“Are we in a new country?”
Mark looked at, doubtful.
“Look at the flag! It’s different.”
“It has a sun.”
“Yeah, okay, like Argentina’s flag. But the sun is in the corner, not in the middle.”
Bad example. The two flags do look a bit similar to an untrained eye.
It’s only once in the supermarket, buying drinks, that I realized we had indeed crossed a border and that we were in a new country. When you cross overland, changes are less noticeable than when you land in an airport miles from your departure city. Salto, Uruguay, is only an hour from Concordia, Argentina. The weather is the same—hot and humid—, people still speak Spanish, carry their cup of mate everywhere they go, take a long siesta in the afternoon and worship God fútbol and those saints who run after the pelota.
Yet, Argentina and Uruguay are different.
Uruguay is a rare treat for backpackers. It’s hard to get there and it’s a small country of only 3.5 million. A drop of water compared to Brazil and Argentina. I always wonder what it feels like to be a citizen of a relatively small country. Does it feel like you know the entire population? Do you greet fellow citizens as brothers and sisters when you meet abroad?
Salto, Uruguay’s second-biggest city after the capital, Montevideo, feels like a small town. The main street is unimaginatively named “Calle Uruguay” and it runs from the bus station to the shore of río Uruguay. Yep, that’s a lot of Uruguay—maybe this is a way to remind Argentinian tourists that they aren’t home anymore?
“Salto’s museums all close during January,” said the tourist brochure. Okay, then what?
Getting to know Uruguay. Feng and I had been there twice before but we are less familiar with the country than with Argentina or Chile.
“Hey, now I remember! Chivitos are those giant steak sandwiches!”
“Oh look, no more San Martín. The national hero is Artigas here.”
The biggest attraction around Salto is the hot springs, the nearest ones being the Termas de Daymán. This is where we headed on our second day in Uruguay. I wasn’t quite sure what it was about. Termas was described as a small town with many hotels, so I pictured it like Tulum, in Mexico. I was confused about the hot springs. Were they more the medicinal kind, i.e. mostly for a foot soak, or was a water park built around them? Either way, they seemed to be popular. The local bus was packed and many hotels were booked by the hot springs.
The bus dropped us off right at the entrance of the complex. The fee was only 130 pesos, about $6. It was a park with several swimming pools of various sizes—a few shallow ones for kids, a couple of bigger and deeper ones for adults. There were few swing sets in metal, deserted because they must have been burning hot under the sun. No slides, nothing really fun.
I was disappointed.
Mark jumped into the kiddie pool, Feng and I stood there. Most kids were in the pool and parents were picnicking or drinking on the grass or on the tables nearby.
“I feel like I’m at the neighbourhood playground,” I complained. “I ain’t a teen anymore, I don’t feel like hanging out by the pool.”
I don’t like pools. I don’t get what’s fun about them. I like beaches, I like waterfalls, I can even be tempted to enjoy a lake—although deep down, I don’t trust unsalted still water.
“So what’s the big deal, then?”
I tried one of the pools, just for the sake of it. The water was hot. Like, really hot. Like … a hot spring. Okay, that was fun for a minute. But it was also 40°C outside so it was hard to appreciate a hot bath.
In the end, I decided to do something I considered fun: walking back to Salto via Ruta 3.
“If you want to torture yourself…”
“But it’s cool! I want to see all the estancias, the fields!”
The two guys stayed at the termas a bit longer and we agreed to meet at the hotel. I bought a Coke for the eight-kilometre hike and started walking. There was a bike path along the road so at least it was easy.
It was beautiful. Green fields, cows, horses, blue sky and tall trees.
It took me less than two hours to reach Salto. I was a sweaty mess and I was dusty but I had found my fun.
Yeah, maybe I’m weird.