The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step… or a long bus ride. Our summer vacation began in early February (summer in Argentina) with a ferry ride across the Paraná, from Buenos Aires to la Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay.
Off the dock in Colonia, we hopped on a double-decker cruising bus. Sure beats traveling on a recycled school bus ready for its next incarnation. I flashbacked to the early 80s, traveling steep snaky dirt roads in the Guatemalan highlands. When I came back to my senses on the luxe bus, there were no baskets of fresh fruit, veggies and squawking chickens on the roof, and no pesky goat lookin’ for whatever tastes good in your backpack. Goats are equal opportunity consumers as well as consummate recyclers… not to mention smelly and noisy, but they do have cute kids. Don’t forget to cross yourself if an overloaded, swaying truck appears around the next corner. And if a tire suddenly blows, the culturally correct response is laughter and wild clapping of hands. Take it easy folks, thanks to la Pachmama we’re still alive and kickin’.
If you were traveling in Central American in the early 80s, nobody laughed when jackbooted paramilitary squads pulled your bus over at a checkpoint. Everyone had to line up and show their papers… men over here, women over there. What always struck me — and it happened many times — was just how young those helmeted soldier-boys were. Sixteen? Seventeen? Every single one armed to the teeth, most notably with an AK47. A gift from the CIA, no doubt, or some international gunrunner with military connections. The CIA was oh so helpful to groups of armed men fighting to protect their countries from the bonds of our “sphere of influence.” You know I’m kidding, right? So close to our own backyard. These soldier boys were always wowed by my California driver’s license. They wanted to hear about the beaches, the surfing, California girls. Most of the time time they forgot to ask me what I was doing in a war zone. Too many Beach Boys songs, I guess.
But I digress. We rode our cushy bus from Colonia to Punta del Este, that wannabe mini Miami 209 miles (337 km) north of Colonia. Our expat friends picked us up in a rental car. Their car had been stolen, then impounded by customs, and was awaiting trial for its owners being Uruguay residents and property owners driving a car with Argentine plates. Bad enough having your car stolen, then having to go to court to get it back, knowing the fines and lawyer’s fees will be more than what it’s worth. Don’t you just love South American bureaucracy? Full-on medieval. Lots of hands out every step of the way. Kind of like an inescapable codependent fling. An interminable nightmare. I recently found out that Argentine judges can hold prisoners in jail indefinitely until it pleases them to set a trial date. There is no right to a speedy trial by a jury of your peers. And if you do go to trial, like Cristina Kirchner, Argentine ex-president, accused of skimming in the 8 digits, you can be let out on indefinite bond, especially if no one will come forward to testify against you. She was re-elected to a congressional seat last year, and no doubt will be running for president again in 2019. Being out of the limelight is just too tiresome for most politicians. Everybody wants to keep their hand in the cookie jar.
Geez, I’m trying to get politics off my mind and back to summer vacation. I guess that means I need some more time off. Yesterday I was fantasizing about Zihuatanejo, my favorite Mexican beach town. Three times in one lifetime isn’t nearly enuf for this dreamer.
I think I need a supersize dose of that good ‘ol Zen mindfulness. Like, y’know, being in the Here and Now. Ommmm… Listen up, brothers and sisters. The Argentine peso is in free fall these last few weeks, and the government is in a state of paralysis. The only scheme they’ve come up with is to beg the IMF for a $30 billion bailout that everyone knows will be impossible to pay back. On the morning news I heard that Argentine is now considered a deindustrialized country. What the F#*%? Not enough money to retool factories, let alone build new ones. Not enough guita to lift the marginalized out of poverty and homelessness. Since Macri was elected (2015) the percentage of Argentines living in poverty has jumped to 30%. The government figures are lower: up to 25.7% in 2018. [Indec.gob.ar] Politicians always accuse the government of rounding down. Your guess is as good as mine. According to Indec, Buenos Aires has the lowest level of poverty in the nation: 9% per capita, 5.6% by household. In my barrio on the fringe of town poverty per capita is 25.5%, 17.4% per household. Foreign investment slowed to a grinding halt in May, then went retrograde. Argentine capital booked a flight offshore… like it hasn’t already been there for years. Bye-bye!
In January Bill Gates met with Argentine president Mauricio Macri at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland. Gates (founder of Microsoft and second richest man in the world) told Macri he’s ready to invest in Argentina as soon as Macri lets Milagro Sala out of jail. Sounds like a no-brainer to me, but …. apparently Macri is not the brightest star when it comes to economics and/or human rights.
