, we had to just trust in the horses eyesight (they have much better night vision than us) and that they would follow the path for the last little bit.

Back at the ranch we were rewarded with a warm shower, and then a large hearty dinner chatting with Lucie, Till and Livvy before turning in.

Day 5: Caballos de Luz

Walking around the estancia
Walking around the estancia

The weather was very British whilst we were staying with Lucie and that morning we had rain on and off. We just stayed on our balcony, running inside when the rain came over. In the afternoon we went for a walk around the countryside, getting our boots nice and muddy tramping through the woods. We had another tasty home cooked dinner and headed to bed.

Day 6: Rocha to Cabo Polonio

Drying our boots with a visitor in the garden
Drying our boots with a visitor in the garden

We had breakfast on our balcony in the sun, eating fresh fruit picked from the palm tree by our room, and drawing out having to leave for a while. We said goodbye to everyone and drove into the nearest town of Rocha. We drove to the garage Lucie had recommended and managed to buy an inner tube and get it fitted at the place next door. The mechanics were nice and we got them to put the tyre back on the car for us, a good job as he couldn’t get the spare tyre off without a special tool!

Changing the tyre on Geely for the second time
Changing the tyre on Geely for the second time

We drove off in the bright sunshine, and got all of 15km before hearing the sound of a flat tyre again! It was the same tyre that we’d just had repaired. Luckily we’d chosen to take a quieter road so we were able to change it much faster this time. We drove back to the same garage to show them. The mechanics took a look and saw it was the inner tube again, but couldn’t see what on the inside of the tyre was causing this puncture. They recommended we buy a new tyre. As this was going to be expensive (cheaper than the UK but not by a lot!), we called Dollar car hire first. We called the out of hours number, they didn’t speak English but I explained in Spanish, the guy listened for a bit then just told me a number for an office who speak English, not sure why as he seemed to understand but never mind! Chris called the new number and had to explain to two separate people what had happened, the second person kept interrupting and wasn’t listening as she kept suggesting we do things that didn’t make sense. We passed her over to the mechanic to explain in Spanish and that seemed to work. We kept asking if we could get the money back if we bought a new tyre as it wasn’t our fault, but in the end she told us to bring the tyres and the innertubes with us back to the rental place where they would assess it. We had to pay for the new tyre, one without an innertube this time! We set off again and this time made it the 40km or so to our next destination, a car park just off the road.

The drive over the dunes
The drive over the dunes

This car park in the middle of nowhere is the access point for Cabo Polonio, a small town in a national park on the coast which is only accessible by walking or driving over the dunes. We parked under some trees and set about packing things for the next two days into our small day backpacks. We bought a return ticket to the town and were soon boarding our bus. Actually it wasn’t a proper bus, it was a large overland vehicle with huge tyres, open sided with lots of seats, all equipped to drive over the sand dunes to the town. We had a fairly smooth ride through the dunes then along the beach and into the town. Pulling up in the ‘main square’, a small open circle of sand with a few brightly coloured ramshackle buildings clustered around it. We hopped out and went straight to the largest one of these buildings, our hostel Viejo Lobo (old wolf). We were soon checked into our tiny basic box room and were ready to explore the town.

Along the beach to Cabo Polonio
Along the beach to Cabo Polonio

Cabo Polonio is a small town on a spit of land sticking into the Atlantic, it has no mains power and so facilities are a little basic. However our hostel did have solar and wind power giving 24hr hot water and LED lights, charging stations in communal areas and 1 hour of wifi per day. Pretty good for an off grid town and you can even drink the tap water. We were there to relax and enjoy the beach, our last remote countryside stay before returning to cities for the rest of our trip.

Alex on the beach with Cabo lighthouse in the background
Alex on the beach with Cabo lighthouse in the background

We walked along the north beach and up to the dunes, only marred by a few very smelly dead seals. We walked back to the town and around the point past the lighthouse (seeing one live seal) and checked out the restaurant offerings. There wasn’t much open, partly this was because it was before 8pm, but also the tourist season in Uruguay is so seasonal they seem to close down a lot of businesses outside of summer. After enjoying a beer at our hostel we found a few open restaurants and had some fairly tasty pizza. It was surprisingly dark, we’ve been in very remote countryside on this trip but it felt more dark here. I think because we were in a town, but with only candlelight and the lighthouse beam (the only mains power), so it felt very surreal.

Day 7: Cabo Polonio

Breakfast view at Cabo
Breakfast view at Cabo

We had breakfast at a restaurant right by the sea, waves crashing up to the terrace we sat on. We had a whole day in Cabo, the sun shone most of the day and we walked along the south beach. It was very quiet and we sat for a while on the sand. We popped back for lunch in the town and were back to the beach for the sunset.

Beer by candlelight in Cabo
Beer by candlelight in Cabo

That night we went to a small local bar for a drink, we got chatting to the owner and had a table under trees and climbing plants at the back of the bar. We were the only customers, the owner explained they are one of the oldest places in the town and remain open all year round even though they don’t get much business after summer. He gave us a free taster of a local palm fruit spirit. It was made from a palm fruit we’d eaten in the countryside at Caballos de Luz and was very tasty. We followed this with a basic but tasty cheese and tomato pizza and sat drinking beer and chatting for a while. After this we grabbed an alfajore for desert and ate that on the beach in the dark, only lit by the lighthouse beam regularly passing by. We decided to go for a final beer at the only other vaguely lively place in town, a hippy hostel with a small bar. The owners were a little stoned (marijuana is legal for locals to buy in Uruguay) so the service was a bit haphazard, but they were very friendly and we sat by the fire outside drinking our beer before bed.

Day 8: Cabo to Montevideo

An overlander bringing people to Cabo Polonio
An overlander bringing people to Cabo Polonio

The monster truck service is not so regular outside the summer season and so we had to take an early morning truck to give us time to drive back to Montevideo. We managed to get prime seats on the roof of the truck, a great view and the wind blasting as we bounced across the dunes certainly woke us up!

Back at the car we repacked and Chris took photos of the tyre and innertubes for evidence. Whilst doing this he noticed the old tyre said ‘tubeless’ on it in English. He did some research and found out you can put innertubes into tubeless tyres but you have to sand the inside first or else the tube can rub and burst. This must have been what happened to ours. We think the people who hired it previously just did a really bad job of repairing a puncture, including fitting the wrong size innertube! We set off again, ready with our argument for when we got to Dollar rental.

Walking by the coast with our little Geely in the background
Walking by the coast with our little Geely in the background

We had a nice sunny drive, taking a few detours to see a large lake and to drive along the picturesque coastal road. We stopped in Jose Ignacio again for lunch, the town was deserted after the holiday weekend and locals were dismantling the wooden beach bars ready for the winter. We stopped at a few beaches on the way back, at one we tried to get some stuff out of the boot of our car but it wouldn’t open. There was no manual lock, just a remote, so we just had to drive on and hope the car fixed itself!

Atlantic waves
Atlantic waves

We were being careful not to buy too much fuel and time it right to come back with an empty tank, after a final stop to top up a tiny 3 litres we coasted into the car park without a warning light. Perfect! We still couldn’t get the boot open however, it didn’t look great turning up demanding a refund on a tyre when other bits of the car were broken! However the staff were very understanding (maybe it’s a common problem with the Geely cars!), we could flip down the back seats and extract our bags that way. We then spoke to them about the tyre and thankfully they agreed and refunded us.

So that was it, our final road trip and the last of our time in South America outside of the big cities. We’d really enjoyed exploring Uruguay, it had been a calm and laid back country with some lovely people.

Author: Alex Greenwood

Traveller, muddy gardener, sustainability consultant

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