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Wednesday, 12 February 2014



"Oryx" anchored off San Javier.

Portrait of Pete as painted by artist and friend Mick Cooper.

We left Soriano a little sadly, but the wind was fair and we sailed blithely away. When we reached the Riacho Yaguari we had to use the engine to negotiate the narrow channel that leads from the Rio Negro into to the Rio Uruguay.

The eucalyptus glade shields Luis former holiday home in Soriano.

Soriano's jetty is being upgraded.

It was a beautiful day; the weather was just starting to simmer but the breeze kept us cool. I had recently made ‘friends’ with someone I’d known and admired all my life and my thoughts kept meandering to the distant past. I was listening to music while I wallowed in nostalgia and a sudden yearning for South Africa grew fierce. My infatuation with Uruguay was still flourishing, but suddenly I was longing for mountains of the Western Cape.

No sooner had the longing been acknowledged, than the banks of the Rio Uruguay started undulating, gently at first and then with more fervour, until rocky cliffs appeared. Once again my heart sang in anticipation and all thoughts of home and the forthcoming holiday season evaporated.

The cliffs en route to Fray Bentos.

Fray Bentos.

Fray Bentos in the distance.

It was a long motor sail to Fray Bentos, but the town exceeded our expectations. The brand ‘Fray Bentos’ was my favourite meat spread as a child. The brand has changed names, but the meat extracting plant with its statuesque building dominates the approach from the south.

The huge letters spelling ANGLO greeted Pete and we couldn’t wait to go ashore. Luis had joked about breathing Anglo air, but the name Fray Bentos and their meat products had been such a part of our youth, that it was like coming back to a place you’ve never been before, to paraphrase JD.

Fray Bentos rowing club.

We anchored near the harbour, alongside Korean squid fishing boats that were undergoing refits. We had explored the banks and bay beyond the harbour, which were unsuitable, as we couldn’t land ‘Crake’ anywhere. The holding off the harbour was described on the charts as stony, but our anchor gripped firmly and we had no problems.

"Oryx" anchored off the squid boats.
Friendly folk at Fray Bentos.

Fray Bentos has a vivid history. The area has borne the name since the 1600’s and it is thought to be the name of a hermit monk (Fray Vento). Across the river in Argentina, the city port of Gualeguaychu – don’t you love it? Pronounced Wally what chew – could no longer cope with existing trade and was hampered from expansion by the shallow water surrounding the city. So in 1855 a deep-water dock was built at Fray Bentos.

Amphitheatre overlooking river.

Barge traffic passing el Anglo.

The town, when it was established in 1859, was called Villa Independencia. In Europe Baron Justus von Liebig, a German who is heralded as the ‘father of organic chemistry’ had formulated a way to make a cheap, nutritious meat extract.

Von Liebig was approached by a Belgium engineer called George Giebert to set up a meat processing plant. They decided to establish the first plant in Uruguay because it could be started at a third of the cost of setting up in Europe. The Liebig Extract of Meat Company started in Fray Bentos in 1863 and dominated the economic landscape of Uruguay for more than fifty years. Villa Independencia became known as Fray Bentos in 1900.

In 1924 the very lucrative Liebig Company was bought by a British concern called the Vestey group and the company was renamed El Anglo.

The suburb is still called El Anglo and the defunct company buildings house clinics and museums.

Fray Bentos supplied beef extract and later corned beef for soldiers in the Franco Prussian war, the Crimean War, World War 1 and World War 2.There were various name brands such as ‘Liebig’ and ‘Oxo’, but the town’s name became synonymous with meat products and pies. The name Fray Bentos was used by the soldiers as nicknames for their tanks or in the case of an F41 as the aircrafts name, as the soldiers felt they were packed in like beef in a can!

The products are featured in the films ‘The English Patient’ and ‘Gallipolli’ as well as in Jules Verne’s ‘Trip to the Moon.’ Henry Morton Stanley took supplies of processed meat with him when he was exploring in Africa. Scott ate corned beef in the Antarctic. Florence Nightingale fed patients beef tea.

The start of the industrial revolution in South America is said to have begun with the Liebig Company. In it’s heyday they employed more than 40,000 people and slaughtered up to 2000 head of cattle a day.

Mural depicts history of meat processing in Uruguay.

