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Uruguay – Country Number 19!


November 14th,  2019


Uruguay is often referred to as the “Switzerland of South America”.  Its most popular former president, Jose Mujica was modest, confident, progressive and totally laidback – like the people of this land – considered one of the most liberal in the world.  The country has rolling hills and surfing beaches and sits between the two giants of the continent: Brazil and Argentina with an Atlantic coastline.  In size, it’s rather small – about the size of the state of North Carolina.

For 4,000 years prior to this, the Charrúa people inhabited the land.  In the early 1600’s the Spanish introduced cattle to this region and that still is a mainstay of the economy of this country.

Fun fact:  there are SEVEN cows for every person in Uruguay!

In 1680 the Portuguese established a base at Colonia del Sacramento and the Spanish retaliated by creating their base in Montevideo – now the capital of Uruguay.  Expulsion of the Spanish came about in 1815 and independence came in between 1825 to 1828 after a four way struggle between Spain and Portugal and later between Argentina and Brazil.

Many citizens are from Spanish or Italian descent and Catholicism is practiced widely.  Gauchos (cowboys) are widely present in the interior of the country.

The country went through various turmoil and civil wars over the next 150 years ending with twelve years of military rule beginning in 1973.  In 1984 free elections were held and the country prospered until 2001 when the Argentine peso collapsed and Uruguay suffered massive inflation and unemployment.  In 2009 President Mujica is elected and things turn around.  

In 2000 Uruguay legalized personal possession and use of marijuana; in 2012, it legalized abortion; diversity is celebrated with gay pride parades and transgender acceptance; and in 2013 the sale of marijuana became legal.  It is ranked first in Latin America in democracy, peace, low perception of corruption, size of the middle class and freedom of the press. 

Uruguay will be our final Spanish speaking country on this PanAmerican journey!

The currency of Uruguay is the Uruguayan Peso valued at about 37 peso per USD; 28 CDN.

The local beer is Pilsen which we have not tried yet – we stocked upon on items that we could bring across the border in Argentina as Uruguayan prices are steeper – many overlanders compare them to Euro prices.

The gas price is 55 pesos per litre so about $5.60 USD per gallon; the most expensive we’ve encountered on this adventure.

We crossed the border pretty quickly; at this border crossing, there is a huge bridge over the Rio Uruguay and that bridge has a toll.  We’d been told it was quite expensive and based on what we read online, it should have cost us 1920 ARG pesos or $33 USD.  Well the couple we met outside the grocery store this morning in the Unimog, said that they got charged as a “pick up” truck so we were hopeful of the same and we lucked out! $8 USD – huge difference (we notice that at tolls in this country the prices are quoted in URG peso, Argentinian pesos, USD, EU and Brazilian reals.)

The Libertador General San Martín Bridge is  a cantilever road bridge that crosses the Uruguay River and joins Argentina and Uruguay with the border crossing formalities on the Uruguayan side. It runs between Puerto Unzué, near Gualeguaychú, Argentina, and Fray Bentos, Uruguay.  It was commissioned in 1960 between the two countries.  In 1972 the contract was awarded and the bridge was opened in 1977.  It has a total length of 5,966 meters (3.7 mi) (4,220 meters (13,845 ft) in Argentine jurisdiction and 1,146 meters (3,760 ft) in Uruguayan territory.

We drove into the small once very prosperous city of Fray Bentos – much of which is now a UNESCO world heritage site – and did the usual first things in a new country: cash and a sim card.  Being the middle of the afternoon, we weren’t sure they’d be open as we didn’t know if Uruguayans take 3-4 hour lunches like Argentinians do.  Turns out they are shorter here for the most part and some shops do stay open. On our way out town we saw a restaurant called “Friends” in the same font as the television show:

We found a wild camping spot right on the river near the Industrial Revolution Museum (more on that later) and relaxed for the rest of the afternoon in the shade of a tree.

While sitting there, a Uruguayan couple drove up on their motorcycles and like often happens, they want to know all about us and our “home”.  After tours and chats, they left and we decided to move indoors as the mozzies were coming out.  We did venture out to try and catch the sunset but we are not in a direct line of sight and it dropped below a cliff and so we didn’t really see much of the main event.

Next morning after our usual morning routine and chores, we walked into the city itself to check out the Friends restaurant and do some grocery shopping (as usual, we were not allowed fresh produce, dairy or meat when crossing the border, so we now needed to stock up).  Enroute we stopped at the meat packing plant museum (aka Industrial Revolution Museum) to check out when the English tours were; we were told 3 pm so we’ll come back tomorrow.

