I spent a large part of my life wanting to get to the bottom of the planet. Call it an odd fascination with the barren and remote. Or just the lure of travel to the farthest point on the planet.
After saving for a year, I had enough money to achieve my goal. I booked passage on a Russian icebreaker bound for the Antarctic Peninsula. The easiest way to get one’s self to the frozen continent is via South America. I had already been to South America. Years before, I travelled to the Galapagos Islands and hiked the Inca Trail, each spectacular in their own right.
So, I booked my flight to Buenos Aires and prepped to get myself south to Tierra del Fuego, where my boat to the ice continent was waiting for me. I remember that first night in Buenos Aires. It was magical. Still jet-lagged, I stumbled out of my modestly priced hotel in “microcentro” and ambled out onto Calle Florida. Calle Florida is a pedestrian street in the heart of Buenos Aires. The night vendors were out selling their wares. All the shops were open. The humidity of the city hung in the air, while local porteños ordered up rounds of Quilmes to beat the heat. I walked down the street to an intersection and then onto Avenida 9 de Julio. For the uninitiated, Avenida 9 de Julio is a multi-laned, thoroughfare constructed in the early part of the last century to rival the Champs-Elysees. By all accounts, it is the world’s widest street. 20 lanes of traffic straddle by Parisian-esque apartment blocks, dotted with bright neon billboards, and the city’s emblematic Obelisco smack dab in the middle of it.
Buenos Aires is a coastal city, remarkably without much of a beach. The city lies on the mouth of the Rio de la Plata. A gaping inlet on the south eastern side of South America. The nature of the river at that point is an enormous murky delta, coloured brown by the constant churning silt. The city that has everything its European counterparts have, lacks a viable beach option. For that you have to go across the bay to Uruguay.
That’s how I first ended up in Uruguay. Not from any exhaustive research. It initially all came down to one very Canadian need. As a citizen of the Great White North we intrinsically share a common trait: The eternal search for someplace warm, and when we get there, a beach. We are a citizenry bereft of a summer. Oh we have summers. Officially on the calendar it tells us that on June 21 summer arrives in Canada. But like a naughty child waiting for Santa, it never really shows. There are a few days, here and there, when we feel comfortable wearing a t-shirt at night. But those are wedged in between weeks of unseasonably low temperatures (as our meteorologists like to call it) and baffling cold July rains.
Thus I obeyed my Canadian genetics and headed north across the Rio de la Plata to a place my “Lonely Planet” called the Cote d’Azur of South America – Punta del Este. Being from North America, I wasn’t schooled in the ways of our southern continental neighbour. Up north, my history was North American and European. My television was American, with a smattering of Brit. My culture was ambiguous Canadian, with a side of Quebecois. To me, South America was a jungle and a very long mountain range where people spoke Spanish and occasionally showed up as plot device in a cop drama. I knew very little else.
I arrived in Punta del Este near sunset. The light was dimming. The trip from the airport went along the coast, over a point called Punta Ballena, and along the extended beachfront of Playa Mansa. It was getting dark so I couldn’t quite make out the features of the area. The taxi dropped us off at our hotel, just up from Parada 8 on Playa Mansa.
To get a better idea of the geography of Punta Del Este, let me give you this easy description. Punta is a community around a peninsula that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean. On one side of the peninsula are the rough waters of the Atlantic. This is called Playa Brava. Ideal for surfers, this side is known for its’ waves and strong surf. On the other side is Playa Mansa, where the generally calmer waters of the Rio de la Plata are. The beaches extend down the coastline of the Rio all the way back to Montevideo and then some. Both Mansa and Brava have beachside restaurants and clubs, while the main city strip starts within the peninsula. There you will find the bulk of the restaurants, high-end shopping, and the main port of Punta Del Este.
It was getting late, and I was tired from the trip. I called it a night. I’d explored Punta the next day.
The following morning, I woke up to the sound of Monk Parakeets, small green nuisance birds that have made their home in Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil. To me, the birds were marvellous. Squawking overhead, perched in the overly tall gangly pine trees, these little chatterboxes grouped in large packs and would fly in a haphazard mob style, from tree to towering tree, taking up a brief residence and annoying the neighbourhood.
The sun was out and from the end of the road, I could see the blue of water. The beach. And the Rio de la Plata. The primal pull of water is astounding. The need to be near it. The fascination with touching it. So I, with a brimming sense of giddiness, quickly walked down the road to the beach. I got to the main road before the beach, Rambla Claudio Williman. In front of me, a large series of dunes, acting as a barrier between the beach and the vacation properties of Punta. The great thing about Punta is that almost all the beachfront is public. There are very few, if any, private beaches. The country has a wonderful relationship with its beaches. The coastline is more or less considered common domain. And there are very few places were you simply can’t walk straight into the water. The notion of a private beach is rare, no matter was The Guardian newspaper says.
I meandered across the road and down one the wooden walkways that cut through the dunes, onto the hot white sand of late morning. And into the cool refreshing waters of the Rio de la Plata. It was just so god damn pleasant.