Getting off the beaten track in Uruguay

By | Category: Travel destinations
St Miguel fortress view

The view from the fortress St Miguel

The bus from Montevideo was rattling along at a leisurely pace – in fact it had been doing so for nigh on six hours, giving me the distinct impression that another half an hour or so might actually take me outside the country’s borders and into Brazil. I was journeying from the capital towards the very easternmost part of Uruguay, near Chuy on the Brazilian border, past pleasant seaside villages and endless, gently undulating, and exceedingly green, countryside.

Intriguingly I’d been told to “carry on past Chuy, which is the last stop the bus makes”. There’s nothing I like better than going slightly beyond what’s supposedly possible, so that sounded right up my street. Said and done, when the bus stopped at Chuy and absolutely everyone got off, I stayed on, waiting to see what would happen next. Sure enough, 5-10 minutes later we were on the move again, travelling onwards in the direction of Dieciocho de Julio, or 18th of July, just inside Uruguay, but waving distance from Brazil. I’d never been to a town named after a date before, but this wasn’t my lucky night either – my stop was before the town. There was very little in the way of buildings or people in general, but the bus dutifully stopped outside the one big building in sight, Parador Fortín de San Miguel. This was to be my home for the night and the bus unceremoniously dropped me and my backpack by the roadside before disappearing into the semi-darkness, towards 18th of July, or some other mysterious date.

San Miguel chapel

the chapel in San Miguel

What the rustic, old, Spanish-style parador lacked in hot water and enticing food, it made up for in character, or so I told myself the following morning, although I wasn’t entirely convinced. The imposing, dark-polished wooden furniture, heavy velvet drapes and silent stone corridors, rather reminded me of a convent, so sober and solemn did the main house feel (not that I’ve actually lived in a convent, I should add). Of course, I hadn’t come all this way just to stay in a slightly run-down abode in the middle of nowhere, no matter how old-world picturesque and authentic it might be. Fortín de San Miguel is the ideal (or possibly only) place to stay when visiting nearby Fuerte San Miguel, an early 18th century fortress.

After a leisurely morning, I decided it was time to leave behind my high-ceilinged bed chamber, complete with ample double-bed, and check out said fortress and the adjacent open-air museum. It was only a short distance away from the hotel, the walk there offering more views of undulating fields and hillocks, with an odd estancia or two in the distance. I reached Museo Criollo y Indígena, or Museum of Creole and Indigenous Culture, first off and as the entrance gate was wide open, I figured visiting hours must have commenced, but I couldn’t see anyone about. The museum appeared to have a combination of open-air and indoor displays spread over quite a large area.

Creole Museum

the Creole and Indigenous Culture Museum

Way over at the far end of the fenced in space I finally spotted a few men that I assumed to be attendants and spent quite some time trying to get their attention, only for them to completely ignore me. Just as I was thinking “how rude”, it dawned on me that these were life-sized replicas and part of the museum itself. There wasn’t a living soul there but me.

I’d wanted to get off the beaten track and it’s safe to say I’d succeeded in my pursuit. Even in the height of the Uruguayan summer, in other words, undisputedly during their high season, this part of the country was enjoying a blissful lack of visitors – blissful for me that is, I’m sure the parador might have been grateful for more guests. As it was, I had the museum, with its collection of old buildings, carriages, tools and unnervingly lifelike dummies, all to myself (and I can only assume the entrance was free of charge).

Fuerte San Miguel, one of several well-preserved fortresses along the coast, had a few more visitors, without in any way feeling crowded, and it proved well worth the visit. Erected by the Portuguese in 1737 to keep the Spanish at bay (an effort that was to fail later in the century), the fortress fell into disrepair after Uruguay gained its independence in 1828. It was largely thanks to the efforts of one man, historian Horacio Arredondo, that the crumbling fortress was rescued from oblivion and reconstructed according to the original plans. A national monument since 1937, all the rooms inside the fortress have been restored and opened to the public, including the chaplain’s quarters, the officers’ mess and a small chapel. It’s also possible to walk all around the ramparts, with excellent views of the surrounding countryside across to Brazil.

museum carriage

a 19thC carriage at the museum

For a break from cultural and historical quests, the parador offered a variety of guided walks, horse-back riding and access to two outdoor pools for chilling out and none-too-strenuous exercise. Although the pools did look inviting, the weather meant that chilling of a different kind would most certainly have taken place. It was time to head back towards the more beaten track and check out Uruguay’s best-loved asset – the beaches.

Getting there and around:

There are currently no direct flights from the UK to Uruguay, but good connections via South American, European or U.S. hubs.

All main cities and towns are served by a variety of bus companies originating from the Tres Cruces Terminal in Montevideo (www.trescruces.com.uy). Most buses are of a high standard and very comfortable, with toilet onboard and some even have Wi-Fi. However, more remote locations, smaller towns and villages are served less frequently, particularly off season.

 

In her next feature,  to be published on the 4th of September, Anna Maria Espsäter visits the beach resorts of Uruguay from well-known Punta del Este, to up-and-coming smaller resorts along the Atlantic Coast.

For more information about Uruguay, click here.

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