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Tuesday, 7 January 2014


Reflections of "Oryx" in Carmelo

Some more facts about Uruguay to ponder over:

  • The Guardian voted it the top Latin American travel destination for 2013.
  • The Economist voted it top holiday destination for 2013.
  • CNN has added it to its top ten “ethical destinations” for 2014.
  • Cannabis is legal.

"Oryx" explores Uruguay.

Juan Lacaze/ Puerto Sauce

Juan Lacaze beckons.

We set out for Juan Lacaze or Puerto Sauce around eleven with a light wind heading us. The distance is only about 7 miles and we tacked back and forth against the current. The wind started picking up, heading us more and more. I don’t think I actually said it, but I’m sure I was just starting to wear my ‘Are-we-there-yet?’ face, which always results in Pete’s ‘We have no engine, it’s-just-an-extra-weight-in-the-stern’ face, when a black cloud formed to the south west and the wind started blowing a hoolie, against us of course. We were no longer sure if we could anchor safely in Puerto Sauce. The inner harbour was almost full and our manoeuvrability was hampered by our iffy astern. So we turned around and flew back to the safety of Boca Rosario, where after the exhilarating downwind run, we sat out the storm.

Boca Rosario, as inviting as ever.

The level of the Rio de la Plata was much lower than on arrival. This wreck is sometimes barely visible.

 We had run out of data, so I sent a text message to my daughter to check Wind Guru for the following few days forecast. She did, but in my ignorance I directed her to Laguna Sauce, which is actually on the Atlantic coast, some distance from Puerto Sauce!

The harbour  at Puerto Sauce.

The next day we put the engine on and motored to Puerto Sauce. (Different day, different rules. Pete’s rule I think is – if there is a breeze we use it, even if it is heading us.) We anchored off and spent several pleasant days there, shopping and stocking up. Puerto Sauce is named after the small arroyo that flows into the Rio del la Plata. It is flanked by willow trees or sauce. (Pronounced sow see not like the ketchup!) According to Wikipedia Juan Lacaze, the industrial town with its cellulose factory has acquired city status, but even calling it a town, seems to stretch credibility. Although the factories belch smoke and spew debris, the town has a slow pace and we’ve always been fond of the place.

Cellulose factory at Juan Lacaze.

Timber in.

Commemorating Juan Lacaze, whose family farmed in the area and who recognised the safe harbour.

The harbour with its small yacht club is safe and has become very well utilised, as it is one of the cheapest places to leave a boat. Juan Lacaze is close enough to Montevideo to be convenient and so the yacht club was virtually full when we were there. “Lynn Rival” the British boat that was taken hostage by Somali pirates a number of years ago was on one of the moorings. We had briefly met the couple when clearing out of Praia in the Cape Verde Islands, but didn’t see them this time.

This quaint cottage caught our eye and approval, but

We preferrred  this colour.

Learning to fly..

Narrow entrance to Riachuelo.

On leaving Puerto Sauce we had a pleasant five-hour sail, under an overcast sky, which took us to the mouth of the arroyo Riachuelo. We motored up river for a short distance and found a shaded jetty with people fishing and just beyond lay several boats. Two large catamarans dominated the left bank, with several smaller monohulls alongside the right bank. We found a suitable spot and anchored, pulling “Oryx” out of the channel and tying up to some trees, before going ashore.

Dock at Arroyo Riachuelo has water and electricity.

Riachuelo is only about 12km from Colonia and is a favourite spot amongst Argentine visitors. 40 years ago, a hydrographical officer recalls, there were no boats, but in recent summers there have been 150 or more at a time. The jetty, with its water and electricity was built in 1978 and since then the visitors have streamed in.

One of the large catamarans tied alongside the bank.

Prefectura at Riachuelo.

We took a walk through along the road through a wooded area to the main Colonia road, which was lined with palms. The nearest village has two tiny supply stores and a butcher, but the buses to Colonia are frequent.


Ceibo, the national tree in full glory.

Colonia del Sacramento.

Colonia, which is also apparently known a Cologne, is the first and oldest city in what is now Uruguay. It is also way up there amongst my favourites. A number of years ago we sailed into Colonia in the afternoon spent the night and then cleared out the next day for San Isidro in Buenos Aires (we had been there before). Not my idea of a visit, but the wind was favourable and we had friends to see.

