La República Oriental del Uruguay

I was a little disappointed with my Buenos Aires post, but after thinking it through I’m leaning towards the conclusion that it might’ve been because I was a little disappointed with Buenos Aires. It’s famed for being a mix between Madrid and a South American Paris, but having just spent 10 months in Madrid and almost a year and a half in Europe (with a couple long weekends in Paris) I don’t really see the connection.  

Disclaimer: I love Paris.


Maybe it’s the difference of having been a working resident of the European Union and a tourist in Buenos Aires, but if anything the dilapidated fleet of buses plying through the city’s crumbling streets and worn out buildings were more reminiscent of the former Yugoslav city of Podgorica than Paris. 

Which is not to say that I disliked Buenos Aires. To the contrary, I enjoyed its developing world feel. It’s just not European. In contrast, I found parts of Uruguay to be much more European. 

Map of the Eastern Republic of the Uruguay. Uruguay is an indigenous name, like Paraguay.


To escape the craziness and parties of Christmas in the big city, I bought passage on the 75 minute ferry across the estuary to Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay. Border control, done before boarding the passenger ferry, took about 60 seconds max. Definitely the easiest border checkpoint I’ve crossed. 

Quiet, leafy streets of Colonia.


A rural small town and popular weekend getaway from Buenos Aires and the Uruguayan capital Montevideo, Colonia doesn’t retain much evidence of its colonial roots from over 335 years ago. That being said, it was a terrific and tranquil place to spend Christmas Eve and Christmas and was a welcome respite from the big city. I’m not sure it’s worth a day trip unless you really want to add another country to your list and relax, but I loved it. 

Streets of the old town of Colonia.


The vast majority of visitors to Uruguay are from Brazil or Argentina, coming to enjoy the beaches (much better than those in Argentina, and cheaper than those in Brazil). That was definitely true of the hostel population in Colonia.

My Christmas card photo 2016.


After the festivities of Christmas (read: barbeques on the beach) I hopped on a four hour bus east to Montevideo, at 1.5 million home to half of the country’s population. 

The architecture and lifestyle in Montevideo was much more reminiscent of Madrid than Buenos Aires, with no restaurants opening before the ungodly early hour of 8pm. 

The sign instructs visitors to not swim in the empty fountain.


Like its neighbor to the south, and also former colonizer, the diet is heavy on meat. It’s also surprisingly progressive with gay marriage, recreational marijuana, and government funded abortions both legal and largely noncontroversial. The live and let live outlook, informal friendliness of the locals, and “don’t worry about it” attitude reminded me a lot of Spain. Though the latter may be because the Uruguayans seem to always be stoned. 

The hostel in Montevideo had a really great vibe, and a backyard that was very cool on the hot summer days (getting up to 90F/32C). One of the volunteers there said she left school to travel and wished women would be added to the draft in the hopes of her one day being able to burn a draft card, and I knew I was in for a nice 60s-style hippie retreat. 

The hostel owner cooking the most amazing barbecue I’d ever had.


During the days I roamed the streets of Montevideo, and at night we’d gather in the backyard and chat. Mentally, it was nice to vent with others about how annoying it is in the US to constantly hear:

  • How do you pay for these trips? Once you’ve got the airplane ticket, places like Ukraine, rural Ethiopia, and camping in Arctic Sweden while eating noodles can be quite affordable. 
  • When are you going to get a real job? Usually this is after the asker tells me about how he hates his job and life. 
  • The world is just so dangerous nowadays. Stop watching American cable news. 
  • Why would you go anyplace else if you can see anything you want here? No. 

And, as one of the other Americans noted, it’s nice for foreigners to get a view of the US that’s not blind nationalism, loud proclamations of being the greatest country in the world, and denial of atrocities we’ve committed. 

Camping out an a river island in rural Uruguay with a bunch of party hard alcoholic locals. This tent got me through the Pacific Crest Trail, two months in the Arctic, and has served me quite well.


To escape the New Year’s celebrations, I headed northwest to the swelteringly hot and humid rural town of Mercedes. Having visited largely because they had a campground and to see more of rural Uruguay, I kind of regretted my decision when campers drunkenly blasted reggaeton at ear destroying decibels from 7pm until 11am. But that’s what you get from a $3 a night campground. The elderly Uruguayan men laying in the park were quite friendly, and I joined them while we collectively tried to not die of heat exhaustion. 

Tits: an upscale women’s clothing store in Uruguay’s capital city.


Finally escaping Mercedes, I headed to Paysandú on the Uruguay River. A border town, I had heard it was an interesting cultural city to visit. That may be true, but the oppressive heat and rain kept me from exploring too much on my 11 hour wait for an overnight bus to Córdoba, Argentina. The bus terminal was very comfortable and air conditioned, and the chipper (and presumably unbearably bored) tourist office woman kept me company. 

