Friendly people, sunny spring weather, a laid-back atmosphere, an inspiring organic farm and a sustainable school. Uruguay truly was an unexpected gem!
Rio Grande (BRA) – Buenos Aires (ARG)
“The first sustainable school of Latin America is here in Uruguay!” our immigration officer in Piriapolis exclaims after we tell her about our mission. “And it’s not far from here!” We look at each other in surprise. Never before have we encountered such friendly and helpful immigration officers. The two ladies not only stamp our passports, but are also interested in our mission and offer helpful advice. We also meet American emigrant Lynette and her dog Blondie at the immigration office. What a lovely welcome to a new country!
Cold Water, Warm Spring
Only two days earlier, we set sail from Rio Grande, Brazil’s southernmost port, to Piriapolis, Uruguay. Yet we not only changed countries. The water got much colder, prompting us to look for our thermal underwear, gloves and hats. With the colder temperatures at sea came different fauna around the boat. Black-and-white seabirds, deeply submerged in the water, quickly dove or swam away as soon as they see us: penguins! We never would have thought we’d encounter them in Uruguay…
At the entrance of the marina, we are in for another surprise. Three sea lions swim playfully around the boats, while one is basking on the dock in the warm sun. Here on land, the weather is very different to what we had at sea. The spring has just started and it’s showing off its sunny side. Temperatures reach Dutch summer levels and many people are enjoying the sandy beaches. Some are even swimming in the cold sea.
Located between its large neighbors Brazil and Argentina, we’re eager to explore this country that we know so embarrassingly little about. As we stroll around town, the first thing we notice is the ubiquitous mate culture. Young and old carry cups with this green tea, with a thermos flask of hot water stuck underneath their arms. On the street, at work, even at the beach -everywhere we go we see people drinking and sharing mate.
The town has only a few noteworthy buildings, among them one of the first big hotels in Uruguay. We stay in and around Piriapolis Marina, which is state-owned and well-kept. The yachties share the facilities with many small fishing boats, which land remarkable quantities of fish each day. As the marina is also equipped with a large boatlift and many technical services are available here, many cruisers stay here for maintenance. That’s also true for Helen and Hansueli (of Dada Tux) and Rita and Daniel (of Maramalda), who are also planning to sail south. Over drinks, Floris can speak with them in their mother tongue: Swiss German!
With Lynette we get to discover the surroundings of Piriapolis. She moved here from the US to live more in harmony with nature and the community. She takes us on a hike in the hills. Her loyal dog Blondie shows us the way. Lynette found her in the streets, emaciated and wounded, and transformed her into a beautiful and kind animal.
Moored in Montevideo
After a few days in Piriapolis we use a fresh easterly breeze to sail further up the Rio de la Plata. In a pleasant day trip we reach Uruguay’s capital Montevideo and moor at the Yacht Club Uruguay. Although we are eager to explore the city, our first priority is to have our safety equipment checked. UMS is the only company along our route capable of servicing our Secumar lifejackets, so that’s where we’re headed. In a quiet part of town, we leave our six life jackets and two fire extinguishers with them. In Argentina, we’ll need to show that they have been serviced. Its Coast Guard is notorious for its strict safety and equipment checks on boats headed for Patagonia.
Having dropped off our heavy loads, we walk to the historic center. The European influence in the city in unmistaken. Some buildings look like there are copies from Paris or Madrid. At the same time, the independence from Spain is celebrated. The monumental independence square marks the country’s independence from Spain in 1828. We take a break just a block away at a beautifully decorated bookstore. It proves to be an architectural highlight and an excellent place for coffee and cake.
However, the city is not at all stuck in the past. In the pedestrian area we find modern shops and trendy cafés, some of them offering organic menus. At a popular supermarket / bakery / take-away café, we grab the chance to stock up on some organic groceries.
Omnipresent in Montevideo’s center is the barbeque or asado restaurant. Their highest density is in old market hall, the Mercado del Puerto. Skillful men burn wood to heat their grills, while carefully grilling all types of meat to the desired tastes. A look at the menu at one of the traditional-looking restaurants reveals that nearly all parts of the cow are served. What to choose? Many other guests have opted for the mixed grill, but the portions are big enough to feed an entire family. We order a small steak instead and watch it being cooked to perfection. We are not used to eating much meat, but appreciate the good quality and taste here.
