jaguarao-1280Most tourists crossing the border between Brazil and Uruguay do so at Chuí/Chuy, heading either to or from the apparently beautiful Uruguayan coast road that runs unbroken to Montevideo. We chose a different route. Border towns can be dusty, somewhat seedy places, but Jaguarão is thoroughly pleasant, a modest, sleepy, neatly gridded settlement dotted with handsome buildings from the start of the last century. Our host was the charming Renato, a politician, musician and general man-about-town who opened a delightful pousada here ten months ago. After a night in it, we set off.

The border crossing at Jaguarão/Río Branco appears to be used mostly by Brazilian locals, hopping over to take advantage of the duty-free stores on the Uruguayan side. Indeed, it’s so little utilised by international travellers that you’d be forgiven for thinking that passing through immigration was optional. The Brazilian immigration authorities are tucked away in Jaguarão itself, 2km from the river that marks the border (Rua Júlio de Castilhos 1572, if you’re Googling for information on its location; we couldn’t find much mention online), while Uruguayan immigration is on the outskirts of Río Branco, nearly 5km into the country. With the formalities completed at both ends in next to no time, and after 80 largely tremendous days and 2,800 pedalled kilometres, we’d left Brazil behind.

 


 

uruguayroad-1280A few numbers. The combined population of England and Wales is 56.1 million. The population of Uruguay, which covers an area 20 per cent larger, is a mere 3.3 million. When you consider that 1.85 million of those people, around 56% of the population, live in the Montevideo metropolitan area on the country’s southern coast, that leaves an awful lot of not very much.

We followed Ruta 18 south-west from Río Branco to Treinta y Tres, a 128km (80-mile) rolling ride under huge, enveloping skies that took us past just two other settlements – ‘towns’ is pushing it – with a combined population of fewer than 4,000 souls. The road both good and empty, the journey wouldn’t take much more than an hour by car; on such a short drive, the lack of activity may not make much of an impression. But time slows down by bike, and the spaces between places are exaggerated when you’re riding every metre. We know we’ll be crossing much emptier landscapes later in the trip; depending on which route we choose to take to Montevideo, we may even be doing so later this week. But after Brazil, where even in rural areas we were rarely more than 30km or 40km from something – a city or a village, a massive mall or a two-pump gas station – the emptiness is striking.

cow-1024Close to, though, the eye always finds something on which to light. This is the advantage of the pace of cycling, poised between micro and macro. The plants at the roadside change gradually, and the flowers furl and unfurl with the sun. There’s vetch and alyssum, or their Uruguayan equivalents. Even the roadkill becomes fascinating to a mind trying to distract itself from the kilometres ahead. Snakes are always curled up, caught basking on hot asphalt – and are those large rodents suspended on fence wire by their teeth related to the fields of pyramidal earthworks?

Solitude aside, the other striking thing so far has been the politeness, even friendliness, of the few other drivers out on these rural roads. Cars and trucks travelling in the same direction are giving us plenty of room as they pass, which didn’t always happen in Brazil. Those coming the other way, meanwhile, are greeting us with nods and waves, flashed headlights and horn toots. Heading out on Saturday morning from Treinta y Tres, we were beckoned over by locals three times in five minutes for a friendly chat and a photograph. Cycling may be more common in Uruguay than in Brazil; but cycle tourists, it seems, are still a novelty worth documenting.

from Treinta y Tres, Uruguay