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We're finally on our way!!

It seems strange that today has finally come around. We've been planning this trip for so long and have spent the last two weeks saying our farewells but now its actually here. We set off tonight for Buenos Aires and the start of our world trip.

The last few weeks have been pretty hectic. Stefan stopped working at the start of May, Ness stopped on Friday 13th (hopefully a good omen!). We've been to Brussels to say farewell to Stef's Mum and Ness's last week at work was filled with lunches and dinners out, rounded off by a 30th birthday (the companies not mine unfortunately). A trip up to Brum to say farewell to the Voogd contingent was remarkably tear-free, apart from tears of laughter at an interesting new hair style sported by one family member.

We then had two days where all our prized possessions were packed up (in only 3 hours by expert packers who didn't reminisce with everything that went into a box) and sent off to store for a year. It brought a lump to my throat to see the van drive off, knowing that we'd miss bits and pieces along the way (some sooner than we'd expected as Stef announced this morning that he'd packed trousers he'd intended to take - any excuse for a last trip into London!). Our house now looks very similar to when we first moved in - a new line in packing case tables, 2 garden chairs and an air mattress for a bed.

On Friday Stef had booked for us to go to the champagne bar at the top of Tower 42 in the City. If you get a chance to go its worth it for the views but be prepared - it will burn a sizeable hole in your pocket. We had views up and down the Thames and could see across to Buckingham Palace and Kensington Gardens.

Friday at Tower 42.

Saturday was a farewell night out with friends where Rob displayed a new found talent for belly dancing. He was shimmying away with the professional and was giving her a run for her money.

On Monday, Andy saved the day, arriving at lunchtime to take us to the airport. He kept us sane, stopped us bickering at each other, plied us with champagne (they're not used to that in our local and I was amazed they had a cold bottle) and helped us finish off final bits and pieces.

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Where's the Kleenex?

With Eddie (our car) packed to the roof we headed off for Heathrow, checked in and said our farewells. It wasn't just me who shed a final tear or two although the photo doesn't show that.

Our flight was quiet and we had on board about a 30 strong contingent from the Argentine Army. We left late but landed on time at Buenos Aires. Having been here before, it was returning to familiar territory and we reminisced whilst finding an hotel and arranging transport downtown. The traffic was mad on the main Avenido 9 Julio and despite its 16 lanes it was jammed due to demonstrations in town. The fact that we made it was a bit of a surprise due to the number of times the engine conked out along the way!

We had a much needed beer or two, crashed out for a few hours and then headed out. We ambled around for a while, soaking up the sights, laughing at a group of dancing empanadas, and generally starting the switch into travel mode. Every corner seems to have a bar, cafe, or pasticcherria. We also passed a few chocolate shops that would give Godiva a run for their money. It will be hard to resist drinking a Submarino - hot milk that you melt a bar of chocolate into.

We ended up eating in a Chinese "eat as much as you like" buffet. Not very typical but we were hungry and didn't read the door before we walked in. It was great food and ridiculous value - equivalent of £6 in total, including a bottle of wine.

The next day we spent in Buenos Aires. Being a public holiday (commemoration of the 1810 revolution against Spain) the Teatro Colon is shut giving me another excuse to come back at a later date. We passed through the Plaza de Mayo where celebrations were already in swing and headed back down to the Puerto Madero - BA's updated port area. Like London, its now an area of smart offices, flats and restaurants. It also has a yacht club which set Stef off yearning for life on the ocean waves again.

At Tourist Info, we were given loads of info about Uruguay, our next destination, and how to get across the Rio de la Plata by ferry. The lady there was jealous that we would spend two weeks touring the country but reminded us several times that it was the wrong time of year for the beach resorts.

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Recoleta

Our other main sight for BA was the cemetery at Recoleta. A strange sight on the tourist trail but one definitely worth seeing. Its the resting place of the BA aristocracy and based on the mausolea within it, you certainly have to have money to be buried here. Some of them are very understated and simple. Others are testaments to wealth and power , making very bold statements about a family and their place in history and society. Another reason for the cemetery being on the tourist trail is that it is now the resting place of Eva Peron, Evita.

I have never seen anything like this before and can't really describe the sensations I felt walking around. It was almost as if we were in a model village with each mausoleum being a separate house. There were few trees or plants of any sort so it had an artificial and not lived in (excuse the phraseology) atmosphere. We were not there when there was a guided tour in English and I left feeling I wanted to know more.

The next day we finally headed off to Uruguay. We're getting the Buquebus ferry across the river at one of its narrower points where its only 50 miles wide. The ferry leaves at 9:00 so it was a shock to be woken up by an alarm clock. Its autumn here, dark by 6 and not light until after 8am so we can't yet rely on our body clock. At the ferry port we felt we could have been back in India. We went to the Paja (pay desk) by the entrance to buy our tickets to be told we had to go to then Vente (sales desk) at the other end of the terminal hall. Having bought our tickets we then had to go back to the Paja to pay for them!! Our backpacks were checked in airport style and we went through passport control to the departure lounge.

