And so onto my second totally unexpected but completely unforgettable experience of Uruguay: Punta del Diablo and its wild-beach strewn national park. I’ve learned that it’s best viewed from atop a horse, at dusk, after swigging red wine from the bottle and ignoring all nagging fears for your own safety.
Before I reached there, I passed through Uruguay’s capital city, Montevideo. The city has a somewhat left-behind vibe; understandable given its nearest competition is big name Buenos Aires. Cycling along the Ramblas – the wide road that divides the ocean from the grey high-rise buildings of the city – and passing through the shady streets of downtown, it was as if the volume was turned down. Everything seemed quiet, muffled, and dulled. Perhaps I was there at the wrong time.
Regardless, I met some great people in the hostel and three of us made an impulse decision to head up the coast, towards Brazil, with the aim of visiting Punta del Diablo – a small dirt-track town known for its stunning beaches.
First, we stopped off at our halfway point: Punta del Este – the seething, writhing beach resort with mass development and sky high prices. We spent approximately an hour an half there, people-watching on the beach and trying in vain to take a good photo of the giant hand sculpture that rises from the sand. Then we were off, back to the bus station to complete the second leg of our trip.
Punto del Diablo used to be a small fishing village. Then tourism happened. With its unpaved roads, sweeping sandy beaches, insanely beautiful sunsets and total lack of a fully-functioning cash machine, it still retains its surfy atmosphere. However, the countless hostels, cocktail-serving beach shacks and swarms of travellers from every country will attest to the fact that this is now very much an obligatory destination on the backpacker trail.
We settled in on the first night eating woodfired pizzas in a hessian-clad wooden shack, entertained by a musician making his through the myriad of exotic world instruments spread around his wooden stool. Hippie quotient filled.
The next morning, we resolved to head out to the beach. The sea was choppy and churning and refreshingly cool against the scorching sun. After a brief flirtation with a couple of surfboards, we spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon diving into the seething waves, being tumbled back to the shore, having the obligatory near-miss with displaced swimwear and then wading back out to do it all again.
After a picnic lunch eaten out of a smuggled saucepan (the hostel was low on tupperware), I lay back on the sand and proceeded to become extremely yet incosistently sunburnt. Again.
That evening I did the most obvious thing to be done when one has sunburnt their inner thighs to catastrophic levels – I got on a horse. He was called Tinto and he arrived at our hostel that evening accompanied by three others and our guide. He was large and lumbering and in a world of his own. Our guide on the other hand was a chatty Uruguayan, laid back in the extreme, with a permanent smile and unfaltering but totally misguided confidence in our horsemanship abilities.
As the sun became lower in the sky, we took a seemingly made-up path under palm trees and through dense foliage. The horses showed total disregard for their cargo and we were frantically swiping away tendrils of leaves, ducking under low-slung branches and, at times, covering our eyes and hoping for the best as twigs, leaves and the occasional thorn tugged at our skin as we squeezed through gaps in the greenery.
Around half way through, we stopped deep in the forest. We climbed down and tied our horses to the tree trunks, and sat at a stone table in a small clearing. As the horses settled, tossing their manes and letting out long sighs, our guide pulled a bottle of red wine and a pack of biscuits from his bag and set it on the table. He opened the wine, took a large swig from the bottle and passed it around. We drunk, reluctantly at first, but eventually reasoning that while drinking would make the job of staying on the horse a little more difficult, it would also make the pain of falling off a little more bearable.
As the wine circled the tabled, we chatted about the places we’d been and I got a chance to practice my Spanish. We finished the bottle, all a little bit merrier and ready to climb back on to the horses, when our guide reached into his bag and drew out a second, identical bottle: “Want any more?” he asked as we stared at him, incredulous. “What?” he shrugged. “Some people ask for more.”
When in Uruguay…
We made our way through the second bottle in much the same way as we had the first – taking a swig straight from bottle, and passing it onto the next person. By the time it was ready to head off, we cleared the table and made out way merrily back over to the horses. It may have been the wine, or the fast-fading light, but I’m pretty sure I sensed them roll their eyes: “Not again.” I climbed back up into the saddle and we set off, swaying from side to side a little more freely with the slow plod of hooves.
The sun was just about setting as the grass turned to sand beneath our feet and our route took an uphill turn. We were walking up the back of a sand-dune. As we reached the top, we were treated to another incredible view. Stretching out into the distance was a wild beach, totally deserted and seemingly untouched by human life. The sea was dark and inky and the sand had turned a milky white-blue in the dusk sky. The waves rolled and broke gently on the shore.
Our horses spread out along the sand and we sped up, holding ourselves up in the saddles and feeling the rush of the air on our faces. As the light faded, we dipped in and out of the waves and felt the spray of salt on our skin.
As we approached the end of the beach, I looked back at the hoofprints stretching out in the sand behind us and felt a rush of exhilaration. Slowly, we made our way back through the dense greenery and into town. It was almost totally dark, but the horses seemed to intuitively know the way. Back at the hostel, I stumbled off, wincing at my saddlesore-sunburnt skin but grinning from ear to ear. I almost fell asleep during dinner several times, and eventually made it into bed to curl up and sleep soundlessly.
Due to an issue with bus booking, I ended up in Punto del Diablo for two more days – the second of which it tipped down with rain and the hippie-happy-go-lucky town became rather grey and depressing. But the memory of the place that sticks in my mind is of being on the horse as it lolloped along the sand and knowing that it’s moments like these which is why I’m travelling.