We went for lunch at Friends” was okay – we shared a pizza and were disappointed that the restaurant did not live up to the “Friends” theme – that could have done so much.  The staff was friendly and the service was good.  The cool part of the lunch was when we paid with our Visa card we got an unexpected 22% rebate off the top!  We learned this is a VAT tax that foreigners get back right away when using their credit card which covers restaurants and hotels.

We did our shopping and returned to Tigger for the afternoon.

Now that we are out of Argentina for good, Doug was able to take the tire off the back storage bin and return it to the hitch in front – where it belongs!  He also reattached the high lift jack to the front bumper.  Less weight at the bag and it all looks more normal now.

We had two quiet nights here and on Saturday we could see tents and stalls being set up outback of the museum. We pulled Tigger out of our spot to be more in the sun to charge up the panels but by lunchtime the clouds had come here and they never did top up completely. We’ve also been experiencing issues with the darn gennie again – it runs for a while, then begins making a quitting sound just before it actually does quit – very similar to the problem we thought we’d had fixed in Asuncion two months ago when they replaced the fuel pump!

We walked over to the museum at 2:50 for the tour, only to be told that day’s English tour had been at 10 am and there would be no English tour this afternoon.  We were not completely sure what else she was saying so she called someone over to help explain.  It turned out to be the English guide, Nicholas, who came to speak with us and after talking to him a bit, he offered to explain about the place for a bit and then we could tag along on the Spanish tour to actually see the whole thing.

Well, as he began explaining, the other tour guide brought four more people over and asked him to do a bilingual tour because her group was too large.  We felt kinda ripped off as we could tell he was explaining to them, way more than he told us but we did understand much of it and we did get to see the place. There were a few sprinkles during the walk around but it never really rained.

Fray Bentos is a food brand of mostly tinned beef products such as corned beef and meat pies.  The name comes from this town in Uruguay where the products were originally processed.  The products were mostly sold in Europe and Australia. 

In 1865 Liebig Extract of Meat Company (LEMC) was founded in Britain by a German chemist name Justus von Liebig.  The factory was established in Uruguay to manufacture beef extract in the product which later became known as Oxo. 

Fun fact:  This was the first place in Uruguay to get electricity and in the museum here on display is the first light bulb ever lit: 

In 1873 the factory began manufacturing corned beef which was sold in Britain. This product was targeted at the working middle class.  They also were ideally suited as army rations as they weighed only one pound and were easily transportable. During the Boer War they became staple rations. 

In 1924 the Vestey Group acquired LEMC and during the World Wars, Fray Bentos supplied more than 16,000,000 tins to troops in Europe.  At its peak, the company employed 5,000 men and women from over 50 different countries and during the slaughter seasons (there were two a year), they could process 400 cows an hour!  As a result of this high demand, the Uruguayan currency actually became more valuable than the USD!

After the wars, these products were staples in the United Kingdom and now included meat pies (like steak and kidney).  In 1958 Vestey began manufacturing Fray Bentos products in England as well. In 1964 their reputation was significantly damaged when an outbreak of typhoid in Aberdeen was traced to a tin of Fray Bentos corned beef imported from South America.  In 1967, Vestey closed the factory in Uruguay and the following year the Uruguayan government reopened it until 1979 when it was finally closed.  Eight years later it was recognized as a national historic monument followed in 2015 by the designation of a UNESCO World Heritage site.

After the tour, we browsed the museum part itself

and then went out back to check out the fair.  It didn’t look like much but we did see a huge stage set up that had huge speakers and the sound was nearly deafening. We figured we might want to camp further away tonight!

We found a new spot about ¾ of a km further down the park road that was quite large and had a better view of the sunset and settled in.

At times we could even hear the music and/or MC from here!  We couldn’t go much further down the road as there was bridge with a height restriction so we figured we’ll stay and need to use good ear plugs.

Just before we’d gone over for the tour, a large Brazilian RV pulled up and asked about parking here.  We told them that we’d stayed two nights but were moving tonight to hopefully avoid the noise.  At our new spot, they showed up after dark and parked as well. We chatted briefly with them in the morning before leaving and they passed on their recommendations for beaches further east.

Sunday morning we packed up and headed inland a bit.