La Rambla

For three years, 2013-16, we escaped the cold, dark, barren northern winters and flew south, like migrating birds, to the welcoming warmth of the Southern American summers.  Each year we rented the same apartment in Pocitos, a beach suburb of Montevideo.  Our serviced eleventh floor apartment was just above the top of the trees that completely shaded the street below.  It was a perfect location for us, just two short blocks and three minutes from the river.

From Montevideo, the Río de la Plata does not look like a freshwater river, for it is so wide that one cannot see Argentina, about 100 kilometers away at the closest point.  Massive container ships, tankers and cruise ships, on their way upriver to Buenos Aires and beyond, look like tiny toy boats on the distant horizon.  When one of the regular earth-shaking tropical storms hits the upper reaches of the river, for days the water is brown with sediment.

Along the river runs La Rambla, a wide promenade, that stretches along the coast for more than 30 km, and is reputedly the world’s longest uninterrupted sidewalk.  Every day, almost without exception, we walked on La Rambla, first in one direction, then in the other.  After a short time, we started to recognize the locals, and before long we were greeting each other like neighbours.  Some times we would count how many people we had  spoken to in the course of a walk, and the number would usually end up in double figures.  We felt very much as part of the community, for Pocitos had the feel of a village.

La Rambla at Pocitos

On La Rambla we also got to recognize the local birds, not just the species, but in some cases the individuals.  There were numerous birds along the river, some quite exotic.  There are reputedly more than 450 different bird species to be found in the relatively small country of Uruguay; the internet site, Avibase, lists 479.  Not only is Uruguay on the major migration path for many birds, but the country has plentiful water and a climate without extremes.  It was not long before I bought a book on Uruguayan birds and in the second year Lotta turned up with a new camera to photograph them.

Most days when we passed the end of the beach at Pocitos, there were several small snowy egrets with yellow feet, fishing at the edge of the water.  Often there was also a much larger great egret.

A snowy egret

We once spotted a great egret sitting on top of a tree, near the small harbour at Punta Carretas.  When we went around and through the trees to get closer, we saw a black-crowned night heron.  It was a young one and it flapped away before Lotta could get a second shot.  Although we went back on other days, we never saw it again.

Great Egret
Black-crowned night heron

Where there were rocks by the river, inevitably there were cormorants with wings outstretched, drying their feathers.  Once we were very fortunate to witness a large flock of cormorants in a long semi-circle, hunting together, driving a shoal towards the shore.  We could see the fish splashing in the water, trying to escape their predators.

Neotropic cormorant

Everywhere where there were mature palm trees, there seemed to be colonies of monk parakeets.  When they are feeding on the grass, they are well disguised, but when they are flying or gathered on a palm tree, they make their presence well known, for they make quite a racket.

Monk parakeet

Humming birds are tiny; they hover and then move so quickly that one has to be lucky to see one, and even more fortunate to take a photograph of it.  One day we hit the jackpot, just up the hill from Playa Ramírez; a tree in full flower with many humming birds feeding on the nectar.  And for several days they had a banquet on that tree.

A humming bird

Above the hill behind Playa Buceo, we often saw this little hawk, resting on a light pole.  If not an american kestrel, it was similar.  Even in the strongest wind it was able to hover motionless for several minutes, sometimes not far from us, then it would suddenly drop, grab its prey and fly off to nearby trees.


The southern lapwing is Uruguay’s national bird and in the summer they are plentiful, especially on the parkland between the golf course and the river, after heavy rain.  The lapwings have a strange hesitant walk, that always reminds me of John Cleese in Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks.

During our first year in Pocitos, we used to see one lapwing that was always on its own.  At first we thought that it was always standing on one leg, but when it started to hop, it was obvious that it had only one leg.  It appeared to be quite healthy, but perhaps the rest of the flock rejected it for not being quite normal.  I guess that handicapped people in our society can suffer the same rejection.

The Southern Lapwing with only one leg

The last year that I arrived back in Pocitos, I settled my few possessions in the apartment and then went out for a short walk along La Rambla.  At the end of the beach, there is a small park and there on the edge of the park, waiting for me, was the southern lapwing with only one leg.

I felt as if I had come home.

Balugües to Pontevedra

Saturday, 1 April, 2017

Step by step, I have been slowly moving north across the map of northern Portugal and into Galicia.  It has been six days since I left Balugües, covering 127 km, spending nights in Ponte de Lima and Parades de Coura, before leaving Portugal and crossing into Spain, and staying in Tui, O Porriño, Arcade and tonight in the attractive city of Pontevedra.

Until the last couple of days the weather has been challenging – cold, wet and windy, with occasional downpours.  The torrential rain always waits until I am in the open countryside and far from possible shelter.