A list of all the nations employed by Fray Bentos' plant.

It takes 32kg of beef to make 1kg of extract. The company produced beef extract, corned beef, leather, organic fertilizer, bone meal, salted beef and conserves. The only thing they didn’t export was the moo.

The industrial revolution in South America started in Fray Bentos.

In 1964 a typhoid outbreak in Aberdeen was traced back to Fray Bentos and the company never recovered and then continued to decline with the introduction of the common market in Europe. Trade dwindled to such an extent that the plant was abandoned in 1971. It now houses a magnificent museum.

Port alongside the plant.

The cattle were herded up the ramp and slaughtered at the top of the huge structure.

We visited the museum and explored the defunct buildings afterwards before heading to a nearby beach where we ate our lunch and watched horses frolic and cool down in the river.

Derelict derricks.


By this time Pete and I had both abandoned slacks for shorts. I was dubious at first, because I hadn’t seen many women in Uruguay in shorts, but as the days grew longer and the temperature rose, my fears abated – everyone wears shorts!

Lone fisherman.

Elaborate tribute to von Liebig's company.

The town is very pleasant, with leafy streets and beautiful parks. Two of the famous landmarks are being restored, so we had to admire them from afar.

Teatro Young undergoing renovation.

Central park.

Christmas celebrations were well under way and we left Fray Bentos before the weekend, because we were intimidated by the size of the speakers ashore. Perhaps we were unfair, but after some experiences in Jacare, we weren’t taking any chances.
Were you specific when you asked Santa for an ipad? This one saves lives, though.

Art Gallery also undergoing repair.

We bought some fixings for a braai and sailed under the bridge called the Liberator General San Martin, which links Fray Bentos to Gualeguaychu in Argentina. 

Factory just beyond Fray Bentos.

Bridge Liberator General San Martin.

We anchored off an island called Isla Santa Maria, where we old fogies enjoyed our braai in solitude. Pete had started cooling off in the river and it is here where I joined him.

Nuevo Berlin.

"Oryx" anchored off Nuevo Berlin.

Uruguay has a long history of German agricultural settlements along the Rio Uruguay. Richard and Karl Wendelstandt settled tracks of land in 1860 in the area now know as Nuevo Berlin.

We were hoping for some apple strudel, but the small town is decidedly South American and aside from some murals on the walls, there was little to connect the town with its heritage.

History of Nuevo Berlin beautifully depicted.

The riverfront was wide and spacious. The town was small and clean. There were very few people about, but as always everyone was friendly and courteous. The weather was just starting to get beyond the mid thirties and we were combating the heat with chilled beers and in Nuevo Berlin – ice-lollies.

Christmas is coming!

Sun sets on the Rio Uruguay.

San Javier.

Stopping once along the way, the next destination was the little town of San Javier.

Photographing fairies?

Dendrites near secluded anchorage en route to San Javier.

During the Russian Revolution Uruguay gave sanctuary to 300 White Russians in 1913. Jose’ Espalter, the then Uruguayan president gave the land to the refugees and initially the town was called Colonia Espalter, but the name San Xavier used by Jesuit priests in the area came back into use, trans morphing into the Spanish spelling.

"Oryx" off San Javier.

I have written nothing about the ‘Dirty War’, which plagued Argentina and Uruguay to a much smaller extent in the 1970’s (Argentina had 13 000 people 'disappear', but  Uruguay had dozens, according to my research.) This is the place to mention it though, since San Javier’s Russians were suspected of communist sympathies. In the mid 1960’s Uruguay’s economy was in a mess, due to corruption and political unrest. Jorge Pacheco Areco became president. The country slid into a military dictatorship. Those were the years when Commie phobia reigned supreme through much of the western world. Uruguay was no exception. Pacheco outlawed leftist parties, closed newspapers and invoked a state of siege. In 1971 Pacheco’s hand picked successor, Juan Bordaberry gave control to the army and anyone suspected of left wing inclinations were rounded up, tortured and imprisoned, or worse.

Russian dolls in the park.

San Javier’s residents fell under suspicion, simply because they were Russian, despite the fact that they had, effectively, fled communism to settle in Uruguay. During these crazy years the spoken Russian was discouraged and many books and documents were destroyed, the cultural centre was closed and Russian folk festivals were banned. One of the residents, a Russian–Uruguayan doctor named Vladimir Roslik was tortured and killed.