My first visit to Colonia was in January and the boats we three deep in the yacht harbour. 

 Then, to add insult to injury, when we left San Isidro on the long passage north to Brazil, we spent hours tacking back and forth amidst a overabundance of wrecks and cruise ships just abreast of Colonia. Pete ignored my pleas to head there then, but promised to spend some time in Colonia on our eventual return to these waters.

Rio de la Plata showing its true colours in Colonia.

One of the highlights of Colonia is the Barrio Historico, which is a UNESCO world heritage site. The town was founded by Manuel Lobo in 1680. He was Portuguese and had been a governor in Rio de Janeiro. Colonia is situated very strategically on the east bank of the River Plate exactly opposite Buenos Aires. It became a trading post for the Portuguese and the British who were trying to undercut the Spanish monopoly of the area. Traders and smugglers alike exchanged sugar, snuff and cotton for Peruvian silver. Spain besieged Colonia for decades. An agreement over the cessation of Colonia to Spain in 1750 fell through, but Spain finally captured the city in 1762, but only held it from 1777. The city’s commercial importance waned, but its proximity to Buenos Aires makes it a favourite for tourists.

Note the level of the water.

On arrival we anchored in the outer harbour beyond the mooring buoys. The level of the river was exceptionally high and some parts of the pontoons were flooded. We planned to stay a number of days, although the tidal fetch made the anchorage fairly uncomfortable. We went ashore eagerly the next morning and evidence of spring abounded, at that stage we were both still wearing slacks and occasionally light sweaters. We roamed around the Barrio Historico, taking in these sites...

Ceibo in Colonia.

Spring had finally arrived.

Cathedral near harbour.

Horse and cart rides around Barrio Historico.

and then set off along the river, where we had our picnic on the grassy shores.

Looking back toward the harbour from our picnic spot.

Faking a workout.

After a brief rest we wandered on to Real de San Carlos.

Real de San Carlos

Jai alai fronton.

At the turn of the 20th century a Dalmatian immigrant called Nicolas Mihanovich built a bullring seating 10,000 people as well as a jai alai fronton seating 3000, a hotel, a casino and a racecourse to attract Argentinean visitors. Unfortunately for this naturalised Uruguayan entrepreneur, bullfights were outlawed in Uruguay a few years later in 1912 and then the hotel and casino failed in 1917, so all that remains in use is the racecourse.

Bullring at Real de San Carlos.

Gambling remains fairly popular in Uruguay as most towns of any size have casinos, but in true Uruguayan style it is understated.

All in all it was a very long walk, but a pleasant day.

 However, the wind had picked up and the Rio de la Plata was showing its surly side. Rowing back to “Oryx” was a mammoth task. Safely back on board we then spent an uncomfortable three days pitching about as a storm raged. The photographs will give you an idea, but somehow doesn’t capture the true dimensions.

Stormy skies over Colonia.

Waves viewed from galley windows. Small island in background. Remember this is a river!

Cerca Arroyo San Juan.

Once the storm had abated we were both keen to get underway. We set off sailing for Conchillas, but the wind went light and with the strong current against us we found ourselves going backwards. We motored and sailed intermittently, but decided to anchor on the edge of the River Plate, near the Arroyo San Juan. We anchored off the President’s summerhouse.

´Tower near the president´s summer house.
El president´s summer house. The alternative to the two bedroomed place that President Pepe Mujica favours in Montevideo.
(please check out the link - he is an interesting man.)

Twenty years previously Pete had anchored in the arroyo and gone ashore, but we had been told that the Arroyo San Juan was now off limits, so we merely anchored and spent a quiet evening on board. There was no sign of anybody at the President’s home and there was no indication that access to the area is restricted.

Moonshine on mansion.

Puerto Conchillas.
New cellulose factory near Conchillas is drawing people back to the lovely little town.

Traffic on the River Plate.

The population of Conchillas is less than 500 today, but in 1908 there were more than 3000 people. The town started as a British trading post but then grew at the time that Buenos Aires decided to replace their harbours’ wooden framework with stone. In 1918 the British company C.H. Walker won the bid to supply the stone and imported machinery, trains and many Italian, Greek, Creole and Bulgarian labourers. Conchillas became a company town and even minted it’s own money. Conchillas was the first town in Uruguay to have electricity. The old port in Buenos Aires is named after Eduardo Madero the engineer, involved in the project.