As the ferry moved off we went up on deck to say farewell to Buenos Aires. Its a unique view seeing a cityscape from the sea (or river in this case). You get a real sense of the scale of a place and how far the suburbs have crept into the distance. When the sun breaks through the clouds and catches on the glass of the new waterfront buildings it seems like the city lights up - one big solar panel.

With the Uruguayan coast in sight there's the usual exodus of people up on deck to watch the coast appear more clearly. There's something satisfying about getting this type of sneak preview of a place you are going to visit. You start to second guess what you'll see, what you'll like and can sense check real to actual at a later date.

We're headed to Colonia, a UNESCO world heritage site, founded by the Portuguese (much to the disgust of the Spanish). There's a small historical centre and around the bay good sandy beaches. Most of the visitors are Argentineans, many of whom come just for the day and then go home.

Once landed we shoulder our packs and head off to our hotel. My pack was killing me, its not balanced/set up correctly and needs adjusting. Our chosen hotel, Posada del Rio, only has one room left (which we later realised is because most of the rest of it is being refurbished) which did the trick (especially at £14 for bed and breakfast). We've hired a car to get around the rest of Uruguay - not typical behaviour for backpackers but its within our budget and gives us more flexibility to see things at our pace and off the beaten track.

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Artsy view of the old fort gate

We dumped our packs and headed out to explore. The old historic centre has a very Mediterranean feel - tree lined avenues, cobbled streets, quiet and sleepy atmosphere. We soaked up the town, enjoying the sunshine and headed down to the waterfront to a small harbour. There were a few yachts and dinghies and a fabulous wooden launch. I could picture it in an Hercule Poirot era murder mystery - beautiful ladies in racy swimsuits, and dapper gents in blazer, cravat, whit trousers and captains cap, quietly sipping chilled champagne as they watch the world go by.

The ruins of the city walls showed a feat of engineering. At least 2m thick and with foundations a similar depth below ground level. Seeing things like this it always amazes me how they were built - a real testament to the sheer brute strength potential of man and beast.

With the light fading we picked a spot to watch the sunset - hopefully the first of many. The wind picked up and for the first time we started to feel cold - coffee with chocolate and whisky helped to take away the edge! We abandoned our riverside vista and headed back into town on a quest for an internet café to check our site and email. On the way I spied a shop that was a hopeful contender for another quest - cotton to mend my new trousers and the seams are coming apart. We checked the dictionary and headed into the shop and asked some ladies for "algodón por reparar las ropas". We couldn't understand why we got such blank stares from our request for "cotton to mend clothes" as we were in a shop that sold material and must also have had needles and cotton.

Further on we found another shop (Super USA) which also looked hopeful - it seemed to sell everything. Having looked twice and not found cotton we again asked for help. We then understood why the ladies in the earlier shop had been so nonplussed - the lady took us to sanitary towels!! It also explained why we were sent in that direction in the supermarket we tried in BA and why people were a bit embarrassed when Stef was asking the question. A quick imitation of sewing (all those family games of charades coming in very handy by this stage) was met with "ah, hilo" - we'd been asking for the wrong thing but are now proud owners of cotton thread.

For only our third day away from the UK it seems like we've been away for ages. I think mentally we have now switched not necessarily into travel mode, but certainly into away from home mode. On our way back to our hotel we had a reminder from home - a little white van with a McCains logo on its side - we'll try and think of some new R&D ideas so Andy has to come here on a fact finding visit.

Our breakfast brought back another familiar old friend: dulce de leche. It's like caramelised milk the way it goes when you make Banoffee pie but richer in flavour.

We left our little hotel and picked up our car (nickname Chico). It's a little (hence the name) Chrysler with no poke but will do the trick. I came to regret laughing at Stef's initial kangaroo-hopping as I was just as bad when I took over the driving later in the day. Being used to Eddie which can easily do 80mph in 3rd gear, this one needs to be in 5th to go that fast comfortably!

Our route through Uruguay takes us up the west coast along the Rio Uruguay and we'll then wiggle our way across to the east coast and work down and through the beach resorts to be back in Montevideo. Our only fixed point is to be in Montevideo by 9th June so that we can return the car.

The scenery we drive through reminds us both of parts of England, France and Holland. Its mainly agricultural - one third of Uruguay's 3m population lives in Montevideo, the rest are spread throughout the country which is larger than England and Wales. There are gently rolling hills (highest peak is 500m) and wide open spaces.

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Huerfanas, Jesuit ruins

We pull off to go to Colera de las Huerfanas, ruins of a Jesuit missionary. It was built on a hill and gives good views of the surrounding countryside. The only remaining structure is the church (no roof). It's an imposing and impressive building and is the focal point of the community. The remaining buildings are identified by their foundations only but as all Jesuit missions follow the same planned layout, archaeologists have been able to identify their use. The community was populated by between 200 to 300 men, women and children. They were fully self sufficient and generated surpluses that they then sold on.