Perhaps because of the inflicted trauma, San Javier’s Russian roots are still celebrated and in the spirit of democracy the Gorky Cultural centre was re opened and the Russian language is being reintroduced, with the help of the Russian embassy.

San Javier is similar in size to Nuevo Berlin and Villa Soriano. It is a neat, slow paced town. The area immediately north of San Javier is a designated nature reserve and the bird life is abundant.

The name lives on.

Policia on the clean streets of San Javier.

Casa Blanca.

The approach to Casa Blanca.

Pete’s new electronic tablet with its newly installed Navionics application yielded a previously undisclosed place en route to Paysandu. Keeping a close eye on the echo sounder we took the detour to Casa Blanca.The small historic town of Casa Blanca was founded in 1811, when a salting factory was started. Casa Blanca also had the first refrigerated storage facility, which is seemingly still going. The approach to the town from the south reveals high cliffs with some magnificent houses.

Cliffs at Casa Blanca.

By this stage the heat was causing us to strip down to the bare essentials and slather on sun block, wear funny hats and at times It seems that the body can only cope well up to the mid thirties or slightly above the normal body temperature, but when it gets to 37.8C it starts to suffer. I sometimes wished for a Saudi Arabian style headdress to escape the sun. Similarly, Pete’s tablet suffered from heat exhaustion and ceased to work.

Many of the houses had an exterior wall depicting a mural.



Paysandu harbour.

Riverside beaches on approach to Paysandu.

Paysandu is the second biggest city in Uruguay. It is famous for its carnival and beer festival. The city was named after a Jesuit missionary – Pay Sandu – who farmed with cattle in the area in the 1700’s. The city grew up around the port settlement where hides and jerky were salted and shipped.

It was besieged three times by the Brazilians and Leandro Gomez is a national hero whose statue is prominent in the park. He evacuated the elderly, women and children and then resisted the onslaught for two months, before negotiating a favourable settlement.

Leandro Gomez.

Yacht club Paysandu.

"Oryx" anchored off the fishing club at Paysandu.

We anchored off the Fishing club and rowed ashore, where a friendly marinero bade us welcome, he then directed us to the city centre.

Boats returning to the fishing club before sunset.

Like many of the riverside towns, the city of Paysandu is set well back from the riverbanks, to avoid flooding. This means that the area adjacent to the river lends to beaches and parkland. Paysandu has a pleasant slow pace and the only evidence that we were now in a city was that the teenagers didn’t make eye contact and a plethora of nightclubs.

Clubs and restaurants in the port area.

Record of the floods near the prefectura.

Another club near the port.

Many of the young men in Paysandu seem to sport a strange variety of hairstyles ranging from outdated mullets, Mohicans and dreadlocks. One chap’s dreads were so newly twirled and clean that I initially took him for Hasidic. It was the only place in Uruguay where piercings and tattoos were fairly common. Except for the extreme heat, we could have been in a London suburb.

Cathedral near the port.

As we walked towards the port a little ginger kitten pounced on me. It was very young, but obviously street wise and didn’t appear to be feral. Once again I was sorely tempted to adopt, but there are always the complications of travel to other countries involved and “Oryx” is not only something that floats, but a boat that is not particularly kitten friendly. So, sanity prevailed, although with difficulty.

We spent three long weeks in Paysandu. Pete’s tablet was dispatched back to Montevideo just before Christmas and we had to stay put until it was repaired. The city itself was lovely, but after three weeks we knew every inch of paving.

We ate our first chivito in the park next to the cathedral which dates back to 1860.

We visited the defunct railway station.

The University at Paysandu.

To compound matters a heat wave started just before Christmas and only let up around New Year. You will have read, that I like it hot…well, I do, but this was even too hot for me to handle. Uruguay practices daylight saving in the summer and this means that the sun only sets after nine in the evening. From midday to nine we suffered. Pete avoided being in Brazil in the summer, because he doesn’t do intense heat well. We had read that northern Uruguay would be hot, but at times the cabin temperature was 45 degrees C.

Feliz Navidad.

