Monday, July 15, 2013

Giant rodents in Uruguay

Uruguay is a small country with a huge percent of its land mass dedicated to beef production.  Cattle outnumber people by about 3 or 4 to 1, and Uruguayans are proud of their English breed cattle (Hereford and Angus).  The industry is so far along that each and every cow is now tagged with a computer chip for tracking.  I don't know much about the industry; I do, however, know that Uruguayan beef tastes great!  (And no, cattle are not giant rodents.)

Following secondary highways  from Rocha took us through some interesting little places in the heart of Uruguay.  As we passed through Minas we saw a town that had pulled out all stops for its rodeo, with what seemed like a huge influx of people that live in the surrounding area going to the rodeo grounds, many of them on horseback wearing traditional gaucho clothes.  We stopped for lunch at one of the few cafes that was open (ahhh, Sundays...) along with many other people.  That poor waitress who had to handle the entire place herself.  It wasn't a fast stop, but it was good.

As we got closer to Montevideo, we realized how big that city was.  We crossed town to get to the theater district, close to old town, to find the hostels that we had noted.  While a few of them had great vibes and super nice staff, parking was a problem in the downtown area.  So we finally found a reasonable  place in the swanky part of town (Montevideo Up in Punta Carretas, ~US$30 total, incl breakfast) that had a gated front yard for our Transalp.  It was a fine place to stay, and had parking, but without the bike we would have rather been more downtown.  No problem though, it gave us an excuse to walk through lots of neighborhoods that we wouldn't have seen otherwise.

along the Rambla, Montevideo
(walking along the Rambla)

Plaza Zabala, Montevideo
(there are a ton of plazas in old town, this one Plaza Zabala, named for the guy who founded Montevideo)

Ciudad Vieja, Montevideo
(Ciudad Vieja = Old Town. Horse drawn collection carts were seen all around town.)

asado in action, Mercado del Puerto, Montevideo
(big tourist destination is the Mercado del Puerto, a literal meat market)

food vendor, Mercado del Puerto, Montevideo
(one of the many meat stands in Mercado del Puerto. Luckily we were there at around 11am, way too early for us to get harassed by the restauranteers.)

fruit vendor, Ciudad Vieja, Montevideo
(fruit vendor in Ciudad Vieja)

Plaza Independencia, Montevideo
(Plaza Independencia)

fountain of love with padlocks surrounding it.  There are two tango dancers in the background that almost got Mike hit by a car as he waited for a chance to snap a picture (their fault, definitely).
(fountain of love with padlocks surrounding it, signed by couples. There are two tango dancers in the background that almost got Mike hit by a car as he waited for a chance to snap a picture with them posed in the background (their fault, definitely). And it still didn't work)

Jill and street art, Montevideo
(Jill and street art)

Montevideo was home to the first FIFA World Cup of soccer ('football' to the rest of you) back in 1930. Turns out Uruguay won it, beating Argentina in the final match. The stadium has a museum, but we walked in to find out more about it and caught enough of a glimpse of the inside. No photo was taken, though.

Estadio Centenario, Montevideo
(Estadio Centenario)

Montevideo was not the site of giant rodents, either. Well, at least not while we were there.

We took the main road over to Colonia to check out that tourist hotspot. Colonia is a very well-appointed city with plenty of places to sit on a sidewalk and drink wine, most likely paired with something beef related. We did not participate in that activity. Instead we gave it an unguided moto drive-by. Jill even got some nice pics off the back of the bike.

palm trees line the way to Colonia, Uruguay
(palm trees line the road to Colonia)

old fort, Colonia, Uruguay
(old lighthouse and fort in Colonia)

The giant rodent evidence we found was along the coast between Colonia and Carmelo. Alejandro (our friend in Rocha) tipped us off to a site where lots of fossils are washed ashore by the Rio Plata. A small non-descript sign turned us to the river from the highway, eventually arriving at a campground.

farm view near Parque Brisas del Plata, Uruguay

entry sign, Parque Brisas del Plata, Uruguay
(campground entry)

All along this stretch of the Rio de la Plata, fossils, petrified bones and shipwreck evidence keeps turning up. UNESCO has named it some type of archaeological site, but it is more for academic investigations than tourism. Luckily, the young man living at the campground has taken an interest in all of the action. He has met with many of the researchers, has done a ton of internet research, and enjoys sharing his knowledge with visitors. Most importantly, he has walked that length of river countless times and found an enormous quantity of interesting bits. Many of which he has in a storage closet, some he has donated to museums and universities, and we were even lucky enough to be given a couple of small pieces.