Of the few signs there were at the site, several had worn away with time and the elements but we were able to make out the living quarters, workshops and position of the cemetery. It would be interesting to know more about this particular site, what happened to it and what happened to all the bricks from the other buildings!!

Our next detour was less successful. Two kilometres up an unpaved road was meant to be an estancia. After almost double this distance all we came across was a house with between 40 and 50 horses tethered together (being a country that wastes nothing, some had plastic containers to catch you-know-what tied to them under their tails). Not matching our expectations based on our Argentine and Chilean experiences we turned around and heading back to the main road. Reading our travel bible (Lonely Planet guide to Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay) later, we realised we had not hit the estancia and had not gone far enough. It was a good reminder that, as we have learned before, distances in travel guides often don't match reality. Much as we were disappointed, I would have been more peeved if the bus had dropped me off at the end of the road and I was fully laden with backpack (a LP suggestion).

Bypassing Carmelo, we continued on to Nuevo Palmeiro. A quiet town, none of the shops or cafés looked open but we were in need of a pit stop. By the river, the fishing club comedor was open, the dish of the day being cazuela (stew) or pollo y arroz (chicken and rice). Not hearing the latter clearly we opted for cazuela - a mistake(ish). We had had a dodgy fish cazuela in Ancud in Chile. Today we had an equally dodgy version - the sauce, beans and potatoes were fine, what did it for me was the other half of the bowl that was full of tripe and fatty meat - Stef ate his, I couldn't bring myself to. The waitress looked like Dawn French - I hope she and the cook weren't offended.

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"Schapewolkjes"

We had our usual problem with South American towns trying to leave Nuevo Palmeiro - signs tell you part of the story about how to get out of town but always forget to be posted at that vital turn left or right so you head out onto a dead end street rather than where you want to go. Once out of town, we drove through open countryside staring at the clouds - it looks like candy floss or balls of wool ("schapewolkjes" is the expression in Dutch) and feels like you can just reach up and touch it.

Rather than stopping at Fray Bentos, we decided to stop at Mercedes, a town about 30km away. We took a sneak at the cathedral but as there is a service in progress we leave. We catch up on diaries and then head for our first Uruguayan parilla (grill), missing the one recommended by Lonely Planet (you must be getting the theme by now of our travel abilities!!) but ending up in one a few doors down.

Not many foreign tourists come to this part of Uruguay so I was surprised when another English speaking couple came in a while after us - we suspected they made the same mistake as us. Next to us a father and son (same profile and mannerisms) ate in silence watching the TV in the corner. Behind us, a table of five old men looked like they were a reunion of a mafioso style hit squad out catching up on old times.

Mercedes had a nice feel to it, although it was very quiet for a Friday night. There's not much to see and do here so tomorrow we're heading off in our quest to find the home of the infamous meat pie.

We left Mercedes and headed down to Fray Bentos. Our local guide said it was open and we headed for the 11:30 tour only to find that the tour in English was either at 10:00am or 3:30pm - just our luck. For a couple who are deemed to be organised at work, these skills seem to have stayed behind in the UK!

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Fray Bentos plant

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Tea time

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Uruguayan grill

At Fray Bentos, we were shown down into a visitor centre. We ambled around the displays and through the offices upstairs. You can see from the pictures that times have changed a little in terms of office design, layout and facilities. We reckoned that the tour would have only walked through these bits and that we haven't really missed out on much.

Outside there was a group of school kids and we got the inevitable "where are you from?" and "which football team do you support?" questions that you get everywhere in South America. They were very pleased with themselves that we could understand their English.

It was difficult to get a real sense of the Fray Bentos site without the opportunity to ask questions. There was a huge factory building, locked and apparently empty, but not much else that we could go around. There's the making of a great museum here but it's not happening - probably not enough visitors to make it worthwhile.

The factory is in an area of town called the Barrio Anglo. My guess is that as with Cadbury's, they built not just the factory but the workers houses, school, hospital - in essence the whole community. The whole site feels gated and contained, perhaps another way of controlling the workforce to maximise production.

This was a revolutionary site and was responsible for starting the industrial revolution in Uruguay. You can picture an elite of German and English engineers and food production specialists being moved here to manage a local labour force. It must have been very exciting but hard work also.

We have no info about happened to the factory and why it closed and its left me wanting to know more. Did they make the famous pies here and ship them to England or just process the meat?

Leaving Fray Bentos we travelled north towards Paysandu. The road stretches ahead of us for miles - no corners, no traffic, no habitation. It really is a vast empty space. We took a detour to a small place called Nuevo Berlin - a small town founded by German settlers. There's a single road heading down to the river with just one block of buildings either side. It's very sleepy - probably because its a warm and sunny Saturday afternoon. We stopped to buy bits for a picnic, including stuff for Stef to have maté tea (a national passion that drives me nuts as he slurps tea all day through a metal straw!) and headed down to the river for lunch.

Arriving in Paysandu, we toured town to check our shortlist of hotels and decided we didn't want to stay there. Having had a few days of peace and quiet in rural backwaters, Paysandu threw us back into the bustle of a city, which we didn't want. I've already teased Stef that for someone who is meant to be a city lover, he's a country boy at heart.

