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imagined communities*


Looks like an ordinary road, the main street of any smallish town. But it's not. It is an international border, the official territorial demarcation between Uruguay and Brazil. On the southern side of the avenue the town is known as Chuy and is Uruguayan. On the northern side of the avenue the town is know as Chuí and is Brazilan. Brazilian and Uruguayan currencies are accepted just about anywhere, but the language demarcation is marked.


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a room with a view


The room.

The view.


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Flat terrain with mini-mountains.

Uruguay's sparse sprinkling of palm trees over the pampas strike me as somehow incongrous, but I don't know why.


an interlude, with horses…


I’ve mentioned, already, dreams of horses. In Uruguay, I happen across a little slice of heaven, with horses, an organic vegetable garden and some lovely folk.

I'm tempted to translate Caballos de Luz loosely - very loosely - as Lucie's Light Brigade. Lucie, who hails originally from Austro-Czech Central Europe is the energetic force behind Caballos de Luz, along with Santi, her Uruguayan partner. The business can be summarised as horse based eco-tourism, providing accommodation, short horse rides, longer tours on horseback, courses on horse management and training, vegetarian food and lots of love.

I am officially a wwoof style volunteer and I do spend a lot more time in the huerta than this one photo of the rosemary bush would suggest...

...but my duties also allow me plenty of time hanging with the horses...

... and on horse back.

Me and my horse.


The property is a communally owned piece of land which people from all over the world are involved in, one way or another, and although my knowledge of Uruguay is still somewhat limited I'm willing to believe the contention that it is situated in one of the most beautiful areas in the country.




Native palms dot the landscape...

... where it is not covered by spiny brush.

The communal land is strictly vegetarian but the neighours are raising all kinds of animals and produce some of the best eggs I have ever eaten. This litter of chanchitos (baby pigs)...

... is currently under the very watchful eye of mama chancha (big pig!).

Lucie shines brightly and Caballos de Luz forms something of an energetic centre of the communal land with various activities such as...

... horse riding classes for the community's children.


And just before I leave* I have the opportunity to take part in a weekend course in training horses the 'rational' way: that is, developing a relationship with the horse based on some sort of mutual understanding and collaboration.

This is me in guachita** mode. (Photo by Santi)

... (Photo by Santi)

It is Santi, Lucie's husband, who tells us...

... how to understand exactly what it is that a horse is saying.

*I can’t think quite why I did leave.

** gaucha = cowgirl

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no unaccompanied women

Bomberos, that unexpected haven of hospitality which holds out to a travelling cyclist the tantalising hope of a hot shower and a dry place to sleep after a long day on the road is barred – at least in some cases – to that most dangerous of creatures, the unaccompanied woman.

Men? Sure. A woman under the supervision and care of a man? Of course. Why ever not? But a woman alone? Well, no. That’s a different matter.

It’s kind of churlish to complain, since the fact that the bomberos of Latin America offer hospitality to travelling cyclists at all is something of a miracle and a gratuitous kindness. Still, it irks. I have previously suspected that the high rate of refusals I get at bomberos is due to my perilous nature as a loose (as in unattached) woman but it is in Rocha that my suspicions are unequivocally confirmed.

The bomberos of Rocha, Uruguay, proudly relate to me how they regularly provide hospitality to travelling cyclists. Just not if you happen to be a woman, alone.


camp site visitor

Six inches long and perfect!


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Uruguay is a small country and I don’t doubt that many people would have trouble finding it on a world map or naming its capital city. And I have to confess, on arrival, that my own prior knowledge on the subject of Uruguay is pretty scant.

I leave Buenos Aires on a ferry for Colonia, in Uruguay, across the Rio Plata. Not one of these beautiful old ferries that have been transformed into floating casinos but an ugly plastic catamaran. Oh, well. Colonia turns out to be one of those heritage listed towns full of Spanish and Portuguese colonial architecture that charm guide book writers but I find that one night there is quite enough.

Then a short couple of days ride sees me on the outskirts of Montevideo, Uruguay's capital.

