Uruguay - the 'small' country in South America

Caramor - sailing around the world
Franco Ferrero / Kath Mcnulty
Sun 27 Sep 2015 16:40
34:52.5S 55:16.7W

On the map, Uruguay looks tiny, sandwiched between the two giants; Argentina to the south, nearly 16 times the land mass and Brazil to the north, a mere 48 times larger.

Approximately the size of a Brazilian state, Uruguay is still 25,000km2 larger than England and Wales, and four times the size of Switzerland.

It feels empty though ... the number of people living here is just slightly more than in Wales! Whereas Switzerland has over double the population.

The landscape is made up of gently rolling hills with the highest point at 500m, half the height of Snowdon. There are very few trees, the natural vegetation was, once upon a time, pampas grass, most of which has been converted to improved grassland for the grazing of cattle and sheep.

Because there is plenty of room and nature offers few constraints, towns are extensive with large uncluttered avenues. Town planners must have been among the first immigrants because urban areas are laid out on a grid system without any obvious 'downtown'. This makes finding things difficult and the distances between points of interest are great.

The night we arrived in Uruguay, the weather was foul, the wind was blowing a near gale, it was raining hard and the temperature was 6 degrees Celsius. The following night it dropped as low as 2 degrees but two days later we were sweating in t-shirts in 29 degrees! This changeable weather is because Uruguay is at the junction of two very different ocean systems. A warm current coming down the coast of Brazil meets a very cold current and weather system coming up from the Southern Ocean and the Antarctic.

Approaching Punta del Este we had left the lighthouse on the Isla dos Lobos ('lobo' means 'wolf' in Spanish but in South America it also means 'sea-lion') to port. The lighthouse on the point guided us safely until we saw the smaller leading lights which took us around the breakwater into the shelter of the port. It was midnight, we were tired after a week at sea, it was hard to make out what was what in the marina so we picked up a large mooring buoy, and after a hot chocolate, we crashed for a few hours.

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Punta del Este from our mooring - the sun was trying to break through the mid-morning gloom

The following morning the sun was desperately trying to break through and we were considering going straight to Piriapolis until we checked the forecast. A Force 8 was coming through the following morning and if we needed to anchor outside the port, the wind would make things very uncomfortable if not dangerous. The Port of Piriapolis is officially closed for improvements and although we knew we would be able to lift Caramor out of the water, it had been impossible to find out any additional information. We decided to wait in Punta del Este until the gale had blown through. The marina seemed very quiet. We tried hailing a RIB but were ignored. A short while later, a Jersey flagged yacht 'Endeavour of Antartica' passed nearby. Franco hailed them in English believing they were compatriots. The response, heavily accented with Spanish, "I come back in 10 minutes in the dinghy." left us slightly puzzled. Ten minutes later Narcisio (a Chilean) was back and took Franco ashore to complete the formalities, he then returned to help us tie up in the marina. As we approached the quay, a couple of Argentineans from a small boat called Taube took our lines. We were very grateful for this help and the warm welcome.

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The light house on the point

Our two most important jobs were to complete the entry formalities and to sort out our stay in Piriapolis. The customs office told us we needed to go to immigration first. This was a tiny office on the quay, between the fishmongers and the harbour electrician. It was shut.

Back at the customs office, the helpful lady rang immigration and told us somebody would be round in thirty minutes. There was a small fee to pay, the officer was surprised we hadn't been to the bank yet but not to worry we could pay in Brazilian Reais or US Dollars. At the customs office, the lady called the boss in. We had met him outside earlier where he was in the process of towing derelict cars into the yard at the back of the office. He came in, puzzled that something was expected of him and eventually stamped the back of our Brazilian papers. Next the Prefectura, the Uruguayan Navy. A friendly chap stamped the back of our Brazilian Navy document and told us all the scores for British football for the past six months! He told us we would have to return to all three offices before leaving for Piriapolis. We groaned, surely not?!

The next day I jumped on the bus to Piriapolis while Franco fitted the spare alternator and caught up with Pesdapress work. The wind was bitterly cold and strong enough to stop the tide from going out for several hours. At the port in Piriapolis, I met Walter, the manager. He was aware of our intentions to visit, thanks to Roxana, the Ocean Cruising Club port officer who had been to see him on our behalf. "Any day next week, just give me a ring the day before, and you will need a 'permit to land' from the Prefectura." I went to sort it out straight away, unfortunately the permit couldn't be issued without the boat owner's passport. I returned on the Monday. This time I was sent away to get two copies of absolutely everything but once these were submitted, the permit was written up. Uruguay seems to have loads of rules but we definitely get the impression they are made up as they go along. So far we have never seen an Uruguayan form nor have we received anything from the officials in exchange for our two copies of everything. My theory is that they find paperwork slightly absurd but don't want to be outdone by Brazilian or Argentinian bureaucracy.

We don't know much about Uruguay, calling here didn't figure on our original itinerary so we haven't done any homework. We do know, however, that Fray Bentos is a town, not a meat pie, and that the previous president was called Pepe Mujica, that he owned a tractor just like Gareth's and gave most of his presidential salary to charity. We also know that there are plantations of Eucalyptus. Shortly before we left Wales, we went to a Royal Forestry Society conference. One of the presentations was about UPM Tilhill (a forestry company) planting Eucalyptus in Uruguay. We questioned the speaker about the environmental impact. His response was that the land was very degraded and that local people welcomed the additional work. The bus route between Punta del Este and Piriapolis passes some of these plantations and my eyes feasted on these trees, a welcome relief from the endless horizon of overgrazed grassland.

Punta del Este is the posh end of Uruguay. In the summer, rich and famous people flock here. This time of year it is quiet and many shops are discounting at 70%. We found a smart pâtisserie but when we realised that two slices of apple tart and two coffees cost £22, it lost its appeal somewhat. We went for a walk on a sunny afternoon with the camera but finding anything worth photographing was desperate.

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The church in the old part of Punta del Este.

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Modern Punta del Este

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A hand in the sand. It was created so that tourists had something to photograph.

On the Wednesday we cast off our lines and headed round the breakwater. The winds were light but the sea hadn't settled down since the gale and it was like being in a twin tub washing machine. A few hours later we arrived off Piriapolis. Franco radioed the Prefectura as instructed and had a rather complicated conversation in Spanish which led nowhere. A few moments later an English voice called us up. It was Jonathan, Roxana's husband, he had arranged a berth for us next to Santa Maria Australis and would help us tie up to the wall.

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Caramor, tender to Santa Maria Australis

On the Friday, Caramor was gently lifted out of the water and chocked up in the yard by Walter's competent team. Since then, we have been busy as bees; preparing the hull for a new coat of anti-fouling, making bags for our extra ropes for the Chilean Canales and arranging work to be done by others.

So far so good:
Pole for new wind generator + propeller maintenance: Diego
Floor lifted and taken away to be varnished: Young Diego
Anti-fouling paint, gellcoat, ropes, etc. ordered: Alejandro
Alternator dismantled and repaired: Fernando Tested by Franco
Tooth filled: Anna
Glasses repaired and new pair ordered: Monica
None of our parcels have arrived yet but Alvaro in Montevideo is on the case.
The weather is foul - rain, drizzle, fog - but we are cheerful and making friends with the neighbours.

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Caramor with clean top sides thanks to Franco's efforts