We decided to stop at the thermal baths at Guaviyú just north of Paysandu. On the left of the main road are the municipal baths, open air and with cabins, bars/restaurants and a shop. Bit like a Butlins style camp. They had no accommodation free and sent us over the road to the private motel style set up with covered baths.

The next few hours were spent soaking and relaxing in bath temperature water. One pool was too hot to sit in (although splashes around the outside showed that someone had been!). There's something unique about thermal water - it makes you much more buoyant and you simply want to float. There were a few others in the pool and everyone waited eagerly for the water jets to be switched on - it was like rush hour with everyone heading to the best spots when they were!

Relaxed, we ambled over the main motorway to have a look at Butlins and to eat. No traffic in sight either there or on the way back - other than a couple of horses grazing outside our motel room.

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Huge column and statue of Uruguayan "libertador" Artigas

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Pretty fountain in Salto

With a thermos full of hot water for Mate, we headed off to Salto. The scenery changed a few times along the way and we drove through a small palm grove. Today is our first cloudy day and it looks like rain is on its way.

We took a detour off to Meseta de Artigas. Artigas and his compatriots (Treinta y Tres Orientales) in effect created the state of Uruguay and did so at Meseta. It is commemorated by a small visitors centre and a large statue of Artigas looking across the rio to Argentina. You can almost hear this monster statue saying "come on then, give it a go". You have a 360 vista from this point so it's a great place to launch a campaign.

Back on the main road, we're soon at Salto and head for the main square and the Gran Hotel de Salto. The 1940's style hotel has retained all its original features. Our room has a parquet wooden floor, small balcony overlooking he square and an original bakelite phone. The furniture, including the bathroom suite, all look as if they are the originals from when the hotel was first built. We forget how much we throw away in the name of modernisation and upgrades when there's nothing actually wrong with it.

The ballroom downstairs is also wooden floor to ceiling, except the supporting pillars which have mirrored panels. A bell boy brings the lift to you and takes you to your floor and a maid who turns down your bed for the night. Not bad for a 3-star hotel costing £18 for bed and breakfast for both of us!

As it is Sunday, town is very quiet. The shops are shut apart from the odd kiosco and there's a couple of restaurants open. It is very hot, humid and sticky and we were glad to find a spot in the shade to cool down and refresh. At the table next to us sat the couple we saw in the parillada in Mercedes - also on a world tour and also going to the same places in South America so no doubt we'll bump into them again.

Heading back up to our hotel at about 5pm, it has started to come to life. We followed a tourist map pointing out the local sites of interest - mainly just able to see the outside of buildings as the museums were shut. Best find was the Hotel Concordia. Built in 1865 around a central courtyard, with more terraced courtyards at the back it was a cool haven. It reminded me of Villa Carlotta, a hotel we stayed in in Florence on our honeymoon.

The town's PA system kicked into life with what we thought were the local lottery results - the same numbers were repeated over and over again. It then changed to singing hymns and we realised it was linked to the Basilica Catedral San Juan Baptista next door to the hotel. Around the main square was a huge procession led by a couple of priests and then schoolchildren. The crowd congregated outside the catedral and there was more music and clapping - I think it is for Whit Sunday. Considering how many Uruguayans were in one place at the same time I was amazed to see only one person drinking their maté tea.

Sunday night was my first lesson in using FrontPage, which we use to update our website. I can cope with the writing bit - all the clever stuff is still being done by Stef who assures me it is easy to do! As night closes in, an electrical storm starts that lasts for about three hours. Great bolts of lightning but no thunder, mostly hidden by clouds but where there are clear patches you can see the many-stranded lightning streaks. Then came the rain, so torrential it looked like the square had been shrouded in mist. It was fun watching people run for cover from the luxury of our balcony!

Walking back to our hotel later that night, we were struck at how austere it looks - similar to Senate House in London.

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The Uruguay bunny catchers - doing quite well.

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El Viejo Gaucho

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El Viejo Traino

Before leaving Salto, we find an internet cafe with high speed connections and post our first web update. To me it seems strange to see it all work. Some clever bunnies were involved in producing FrontPage and all the other software we use.

Our next surprise was filling the car with petrol - a lot more expensive than we'd expected. We'd initially planned to visit the dam near Salto, but time is marching (it's almost noon before we leave town) and there are other dams on our plans so we decide to push on to our next destination, Tacuarembó.

Initially it is the same landscape we've seen so far but gradually we start to climb and the views change. We see rocks on the ground for the first time and hills appear. We pass an open-backed van with dead rabbits hanging from the metal frame. Further on another truck has stopped on the other side of the road. This too is full of rabbits with more hanging over the sides. As we turn around to take photos the first van also pulls in. They must be a link in the chain to market for all the local farmers and rabbit catchers.

Stef stops an old gaucho and asks permission to take his photo (he has been after this one for ages). The gaucho loves it and tells Stef to wait until he has turned round for the camera and pushed his hat back on his head. I'm not sure which one got the most pleasure from that little experience!

