In love with Jose: José Ignacio


Long before our camper was loaded with our possessions and goodbyes were said back in 2014, I had dreams of Uruguay. I read loads of glossy travel magazines that described the coast of Uruguay as the next “it” destination. I had planned (but not taken) this trip multiple times. I dreamed of rocky hillsides, firelit estancias, and dune backed beaches. Then in 2010, John and I saw a film on Uruguay at the Mill Valley film festival called “Beyond the Road”. It was about a road trip along this rocky, wind swept coast. That did it. I knew I had to take that road trip some day. So we pointed LoJo toward the border of Uruguay.

We crossed into Uruguay at the northern most border crossing close to the small, dusty town of Salto. The exit immigration desk for Argentina was immediately adjacent to the desk where we would obtain our entry visa for Uruguay. This process took all of about 10 minutes. At a desk just down from the immigration window, a chatty official who told us she was studying English in order to work in tourism issued us our new Temporary Import Vehicle Permit form, and we were off. The whole process took about 30 minutes.

Border crossing #16!

Unlike much of South America, Uruguay has little abject poverty or crime, and no civil conflicts in recent history. Considered one of the most liberal countries in South America, there are only 3.4 million people in Uruguay, with 1.8 million in Montevideo. So there's a lot of elbow room around here.

We camped our first night across the border at Estancia Termal San Nicanor. Way off the beaten path, it had peaceful camping with BBQs, firewood, hot showers and thermal pools. We were totally stocked up on water and food so one night turned into four, and we left only after completely running out of provisions.

A push down toward Montevideo required another 8 hour drive day and we arrived at our camp spot, Paraiso Suizo in Jaureguiberry, just after dark. It was on the beach but mainly a place where overlanders leave their vehicles to store while they make a trip home. In Uruguay, an overlander can leave their rig in the country for 1 year, so many Europeans spend the winters traveling all around South America and go back to Europe for summers. It’s a great way to have a second home on wheels and be warm year round. When we were there the Swiss owner, Heinz, had 42 rigs stored on site.

We hung out there a couple days, using the internet to find a beach house to rent. We are here in the winter and almost all the campgrounds are closed for the winter season. We wanted to stay a while, partly because we need to wait for warmer weather down in Patagonia. It is too cold to stay holed up in the camper, especially without services. So we decided to get an AirBnB. We finally settled on one in the small fishing village of Jose Ignacio, about 30 km north of the party town of Punte del Este. It is owned by a Dutch family, Bart and Kiki, who live in Uruguay but spend summers in Amsterdam. Their place there is coincidentally only one street over from the AirBnB we rented while we were there in May. It feels like it was meant to be.

On the way there we passed through Punte del Este, a town that looks like a small Miami Beach, with high rise condos and sea view restaurants. We stopped at a grocery store in town, and it was the best we have seen in ages. For the last few months, our grocery options have consisted mostly of convenience store tiendas and crappy markets that never seem to be open when we need them. This store, a Disco Fresh Market, was a real grocery store. We walked around in a daze, each in a different direction grabbing things off the shelf like we only had 30 seconds to shop or it would all disappear. There were things I’d once taken for granted, like peanut butter, good cheese, and lettuce. Things like craft beer, smoked salmon, and pesto. Things that have become sources of ecstasy because we’ve been denied them for so long. We bought way too much, loaded our precious cargo into the truck, and headed north along the coast.

We drove past the beach settlements— of La Barra, Manantiales, La Juanita, and finally arrived in Jose Ignacio. José Ignacio is a laid back village where centuries old fishing cottages sit next to stylish new modern digs. The town transforms from a sleepy village in winter to a buzzing vacation destination for Argentines and international jet-setter types swapping their winters for South America’s summer season. Or so we have heard. We are here in the winter and it is dead. Really dead. We were the only ones on our little street besides a handful of workers fixing roofs and cutting back overgrown landscaping. We were told it is much more peaceful, and infinitely more affordable to be here in the winter. Nights were cold but we were blessed with relatively mild weather during the day. Our little beach pad had views of the ocean, reliable internet, a big fireplace for cold days and nights, and a big parilla (grill) out back for BBQ dinners.

We've seen a lot of sunsets but these were particularly beautiful every night.

We had TV! We binged on the Olympics every night by the fire.

This little guy followed us home one evening. He hung out on the deck with me until it got kind of cold. Then he just got up and took off. Pretty much everywhere we stay a while a surrogate dog latches on to us . It's like the universe knows when I need some canine company.