The city stretches along the banks of the wide mouth of the Plata estuary...

... and is clearly labelled just in case you don't happen to know where you are.

My first Montevideo abode - courtesy of Agustina - is a lovely apartment in the old town, close to the port, with a fine view of the rooftops...

... and colourful street life. A couple of artist are working on a mural across the street that incorporates books, bikes and fish which just happen to be some of my favourite things.

City bike scheme -- everybody's got one, these days. I was interested to see that in Montevideo, helmets are provided along with the bikes.

Colourful murals decorate the pavement around storm water drains along La Rambla.

And La Rambla absolutely makes Montevideo with its strip of parkland running along the milk chocolate waters of Rio Plata. It is the perfect place for people to walk their dogs, jog, cycle, rollerblade, hang out and read or just sit and relax. All of these activities are accompanied by the compulsive consumption of maté - it is rare to see a Uruguayan without maté paraphernalia close to hand, no matter what they are doing.

A slightly incongruous Jewish Holocaust memorial dominates a prominent section of the La Rambla. On the other hand, the memorial to the dead and disappeared of Uruguay's recent-ish military dictatorship is tucked away out of town.

Lots of people while away the hours fishing. I'm not sure how edible the catch is, though.

The Punta Brava light house lends the city an appropriately maritime air.

Cats get to hang out on La Rambla, next to the lighthouse, as well.

My second Montevideo abode -- courtesy of Gloria -- is a mid-city apartment which provides me...

...with a fine aerial view.

The building is heritage listed and full of gorgeous details.


And I learn that Montevideo, just like its more famous neighbour on the other side of the Rio Plata, is the perfect place for watching... (Photo by Gloria)



... dancing tango feet.

And just in case you are still having trouble locating Montevideo on the map, here are the details... it's worth a visit.

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buenos aires


I’m a confirmed city agoraphobe but certain metropolises have an undeniable allure and Buenos Aires just happens to be one of them. It has charm. Undeniable charm.


And the charm starts right in my chosen Buenos Aires abode. The Hotel Victoria is a rambling five story building, with 70 rooms, that has been a residential hotel for over 80 years. I’m not sure if it has gone up or down in the world during that time but currently it is jam packed with an eccentric collection of people from all over Latin America. A Colombian guy tells me he is here in Buenos Aires studying circus skills. He came to study economics, he goes on, but somehow he has ended up learning to juggle on a five metre high unicycle instead.*

Carlos Gardel, one of tango's greatest romantic heroes, watches over my door.


It's a bit chilly to make the most of the plant filled courtyard...

... but it charms me, nonetheless.

And the hotel phones are priceless.


A lot of people get around Buenos Aires on bikes and there are over 150 kilometres of bikes lanes throughout the city, I am told.

This one doesn't impress me much, though.


I don’t know if this makes me odd or not but I’m a person who prefers to explore a city through its bookshops. Sydney, Sao Paulo, New York, Chicago, London, Prague, if you want to know, I can tell you where the best bookshops are.

In Buenos Aires, I am facilitated in this quest by the advice of Jodie, an Australian friend – who I first met in Mexico – who spent a decade or so living in various Latin America countries and is a fellow bibliophile. She emails me a list of bookshops that I must visit in Buenos Aires.

The grandest of the bookshops I find myself browsing in, is the Liberia El Ateneo which is housed... a disused theatre. The boxes are fitted out with armchairs where you can while away an afternoon reading in comfort...

... and those that miss out on a chair find other places to relax.


Cemeteries also feature high on my list of places to visit in getting to know a city and Buenos Aires’ Recoleta Cemetery doesn’t disappoint.

Recoleta Cemetery on a grey day is a moody atmospheric place to visit.

There are histrionic heroes...

... and histrionic heroines.








Outside the cemetery gates more histrionics of a different flavour.

Argentina's footfall heroes look a little undersized and distinctly unheroic, from my unsympathetic point of view.


Murals are another way to get a hint of the contents of a city’s soul.

This one is a bit baffling. I think it's a hippo, or, maybe, a horse...?