Just outside Tacuarembó we pull in to the Valle del Edén. There is a small campsite (closed for the winter) and round the corner and over a ford there is a small museum about Carlos Gardel, a famous tango singer and film star of the 1930's. Both Argentina and Uruguay claim that he was born in their country and the museum is more Uruguay's collection of facts to prove their case than a source of information about the singer himself.

That said it was still interesting, with photos, newspaper cuttings, a video (in Spanish and a very dodgy production so it was quite a laugh). I'm not sure how old he was when he died but he died an unpleasant death. The plane he and some friends were in crashed and they were all burnt to death. The museum includes a rather grim photo of their burnt bodies laid out mortuary style on the ground.

We ambled through the small gardens and down to the old Valle del Edén railway track and station. There are two old, empty, rusty carriages. As with Chile and Argentina, trains no longer run in Uruguay.

Heading into Tacuarembó without a map was an experience. It was yet another town with no directions and I could sense sharing my thoughts of "oh bugger" as we got to a grim part of town without hitting the main square. We then realised we'd gone in the wrong direction, doubled back and found the centre. We followed a Lonely Planet recommendation for a hotel, Hotel Central, which from the outside looked the better bet. Our room was at the end of a dark corridor with a shared bathroom ("but there's no one in the other room" they assured us). My heart sank when I saw the room - very dark with dark patches on the wall that could be damp - but we both knew it was either this or a very uncomfortable night in the car! It was too late to carry on anywhere else and even if we did there was no guarantee it would be any better. I'm open with Stef and admit that if this is the standard we've got to put up with I will struggle.

We head off in search of dinero as our cash is running low. Being in the middle of nowhere with few (no!) international tourists the ATMs don't recognise international cards and we couldn't get any local currency. A minor panic set in that something had happened to our cards but we have had this in other places so it should be OK. The local pharmacy points us in the direction of a cambio - no sign, just a man sat behind a desk in a little office off the street. Its probably dodgy but it did the trick as we changed dollars into pesos.

Apart from being cold, our room looks quite cosy at second viewing. This part of the hotel feels as if its from the same era as the hotel in Salto and has similar parquet floors. We spent the evening revisiting our plans for the rest of our stay in Uruguay (they change daily) and decide that tomorrow's destination is Treinta y Tres (33).

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Bird

We left Tacuarembó early, for us. As we left the hotel, Stef saw into some of the other rooms - seems ours was a duffie as the others had better furniture and carpet. Next lesson learned was just to ask for a room for 2 and not necessarily one with a double bed - most seem to be twin rooms.

We had a quick stop at the local supermarket for Stef who, living up to his reputation for last minute things to do decided today that his bombilla (straw through which you drink your maté tea) was no good - yesterday it was the tea itself. We then headed off for the drive down to Treinta y Tres, named after the 33 Uruguayans who, inspired by Artigas, liberated Uruguay from Brasil. Its about 320km (200 miles) - not far in UK terms but the roads here aren't as good and little Chico doesn't have as much firepower as Eddie, our VW golf, let alone Bruiser, our previous car, a Porsche Boxster.

It was a long and somewhat boring drive. The scenery changed and at times reminded us of Scotland and Wales but on a much smaller scale height-wise. There were even some hills which by Uruguayan standards were long and steep, and the odd curva peligrosa (dangerous bend, usually very long and easy by UK standards) which came closer to peligrosa than anything we've seen so far.

The roads are still very quiet (we saw no-one for about the first 160km of route 26) and most of the traffic is trucks. On the west of Uruguay, they were big old monsters, the kind you'd see in 1950's US movies. Here they are more up to date. We stopped for petrol in Melo and managed to get cash out of the bank. Stef went on a hunt for agua caliente (hot water) for his maté and we carried on.

A few miles out of town we stopped on the top of a hill for lunch - bread, chorizo and cheese. The views were beautiful. Some cyclists (the first we'd seen) came past puffing and panting so we knew there was a long downhill stretch to come for us. The sun had finally broken through the clouds and it was pretty warm again by the time we set off again. My siesta in the car was rudely disturbed by Stef nudging me in the ribs and shouting "picture, take a picture" as we passed something interesting (can't remember what so couldn't have been that good!).

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Open plains (click to enlarge)

At Treinta y Tres we found our hotel, and sent clothes out to be cleaned. Stef's ego was boosted as he was told his Spanish was "perfecto" by the laundry lady - he doesn't need that sort of encouragement and smirked all night! We had no plans to stay here, other than as an overnight stop, so after a quick meal we crashed for the night.

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What a sunset!

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"Peso a pound the lot, come on folks, peso a pound, get yer fruit'n'veg aqui, pronto!"

We headed out of Treinta y Tres for another long day's drive, this time heading south to Rocha. It looked like it had been raining hard overnight and was still overcast in the morning. On one hilly part, the clouds were so low they were covering the tops of the trees. Five minutes later we were back in sunshine.