Quay at Conchillas.

Conchillas fortune changed for the worse after WW2, and in 1951 the entire town was sold to two Uruguayan businessmen.

Mate´and motorbikes, fishing under the Ceibo.

Beach at Conchillas.

Nowadays there is a brand new grand hotel set squarely amidst the dirt roads and some evidence of prefabricated housing for the employees of the nearby newly opened cellulose factory and many, many houses and stands for sale.

Yacht club Conchillas.

Dirt roads lead to this new hotel and spa.

Perhaps Conchillas is overdue for a rebirth. We admired the dusty streets, with their many flowering trees, the beaches, and the nearby arroyo and then had a cold beer in a quaint, deserted restaurant. Near “Oryx” people swam, fished and sipped mate’.

"Oryx" does Conchillas

Twilight fishing.

Silver river.


Yet another sunset... off Punta Piedras.

We anchored for a night at Punta Piedras before contending with the tortuous channel and shoals that caused our friends on “Mollymawk” some concern. Fortunately for us the level of the river was fairly high and the shallowest bit was 2m, which gave us a meter to spare! The entrance to Carmelo is narrow, but just beyond is a popular dock to tie alongside a wall, with ablutions, water and electricity. There were a handful of boats on arrival, but on the weekend the place filled with yachts and motorboats from neighbouring Argentina.

Jose Gervaiso Artigas – Uruguay’s national hero, founded Carmelo in 1816. It lies astride the Arroyo de las Vacas. (Arroyo of the cattle.) Tourism, livestock, and agriculture are the driving forces behind the town. In February there is an annual Grape Festival.

Arroyo de las Vacas or just cattle country anyway?

Carmelo has another famous swing bridge, the Punte Giratorio de Carmelo that opens to allow vessels through to the river and boatyards beyond.

Swing bridge.
Raring to cross the bridge.

One of our primary reasons for spending some time in Carmelo was to visit our friend Kenn Back. Pete met Kenn in the Falkland Islands in 1994. Kenn is originally from Exeter and has led an interesting life. He has over wintered in the Antarctic more than anyone else, whilst he was attached to the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) usually as a base manager. He also started off with Gerry Clark from New Zealand on “Totorore’s” epic adventure to study the bird life around the southern ocean I winter. Unfortunately Kenn suffers severely from seasickness and had to be dropped off early in the expedition. Kenn spent many years travelling around the world, before retiring to Carmelo where he lives in a cottage and tends his lovely garden. I initially met Kenn in San Isidro a few years ago, when he was attending an antiquarian book fair.

Kenn Back´s lovely art deco abode.

Al fresco at Kenn´s.

Soon after arriving we set out for Kenn’s place, where we explored his garden and then had lunch.

Corner shop.

En Route to the boatyard we spotted...

this puppy called out to me, but the owner had other ideas, to Pete´s relief.

 We are still looking for somewhere to haul out inexpensively, to redo the antifouling and Kenn took us to a nearby boatyard, where veteran Antarctic charter skipper Alain Caradec was refitting “Kotick”, a sister ship to Jerome Ponset’s “Damian”.

Alain Caradec´s "Kotick" looking very smart.

Pete had also met Alain on Beaver Island in 1994. Alain and Claudine do charters year round, these days. They spend the austral summer in the Antarctic and then head north for the Canadian Maritimes! Alain discouraged hauling out because of the bureaucracy and red tape involved due to inspections and the opening of the swing bridge. Kenn then took us to the Caradec’s rental home, where we enjoyed tea and cookies with Claudine.
Notice the language!

Jacarandas in full bloom near ferry dock.

Central park, Carmelo.

Kenn joined us on the banks of the Arroyo de las Vacas for a braai the next day. He was keen to look over “Oryx” and we ate in comfort down below. Kenn was going away for a few days to visit friends in Piriapolis, so we said ‘hasta luego’.

Museum at Carmelo.

What makes Carmelo famous?

Our Uruguayan visa was coming up for renewal, so we left “Oryx” safely in Carmelo and took the ferry to Tigre in Buenos Aires, where we stayed overnight.

Sunrise over Parana Delta en route to Tigre in Buenos aires.

