April 19 – May 20, 2017 (Fall)
Currency: Peso ($)
Visa: 3 months
Cost of living: High
The Atlantic coast of Uruguay is studded with world-class beaches. Some, like Punta del Este, have developed into ritzy resort towns, catering to wealthy Brazilians and Argentinians looking for a safer place to holiday. Others are more like La Floresta. A quiet town of just 1500 permanent residents, it’s a laid-back getaway for city-dwellers and the perfect place for pensioners to settle in peace. During the summer months, the vacation rentals are full and the beach is bustling, but by the time we arrived, that was all past. We found instead a beautiful hamlet all to ourselves, exactly the sort of place creative types dream about to get away from it all and find some inspiration. Unfortunately the reality on the ground left a lot to be desired. It’s hard to write a book or game with mosquitoes in your ear and a leaky roof over your laptop.
Where we stayed
We found this month’s Airbnb↗ while looking to wring the most value we could out of our stay in South America. We’d already paid to get to Uruguay and committed to a month in Montevideo, so we browsed around nearby to see if anything cheap and cool jumped out at us to follow it up. A nice little beach cabin in the nearby town of La Floresta did just that. It checked all our boxes (wifi, washer, kitchen, etc) for an incredible price. The 4-star rating worried us a bit, but the reviews were generally positive and didn’t mention any major issues, so we took a chance and instant booked it.
There were a couple of red flags after that. Our host didn’t respond to our messages until just two days before our arrival. He said we’d be met at the house by someone else, and to bring $100 USD in cash as a security and utility deposit. Cash deposits are very much against the Airbnb terms of service; the only other time a host has charged us up front was Penang↗, and getting it back was kind of a fiasco. But like all month-long reservations, we had to contend with a strict cancellation policy – basically, our rent was spent whether we stayed there or not.
We arrived at the apartment and were met shortly afterward by our host’s property manager. She showed us around – the place was a little rougher than the pictures, but livable – then took our money and left. That night, we fell asleep to the sound of heavy rain. We woke to the same noise, only this time, it was coming from inside the bathroom. A pipe had burst and was spraying water everywhere. After a quick back-and-forth with the host, we managed to turn off the mains and contain the problem. Our host offered to call a repairman, but implied it would take an indeterminate amount of time and suggested we consider dealing with it ourselves – he’d reimburse us for the materials. So Kevin walked in to town twice in pouring rain, first for a wrench to remove the rusted-on tube and then to get a matching replacement. We ended up replacing both of the water heater pipes, since the other looked ready to fail at any moment. This ate a good chunk of the petty cash we’d brought with us (La Floresta had no large stores and only one ATM, so we tried to save up small bills in Montevideo for this stay). We asked that the water that leaked (and the power used) overnight be excluded from our utility calculation at least, and our host agreed. Only, this revealed a pretty major mistake in the numbers the house manager had left us. She’d swapped the cost-per-unit for electricity and water and marked the power as reading way lower than it actually did. Host agreed to the updated values and would coordinate with the manager.
The heavy rain also revealed a number of leaks in the roof. Not encouraging, but we kept our things away from the drips as much as possible. The fireplace was the only source of heat in the house. While many days were bright and warm, the ocean air quickly cooled when the sun set. We paid to have a truckload of wood delivered and Kevin grew adept at building fires.
When the bathroom dried out and we felt the possibility of electrical fires had diminished, we did laundry… only to discover that the washing machine shredded many of our most valuable clothes. It turned out the drum was missing several agitators, the sharp corners underneath snagging our lighter fabrics. Our host suggested we avoid the issue by using a laundromat in town, or we could hire a mechanic to repair it. We tried our best, walking to Atlantida and asking every hardware and appliance store if they carried the parts we needed or knew someone who could procure them. No such luck. We resigned ourselves to machine-washing only our sturdiest clothes (like jeans) or already-ruined ones, and hand-washed everything else.
We mostly got on fine in the house itself. The kitchen had plenty of pantry space and an oven where we baked some truly incredible meals. The internet worked okay-ish during the day, but ground to a halt in the evenings (presumably when everyone else got home). We learned to wrap up our online work early and download our entertainment in advance.