We made good progress and before long were turning off the main road onto smaller roads. With only 50km to go, we thought we would hit town within the hour. Only problem was that the smaller road was unpaved so it made for slower going.

The landscape in this part of the country is different to anything else we've seen so far. There are proper hills with tree plantations (we think it's eucalyptus) as well as the standards of cows and sheep. We followed a sign to Cerro Catedral, marked on our map as the highest point in the country. The road here was even more rutted and bumpy but due to Stef's superb driving we only scraped the bottom of the car badly twice (once going, once coming back). The map showed the highest point at a T-junction with another small track. Hitting one junction with no signs, and not wanting to get lost, we turned back not sure if we had really reached the highest point. It didn't matter as the views we had were superb. Rounding a corner we disturbed three buzzards lunching on a squashed, dead fox.

We seem to have found a new habit: entering towns through the back end. Our first impressions of Rocha weren't great but they improved as we got closer to the centre. We found our hotel (another LP recommendation, the Trocadero) as much by luck as by design as our book has no town map for Rocha. Like most places we've seen it could do with a bit of touching up, but our room is clean and pleasant enough.

At reception we get friendly information on what to see locally and head down to the coast to a small resort called La Paloma. It's a typical beach resort and could be anywhere. It has a main street with hotels and shops (mostly closed), a lighthouse and two "sandy" bays. We stopped at a shop to buy bits for lunch and headed for a picnic on the beach. The clouds came over and the temperature dropped but it didn't deter Stef from a quick paddle in the sea - a bit cold!

Further along the coast is another small bay, La Pedrera. It was starting to get dark and misty by the time we got there but you could see this was a beautiful bay. We sat at the top of the "cliffs"  and watched the sun set. The sunset was behind us but the light on the clouds in front of us was amazing. I turned round and the sky was golden, fifteen minutes later it was dark salmony pink, utterly stunning. We made noises about coming to watch the sunrise but I doubt we'll make it up that early!

Driving back to Rocha it was almost dark. In front of us were the last drabs of daylight - patches of very clear blue tinged with orange - whilst behind us it was getting darker and darker. There was a single bright star ahead of us which we reckoned was a planet (not sure which one though).

Reaching town it was hard to make out the street names. Ahead, there was a bright splash of colour, a large market stall style fruit and veg shop. We stopped to buy fruit (mainly to take photos). We lost the plot of the directions we were given to get back to our hotel. We did find it in the end but must have toured around most of Rocha in the process.

Walking through the main square that night we noticed a cinema on the corner. Not sure if there were films playing but it was somehow good to see it anyway. The square itself was calming and relaxing - big trees, a few few people - perfect spot to while away some time.

We left the hotel and went in search of an internet café to upload more info to our site and to check mail. We found one, but the connections were slow so it took most of the morning to do what we wanted to - a shame because it was a beautiful, hot and sunny day. Another lesson learned: web updates are strictly for evenings or Sundays when most things are shut!

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Get me down!

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It's my rock, no, it's mine!!

We then set off for Cabo Polonio. It's meant to be one of the most beautiful parts of the coast. You can't drive there as there are sand dunes between the beach and the road. You either have to walk or go by 4x4 truck. We're staying at least one night so have full packs and opt for the 4x4. The ride was a laugh. Stef opted to sit on the high frame at the back of the truck so that he could see better. I think he quite quickly realised it was a mistake and looks of glee were soon replaced with looks of "I want to get down".

We weren't sure if the hosteria would be open and didn't really get a clear answer from the guy driving the 4x4 but we knew we could simply turn around if it wasn't. Once over the dunes and on the beach I started to understand why this is a beauty spot. It's a wide, open, sandy beach. A few huts are dotted on the sand at the edge of the dunes - they look as if they would simply crumble away on a high tide or in strong winds.

On the point is the little village of Cabo Polonio, dominated by a lighthouse which also seems to be a naval base. We wanted to go to the top (130 steps) but the painters who are decorating tell us to come back tomorrow.

The 4x4 winds down through the village. I was surprised at how many people seem to be living here. For the first time we've reached a village that has no order to its layout. There are a couple of grocery shops open and we get definite looks of "more mad tourists coming here off season".

The hosteria is open and we get a friendly welcome and a choice of rooms. Stef opts for the one up a steep flight of wooden steps that has better views across the bay - hopefully we'll get a good view of the sun rise. Practicalities soon hit home as there's hardly room to swing a cat inside.

We head off for a walk and meet Juan and Declan on the patio below - they also arrived today. They are Masters students in Sweden who have been in Chile for a conference on sustainable energy supplies for Easter Island. They have tacked just over a week's holiday onto the end of their trip and have a whistle-stop tour through Uruguay and Buenos Aires.

Saving the sandy bay walk for tomorrow we head over the rocks towards the lighthouse where there is also a protected reserve for sea lions. We've seen them before in San Francisco and in the Beagle Channel but never really so close up in a totally natural habitat. Some were swimming, some were playing/fighting, but most were simply lazing in the sunshine. There's a small island offshore and the only noise coming from it is that of sea lions "barking".

