Saturday, April 3, 2010

Punta del Este, Uruguay: $70 Seaweed Omeletes and the Casa del Pueblo


Casapueblo, a hotel and museum built by the Uruguayan artist, Carlos Paez Vilaro (photo by Luis Bastardo)

Last week, we spent a few days in what is known as the Switzerland of South America, Punta del Este, Uruguay. Since we are living in Argentina right now, we need to keep our visas updated by leaving and re-entering the country every three months. We normally have a trip planned anyway, and in emergencies (i.e. we totally lost track of time and there is one day left to renew or be thrown into visa jail, if such a thing exists), we generally hop over to Colonia del Sacramento, an hour away by fast ferry. Except that we have been to Colonia about 76 million times, to the point of recognizing the moss patterns on the cobblestones. So this time, we decided to check out Punta del Este, since we also wanted to feel like we lived the life of the "Beautiful People", if even for a few days.


Sim trying to kick over La Mano, the big hand sculpture on the beach, just like the "Beautiful People" (photo by Luis Bastardo)

From Buenos Aires to Punta del Este, it is five hours of travel, a combination of ferry and bus. Our ferry left at 8am, so we needed to leave the house around 630am at the latest to get to the ferry terminal. We waited forever for the train, and I started to get worried. Luis was strangely unruffled though; normally when we're running late, he acts like we're one of the final three couples in the last stretch of The Amazing Race. When we arrived a few blocks from the terminal and we couldn't get a taxi, he still didn't seem panicked, but just sort of sauntered down the street admiring the trees. I kept trying to stress to him (in the sweetest possible way, of course...) that perhaps it was necessary for him to move his ass, but nothing I said could light a fire. Finally, we arrived at the terminal, with only 10 minutes to go for check in, to pass through security and immigration and to board the boat, with me stressing like I'm about to miss the last boat off a sinking island and Luis totally calm and zen-like. As we boarded the boat, it was 7:57am, three minutes to go. I turned to look at Luis who had a completely shocked look on his face: he thought the boat didn't leave for another hour...ah, that explains it!
The lighthouse at San Ignacio Beach (photo by Luis Bastardo)

When he finally talked me in from the ledge, I noticed what a lovely trip it was. The bus ride through the countryside and up the coast through Uruguay was gorgeous. It's a beautiful, diverse country with incredible beaches, rural areas, cosmopolitan cities and very friendly people. The only down side is that it is incredibly expensive, especially noticeable after living the good and cheap life in Buenos Aires. Our hotel, Salto Grande, was nice enough though: basic, but clean, quiet and central and we arrived out of season so we were able to move around fairly easily without having to wait in lines or fight the crowds. Apparently it is una locura (insane) in high season when "anyone who's anyone" descends on the city, along with the international paparazzi snapping every smile and sip of a cocktail. Luckily, we arrived in the relatively dead  low season, sans-paparazzi, the time of year when it's possible to march naked down the main street singing "There's no business like show business" without receiving as much as a second glance from passers-by. We decided to rent a car at the suggestion of the employees at Freddo (the best ice-cream place on the planet) and it was a great idea; we were able to see much more of the peninsula and the area north of the main center.


The $70 seaweed omelette and deep-fried "sea things" (photo by Simone Cannon)

When we picked up our economy car, the gas gauge was on empty, so we stopped first at the nearest gas station, foolishly defaulting to the "fill 'er up" request, only to find that a full tank of gas ran US$48 and that, unless we were planning on driving back and forth to Buenos Aires 3-4 times in the course of our tour of Uruguay, it was probably an excessive quantity of gas to have purchased. We visited Jose Ignacio, the chicest (aka the most expensive) part of the area, where property values rival Manhattan, quite literally. We stopped at a little cafe-style restaurant for a light meal and ended up paying US$70 for a two-egg omelette with seaweed (I swear I'm not making this up, as Dave Barry would say) and an appetizer size plate of unidentified fried sea "things" (cosas del mar), which was a worrying enough name, even before the check arrived. Oh, and two beers. To wash down the sea things. On the other days, we drove up to La Barra, Punto Ballena (Whale Point) and around the center, stopping to have a look around, walk on the beach, etc.

The undulating bridge at La Barra (photo by Luis Bastardo)

Due to unforeseen budget restraints, our food now consisted of whatever we could pick up in the local supermarket on sale, like delicious Uruguayan Kraft Processed Cheese Slices and scrumptious Uruguayan Oscar Mayer Bologna. And of course, we drove everywhere, just to use up the gas, damn it. Two more days of this and we would have to sell our blood. Oddly, the museums and other exhibits were free/cheap and fantastic: Casa del Pueblo is something out of a Dr. Seuss book, an adjoining museum and hotel with an amazing art collection and sea views. Museo del Mar (you can't miss it, it has a giant painted concrete shark outside baring its teeth) and the Fundacion Pablo Atchugarry art museum (a wonderful light-filled modern art space with a sculpture garden) are well worth visiting. All in all, a luxurious, albeit expensive, way to get our visas renewed and to live the glamorous life if only for a while. I wonder what the non-beautiful people are doing?

    Sim and the other tourists enjoying the sunset at Casa del Pueblo (photo by Luis Bastardo)

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