archeological site, Parque Brisas del Plata, Uruguay
(archaeological site where so many bones are washed ashore)

our personal tour guide through the artifacts, Parque Brisas del Plata, Uruguay
(our personal interpretive guide. It's been too long since we were there and can't remember his name, but he was extremely kind to share so much with us)

all of this stuff washes up on the banks of the Rio de la Plata, Parque Brisas del Plata, Uruguay
(just some of the findings - backbones, shell pieces, finger bones, all sorts of stuff)

us with some whale vertebrae, Parque Brisas del Plata, Uruguay
(us holding petrified whale vertebrae)

fossilized shell of a post dinosaur creature - we were given the one at right as a souvenir!  Parque Brisas del Plata, Uruguay
(fossilized shell pieces from a glyptodon, a giant armadillo/hippopotamus thing)

shark tooth, Parque Brisas del Plata, Uruguay
(shark tooth)

Many of these fossils are old, dating back to just after the dinosaurs. But of course, a lot of the findings are modern, like the shark tooth, shipwreck items, and whale bones (which are still old!).   This specific area turns up all sorts of interesting creatures though. Including a giant rodent skull dated to 4 million years ago that came from a rodent the size of a bull!

plains of western Uruguay
(picturesque views on our way to the bridge to Argentina)

We had heard a rumor that the Uruguayan side of the border was a nicer place to stay than the Argentine side, so we headed towards Fray Bentos. After a long day and arriving in the evening, we opted for a hotel instead of the out of town camping options. The place we found was nice, let us park in the courtyard, and gave us a great chance to explore Fray Bentos for a few hours. The town is only a couple of streets, so easy to explore with an evening and morning. It is also apparently the birthplace of corned beef. I'm surprised it's not a more popular stop for English travelers.  We opted for some wood oven cooked pizza that was sensational.

old building alpenglow, Fray Bentos, Uruguay
(old building with setting sunlight)

sculpture/monument by the river, Fray Bentos, Uruguay
(riverside monument)

monument, Fray Bentos, Uruguay
(secondary plaza, most likely a statue of Artigas, the leader of Uruguay's independence, but I forget who it is)

The next day we crossed into Argentina with our sights set on a day or two in Rosario before making it back to San Rafael. Rosario turned out to be a great city for a couple day layover, made even better by the hostel staff and other travelers at La Lechuza hostel. Sadly, there was no parking available (tough to find at any of the 4 hostels we tried, including one that had mopeds parked in a wide hallway, but wanted to charge us extra to park the bike - their attitude sent us walking), but the deli next door to La Lechuza had limited access parking (i.e., locked at nights/weekends) behind it that they gave us a reasonable rate on.

long bridges across the wetlands on the way into Rosario
(long stretches of bridgework between Victoria and Rosario kept us above the wetlands)

The Paraná river is a focus of Rosario. There are extensive parks along the water front, many with nice walking paths. As you get out of town there are beaches and easy boat rides to get to some more relaxed beaches on small islands.

Birthplace of Ernesto
(the bourgeois birthplace of Ernesto "Che" Guevara was a far cry from his leather moccasin wearing, jungle camp living conditions at the end of his life)

The downtown area of Rosario has it all, from posh, tree-lined boulevards to gritty, bus-fume filled streets. The town has a university feel to it and has long stretches of pedestrian streets that make exploring Rosario by foot natural. One of its best known features is the National Flag Memorial, an enormous memorial situated in the heart of town. Manuel Belgrano (you see his name on streets all over Argentina) was the creator of the current version of the Argentine flag. He supposedly first flew the flag on one of the islands in the Río Paraná directly across from Rosario.

National flag memorial (Rosario)
(National flag memorial)

Monument to the flag (Rosario)
(eternal flame at the National flag memorial)

Flag monument tower (Rosario)
(one more view. The flag memorial is huge)

Gov't building with flag (akin to Bolivia's indigenous flag) in Rosario
(this government building had something to with human rights or minority rights, so appropriately has this colorful flag hanging, akin to the indigenous flag more commonly seen in Bolivia)

frozen squid (outside Rosario)
(this region relies heavily on the rivers. Here frozen squid in a downtown supermarket)

roadside fish sales (outside Rosario)
(some roadside fish options seen as we were leaving Rosario)

The ride out of Rosario was as expected, flat and monotonous. Thankfully, the municipal campground in Rio Cuarto was happy to host us, easy to find, and cheap. After a long couple of days, we were back in San Rafael, ready to learn more about the finca that we'd be caring for over the next 6 months.

Municipal campground all to ourselves, Rio Cuarto
(municipal campground in Rio Cuarto, right across from the HoJo casino)

the view across the pampas, between Rio Cuarto and San Rafael
(lots of this when crossing the pampas)

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