The city of Rivera straddles on the border between Uruguay and Brazil. This leads to a quite unique border crossing which I haven’t seen so far on my trip. The center of town has two immigration offices, one for Brazil and one for Uruguay. But they are separated by 20 street blocks. Leaving Uruguay means that you “stamp out” the passport in one part of town and then go (by foot, bus or taxi) to the other part of the town for the Brazilian immigration procedure. I therefore wonder, if wandering tourists are technically considered illegal aliens in this bustling no-man’s land full of shops, entertainment and hotels. The great blog entry here is a much more detailed description of the town and border crossing process. A last minute decision made me stay in Uruguay. Rivera was having a constant sound level of police sirens and burglary systems honking through town. A bit apprehensive about entering Brazil, because of my lack of Portuguese language skills and the expensive prices, I went for the easy way out: Turn south to Tacuarembó in Uruguay.
However, this change of itinerary was also a bit anticipated, since I wanted to go to the Iguacu falls in a couple of days. Located between Argentina and Brazil, I preferred to arrive at the Argentinean side, since there is the much better base to go to see the falls.
So I was as quickly out of the town as I arrived – on my way to the gaucho capital of Tacuarembó. The road was absolutely spectacular, with one of the strangest sunsets I have ever seen: Due to the rainy weather, the colours were mixed in various shades of grey and orange high in the sky, while there was a milky white pattern near the horizon, where the clouds were less dense.
My bus arrived at around eight o’clock in the evening, during a time the tourist office was closed. But very helpful staff at the bus company counters directed me to the “controller”, which is actually the lady announcing various bus arrivals and departures in the terminal. She was very helpful and actually had a small book with various guest house addresses. She called one of them (Pension Bertiz, Ituzaingó 211, ph. 2-3324) and handed me the phone to sort out the price (about 8US$) and options (shared bathroom, fan, no television). The place was clean, the rooms are located courtyard-style in the back of a busy street near the center plaza.
The world famous tango singer, Carlos Gardel, was born in this town. Not that I am a great fan of tango, or that birthplaces of famous people do matter for me. But in the case of Carlos Gardel, the ongoing dispute between countries fighting for being the birthplace is fierce. France, Argentina and Uruguay are in the competition. Depending on which source you read, Tacuarembó in Uruguay is the most likely birth place (Lonely Planet), Toulouse in France is the most likely birth place for Wikipedia while the singer himself claimed to be born “at the age of two” in Buenos Aires. Nevertheless, the original records of Carlos Gardel (from 1913 to 1935) are actually part of the UNESCO’s “Memory of the World Programme” – an initiative calling upon the preservation of valuable archive holdings all over the world. (As a side note: The absence of items from my home country, Switzerland, in the list of historical archive holdings is a bit of a bugger)
Although, Tacuarembó has a population of over 50’000 people, the place feels smaller. I was absolutely gobsmacked, how many real gauchos (not the ones posing for souvenir shots) are roaming the streets of this town. But then again, there is an obvious influx from the rural area around Tacuarembó – I did spot most gauchos, while sitting in a cafe opposite the entrance to the governmental veterinary services. They also come to town in search for entertainment, after several days or weeks of herding cattle and other farming tasks. Some of these guys were lodging at the same pension as I was and they fitted the melancholic stereotype: Being very “down-to-earth”, honest and silent, they can be violently loud and proud when somebody says something wrong.
My Spanish skills do improve a bit, but I still make a lot of errors at the silly end of the scale of stupidity. To plan ahead my stay in Iguacu, I went to a pizzeria downtown reading the Lonely Planet’s self-proclaimed “backpacker’s bible” – or: “South America on a shoestring” guidebook. (Yes, I did not throw it away, yet). The waitress, very interested in talking to a stranger, asked me – spotting my thick book – “son de la iglesia?” (“Are you from a church”). Sure, this book is written in English (“Ingles”), stupid you – I thought and therefore nodded an uninterested “Si” (“Yes”) back at her. She seemed to be a keen churchgoer, because she now was even more interested in having a conversation with me. She started to throw various names at me, asking if I knew these “Padres” (“Priests”). This is where I started to realize my error (“Iglesia” vs. “Ingles”) and tried to correct it by telling her “El libro está en Inglés” (“The book is in English”). She had this pityful smile in which I could read: Sure my stupid son, you read the bible in English. And she continued to chatter with me about having to visit the local church and meet up with the current priest. Awmygod, now I was in deep trouble. But there is one word, I learned very quickly in South America, which I used as a reply: “Mañana” (“Tomorrow”). After finishing the meal, I left Tacuarembó later that day like a cheater.
Buses in South America – especially in Uruguay – are also dubbing as postal services to deliver letters and parcels. So, the relatively small drive between Tacuarembò and Salto took nearly six hours and I arrived after sunset. I quickly found a cheap and clean crash pad (Hotel Tia, somewhere downtown, 10 US$ single with shower and telly) and went for dinner. Although the small bit of downtown I saw was quite nice, I decided to leave next day. Having prepared for the Iguacu falls, I was eager to move on to that spot. The fact, that it was raining quite hard, contributed to this decision.
Uruguay is definitely worth another visit. Next time, I´d like to do it by car, because there were so many interesting sites and views in the back country, where the buses didn’t stop. And I definitely enjoyed the people of this country. How will one of South America’s top tourist destinations, the Iguacu falls, measure up to this? You will be quite surprised about my findings when you will be reading the next blog entry in a couple of days.