It was another stunning sun set and we sat on our little balcony watching the stars come out. When we headed down for dinner the sky was full of bright lights with a big, hazy streak through it which we think is the milky way. It was so breathtakingly beautiful that it inspired an "aren't we so lucky that we're doing this" moment. We don't get night skies like this anywhere I've been to in the northern hemisphere. We tried to work out where the Southern Cross was but not knowing much about astronomy we failed miserably!

Over dinner we chatted with Declan and Juan. They've had a busy time preparing for their conference and have exams coming up when they get back to Sweden. Dinner was good but expensive and, compared to what we've had elsewhere was not value for money. We're a bit of a captive audience as there's no where else open. It possibly also costs more to get stuff here as it either has to come by boat or 4x4. A storm rolled in and lasted all night - bright lightening, incredible rolls of thunder and torrential rain.

Of the places we've seen so far Colonia and Cabo Polonio are top of my list. They both have a serene beauty and calm. They lull you into a sense of an idyllic lifestyle, better than we have in London. In reality it is probably just as challenging but in very different ways.

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Bring me sunshine!

It is still raining hard, and has been all night. The sky is totally grey and I don't think it's going to change all day. Our dream of waking up to see the sun rise through our window has been well and truly quashed. Let's hope tomorrow is better.

With the weather set to be foul we camped out on the patio of the hosteria to write diaries and read. There's a cool breeze and I finally succumb and put on my fleece. Just as I think the clouds are lifting, mist drifts in off the sea and/or it starts to rain heavily again. It's not what we had hoped for today as we planned a long walk along the sandy bay. Victor, who owns/runs the hosteria, chats to Stef. I can follow the conversation and knew most of what Stef said. It frustrates the heck out of me that I can't find the words myself.

Thoroughly cold, we headed up to our room to thaw out. We finish our picnic lunch from yesterday and decide to head out even though its still raining - we're both twitchy after a few days in the car. We don waterproofs and set off across the beach. The rain eases from time to time but never ceases. It wasn't long before we were pretty wet and Stef was regretting buying walking shoes not boots - the rain was dripping into them off his waterproofs.

Part way round the bay we came across a dead sea lion. There were tracks from other people and from horses so I reckoned that if help was possible it would have already come. It was well and truly immobile and I reckon it had been dead for a day or two.

The beach is beautiful despite the rain - soft sand, with odd swathes of broken shells - and its a long uninterrupted bay. At Cabo Polonio there is a collection of ramshackle beach houses. There's no order to them in terms of their design of their layout. None of them look very solid but they all look as if they have endured many seasons so far and that they'll stand the test of the weather for many more years to come.

I had half-heartedly been watching the tide during the day and couldn't make out if it was coming in but it looked as if it was. As the weather closed in again we turned around and headed back walking into the rain. We headed into the village and popped into the shop to have a look. It's dark inside (no electricity). There's a main counter with all the goods lined up on the wall behind. Its difficult to get a sense of what's in stock as we can't really see. Not wishing to just look and walk out, we bought water and a packet of biscuits. The lady in the shop was very apologetic that the water wasn't cold.

Juan explained to us last night that in Southern America people are keen not to offend others. This means that they won't necessarily say directly what they want, but will build up to it in a round about way. If there's a problem, they'll explain it in such a way that the person causing the problem doesn't lose face. Declan and I both share the view that we'd run out of patience with this!

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Round the fire

Walking back through the hosteria, there were two of the staff sat in front of an open fire. They were surprised we'd been out walking in the rain - or perhaps were thinking about how much extra dirt they'd have to clean up tomorrow! Back in our room we stripped off our waterproofs and sat watching the rain. I almost suggested another walk at one point as it looked as if it was clearing up - five minutes later, the rain, mist, thunder and lightning were back in full force.

Lost for something to do we hunkered down in the growing gloom - we were saved from boredom by the pack of patience cards Shaun and Suzanne gave us before we left (we had packed ours into store without thinking as we normally take cards with us). The rest of the afternoon was spent playing cribbage. We played by torchlight and despite Stef being in the lead most of the way I pegged out with an exact score of 120, just beating him!!

Fed up of the dark and cold we headed down into the bar/restaurant and the open fire. All staff and guests were there with a paraffin storm lamp and a few candles providing the light. Its a great atmosphere with everyone reading, doing crosswords, writing diaries or just chatting. Stef is trying out more new settings with his camera as an excuse for not finishing the current Su Doku puzzle he is on (Caz and Andy gave us a book before we left, we've done the easy ones and are now onto the ones that need brain power).

After a while the generator is switched on so there's electricity. This means the TV and DVD go on, tonight's film being American Pie 2 - no sound, Spanish subtitles and only about 75% of the picture showing on screen. It was still easy to follow the plot!! After another over priced dinner, we shared a beer with Declan and headed off to bed with the storm still raging.