Milagro Sala is an Argentine political, social and indigenous leader. She is the head of Tupac Amaru, a neighborhood organization which has constructed thousands of homes in the province of Jujuy (pronounced who-whó-ee). She is a leader of the Central de Trabajadores Argentinos (CTA), a workers’ union. The right to form unions and to go on strike is written into the Argentine constitution. Not so in the U.S., where teachers recently went on “walkouts” in a number of states where striking is illegal. Milagro has been fighting the expropriation of native lands in Jujuy by both Argentine and international corporations. She’s currently still under house arrest. Luckily she has a few angels watching over her.Argentina’s heading down that ol’ lonesome road into economic crisis yet again. Many working class Argentines are having to choose between buying food or paying rent. Utilities doubled in the last 12 months. Public transport (bus and subte) has nearly doubled… from 6 pesos to 11 [about 40 cents]. Projected inflation for this year (2018) is 27.4%. [Invenónmica.com.ar] Rumor has it there are food shortages in southern Patagonia because truckers can’t break even on account of diesel prices. Truck drivers are having a “paro” tomorrow: a one day work stoppage. They would like to have their wages kept up with inflation… good luck! I was watching a progressive tv channel last week which was unexplicably off the air the next night. Now it’s back on with a different, less contentious host. I hope this train stops before we get to the Venezuela station. Is there a rest stop somewhere on this highway of the damned?
Friends, we’re not in Kansas anymore. We saddled up our horses and rode to a verdant oasis called José Ignacio, on the coast of Uruguay. Take a deep breath and forget all about the gloomy news. Catch a glimpse of this beautiful hideaway at the end of the trail, where we spent 10 glorious days in February. Our expat friends from California have been living in this part of the continent since their kids were little — the kids are in college now. As fun-loving freeloaders we offered to be guest chefs and house-sitters; we even brought recipes we promised to cook. Because of our friends’ wheels-in-the-hoosegow problem, and on account of their participation in Carnaval, we became dog, cat and houseplant sitters as well as chefs-du-jour. The beach was a five minute stroll down a dirt road, across a two-lane highway, over the dunes and onto a glorious, empty beach.
Daisy, quantifiably cute terrier and Santos’ new best friend and lap-warmer, loved to walk the beach with us.
Our friends’ house, a rambling 2-story brick structure, faces west to a protected wetlands and south to the beach.
There’s a wide shady galería for kicking back. We had our toast and tea there every morning.
Quite a sweet spot. All around us were fields of marsh grasses and thickets of blackberries, hydrangeas, cattails and other pretty flowers I don’t know by name.
Santos spotted a baby frog… precious!!
After posing for photos it jumped back into the cattails.
Walking around the neighborhood we came across an old Chevy pickup,
and quite a few homes made from recycled containers.
How cool is that? Let’s hope they have plenty of insulation.
Did we land in paradise or what? We ate outside every night on the outdoor dining deck. We threw down plenty of grilled steaks, chicken, chorizos and morcilla, all grilled on the parrilla – an Argentine wood-fired barbecue. We fixed pasta with fresh shrimp sauteed in garlic and jalapeños. And what’s not to love about grilled veggies, especially peppers, onions, eggplant, corn, tomatoes, squash — if it’s fresh, edible and you can put it on the fire, it will be delicious.
In the evenings we would watch the sunset until the stars came out, drinking Malbec and talking with our friends. Around 10 pm we would head to the kitchen and start fixin’ supper. Argentines eat late, European-style. Beth made roasted artichoke-parmeggiano appetizers that were amazing.
The sunrises and sunsets were spectacular, especially the view from the second story deck. Big pink sunset taken by yours truly from that magical spot.
Our friends let us use their amazing beach chairs that shapeshifted into backpacks, with big pockets and cupholders for beach blanket bingo, drinks, munchies, book, fishing gear, stray kittens… whatever you might need for a few hours of beachcombing, swimming or splashing around, reading a good book, dreaming in the sand. The only thing these folding chairs don’t do is transport you to the beach and make daiquiris. But that’s okay, we improvised.
Santos went for a swim and found the edge of terra firma just a few yards out. The sand beneath his feet was just gone… Upa! No wonder they call it Playa Brava. There were only a few other people on the beach during the week. By a few I mean 4 or 5, seriously. On the weekends we saw more people, but we never came close to feeling crowded. It was mid February and summer was winding down. School would be starting back up at the end of the month. The days were still hot but the wind kicked up mid-afternoon. In California we call them sundowners… a late afternoon breeze that calms down after sunset. Porteños are such urbanites, when they go to the beach they all go to the same beach and it looks like the French Riviera… masses of people all clustered together under little umbrellas. But José Ignacio was tranquilo. Muy tranqui.
Almost every day we made a run to the fresh fish place, a few klics down the road. It’s just past the little unspoiled (as of yet) beach town of José Ignacio, at the next cruce de caminos, near the Laguna Garzón bridge.
The ladies who work there are delightful, and all the fish is that day’s catch. They close when they sell out.
