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.
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.
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.