I woke up and couldn't hear rain. The sky looked brighter and I made the mistake of saying "its clearing up". Within 10 minutes the storm was back raging. I'm now thoroughly fed up of being somewhere so isolated in such foul weather. At least in a town we'd have options of things to do, here we simply have to sit it out.

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Nuestros compadres muchos simpaticos, Juan y Declan

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Mucho lluvio!!

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The waffle-man of Punta del Este

They're still not risking using the generator (it was turned off last night as soon as the lightning started again). Juan and Declan joined us again for breakfast and talk turned to getting away from Cabo Polonio. I was confident we'd be able to get the 4x4 back across the dunes, I was more concerned about whether Chico would be stranded in a muddy pool of water at the other end.

It wasn't clear what time the 4x4 would come but hearing that one of the roads nearby was flooded and impassible we were keen to go as soon as possible. One thing I've found, and I'm not sure it its just a limitation of our Spanish, is that if you ask a direct question you don't get a direct answer so despite asking about the 4x4 we felt none the wiser. Our bags were all packed so we decided to simply get them from our room and then just sit and wait to see what happened.

The guy who had brought us to Pabo Colonio was waiting when we came back with our bags. We settled up, said farewells to Declan and Juan and headed off. It was still pouring as we left. We sat up front with the driver with Stef's backpack and both day packs on our laps. My backpack was wrapped in a tarpaulin sheet and left to fare its best with the elements "atras". The seat was a bit soggy as the roof leaked but it kept away most of the rain.

We headed back through the village, across the bay and into the dunes. Even with the 4x4, care was taken to avoid puddles and ruts where possible. There was about 1 inch of standing water on the bay - in effect one big river running down to meet the sea. I haven't felt this damp and wet since camping in Wales in my teens. Even my book has curled up due to the damp!

It was great to see Cabo Polonio but had we known the weather would have continued to be this bad, we'd have left yesterday. Apparently its been like this throughout Uruguay. Bumping our way through the dunes we had to stop a couple of times to rescue my pack as it came close to falling off. Back at the road, Chico was fine but the 4x4 had stayed around to help pull us out if needed. We wanted to head north to Castillo but as the road was flooded we'd have had to take a big detour so decided instead to head to Punta del Este, Uruguay's beach resort for the rich and famous.

The rain added a new dimension to our driving - we had to use the windscreen wipers, heating and rear window heater for the first time! Other than that it was long straight roads again. Our route to Punta should have taken us through San Carlos but the road was blocked by water. Driving back up from La Paloma to Rocha we crossed streams we'd passed earlier in the week. The water levels had risen incredibly and San Carlos was a more extreme example. You couldn't see either end of the bridge, as both were submerged, but you could just make out the road into town much further into the distance. A barrier had been put across the bridge to warn that the road was closed but even that was partially submerged.

We backtracked and went on the main route into Punta - another new experience as we drove along a 2 lane dual carriageway, a sign we're heading into a busy part of the country. Here too you could see signs of the flooding. We passed a "Club Desportivo" only identifiable by the top half of the clubhouse. I'm intrigued to know if this is exceptional weather or just the norm for this time of year.

Reaching Punta we drove around looking for a good value hotel (we know this will be a comparatively expensive stop), in the end plumping for a Days Inn, the same chain we stayed at in Buenos Aires. This one is much better and, compared to the last few days, is luxury. We have a comfortable bed, electricity and a very powerful shower with loads of hot water (the shower in Cabo Polonio was a trickle that smelled of putty). My pack is damp, so I fully unpack and we also air the sleeping bags as they've acquired an unpleasant Cabo Polonio smell.

Punta del Este is a small resort on an outcrop of rock, split into two halves. At the point there's the older residential section with smart houses and apartments and a yacht club at the harbour. Nearer to the mainland is the more commercial and tourist bit, with high ris blocks of apartments and hotels. We walked down and along the harbour, stopping near the yacht club when we saw a sign for "Wafles Belgica". The waffles man is Belgian and is selling his home made waffles from his car (he's here every Saturday and Sunday). He moved here 4 years ago with his Belgian wife who also has Uruguayan nationality. The couple he's talking to moved here a few months ago from Geneva, he's French and his wife is Irish. We chat for a while, take a few photos and then move on and around the point.

Some of the houses are very smart. There's a real mix of styles with European influences very evident. You need lots of dosh to be able to afford one of these. They all appear to be summer homes. There are a few people fishing off the rocks but no evidence of any catches. The sky, which has never cleared, thickens and darkens and it again threatens to rain. As it gets dark we head up back through the middle of the point, past the lighthouse towards our hotel where we head for the pool - small but heated and very relaxing. I can for the first time in my life truthfully say I've swum a length of butterfly (OK - its only 3 strokes from one end of the pool to the other but even so.....).

We splashed out on a good meal and a nice wine, amazed that at 9:30 we were still early for dinner. People were still coming in as we left well after 11. Tired, well fed and slightly tipsy we had quick look at our site and picked up the sarky comments left against some of our photos (thanks Andy!! :-) then crashed out in the luxury of cotton sheets and a comfy bed.