I bid farewell to the nearly ghost town of La Paloma and headed northeast toward Punta del Diablo. With two destinations on my mind, I figured I could check out the infamous dunes of one of Uruguay’s few national parks, Cabo Polonia, and to walk in the shadowy history of one of the legendary Spanish eighteenth century coastal fortresses, Fortaleza Santa Teresa.
The park ranger at Cabo Polonia was more interested in chatting about my motorcycle and sharing war stories and scars than about letting me into the park. To be fair, the park is closed to vehicular traffic and the only way to get out on the dunes is to walk the few miles inland (and back) or to use one of the authorized tour operators in the area. Turns out my new park ranger friend has raced motocross and as he showed me a series of scars explaining that rounding a turn just north of the park he had the unfortunate luck of finding his front while lose traction due to a fresh carcass of something on the road. No motorcyclist talks about how much he or she would like to crash in the future. But those of us who have had the experience of biting pavement or swallowing mud tell these stories with passion and enthusiasm. Strange but true.
The tour operator across the gate of the park told me that he didn’t have a driver. My offers of driving fell on deaf ears so I moved to the next operator at the turn off from the main road. That’s where I met Mario, the vocal, charismatic and slightly disheveled and likely buzzed owner of a couple tour trucks, which were simply vintage 1960 and 70’s stake bed trucks manufactured in Detroit sometime in the late 60’s and early 70’s. I imagined during the high season tourists packed into the back of these trucks, doing there best to hang on to the side or some galvanized tubing erected in the back of the truck. But today I was the only tourist. And Mario, as amiable and charming as he was informed me that it takes at least two passengers to make it worth his while to go into the park. I didn’t want to pony up the fare for two so I asked if I could wait in the hopes that a carload of eager dune worshippers would descend upon Mario’s corner.
While waiting Mario offered me some fish freshly caught and cooked from the nearby Lake Castillo. And pulling a box from behind the corner of his shed of an office asked if I’d like a glass of “tinto” — referring to the red wine. I passed and walked twenty feet to another building where I must assume was Mario’s mother running a little “convenience store” in the front of her house. I thought I was in her kitchen and almost walked out. No. She sold me a cold coke for less than a fifty cents.
In the end I never got to see the dunes. But the conversations I endured and participated in completely in Spanish were priceless. From the quality of gas in Uruguay compared to its neighbors to the price of electricity, meat and industrial goods. He was most contentious about the price of carne. Though it’s raised and slaughtered here in Uruguay, he is forced to pay “export” prices. He poked another piece of fish with his fork and plopped in on my plate. “And the Argentineans are buying our electricity, so it costs more for us.”
So I moved on to another National Park, Parque Nacional Fortaleza Santa Teresa, a massive fortress which the Portuguese laid the stone foundation for in 1762. Soon after the Spaniards captured the territory and ultimately completed its construction using double layered stones and soil in 1792. While nearly 250 years old, more than 100 years after the Jesuit priests, Portuguese slave traders and Spanish colonists began their conquests in South America, this condition of this Fort is spectacular. Restored in 1928, the artifacts and antiques from the onsite chapel, commissary and armory (now museums) are in equally great shape. The lichen on the rocks has replaced the settlers and colonial military as residents. Colorful yellow-bellied birds find the fort as a good resting vantage point for the miles of farmland that extend north toward Brazil and south to the Atlantic Ocean.
My yellow-bellied friend checks out the view.
Making my way to Punta del Diablo about an hour away, I once again find myself in a near ghost town with only the locals milling around the only market in town. Lovers and elders walk the beach all but deserted save the resting fishing boats which I’m sure will be rolled into the sea early tomorrow morning. I knock on the doors of three hotels/guest houses and a IH youth hostel. No answer. Of the two restaurants in town I spot, neither is open. A few enterprising artisans set up temporary shop selling honey and handcrafted goods down by the beach. There’s none of the commotion around me or my bike that typically stirs when I roll into a small town. No, I’m invisible for the most part. Which is fine with me. I ride the maze of dirt and sandy streets in the hopes of finding a place to stay. Nothing. Everything is shut down for the winter. There’s an strangeness that hovers over the town. I consider setting up camp but then remembered a lodge I passed on the road to town.
There’s a single light on that I can see through the locked front door. After a few raps on the window of the Hosteria del Pescador, a guy unlocks the door and between him and his wife or girlfriend, they agree to rent me a room for $21. I’m informed that there are no restaurants open this time of year, so I ride back into town and pick up a tall beer, some sliced ham and cheese, bread and chocolate cookies. I’m sure there’s fresh fish cooking in the homes of residents, but this is one night I’m unquestionable will be eating and sleeping alone in this hotel with a massive restaurant, bar and game room area and more than 30 rooms. Once again, the hotel to myself.
I set to go through the usual ritual of downloading photos, charging batteries and reviewing plans for the coming day. That’s when I discovered I was back to that absent-mindedness that seem to plague me at the beginning of my trip in Canada and Alaska. The USB cable for my camera and my cellular phone charger were nowhere to be found. I was sure I left them at Hotel Bahia in La Paloma. I am incredible hard on myself when I do something so stupid. It’s telltale that since I’ve not been consistently riding and settled into my pattern and day-to-day system of unloading, packing and reloading. I’ve got to be more diligent. I’ve got to keep my head.
That’s okay. Tomorrow, after 20 miles or so, I’ll cross the border into Brazil, the sixteenth country I will discover on this journey and adventure. And the next adventure will be trying to find replacements in a new country and using a new language.