These are the mean streets of La Boca - the part that isn't all painted pretty for the tourists.




La Boca is a somewhat seedy wharf-side neighbourhood which I visit in search of another bookshop on my list.

A couple of blocks near the famous football stadium have been painted pleasing colours. The streets are cluttered with tawdry souvenir shops and overpriced eateries and populated by restaurant touts and bored tango dancers in fishnet stockings shivering in the cutting wind. Tourists are bused in to gawp and photograph while police stand around making sure there is no trouble.

And trouble isn’t so hard to find. When I wander outside this invisibly cordoned area in search of my bookshop, I am quickly accosted by two young men on a motor bike. The lad on the back of the bike dismounts, opens his jacket and shows me a gun, and then demands my backpack. My first instinct is not self-preservation.

“Piss off!”

The guy takes an uncertain step backwards as my insults become more vociferous and, as the would-be muggers realise that things aren’t going quite as simply they had hoped, the man jumps back on the motorbike and they flee. But I guess this story could have ended quite differently and I am lucky.

Dogs enjoying life in the tourist area of La Boca.


Eloisa Cartonera**, which eventually, I locate, more or less unscathed, is an independent publishing collective, in La Boca, that produces handmade books from cardboard. The collective started in 2003 in the aftermath of Argentina’s 2001 economic crisis with a number of objectives that are probably best described by their own website.









Argentina’s dark past is on display in the city.

This mural graces a wall near a permanent encampment in Buenos Aires famous Plaza de Mayo which houses disaffected veterans of the disastrous Falklands conflict. Most of the Argentinian soldiers sent to the islands, by the generals of the military dictatorship of the day, were still teenagers and miserably badly equipped. They, quite rightly, see themselves as pawns in an ugly game.

The streets of Buenos Aires are dotted with other reminders of the murderous excesses of the regime, this time against their own people. This series of plaques forms part of the pavement...

...outside a university building. The pencil embedded among the coloured tiles strike a particularly poignant note. The memorials are underfoot...

... on what seems like just about every street.

And, of course, nobody has ever been able to forget Evita.


The Puerto Madero area of Buenos Aires has been super gentrified and is now the most expensive real estate in the city.

You know you're in a real city when you're on the Metro.

*I later meet with someone who cynically exclaims, “Typical Colombian! They are all children of narco-traffickers!”… I wonder.

**A cartonero is someone who makes their living collecting cardboard and other recyclable material off the street.

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meeting argentina


Sometimes it is all about the riding, sometimes it is all about the landscape, sometimes it is all about the people. Once I hit the Atlantic there is no option but to turn north on Ruta 3 and that leaves just one of those three things for my enjoyment — the people.


In Viedma, I stay with Marco, Andrea and their daughter Anita, after contacting them through Warm Showers, a hospitality network for cycle tourists.

Marco is a biologist, with a special interest in scorpions, and a passion for archery. He also loves to talk about politics and provides me with an admirably coherent and balanced picture of what is going on in Argentinian political life.


These arrows could easily kill someone and I can't help feeling that in many places you wouldn't be allowed to shoot them at will in an urban environment under such uncontrolled conditions. I rather anxiously let a couple of the lethal projectiles fly myself and manage, to my surprise, to hit the target,


... is a warrior princess and, probably, a great archer in the making.


In Bahia Blanca, I spend a couple of nights with Diego and Natalia, a couple who spent their honeymoon on bicycles in Missiones, a choice both their families considered dangerously eccentric.

Diego and Natalia have big plans for future bike travels. We talked bike routes and gear choices late into the night.


I detour into the unremarkable town of Coronel Dorrego in pouring rain with high hopes of a hot shower and a warm dry place to sleep with the bomberos.* But the bomberos, it turns out, aren’t keen to host a passing cyclist and so I leave town, as dusk falls, to search for a dry spot to pitch a tent.

Then I get a flat tire. It’s just one of those days.