Oasis in the Monoculture Desert
Our next stop is the touristy yet charming town of Colonia. Its stone cobbled streets, colorful houses and friendly inhabitants give it a laid-back atmosphere. There is even a cannabis café, which is legalized in this country.
We use Colonia as our base to see the countryside by rental car. After we have tied Luci with two extra ropes to her mooring, we drive off into the hinterland. We quickly leave the town behind and speed along hundreds of kilometers of green meadows on which thousands of cows graze. They get some shade from patches of trees. They are all the same: the fast-growing eucalyptus tree, a favorite of the pulp and paper industry and also used for the asado. “Monocultures of meadows, cows and eucalyptus wood. We’re basically driving through the immense footprint of the asado culture!” Ivar assesses. “The land looks fertile enough. I wonder what else it could be used for”, Floris asks.
We get an answer at our rural B&B Nangapiré. Owner Alda Rodriquez hosts us on her organic farm for a few days. She shows us that the soil is very suitable to grow fruits, vegetables and herbs. The farm also houses chicken, cows and a few horses and pigs. Alda explains: “Our countryside suffers because of monocultures. The agrotoxins used in the meadows poison our water and end up in our food. Biodiversity has vanished. When I started here 15 years ago, the plot of land was very degraded and soil erosion was visible. Only some eucalyptus trees grew here. I planted 1,300 trees, native species of fruits and herbs. Very soon, nature made a comeback. Do you see how many birds and insects there are around”, she asks, rhetorically, for their presence can’t be overlooked. The biodiversity here is in stark contrast with the uniformity of the pastures we passed on the way.
At the vegetable garden, Alda tells us that many of her neighbors come here to get poison-free veggies. We help her choose tonight’s diner and pick its ingredients. Later that night we taste the fresh leek and lettuce in the delicious meal that Alda and her daughters prepare for us. We feel privileged for staying in her organic oasis amidst the many monocultures.
On the last day of our road trip we finally get to visit Latin America’s first public sustainable school. In Jaureguiberry, a small holiday town on Uruguay’s coastline, we meet Joaquin de la Sovera. He explains that the school was built using the Earthship design by American architect Michael Reynolds. “That means that natural materials such as wood, clay and earth were used for its construction, as well as recycled and up-cycled materials, such as glass bottles, cans and car tires. Solar panels provide renewable energy, and the indoor temperature is controlled using natural cooling and heating methods. Rainwater is harvested, used and re-used, while sewage water is filtered and reused for the plants. Edible plants grown inside the school and in its gardens are harvested to supplement the students’ diets.”
Francesco Fassina adds that the teachers use every opportunity to integrate sustainability in the students’ education. “The government prescribes the curriculum, but there are plenty of ways to learn from nature. For example, by teaching mathematics while studying plants. Or learning about physics by focusing on renewable energy.” It’s a hit. We hear that the students are proud to go to school here and take the learnings back home.
“What did it take to realize this fantastic project?” we ask. Joaquin and Francesco explain that they work for an NGO named Tagma. “The school was built with the help of Tagma, a crowdfunding campaign and many volunteers. Not that this school is more expensive than an ordinary school, but the Uruguayan government had no budget available. They gave the green light to relocate the old public school in Jaureguiberry that was in desperate need of new housing”, Joaquin explains. “The sustainable school is a great success. We are growing, because children from families who live in neighboring villages also apply here”, Francesco adds. Why aren’t all schools like this, we wonder?
Back in Colonia, we’re glad to see Luci patiently waiting for us behind her mooring. It doesn’t take long before we’re back in floating mode. The latest grib files promise a gentle day-sail across the Rio de la Plata to Buenos Aires. From our mooring, we can see the Argentinian capital’s high-rise buildings on the horizon, patiently awaiting our arrival.
Our check out at the immigration office and the prefectura, the coast guard / harbor police, goes smoothly. Now we are free to go. With a light wind from behind, we follow our genaker towards Buenos Aires. While we watch Colonia’s lighthouse slowly disappear, we recall Uruguay’s friendly people and its laid-back atmosphere, as well as some really inspiring sustainable solutions. The country truly was an unexpected gem!