 We caught up with old friends Julio and Nestor in San Isidro did some shopping and browsing. I’m not going to waffle on about our time in Buenos Aires, as this blog is dedicated to Uruguay and we will be returning to Buenos Aires in the New Year.

Buenos Aires by night.


Christmas is coming.

The population of Buenos Aires numbers more or less the same as ALL of Uruguay... and it shows.
Comemorating the soldiers who died in the Malvinas. (Falklands.)

Another monument at Tigre.

Instead I will share a fable according to Carly:

Webs drifting from  the mast

All along the River Plate there are small spiders that live in the rain clouds. When the wind blows across the pampas from the south, these spiders slowly unravel the clouds and swing down to earth. Sometimes they rappel down on the end of a long thread of cloud; sometimes they use a fragment of cloud as a parachute or paraglider to come down to the ground. As the south wind gains momentum, more and more spiders are released until the fluffy cumulus cloud is thin and cigar shaped. The wind blows harder and harder in short bursts, trying to disperse the fleeing spiders. This is a Pampero.

On our return Carmelo was thrumming with Argentinean visitors, so we set off the following morning for Nueva Palmira.

Grand house near the port.

Nueva Palmira.
Marking the confluence of the Rio Uruguay at Punta Gorda or km0.

The actual start of the Rio Uruguay is a few km before Nueva Palmira at Punta Gorda.  It was here that early explorer Juan de Solis met with death. He had sailed up the Rio de la Plata, which he named ‘Dulce Mar’. He then continued up river with two officers and seven men to the confluence of the Rio Uruguay where the band apparently met with the Charrua Indians who practised cannibalism. According to a sole survivor Juan de Solis was the main course at a primitive asado! One of the crew was spared and made prisoner. He later escaped and related the tale to explorer Sebastian Cabot. One has to wonder why he was not served up on a platter. Could it be he was not appetising enough? Did he suffer from low self-esteem after this or did he thank his lucky stars?

Luxary living near Punta Gorda.
Near Nueva Palmira.

We arrived at Nueva Palmira in the late afternoon. We had motor sailed and ignored the narrow entrance to the small harbour, plumming for an anchorage off the beach instead.

Entrance to yacht harbour at Nueva Palmira.

Note the traffic on the Rio Uruguay.

Nueva Palmira was founded in 1758. It was named after an oasis in the Syrian Desert. It is a delightful small town and we took a long walk around, picking up the fixing for our habitual picnic on the beachfront. We met a friendly woman who runs a Pousada who admired “Oryx”. She says that most of her visitors are from Argentina as a small ferry runs across to the delta.

Bar at Nueva Palmira.

Small harbour of Nueva Palmira.

More Jacarandas than palms...

Grain basket.

Uruguayn history...

painted on the local school walls.

First decisive battle against the Spanish near Mercedes.

Pousada 'La Casa del Sol' hostess follows guests out to say hi to 'Oryx'.


Luis had suggested that we could enter the Rio San Salvador, but we didn’t know how far we’d get. We had no charts and had to rely on the echo sounder. We had few problems after we skirted the shallow entrance. The heady scent of spring was once again evident as we meandered up river. The banks were alive with verdant foliage and the birdsong was abundant, too.

Occasionally we glimpsed the wheat and grain farms that provide the main agriculture in the area. We managed to get as far as a small town called Dolores, 23 kilometres from the entrance. The river was bursting its banks and youngsters were fishing from the docks. We anchored off and went ashore. Dolores was an unexpected bonus and it proved to be a fair sized town.

Dolores looms.

"Oryx" in Dolores.

These teenage footballers stop practisng for Fifa 2014 to say 'que tal?'.

Some fine building in Dolores.

In pre Columbian times, as mentioned above, the Charrua lived in the area. In 1520 Juan Rodriguez Serrano arrived on board a brigantine called “Santiago”. Later John Cabot (Sebastian’s father) established a port near the river mouth. Wheat was first planted in 1528.The town was originally known as San Salvador. A famous battle known as the Battle of San Salvador took place in 1574 against the indigenous Amerindians.

Villa Soriano.

