The next deadline on my trip was Buenos Aires, where I would be meeting up with my parents after 7 months abroad, over 4 of those on the road. While I have made some great friends while on this journey, it'll never compare to family. Crossing Paraguay had been quicker than I had hoped (I wasn't expecting asphalt for the whole journey), so I had some spare time. I decided to use that spare time in Uruguay, instead of visiting the country after BA. With a tight and unmissable deadline, I crossed Northeast Argentina quickly, and ducked across the Uruguay river at Salto. The border crossings into both Argentina and Uruguay have been some of the easiest of the trip - free, easily signposted and efficient. The Salto crossing was actually all in the same building, with 4 desks lined up for immigration and customs of the two countries - just move down the line, and you're done.
My first stop was really determined by laziness - I really just couldn't be bothered travelling more than 480km or so each day. I passed a campsite located on some hot springs and pulled in. I really just wanted to have a look around, but when I saw the heated baths, I decided to stay. Apparently I had already passed the admission gate, so it was free camping for me. I set up the hammock and spent the rest of the evening in or around the hot baths. Argentines and Uruguayans love to camp, and they do it in style - the campsite had restaurants & wifi, as well as the normal facilities. I will definitely be camping more often from now on, as it's both safer and much cheaper than the expensive motels/hostels. On that note, it's amazing how much more expensive everything is here - prices are generally on par or near Australian levels.
I will definitely need new camping gear though, as the stuff I have was built for the tropics, and was woefully inadequate for the cold nights here. In the morning, I rushed into the hot baths as soon as they were open to warm back up, then headed east towards Tacaurembo, and Gaucho country.
To know Uruguay is to know beef. The nation's economy is built on the bovine industry, and that was abundantly clear as I rode through the countryside - every field was full of cows. I also met some Gauchos on a cattle drive up to town, which was interesting. The Gaucho is essentially the Latin American cowboy - after the Spanish fled the southern Argentine plains, a group of men started to make a living catching the cattle and horses that had been left to the wild. These men would live on the range (often eating only beef), and eventually spread to the more populated areas of Argentina, Uruguay and southern Paraguay. Their dress style is distinctive and necessitated by both the harsh environment they work in, and their rich history that dominates the literary works of the area. Tucking baggy pants into a pair of high leather boots and attaching a small knife to a sash resembling a cummerbund, the Gaucho (often wearing a beret) is romanticised in today's society as a hard working honest man, in the same way a cattle drover might be in Australia, or a cowboy in the US. They certainly cut a striking picture, and some still live a lonesome life (although modern society has had an impact on the rustic, nomadic lifestyle). Throughout Uruguay I would pass these (often) men, herding cattle along the shoulder of the road.
Just outside of Tacaurembo I visited the Carlos Gardel museum. Carlos Gardel is often thought as the father of tango music, and is the undisputed star of the genre, penning many classics while living in Buenos Aires. What is not known for sure is his place of birth - Argentina, Uruguay and France all claim him. The museum houses a copy of his Uruguayan birth certificate, a document France disputes as simply a method of escaping military service during wartime in Europe (Uruguay remained neutral). Friends and family are divided as to the location of his birth - although Argentina can confidently lay claim to his late childhood, and his artistic period. Tango is serious business on el Rio de la Plata (the river that separates BA from Montevideo). On the way from the museum I passed a memorial for motorcyclists who had died on the road, and stopped to have a long hard think about how lucky I've been so far.
The weather was good and the road paved and straight, so I decided to turn south and get as close to the coast as I could. I ended up in a town called Trinidad. This time I had to get a hotel (no camping nearby), and an expensive one at that. I justified the cost to myself on an average over two nights, and crashed onto my bed with a beautiful view of the town square.
The next day I headed to Colonia del Sacremento, an old colonial (get it?!?) town on the Plate river, across from Buenos Aires. On the way, I saw a banner advertising a "Fiesta Criolla", which loosely translates to traditional style celebration - I pulled off the highway and rode to the small town throwing this shindig. It turned out to be a very small country fair - probably very boring for the average Uruguayan, but fascinating for an outsider like me. The whole event revolved around 4 main parts - Horseriding slalom races, beer drinking, a gigantic barbecue and a small local market (that was pushed to the far side of the grounds like an unwanted child). After a couple of minutes, I had finished with the vendors selling local arts and crafts, and moved onto the important stuff. I got a couple of sausages that could double as soft baseball bats, grabbed a beer (smallest bottle available was 1 litre, and I got a withering look when I asked if there were smaller) and watched the races.
I haven't seen that many horse slalom events in my life, but these guys were good. One guy looked so comfortable on his horse I swear his mother must've given birth to him on that steed. I watched for a while (I needed to let that litre of beer get mostly out of my system), and got some beef to soak up more of the alcohol. When I say beef, I don't mean a small piece of roast beef in a roll, or a steak. I mean a hunk of cow, hide still attached (and sold by the kilo). I got a small piece, but groups were walking away with trays piled high - it was a veritable vegetarian or Hindu's nightmare, and I loved it. It was a bit unnerving to see the pretty and petite 'cowgirls' going face first into a huge slab of beef, then skolling from a litre bottle of beer. Unnerving, but cool. Once I had sobered up enough, I rolled into Colonia del Sacramento, found a hostel with parking, and fell into a food coma.
Colonia del Sacramento is a nice city, with cobblestone streets and old buildings, rich with history. The problem is that I've been to a dozen similar towns on this trip before. The one thing that did catch my eye was a museum with artifacts from the Portuguese occupation (C del S was used by the Portuguese to smuggle goods into BA), and maps from the era. It really is startling to see maps from a bygone era - Europe was perfectly detailed, America roughly so, and Australia was, well laughable. You can vividly see how little idea the world's superpowers at the time had about the southern hemisphere, and in particular the Asian Pacific/ Australasia. The most accurate map showed Australia and Antarctica as a single landmass, and a fairly vague one at that. It makes you realise how new a country (from a European standpoint) Australia is, or conversely, how old European civilisations are.
Anyway, I waited in Colonia for a couple of days until it was time to cross the river in a ferry to Buenos Aires, and catch up with my Mum and Dad.