We rigged up a sarong over the dome, we put cushions at the windows, we took frequent dips in the river, but that was warming up too. Little fish nibbled at our skin, something I first experienced in rock pools on Fernando de Noronha. I quite like the sensation, but every now and then a bigger one would nip a little less gently and I’d haul myself out of the water with thoughts of piranhas in the forefront of my imagination and dignity abandoned. I laughed at the absurdity, until we had a message from Luis saying that there are sometimes piranhas in the river when the level is low and the temperature high! (Guess who resorted to buckets of water and showers to cool down, at least  for a while?)

Roast mutton for Christmas? 

I always compare our lives on board “Oryx” to comfortable camping, but during the heat wave it was awful – there were no trees to anchor under. We often went ashore for ice cream and cold beers, but by noon we were the token mad dog and the Englishman on the deserted streets. Due to the festive season people were partying all night and all that was missing was the Bee Gees ‘Staying Alive’!

Packed beaches as the people cool down before Christmas.

Late afternoon sail.

We did have a good time, though. We put “Crake’s” rig on and sailed across the river to an Argentinean island, which appeared idyllic in the distance. On close inspection the smooth beaches were actually corrugated, with shallow pools of water, but this helped traversing the hot sand.

Dany left us this beautiful Christmas message in "Crake" when we left her on a public beach.

Every day boats streamed out of the yacht club and the fishing club and sailed or motored to the nearby island. Someone had set up his houseboat on the island with generators, tents and all and although the river level kept rising he was still high and dry when we finally left.

Returning from the island at sunset.

We experienced three pamperos whilst we were in Paysandu. During one we were ashore and got drenched, the second one we had just made it back to the boat, but the third we saw welling up along the horizon and then creeping towards us. By this time we were confident that the holding was good and we took out the cameras and waited. The approach is furtive, but once the wind reaches you the water whips up and the downpour is torrential. It is an impressive sight to behold, but terrifying to experience unexpectedly.

Classic cigar shape forms over Paysandu port as the pampero approaches.

Cigar resembles a whales tail as the pampero lashes out.
These people didn't see the pampero coming, it was so sudden!
The doggy in the window?

How did this sign survive the 70's?

By New Year we had abandoned the saloon for el fresco and cold meat and salads!

There was an open air concert here around New Year and a magnificent tenor serenaded us from the distance.

This amphitheatre seats 4000.

We visited the history museum near the riverfront.

With some intervention from Luis, the repaired tablet was finally returned and we could set off again. (Thanks!)

The old pump station.

Ribs of a wreck visible as the water level dropped.

Luis’ friend Ruben Pena had provided Pete with charts for the upper river and some local information, so we set off for Arroyo San Francisco. We anchored in the mouth of the arroyo, because our engine decided to play up, but rowed up the creak. We saw Ruben’s boat on mooring, but unfortunately he wasn’t on board.

People fishing on the banks of the Arroyo San Francisco.

Gunk holing in "Crake" up the Arroyo San Francisco.

Ruben Pena's boat: "Enomis".

We continued to motor and sail up the Rio Uruguay by day and anchored by night. Going up river the current was becoming more pronounced so we were delighted when by lunch time the wind filled in from the east and we could sail swiftly onwards. As would happen, I was at the tiller when a prefectura boat approached signalling for us to slow down. Pete had been happy when the prefectura in Paysandu hadn’t asked him for a schedule, but there they were looking for us. I called to Pete and we turned the boat about, putting out fenders so that they could come alongside. They then asked us to call Paysandu by VHF – to no avail. Our aerial is short and stubby and the range isn’t optimal. Anyway they phoned through on their mobile and after a long while and much loss of ground, we were free to go. As always they were polite and friendly.

We are always pleased to see the back end of the prefectura! (Joking :)!)

We continued up the river anchoring in secluded spots along the way. At times we were now sailing along the Argentinean bank of the Rio Uruguay and near Colon the beaches were packed. We earmarked places to stop on our return trip on the Argentinean side. We anchored off an uninhabited island with a lovely little beach and saw a stray chicken roaming about!

Argentina to the left, Uruguay to the right. The river stretches on.

Relaxing off chicken island.

Defunct factories en route to Atrigas monument.

The monument in the distance.

The Artigas monument dominates the east bank and is visible for miles. We anchored near it for the night and then stopped there mid morning. The monument to Uruguay’s greatest hero is a bust on a pedestal mounted on a cliff overlooking the Rio Uruguay. Other more egocentric nations would have had Artigas looking back over all of Uruguay, but the Uruguayans afforded their nations hero a view of the river and Argentina instead.