I did get asked to not eat on the floor while I charged my phone in a corner outlet, but the security guard was chill about it. 

Adiós, winter

This year, in observance of Lent, I’ve opted to forgo winter. To help me realize this sacrifice, I bought a one way ticket to South America. 

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Thank God I saw this on the plane before I threw 5 kg of strontium (Sr, element number 38) down the toilet.

Although I wanted to start my 4 to 6 month trip in Buenos Aires, for some unbeknownst reason it’s hundreds of dollars cheaper to fly there from the US through a series of one way tickets via Lima and Santiago. 

From scouring online travel forums, it seemed the most generally accepted amount of time necessary to truly appreciate Lima was “just buy a connecting flight to Cuzco.” The highest praise I’d heard in person from another backpacker was that “at least you probably won’t get mugged in daylight in the nice areas anymore. It’s gotten a lot better.” 

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Lima, site of my 52 hour layover, on the coast of Peru.

Arriving around midnight, I paid an extra $1.50 to have somebody standing outside arrivals holding a sign with my name. The driver from the hostel tried to speak to me in English but I had no freaking idea what he was trying to say, but communication greatly improved after he finally switched to Spanish.

While in Lima, I made sure to take the bus downtown, an adventure in and of itself. I was having trouble figuring out how to load money onto my Lima metropolitano transit pass, but the man behind me in line talked me through all the steps. All the Peruvians I’ve met are so ridiculously friendly and helpful to stupid gringos.

Downtown, I visited the tomb of conquistador Pizarro (I’ve gotten the impression that he’s a lot more popular in Spain than here) and made a beeline for the catacombs at the Monasterio de San Francisco. Every 10 minutes or so they have 40 minute guided tours of the monastery and catacombs, mostly in Spanish with the occasional English guide.

Judging by the accents of the others in my group, I think I was one of the few non-Peruvians visiting on that holiday. Granted, my first four days in Latin America were holidays so that may or may not be typical.

The highlight of the tour was in all certainty the catacombs, though more because of a seven year old girl brought along by her forceful mother than anything else. The girl looked like she was caught between hyperventilating and a full scale panic attack when the guide calmly announced, “And this well is 10 meters deep with skulls! Have a look when you’re done with the wall of legs.”

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Lima is built on a hill overlooking the Pacific, which you can see above, but the way more interesting part of this photo is probably some crazy lady’s stroller full of chihuahuas.

The hostel in Lima, which I chose solely because the reviews said the airport pickup was on time, seemed to draw some interesting characters. An Australian in my room was acting weirdly sociable when he excused himself to snort a line of cocaine on the dresser, after which he continued the conversation as if nothing was out of the ordinary.

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Map of Chile. On the way to the Lima airport, my driver blasted the radio. Every 60 seconds they interrupted the song to yell out the time with way more enthusiasm than anyone should have at 5:30am.

A pleasant city full of cafes and spacious parks, Santiago is home to a full third of Chile’s population. The public transit is phenomenal, but with a quiet hostel in an upscale central barrio I was able to walk almost everywhere. The one place I took the metro to was the Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos (Museum of Memory and Human Rights). Recently opened and with free admission, it is dedicated to the victims of the military Pinochet dictatorship from 1973 to 1990.

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Campaign poster of the current President of Chile. A comparatively traditional Catholic country, Chile didn’t legalize divorce until late 2004. However, President Bachelet is an agnostic divorced single mother.

The museum was pushed for and inaugurated by President Michelle Bechelet, who as a young woman was sent to a concentration camp and tortured by the Pinochet regime for being on the political left. She was able to flee Chile and eventually became a physician before pursuing a career in politics after the return to democratic rule.

The exhibits on life under the military dictatorship were poweful, especially the memorial to the young children executed by firing squad as “enemies of the state.” My only complaint was that in the international reactions section there was no mention of US support for the overthrow of the democratically elected Allende government and installation of the Pinochet dictatorship, which likely wouldn’t have been possible without American aid.

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Buying a bus ticket to Valparaíso from Tur Bus. Rather than have one centralized ticket sales office like in Europe, in South America each bus company will have its own ticket desks in one or more of numerous terminals scattered throughout the city.

Two and a half days in Santiago was plenty, and I opted to spend my last two days in the hilly Pacific coast town of Valparaíso. Just 2 hours and 2500 Chilean pesos ($3.85) away, it was a great choice.

Now off to Buenos Aires to begin my 14 week journey by bus, boat, and foot to Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego!