Monday, November 23, 2009

Achieving tranquilo

After a hectic week in Buenos Aires figuring out the details of shipping our car and ourselves back to the United States, we were ready to hit the road again. We have three weeks to explore Uruguay and will divide our time between hot springs, a working ranch, and the beach. First stop, camping at the Guaviyu hot springs in Western Uruguay. We wouldn't be exactly roughing it, as many campgrounds in this southern part of South America have Wifi, electrical outlets, hot showers, restaurants, parillas (grills) and/or swimming pools. Uruguayans take their camping seriously and raise camping to a higher art form. When we rolled in to Guaviyu, some people were watching TV in tents just a little smaller than a San Francisco studio apartment. Gangs of lime-green parakeets flitted from tree to tree squawking enthusiastically. We popped up our camper and chilled out for a sunny afternoon reading in the shade and trying to remember how to play Poker.

Parakeets hiding in the trees

There are two activities that the people of Uruguay take even more seriously than camping: the art of the parilla (grill) and the pleasure of maté. Every noon and evening the delicious smell of burning wood and sizzling meat filled the air of our campground as meat artists grilled huge portions of cows on giant parillas. The cows in southern South America must be very happy, because we have been eating some of the most delicious, tender, and inexpensive beef of our lives. Two huge T-bone steaks cost around $4, enough meat and sausage for 4 people can be purchased for around $6. And Uruguayans are purists when it comes to their parillas: no gas grills, no lighter fluid, no charcoal. Just dry leña (wood). Another pleasure here is the ritual of drinking maté. Yerba maté looks like loose-leaf tea and is made from the leaves and twigs of a species of holly. It is dried and then drunk as a potent infusion. A dried hollowed-out gourd serves as the cup. The gourd is filled with yerba maté, small amounts of hot water are poured over the yerba maté, and then the drinker sips the liquid through a bombilla (straw) with a filter at the end to keep the yerba maté pieces in the gourd. People here walk, drive, and work with their mate gourd and handy thermos of hot water so they can sip away at this bitter beverage all day. For a great video on how to make mate, see Kelsey's blog post on maté, complete with instructional video.

Chris grillin' like a villain

After a spectacular sun-rise thunderstrorm, the next day we explored the huge complex of swimming pools filled with naturally heated 37C/98F mineral water. Talking with a grill-meister working in one of the restaurants near the hot springs, he asked us where we were from and how we liked Uruguay. When Chris responded that he liked how 'tranquilo' Uruguay seemed, he replied 'Si, es muy MUY tranquilo aqui' (Yes, it's very VERY laid back here). And he's right - between the kids splashing in the warm water, the families sitting around talking for hours, and the groups of bathrobe-clad adults wandering around with their maté gourds and thermoses, this place exudes tranquilo. We quickly fell under the tranquilo spell and somehow five days slipped by effortlessly. We head north-east tomorrow to spend four nights on a working ranch, trying to get to know the life of the gaucho (cowboy).

Demonstrating the art of mate

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