We expected some bugs during our stay – after all, it was a cabin, in the woods, in Uruguay. But there were almost no mosquitoes the day we arrived. Then there were. The rain unleashed a vicious new batch that absolutely tormented us for the rest of the month. These were by far the angriest and most aggressive mosquitoes we’d ever experienced (even worse than Merida). Every night, several worked their way inside and dive-bombed our faces until we were forced to get up and hunt them down. They were exceptionally clever.
The mosquitoes would hide in obscure nooks as soon as the lights came up, then immediately re-engaging under cover of darkness. A fan helped keep them in check, though we hated using it, since the cold night air was only more unpleasant in motion. Walking outside at any time of day was dangerous. Literal swarms would rise out of the grass to follow us. We weren’t safe at the beach, in the sun, or drenched in bug spray. The patio was impossible to use, as were the windows. On one particularly bad day, a kind man even stopped his motorcycle to offer us repellent. This late-season bloom is apparently a new phenomenon, and no one is thrilled about it.
On the day we were to leave, we had to get up pretty early to get back to Montevideo and catch the first flight of a 26-hour journey to Prague↗. The house manager balked at our proposed departure time, pressuring us to leave later in the day. We were not willing to miss our flight so she could sleep in. Eventually, we convinced our host to compromise and let us “check out” and pay our utility bill the night before. The house manager, despite assurances from our host, had absolutely no idea what we were talking about with regards to the updated utilities readings, or the swapped values, or the tool reimbursements. After a bit of arguing and some back-and-forth between her and our host, we settled on a final bill that we agreed was fair. Unfortunately, it involved her returning a portion of our deposit to us, which is clearly something she did not expect and did not come prepared for. Our host managed to reimburse us though Airbnb and we left on, if not happy terms, at least peaceful ones.
What we did
Our month in La Floresta was dominated by one pastime: the beach. Less than a five minute walk away was a beautiful, peaceful stretch of sand where we spent most of our free time. We wandered down there almost every day and walked for hours. Sometimes we met a few people fishing, or walking a dog. Other days we had the entire place to ourselves. If we turned left, we could follow the shore about two kilometers until we ran into a shallow creek split the beach in two. This put us right near the center of town and provided a pleasant alternative route to the grocery store. If we turned right instead, we could walk more than a kilometer and a half on a spit that straddled Solís Chico Creek and the Río de la Plata. We usually turned right.
This little stretch of sand was maybe the softest and most naturally beautiful beach we’d ever seen, though the roiling ocean washed in layers of sharp seashells and garbage that encouraged us to keep our shoes on during our treks. Danielle did her part leaving the place better than we found it, collecting a fair amount of trash during our walks.
We witnessed a stunning sunset almost every day. On partly overcast days, the sky’s colors reflected on the clouds and in the water. Egrets, herons, gulls, parrots, and lapwings were quite common. We witnessed storms rolling in from distant shores, saw waves eat at barriers leaving them suspended in air, and noticed the slow evolution of the spit as pieces of it eroded away while others shifted and grew. One afternoon on the beach we accidentally walked through a mass spider ballooning, thousands of yards of silk floating in off the sea and wrapping around houses and trees. At the very end of our stay, a dead whale washed up on the beach. It quickly became the most exciting thing in town, attracting the biggest crowds we’d seen all month. It was an uncommon sight to be sure, but the overpowering smell was so inescapable, we had to give up on our favorite walking route early.
We also walked to Atlantida on the other side of Solis Chico Creek. A larger town about 10km up the road, it was only 15 minutes away by bus or car, but almost two hours by foot. We spent part of an afternoon there, searching for washer parts and admiring the larger selection at the Disco grocery. There were several parks and quiet streets with food trucks and fruit stands. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to follow through on some of the other adventures we planned for this field trip. We passed the Cervecería Volcanica brewpub on our way, but were dismayed to discoverer it was closed for the season. Nearby Viñedo de los Vientos winery was open for tastings, but we could not find transit to bring it within our range and never made it out there.