When we stayed in Montevideo, there were several sets of outdoor exercise machines, also in our current base of Green Point in Cape Town.  They always seem to be heavily used, and if broken, it would almost certainly be the result of overuse, rather than vandalism.  And now, I have walked through two small villages in Portugal, with their own set of machines, right on the camino.  I admit that I did not feel tempted to have a workout.


The camino in Portugal is so well marked with the yellow flechas, that even I could not get lost.  This rather spoiled my normal excuse for talking to people in the street, but I soon found other reasons.  In Portugal language was a complication for me, as my Portuguese, so far, does not exist. I found that some Portuguese are comfortable in English, others in French or Spanish, but the majority are mono-lingual.  Before I go back to Portugal, and I surely will, I must master the basics of their language.

I was always aware that the Portuguese camino was mostly on paved surfaces, but I understood ‘paved’ to mean asphalt.  Big mistake!  For much of the Portuguese camino, paved means cobblestones of all sizes and shapes, whether roads and pavements through villages, roads between villages, country lanes etc.  The stones are unforgiving, and by the end of the day, my feet, knees and hips feet were quite beaten up.

A typical village road
A village pavement with smaller stones
A typical country road

I would describe the Portuguese route as being undulating.  It is certainly not flat and in one case, between Ponte de Lima and Paredes de Coura, there is a steep climb of 400 m, largely on smooth rocks.  I had to be very careful not to sprain my ankle for the fourth time in three years.

The view from the top of the climb

I have never before seen tame sheep wandering around a village with lambs.  One of the lambs was walking along the top of a wall and jumped down on the other side.  That set off a furious baaing by the mother, especially when its lamb could not get back onto the wall after several attempts.  I was about to set off to find the owner of the sheep, when the lamp cleared the wall in one leap.  The motherly scolding ceased and all went back to eating.


Coming across a Roman mile-stone is a vivid reminder that the path had been used for more than two thousand years.  The mile-stone dated from c200 BC, probably from the reign of Trajan, and was a on a road that linked Braga with Astorga, via Lugo.


The bridge from Arcade to the north was the scene of a decisive battle in the Peninsular War, when the Spanish forces defeated the French.  During the battle, one of the central arches of the bridge was destroyed to halt the French advance.


The Ponte Romano de Pontesampaio across the river Vergugo at Arcade

It is now late Saturday afternoon in the beautiful city of Pontevedra, and I have just arrived.  The sun is shining, spring seems to have arrived and the plazas, streets and bars are packed, and everywhere there are children playing football.

And in three more days I hope to once more walk into Santiago de Compostela.

Consumer Prison

Situated on a hill overlooking the river, one block from the Montevideo golf course, and connected to the 26-storey Sheraton hotel, one can find Punta Carretas Shopping with its 180 shops, food hall and multi-cinema complex.  It is the most up-market of Montevideo’s shopping centres.  Once inside the austere external walls, there is little to differentiate this centre from any other American-style centre; the shops display most of the same global brands that one can find anywhere.  But the language is a South American giveaway: almost exclusively Spanish with a smattering of Portuguese from Brazilian tourists, or occasionally English from Sheraton guests or cruise passengers in port for a few hours.

But this building has not always been a shopping centre.  It was originally the notorious Carretas prison, built in 1910, when the area was well outside of the nucleus of Montevideo.  In the era of the military dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s, many of the captured members of the Tupamaros, the urban-guerrilla movement, were imprisoned there.  In that same era, an estimated 14% of the Uruguayan population were forced into exile abroad.

In the years 1931, 1971 and 1972, there were three major escapes from the prison, using tunnels.  In 1971, 106 prisoners escaped through a tunnel that ended in the living room of a neighbour’s house.  One of those prisoners was José Mujica, who eventually ended up as President of Uruguay in 2010-2015.  He was shot six times, captured four times and eventually released in 1985.  With his austere lifestyle, refusing to live in the presidential palace, driving his own old battered Volkswagen and donation of 90% of his salary to charity, he became known as ‘the world’s humblest president’.  In the photos one can see Mujica as he was the day he was released and today.  Only the nose is recognizable.

After the end of the period of dictatorship in 1985, the prison was closed.  Following a competition, the building and site were eventually sold to a developer, and in 1994 the shopping centre was opened.  With its luxurious multi-storey apartments, desirable single family homes and restaurants, today the Punta Carretas area is one of the most sought-after addresses of Montevideo.  Apart from the external walls of the shopping centre, there is nothing to reveal the area’s undesirable past.

Many of the ex-prisoners are still alive today and at least one of them escorts curious tourists around the building and explains how the prison used to be.  For those ex-prisoners it must seem ironic that every day hordes of people, of their own will, enter the place from which they once struggled to escape.