The first day these girls shelled a kilo of shrimp for us in record time, smiling. Another day we bought all kinds of fish and crustaceans to make cioppino… delicious! I made fish tacos with my favorite yogurt-lime-chile sauce. Cooking is truly a creative pastime. Why not do it with joy?
Kite-surfing at Laguna Garzón. It’s a mile-long lagoon protected from the ocean by dunes.
Our wonderful hosts let us use their bicis whenever they weren’t home; we biked into town almost every day. There’s a bike path most of the way. José Ignacio is so tranqui. There are two beaches in José Ignacio: Playa Mansa and Playa Brava. Playa Brava (rough, turbulent), where Santos almost went to Davy Jones, is on the south side of the point, facing the prevailing winds. It can be pretty breezy in the afternoons. Playa Mansa (mansa = gentle) faces east, and is protected by the point, kinda like Avila Beach near San Luis Obispo, my ‘ol stomping grounds.
El Faro, the lighthouse, is right on the point between Playa Brava and Playa Mansa. José Ignacio is small – about 6 blocks by 7 blocks. Population 290. There are lots of cute little beach houses on the point…. many are vacation rentals.
Our friends tell us the whole town shuts down in winter, including the shops. Population zero. They go back to Montevideo or Buenos Aires, or California. When it’s winter here, it’s summer in the states. If I could afford two places I’d definitely go for the endless summer.
Below is the beach on the other side of the lighthouse: Playa Brava. You can see at a glance that the water is rough and tempestuous. People walk along this beach, but they swim and sun on Playa Mansa.
La Farola is a lovely restaurant with even lovelier views… ¿qué no? Everything in José Ignacio is just a couple of blocks from the beach.
Santos liked the municipal center.
We took a break under a palm tree – it was a hot day.
Another day we had coffee at Almacen El Palmar.
El Palmar has live music off and on all afternoon and into the evening. There’s a mike, a guitarist, percussion… even a singer. The canopied dining room lets the breeze in but not the sun.
Time for a cappuccino and croissant, or house empanadas? You got it.
Are we hungry yet? They have local cheese, too.
No wonder Mark Zuckerberg has a house in José Ignacio…. or so I’m told. No one will bother him here. This is a very laid-back beach; it’s a safe place. Muy tranquilo. We discovered a great farm stand selling fresh organic fruits and vegetables: La Granja Orgánica José Ignacio.
What a great place! I brought back the shopping bag. Their emblem is the Southern Cross.
We parked our bicis at the farmstand or the café, so we could walk about. The lighthouse is open daily but we didn’t feel like paying to climb circular stairs. El Faro is mighty pretty though, and lends a charming touch to the scenery — as well as keeping boats from breaking up on the rocks. José Ignacio also has a general store with a veggie counter, a butcher, homemade empanadas and pizzas to go, and just about all the groceries you could want. It’s a small store, so if they don’t have it, do you really need it?
This is the other restaurant I mentioned, La Huella, (the footprint) on Playa Mansa.
Here it is at night. We checked out the menu while beachcombing one afternoon. A beautiful spot, right on the edge of Playa Mansa.
One night we went to meet friends of our friends at a big party beach on the south side of Punta del Este. There was loud annoying pop music coming from a beach bar, all rhythm, all repetitive, no lyrical content, with only the vaguest attempt at melody—yikes! Nothing like bad disco music to put me into a foul mood. Rock’n’Roll, Blues, Country, Classical, Tango, Flamenco… a thousand times yes. But disco? Yeeech. After the sun went down we froze. It was windy. The only thing we had to stave off the cold was vino tinto in a box, and I can’t drink much of that without getting a headache. The conversation reminded me of when I subbed for a class of 6th grade boys, the constant idiotic chatter and crude jokes. We didn’t even have a fire to warm up our circle of 10. I closed my eyes and wished I was elsewhere, dancing tango… my happy zone.
We hung out with the same group of people a week later at Carnaval in Punta del Este. I guess the ice had melted… it was a lovely warm evening. We had fun. One of the party had arranged for a long table right on the sidewalk at a pizza place. The table was inside a clear plastic tent-like structure, so there was nothing between us and the parade. We could see and be seen, but protected from the wind. I didn’t bother taking pictures ’cause I just wanted to enjoy the moment… the dancing, the outfits, the drumming. It was amazing! A sight not to be missed. Maybe one of these days I’ll get to N’Orleans, or Rio. We enjoyed Carnaval. It was a memorable last night in Uruguay.
The very next morning we left Punta on the bus to Colonia. As homesick as we were for Buenos Aires and our favorite milongas, we still had a few hours to kill before boarding the ferry. We wandered around the historic district, walked out to the point and the lighthouse, and finally settled in for light refreshments at one of our favorite waterfront bistros.
I love this view.
Santos kicked back.
We watched a boat sail in to the marina on a gentle breeze.
Over and out from la Colonia del Sacramento!