The museum at the foot of the monument.


The rivalry between Spain and Portugal led to Uruguay’s independence. General Jose Gervaiso Artigas allied with the united provinces of the River Plate against Spain, but was unable to stop Uruguay’s takeover by the Brazilians. He sought exile in Paraguay where he joined forces with General Juan Lavalleja and inspired the Uruguayan patriots now known as the 33 Orientals. Together they launched a campaign to liberate the Banda Oriental (East Bank / Uruguay) from Brazil. After a three-year struggle the British mediated a treaty establishing Uruguay as an independent Republic. Hence Artigas’ heroic stature and statue!

"Oryx" visits the monument.

We climbed the 49m hillock, explored the museum, dodged the prefectura (our documents were on “Oryx”) and admired the view from the monument. It was too early for lunch, but shaded by General Artigas statue we had crisps and a beer before descending to the beach. Four nubile young girls were sunbathing beside “Crake”. We struck up a conversation and took photographs. The one young girl had a smattering of English and asked us to post their picture on Facebook, which we duly did and also share it here.

Senoritas con "Crake".

The rest of the passage to Salto was tricky. The depth of the river was reasonable, but the current was horrific and the channel was very narrow in places. Usually when we have to use the engine it is on ‘tick over’ to conserve fuel, but for the bad stretch just before Concordia on the Argentinean bank we had to engage full throttle. It brought back memories of the Raz de Seine, in Brittany, but is of course incomparable. Nevertheless, I gritted my teeth and dodged the buoys as Pete examined the passage, the charts and took the photographs.

Pastural Uruguay.

Beyond the narrows we found a quiet spot and anchored for the night. Pete had decided that the current was worse later in the day, depending on the electricity usage of Salto and Concordia, so we set the alarm and at first light motor sailed on a fairly tranquil river to Salto. We anchored off, as usual, and had breakfast.


Salto is as far as the Rio Uruguay is navigable and always has been. The source of the river is much further north, in the depths of Brazil, but before the hydroelectric dam was built, the Rio Uruguay leapt across the rapids at Salto Grande and Salto Chico.

Ferry dock at Salto.

"Oryx" anchored off dock at Salto.

Once again Salto is set well back from the river to avoid flooding.
People have been living in the Salto area for over 10 000 years. The Spanish arrived in 1750 and by 1756 there was a small settlement of 100 Europeans. The area is historically significant as General Artigas and his band of exiles camped in and around the caves of Salto Chico en route to Paraguay.

We cleared in and headed for the tourist information centre. From Paysandu northwards there are many thermal springs. We wanted to visit, because I’ve always liked hot water springs since my first experience at the Royal Swazi Spa, when it was just a muddy hole in the ground. However, we had delayed our visit as we were struggling to cope with the excessive heat and didn’t relish bathing in hot water. The weather in Salto was not any cooler, but we could delay no longer. We also wanted to see the hydroelectric dam, which is thirteen kilometres north of the city, and were put off when the ‘Lonely Planet’ suggested the only way to get there was by taxi. The Tourist information confirmed this, to our disappointed. We don’t use taxi’s and didn’t relish taking a taxi and then having to hurry at the dam whilst the driver waited, so we scrutinised the map and found that one of the thermal spas was fairly near the hydroelectric dam and was accessible by bus.

We visited the art gallery in the stately home across from the tourist information office.

Salto has many lovely parks.

This mural is 3D.

It was a long walk across Salto to catch the bus to Salto Grande Termas, but once we were on the bus things went well. The bus was a free ride, provided by the water park, but stopped at the international bridge and when we asked if we could get off to go to the dam, the driver and several passengers insisted that we stay on board and then dropped us much closer to the dam!

First glimpse of the magnificent dam.

The dam is a magnificent feat of engineering. It was the first bi national project of its type in South America. In 1938 Argentina and Uruguay started discussing the possibility of building a hydroelectric dam on the Rio Uruguay. In 1946 the two countries did feasibility and impact study on building the dam at Salto Grande, where the bigger cascade was situated. The energy crisis of 1973 gave the project more momentum and construction was started in April 1974. Many foreign investors were involved and more than 5000 people were employed. By 1979 the lake was in situ and the first turbine came into use. By 1982 the bridge linking the two countries was completed and the dam was officially inaugurated on the 27th May 1983.
Working model of a turbine.