A few houses down from us was Playa Vik, a 19-suite hotel/compound owned by Norwegian billionaire art collectors Alexander and Carrie Vik. Designed by the Uruguayan architect Carlos Ott, the complex is a statement of glass and steel. It feels aggressive, pushing its cantilevered swimming pool out to sea. It closes down in winter, and a sign on the gate told us not to trespass but I couldn’t resist nosing around. We followed the fence all the way to the sea and then walked on to the property from the beach, snapped a few pics, and then high tailed it out of there.

We were happy to be back on the coast; we hadn't seen the ocean since Peru. The beach was a stone’s throw from our house. I took lots of walks in the evening and went for morning runs, seeing only the occasionally dog walker and a few fishermen. Scattered across the sand were strange crab egg balls, altered from their jellied liquid state by the sun into little glowing parchment orbs. We fell asleep to the sound of the ocean and moved into a quiet rhythm, enjoying this slice of "normal" life.

morning run on Playa Brava

Crab egg balls

Winter on the beach is a white-legged affair.

There isn’t really a town in Jose Ignacio, more like a handful of businesses, boutiques, and restaurants scattered around on a few streets. Fishermen still launch their boats from Playa Mansa, although it feels more like second home territory than traditional South American fishing village. In the winter, there is only one restaurant open in the town, and then only on the weekends. Fortunately for us, that one restaurant is La Huella (footprint in Spanish).

It is the best beach restaurant in the world. Seriously. The food is simple and delicious, all cooked on a huge open fire. Fishermen bring fresh fish directly to the chef, vegetables are grown on their own organic farm. The place felt more like a destination than a restaurant, with Argentinian plated cars parked out front and kids playing in the sand while their parents sip pitchers of sangria wrapped in the wool blankets provided. We ate inside, outside and at the bar a couple of times next to the fire. Soft music and candles everywhere set the scene at night.

We loved it.

We love long lazy lunches. This is the place that invented it. Pure indulgence.

Post lunch walk on the beach.

The rest of the time we cooked at home, shopping in a tiny gourmet grocery store in town (the only one open). The family that owned it asked our names the first time we walked in, and they chatted with us every time after that. We were thrilled to have an actual kitchen to cook in and counter space. We had a bunch of wood delivered and adopted the local way of grilling, everything on an open fire. It takes a long time but it’s a leisurely way to cook. John would start getting the fire ready around 3:00 with a glass of wine, and we wouldn’t actually eat until 6:00 or so. It's not a very environmentally friendly but the food tastes different, better, when cooked so slow. Cooking that way, daily walks on the beach, pink sunsets, and hardly any one around. Time can't pass any way but slowly.

We were very happy to have a kitchen to cook in.

We did venture out of Jose Ignacio a couple of times. We journeyed an hour inland, out to the sleepy colonial pueblo of Garzón - one church, empty streets, a scrubby plaza with a fountain. We came because of the food. Uruguay has a famous chef by the name of Francis Mallmann who put the sleepy town on the map a decade ago with his restaurant El Garzón. The town was eerily quiet… and strangely spruced up. It felt a little like a deserted movie set. Mallman has bought up most of the town and hopes to revive it with new residents. Garzón restaurant occupies the town’s old general store. As one of the most famous restaurants in all of Uruguay, we made a reservation but when we arrived we realized what a silly thing that was - we were the only ones for lunch. Lunch was ridiculously expensive and ridiculously delicious. We have been in something of a food desert the last few months, so we decided we would splurge on some good restaurants while here. Mallmann is famous for cooking nearly everything over live fire, but the food at Garzón is cooked on an iron grill in the Andean infernillo (little hell) fashion, a very hot eucalyptus-wood fire both above and below.

We sat down to a gin & rosemary cocktail (so delightful!) and were promptly served delicious home made bread…and a bone. This is beef country after all and apparently bone marrow, prepared just the right way, is a starter. My dad used to eat it all the time growing up so I was familiar with the concept, if not still repulsed by its consumption. John had never tasted it before. He had a couple bites but I don’t think it’s going to be a regular thing for him any time soon. The rest of the meal was amazing, however. Our roasted beet salad included charred zesty oranges and parmesan cheese that dissolved in your mouth. My whole meal came presented in tiered tower of grilled perfection: fresh caught corvina, slow roasted winter root vegetables, and just a single roasted onion on top. Sweet, smokey, delicious. It was definitely a top ten meal for us…and a top ten check to go with it.