As I repair the puncture by the roadside out of range of the spray raised by the wheels of passing trucks I spy a track leading through an open gate to a group of trees which obviously shelter a couple of buildings. I decide to try my luck again so I ride up to what turns out to be a once handsome building in a current state of sad dilapidation. A dog barks hysterically and a young man emerges. He immediately grasps the situation and before long I am warming myself by the wood burning stove while Juan continues to paint the kitchen.

A portrait of Juan's grandfater, or maybe it's his great-grandfather, graces the walls of the run down old farmhouse that Juan and his brother are slowly renovating.

In the morning rain pelts down as wind lashes the trees into a frenzy. I decide to remain in bed which is the only warm place in this cavernous farmhouse.

But there are plenty of elegant details...

...too admire on the occasional chilly trip to the bathroom.


Eventually, late in the afternoon, I leave the farmhouse. Given the torrential rain that been falling the decision to strike away from the highway onto a dirt road that follows an old railway line might not be a choice everyone would make. But given speeding trucks on narrow wet tarmac vs. mud… well, to me, there’s only one option.

The road follows an old railway line. These now defunct railway lines are a legacy of Britain's historical involvement in Argentina but...

... the current relationship with the Britain is not a happy one. Not a single village is without some visual reminder of Argentina's claim to the islands that they call the Malvinas and which they see as their sovereign territory.

Farmyards the world over are littered with rusting cars. I spend some time in this one waiting for the arrival of a pick-up truck that is still running to give me a lift around a couple of kilometre section of the road that is more than knee deep under water. Apparently, I have underestimated that amount of water that fell over the last few days and the flat terrain doesn't encourage it to move anywhere fast.


Finally, after two and a half weeks of largely uninspired riding, I arrive in La Plata, a university town about 70 kilometres out of Buenos Aires where I plan to have a well earned rest before taking on the capital.

La Plata is an early example of one of those geometrically designed cities that idealistic urban designers like to believe will create order out of the chaos of human existence.

A stone marks the exact centre of the city where the cities founders...

... indulged in a bit of open geo-caching.

But I find the unofficial record of the city's (and Argentina's) fortunes and concerns more interesting and relevant. First. there are expressions relating to ideology and social justice. This feminist mural reads: Bread and roses; -- for the rights of working women; -- enough of violence against women, and; -- not one more death caused by backyard abortions.


Then there are politics and economics. This mural reads: Nationhood or Vutures! Argentina is currently threatened with yet another massive financial crises due to some complicated financial shenanigans by unethical financiers - the vultures - with a good nose for an unearned dollar. The matter is before a hostile US court at this very moment and the country anxiously awaits the outcome.

And finally, there is simple whimsy. The lamb...

... and the wolf.


Life is clearly quite tough for a lot of people in Argentina.

People who make a living collecting cardboard and other useful or recyclable bits of rubbish off the street are called 'cartoneros'.

And there are quite a few of them around.


In many ways I am a reluctant cyclist. I consider cycling transport and I don’t generally do it for entertainment. But since other people see me as a cyclist I do sometime get roped into going for a ride.

I'm staying in La Plata with Lili, who I encountered, initially, through this blog, and she is definitely a keen cyclist.

She belongs to four different cycling clubs that organise group rides and tours.

I am tired and Lili has a cold so we choose one of the less demanding options for this Sunday ride and quickly arrive at the destination...

...where people soon get to grips with the real business.

In Argentina, it's always all about the meat.

And the maté, too, of course.

There aren't that many fancy bikes or trailers, here...

...but they seem to do the job, just fine.


On the way back through La Plata we pass by a disturbing reminder of the excesses of Argentina’s ugly political past.

A house in La Plata that was attacked and destroyed by the military has been preserved, as a memorial museum, to remember the dead and the disappeared.

These faces represent six of the, perhaps, 30 000 victims of Argentina's military dictatorship. The death of the four young men and one woman in this case appears certain - the plaque states they were killed - but mostly people simply vanished. The three month old baby girl was kidnapped and probably adopted into a military family. In Argentina's version of the stolen generation, this was the apparent fate of several hundred babies who vanished along with their parents during the period of the dictatorship and who are only now, in some cases, being reunited with their natural families.

*bomberos = firemen

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