The dam is 69 metres high of which the wall is 39 metres above the level of the river and a further 30m is below the riverbed. The dam produces 6% of Argentina’s electricity and some sources say as much as 60% of Uruguay’s electricity. There are 14 turbines – 7 on each side of the dam. Enough said - we enjoyed our tour in Spanish, which included a quick trip to Argentina.

Inside the dam - view of turbines.

Argentinean side.

We then headed for the lake, but the only beaches that appealed were close to the five star Salto Grande Hotel, so we headed for the back end of the water park. We found a shaded spot in the woods and had our lunch.

Solar power to supplement to hydroelectric dam.

Hotel at Salto Grande.

View of the dam from hotel's beach.

Thermal pool at the hotel.

After lunch we rallied our energy to hike to the entrance of the aqua park, but to our delight saw an open back gate. We headed there and had we not been honest, we could have gained free entry, because the gate was unmanned. We duly paid our dues at the front entrance and changed before heading for the rides. The water park is much smaller than the Wild Wadi in Dubai, but has a nicer ambience in that it is in the midst of a small forest and people are encouraged to bring picnics, instead of having to pay exorbitant rates for fast food. We systematically tried all the pools, although Pete found the thought of the hottest one dire and kept to the tepid ones. We had a lovely time and caught our free bus back to the city, where we rounded off the experience with an ice cream.


Families picnicking in the glade.

Simulating a pampero?

The wave pool remined me of Eid.

Unfortunately Pete hadn’t worn his hat in the pools and we’d banged our heads on one of the rides, so he felt a bit crook on the Saturday, which was our second anniversary, but he rallied in time for the celebratory dinner.

On the Sunday the weather was unbearably hot again, so much so that we went to the zoo without a picnic. We simply stocked up on water and cold beer.

Cabin en route to zoo.

Cemetary near the Salto zoo.

On the Sunday the weather was unbearably hot again, so much so that we went to the zoo without a picnic. We simply stocked up on water and cold beer. In principal we don’t approve of zoos, especially where large animals are kept in smallish cages, but we had never seen a jaguar in the flesh before and I must admit that we admired the lions and tigers, too. However, hot days are not ideal for visiting zoos either and we were both glad that we hadn’t packed a picnic.


Richard Parker?

Over the weekend the hydroelectric dam hadn’t released as much
water and when we returned to “Oryx” children and families were swimming about. We heard a knock on the hull and it was a young man asking if he could pose with the boat. Later three children swam over and asked something similar. We helped them climb aboard and there they perched momentarily before diving back into the river. A couple of little urchins were playing in the mud and I took a picture. The little girl kept calling to me to take another photo, which I gladly did. I felt a pang of remorse at their innocence. I worried about them falling prey to paedophiles, but then Pete pointed out that their parents are always nearby, which they are.

These youngsters asked to pose on the boat.

Perching momentarily on "Oryx" before diving back into the river.


Supervised by her sister, Mom and Dad are in the shade.

Mud pies.

There are more motor bikes and scooters than cars in Uruguay and the first time I saw a family of three or four on a scooter without helmets, I cringed in fear, but over the years I have grown accustomed to the sight. Nowadays more and more
helmets are being worn and the traffic in Uruguay is generally light, due to the small population, which makes it akin to Europe in the sixties. However the sight of a breast-feeding mother and infant riding tandem in Paysandu did raise twin responses: fear and the wish that I had had my camera ready.

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The time to cross over to Argentina was drawing near. Despite the impossible heat and the disabled silencers of the multitudes of scooters and motorcycles we had loved our stay in Uruguay. It is a country that has risen above the horrors of the past and now exudes an aura of hope and joy.

Not everyone approves of the president, but he certainly is popular and seems to be part of the solution.

Nesting among the rails.

The food, wine and cheese are excellent as is the ice cream. Above all I loved the children. Where else could you sit in an ice cream shop and have a young father bring his two kids and their little friends (all under five) and go through the process of buying ice creams for all, whilst the kids sit quietly and patiently wait and then thank him? Solo en Uruguay.
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