We ventured back to the area later in the week for another incredible meal at the Bodega Garzón, a sustainable farm estate with a state-of-the-art winery. The winery had just open for tours and we had lunch in the new restaurant. Again, the food was cooked on a massive 10 foot wood-fired grill. I was told the tomato in the pasta I ordered roasted on the fire for 24 hours. Delicious. We took a wine tasting tour through the glitzy winery and walked around the massive compound in awe.

The architecture was stunning. This chandelier is fashioned out of metal mesh hanging above a massive tree-trunk reception desk

Concrete fermentation tanks. We'd never seen these before.

Below ground, the winery was built around the rocks. This tasting room was like a piece of art.

North of José Ignacio, on the other side of a vast lagoon, the villages become even more low key and casual. On a day trip up the coast to Cabo Polonio, things took a little longer than planned. Our magic friend, Dr. Google, said there was a road all the up the coast but as we bumped and bounced along, we came to a lagoon - and a dead end. The iPad told me there was a road, but the real world proved different. So we backtracked roughly an hour out to the main highway. Every day is an adventure, and sometimes the biggest adventure is getting there on your own.

Yeah, no road Dr. Google. LoJo can't swim either.

There are several large lagoons along the coast we found out. On the way up, we crossed over the Laguna Garzón Bridge, famous for its unusual circular shape. It was designed by the Uruguayan architect Rafael Viñoly. This bridge just opened a few months ago, built to get more people across the lagoon and slow down their vehicles in the process. Before the bridge, the only way travelers could cross Laguna Garzón was via a raft crossing. One by one, cars would load onto individual rafts that could transport them to the other side.

photo curtesy of Wikipedia

Cabo Polonio is a strange place. It is not actually some hidden away off-the-beaten track destination, although it felt that way once we were there. Ownership of the land is split between the government, which designated it a protected national park in 2009, and private citizens. We read it's one of the most popular spots for young barefooted boho types to come for fun by the beach in summer. Unless you're a resident with a special vehicle permit, access is by walking 7 kms along a deep sand track or take a 4x4 truck/bus hybrid shuttle.

Road to the coast. This sand would have been tough even for LoJo.

Cabo Polonio public "bus"

Driving on the beach toward toward Cabo Polonio

This place too, was deserted this time of year. Only a few other day trippers and a smattering of year- rounders were present. We saw only one car in the entire place but several horses were parked in front of small, colourful shack-like homes. They seemed to be the primary mode of transportation. I wanted to come here because it is touted as a wildlife viewing area, with a permanent sea lion colony, migrating whales and a small penguin colony. We did spot whales off the coast which was exciting, and the sea lions were plentiful. No penguin colony. More interesting though was the colony of Polonio. It can only be described as a colony, too. Bleak and isolated, yet strangely beautiful. The larger dwellings on the hill coexist with backpacker metal and wood shacks congregated together along the beach. A few stalls sell jewellery and crafts. The lighthouse stands tall as the most cared for building on the peninsula, looking identical to the one in Jose Ignacio. There is no running water or no electricity, and it seems the place wants to keep it that way. The beaches on either side of the peninsula, Playa Sur and Playa Norte, are pretty. The whole area felt sort of a Greek inspired, Scottish wind swept coast meets South America. We sat on a warm rock watching the whales for a while and then wandered around, all in the company of a dog who adopted for us the day. We had a beer in the empty restaurant and made our way back to the truck. This is another place that probably feels totally different in the summer. All in all, a fun excursion to a strange, cool place.

This dog was hanging out on the rocks. Just watching the seals, eyes half closed basking in the sun. Like he was meditating. That kind of sums up this place.

One afternoon we had to drive to Punte del Este to get my bike tire fixed. Someone had backed into us (or we backed into someone) and bent my rear wheel. We found a bike shop and had lunch along the water. On our way back it was late afternoon and the sun was setting. We saw people gathering along the dunes at the shore. Just a few at first, and as we drove we saw more and more people. At first I thought they were coming out to watch the sunset but then I saw a spout. And then another. We pulled over and got out to look. There, in a small bay, were six (6!) whales! All of them so close to the shore we could hear them breathe as they came to the surface. I don't know what kind they were but we stood there watching them until the sun set and we couldn't see them anymore in the darkness.

We had planned to stay a week but we fell in love with this place. The peaceful rhythm, warm sunshine and a comfortable beach house. We emailed Bart and told him we wanted to stay another week. We wanted one more lunch at La Huella, one more week of slow parilla dinners and runs on the beach. I just wasn’t ready to give up the dream.

#Uruguay #BorderCrossings #beaches #wildlife