Food & Drink
The nearest grocery stores were small, but stocked with all the basics. Bachino and K-53 were located next to each other on Avenida Treinta y Tres. Like Montevideo, food was relatively expensive with the exceptions of beef and red wine. Chips and chocolate were in short supply, only a handful of mysterious snacks were available. The very local eggs from right in La Floresta were a treat, though. The yolks were a deep, rich yellow, and they added lots of flavor to many meals.
Once again, this was a month of beefy dinners. We made morcillas (blood sausage) at home for the first time, after enjoying them as part of an asado (mixed grill) in Montevideo. There are two main types, morcilla salada, the salty/savory version, and morcilla dulce, stuffed with raisins, orange peels, and nuts. The latter recalls the flavor of mulled wine or Christmas cookies. We also purchased several asados (long cuts of short ribs), which we roasted in the oven in lieu of a grill. The best non-beef meat was definitely chicken milanesa; coated in breadcrumbs and fried in oil, it was basically the local Wiener Schnitzel and a welcome break from red meat.
Since it was autumn, the markets were flush with pumpkins and squash, and we leaned on them heavily for our veggie quota. Baking them in the oven and treating them like a super-sized stuffed pepper proved to be a delicious idea. The quality of fresh fruits and vegetables varied wildly, the trick being to shop right after the delivery to get the freshest, least-damaged goods. Frozen vegetables were no relief. They were all low-quality blends of carrots, peas, and corn; intended as forgettable sides, not the right texture or flavorful enough to power veggie pasta or our other meatless staples.
Uruguay produces quite a bit of local wine for everyday drinking. However, the tiny oceanic country lacks any of the deserty climes that make Argentina and Chile such prolific producers. The results were much less impressive. Our local stores had very limited selections, but we were treated to some choices that we hadn’t been exposed to in Montevideo. The standard size was still 0.5 L, but 1.5 liter bottles were surprisingly common, and even more surprisingly, pretty good. A big sub-four-dollar bottle of tannat, merlot, or cabernet sauvignon table wine compared favorably to a lot of bottom- or even mid-shelf “good” wines. Some grapes are diverted into making Licor de Tannat instead. Basically a fortified wine, it drank like a port but had a strange over-strong, almost chocolaty flavor.
Beer was likewise a let-down. The three main brands were Pilsen, Patricia, and Zillertal, with Patricia generally the best of the three. Various varietals of each were advertised, but we only saw their plain lagers and Patricia’s dunkel, and right at the very end of our stay, porter. We must have caught them right at the seasonal switch, because overnight the dunkel had vanished, with the porter in its place. There was almost no craft beer – not even Cerveza Volcanica, which was made right up the road. Instead, we (rarely) paid a premium for a just-barely-better Argentinan brew.
Beer and 1.5 L wine bottles included a sizable “envase” or bottle deposit fee (10-15 pesos, up to $0.50 US), which required us tote back the hefty glass jugs to be tallied up by a cashier. The process was less formal than in Montevideo. Sometimes we got a receipt, sometimes just a number scrawled on paper. Unlike in Argentina, the deposit refund came off our grocery total instead of only applying to other bottle deposits, which meant we got all of our money back and didn’t leave any on the table when we moved on.
Stuff of interest
We had Movistar SIMs↗ already from Montevideo, and simply bought recargas at Bachino grocery for a few dollars each. Our only trouble was that the lady behind the counter mistakenly applied our first recarga to the wrong number, and there was no way to get a refund. We ended up paying three times between our two phones.
Neighborhood dogs roam free. Most are just bark, but some mean terrifying business. Once or twice, we were followed a bit too long and too close on the beach, and we had to chase them off with sticks and shouts.
This was easily our worst experience with Airbnb to date. Our host essentially couldn’t care less, frequently ignoring our communications or putting the onus for fixing problems on us. Despite everything we went through, we left a very fair and even-handed review of our stay. Basically, there was some good and some bad, but ultimately it just wasn’t for us. Our host didn’t bother to leave us a review, but did remember to write a long, rambling response to ours… arguing against everything we said. Of course, users can look at our review history and decide for themselves who to believe.
What we learned
If an Airbnb reviewer finds the mosquitoes problematic enough to mention, it’s probably not wise for us to stay there. If they mention an upfront cash deposit and big surprise utility bills at the end of the stay, it’s probably not wise for anybody to stay there.