Historically an island near present day Villa Soriano lays claim to being the first European settlement in Uruguay. Jesuit missionaries established a mission on Isla del Vinzaino in 1624. There were some earlier settlements at a fort in San Lazaro and at the Port of San Salvador, but these seem to have been more transient.
Approaching Villa soriano on the Rio Negro there is a ranch on a small island.
 We had now entered the Rio Negro, a tributary of the Rio Uruguay, where the water is considerably darker, much like the ‘black water rafting’ in the Tsitsikama. We anchored off the jetty, which is currently closed and is being upgraded. A couple of foreign boats were anchored off and seem to have been there for a while. Foreign boats were becoming scarce as we ventured further north.
The level of the Rio Negro was very high on our trip up to Mercedes. Flooded picnic area at Villa Soriano.

Once again, flooding was evident. We rowed across to the nearby picnic spot where the pontoons were surrounded by water. Several picnic tables were under water. We tied “Crake” to a tree and set off. Soriano is tiny. It has two main streets that stretch back from the riverfront for about two kilometres. The streets are neatly paved, there are several small schools and parks, but if one looks in either direction the tarred roads give way to gravel and town and country merge.

Our favourite supply store and first calendar.

Please be seated?

Small chalet for rent. The custodian invited us in and showed us around. Well recommended.

Village and country merge.

 There is a delightful bar near the Prefectura and we found a small supply store, with a kind and helpful gentleman, who gave us our first calendar for the New Year.

We spent several pleasant days soaking up the sunshine and relative silence. It is a charming town and the only negative was when I accidentally stood on an ant nest, concealed by newly mown grass. Ouch! The ants were tiny and black, but their bite was worse than any South African red ant I have come across.
(? Fire ants)

Photographing walls

led to treading on an ant nest!

Courtyard of museum at Villa Soriano.

Sunsets over Soriano.

Pete cleared out with the prefectura who were concerned about our draft. We draw just under a metre and this seemed to satisfy the officer, but he cautioned Pete to stick to the buoyed channel in the shoals.

the water level is high..

 When leaving Soriano we encountered an obstacle! A waterlogged tree root (antiquated anchor?) had snared our chain and it took Pete at least half an hour to free our own anchor.


Meandering up the Rio Negro, we stopped at Isla del Infante for lunch, and then we continued on to a remote spot and anchored for the night. We remember it fondly as Km 32! At times we could see why the prefectura had voiced concern, the river is very wide, but even with some flooding the shallows were just that. The wind was very light and the current was against us, so we had to motor most of the way. On the final day we had a fair wind a cruised into Mercedes under sail!

Km32 sunset!

Whaat? view from trampoline when sailing!


"Oryx" visits Mercedes.

We arrived in Mercedes in the late afternoon and anchored between Isla del Puerto and the town. We spent just less than a week in Mercedes and in that time it grew to be a firm favourite. Once again the river level was exceptionally high and a causeway linking the mainland to the little island was submerged. People fished and swam from the riverbanks. Whilst we were exploring the public dock a marinero came up to us and welcomed us, directing us to the free ablution facilities and inviting us to tie up alongside the wall. We explained that we preferred to anchor, but made use of the shower facilities daily. We also topped up our water supply.

View of Mercedes from the esplanade. the houses are well back from the river front.

Bugler protest the proximity of the brick block of flats.

Our favourite park. (The icecream shop is just across the road and they have wifi.)

Mercedes was founded in 1788. In the early 1800’s the Banda Oriental, as Uruguay was then known, was chaffing against Spanish rule. Jose Gervaiso Artigas, Uruguay’s national hero, allied with the United Provinces of the River Plate against the royalists. In 1811 with the aide of Buenos Aires approximately 100 men met at the Arroyo Ascensio and in a battle known as ‘Grito de Ascensio’ or ‘The Cry of Ascensio’ they captured Mercedes in the morning and nearby Santo Domingo in the afternoon of the same day. This was the first victory against the royalists.

as depicted by school in Nueva Palmira.

Mercedes has many buildings of interest and with a tourist information guide we did the circular walking tour in stages. We visited an interesting art gallery where the custodian gave us an in depth guided tour (in Spanish), describing the history of the artists, most of whom were local, and showing us some of the paintings and objets d’art not on display. He rounded off the free experience, by taking us through the library with its array of antiquarian books. We enjoyed a similar experience at the Casa Cultura. In the centre of the town next to the cathedral there is a lovely park, where we spent happy moments devouring humungous ice creams. My only criticism of the town is that someone gave permission to build a high rise building so close to the cathedral that a wedge had to be omitted so that the cathedral didn’t touch the building! (And the building has no real architectural charm, whatsoever!)

Uruguay has it right!

Designed and built by Fransisco Matosa in 1936. Studied modernism under Gaudi.

Built in 1902, typical of 'Art Nouveau'.

The Hotel Colon featured in our personalised tour.

Casa de la Cultura with its Masonic influences.

Another one not on the tour and it is for sale!
Sculpture outside Casa Cultura.

Commemorating the first victory of the Latin American war of Independence.

Our neighbouring dredger.

New park near river front.
Shopping to die for?

Panorama of Francisco Matosas house.

These lads caught this magnificent Dorado.

He dearly wanted us to pose with his fish, but that would´ve been cheating!

Luis Alberto Zanzi, neo classical, built in 1903.

The police chief's building.

Casapuerta. (the building not the chicas!)

This historic building fscade is being kept, but they are building modern apartments.

Need for speed.

Things are hotting up, notice the shorts have replaced the longs.

We both loved Mercedes.

When we sailed into Mercedes we passed a landmark known as Castle Maua. From the shore we saw nothing of note, but Luis had encouraged us to visit it. We packed a picnic and set out early for what the Lonely Planet said was a six km walk. It isn’t. It is more like 2km or possibly 3km and was well worth the visit.
En route to Castle Maua.

Painted pony?

These ruins date back to 1722.

Monument to the industrial ruins.

The castle isn’t a castle in the European sense of the word. It is a grand house and vineyard. It was the home of a remarkable man.

Castle Maua.

Irineu Evengalista de Sousa Maua was born in Arroio Grande in Brazil in 1813. He became a business magnate and investor and some sources call him the Rothschild of South America. His titles of Baron and then later Viscount were bestowed on him by the Portuguese Royal family for services rendered. He built the first railroad in Brazil. He founded the first bank in Uruguay, known as Banco Maua y cia. He financed coffee plantations, railroads, shipyards; cast iron works and then commissioned the first submarine telegraph cable between South America and Europe. He owned steamboats, which plied the Amazon and Guiba rivers. At the pinnacle of his career he was one of the richest men in the world. Unfortunately he lost most of his fortune after the war of the Triple Alliance, where Paraguay took on Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil.
I’d never heard of Baron Maua before.

The Winery still runs, although it has downsized and is managed by the municipality of Mercedes. The wines were very well priced and we bought a few bottles to sample later.

 The ‘Castle’ now houses a Palaeontology Museum. We had arrived too early and explored the small zoo on the grounds.

Como se llama? Jama o lama?




Alejandro Berro was the palaeontologist who excavated the area. The museum has a fine display of local dinosaur remains and again I think I’ll let the pictures do the talking.

Palaentologist Alejandro Berro.

Giant armadillo.

 After we had browsed the museum, we asked the guide about Baron Maua and he fetched some keys and let us explore the stately home. The upper levels are in a state of disrepair and some areas are restricted. Health and safety, Uruguay style, allows for some flexibility.

Castle Maua in need of some tlc.

All for me?

We left Mercedes the next day to retrace our passage down the Rio Negro back to Soriano. In retrospect it was easy to identify the palmed paths leading to Castle Maua. Luis had recommended some wayward anchorages and we found a few of our own.

Tight squeeze.

One of Luis recommendations.

arroyo de las maulas

 We spent a day anchored in a remote spot, swimming and gunk holing with “Crake”. Pete had a close encounter with a wild orange tree, which unwillingly yielded some fruit. They looked like oranges, but peeled like tangerines and tasted like grape fruit! We named the species Pedrinho’s easy Peel Pomelo, but our pips have yet to sprout. However, you’ll be pleased to hear that we have Rosemary, Basil and Mint harbouring crickets in our cockpit, thanks to Kenn.

"Oryx" at Banco Barrientes.

Scavaging for wild oranges.

The trip down the river was quicker with the current helping us, but the water level had dropped and at one of the tortuous points we cleared the bottom with inches to spare. Soriano was still the same sleepy little town, but we had to move ever onwards and back to the Rio Uruguay and the north.

Hasta luego Rio Negro!

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