Our first stop off in Uruguay was just over the border at the small seaside town of Barra del Chuy. We found a massive campsite with over 500 pitches which was completely deserted. This was to become a theme in coastal Uruguay during our visit.
It seems that Uruguay has a three month summer season of December to February and outside of that there is no one around.
The beach at Barra del Chuy was big and empty but we didn’t stick around too long to enjoy it.
Just 25km down the coast is the Santa Teresa National Park which was set up to protect a fortress which was constructed in 1762 by the Portuguese. The park is not just about the fortress though as there are a number of big wild beaches in the park as well.
For overlanders Santa Teresa is a wonderful place as there are hundreds of camping spots in shaded woodland. There is even a section between the fortress and the beach which has power and water for which there is a small charge. There are many other free camping spots throughout the park which are free and provide lovely shaded sites.
The area where we camped had two other overlanders and a couple of Brasilian groups. However it’s a big area so we didn’t feel crowded. It’s a really beautiful and relaxed place to spend a few days, however we were there out of season and things may be very different during the high season.
In the massive park there are a number of beautiful beaches and some great surfing and if that’s not enough there is an ornamental garden and a small wildlife park with some amazing coloured birds as well as some of the indigenous mammals.
While staying at Santa Teresa we also visited Laguna Negra and Punta del Diablo which is a laid back beach town just outside the park. It was deserted although we did find a small supermarket to stock up our fridge with some great steaks for grilling. Preferring the peaceful beachside campsites in the National Park we decided to head back there and chill out, although it looked like there may have been some great free camping in the dunes to the South of the town.
As we’d been driving down the coast and because we wanted to visit the Northern beaches in Uruguay the quiet border at Chui (the Brasilian spelling) or Chuy (the Uruguayan spelling) was our best choice. The road to the border in Brasil branches at Pelotas with most of the trucks heading the opposite way – this meant that we found the border at Chui to be quiet and relaxed.
As with all of the borders in South America we found the crossing quick and easy. The people we came across were friendly and efficient.
We first arrived at the Brasilian border post where we were directed to park just off the road (albeit blocking another loop of the road) a few metres before the border building.
The building itself was very organised with numbered signs above each window indicating the order of the steps to be taken. As usual the immigration was first up followed by customs. The process went quickly and smoothly although the woman at customs did want to check the VIN (identification) number of the truck.
Once through the Brasilian side we continued along the road which forks to the town of Chui or to Uruguay.
The town of Chui is slightly strange as it crosses the border with the main street marking the split between the two countries with signs in Portuguese on one side and Spanish on the other and of course the shops on one side of the street price everything in Reals and the other in Pesos!
We took the fork in the road to the border and soon came across the border building where there is a big concrete construction built over the road. We were flagged down (by a bloke in plain clothes who we were initially quite suspicious of!) and directed to park just in front of the concrete construction and hopped out of the truck to visit the building on the right.
We were quickly stamped in at immigration and then moved to the customs table where the ‘suspicious looking’ man who had flagged us down processed us and turned out to be the chief official! He was very friendly and filled in the forms to give us a Temporary Import Permit.
He wanted to come out and check out the truck and we initially thought this was going to be a food inspection and that we might lose some of our stores. Other people have had food inspections coming into Uruguay (at other borders) and these have been quite strict. However it turned out that the customs guy was thinking about buying a motorhome and just wanted a look inside!
After this we were done and drove off. We were hoping that the road would lead to the town because we needed some money from an ATM. However the highway just headed South so we turned around – back down the highway, past the border and back into the town.
We didn’t have any luck getting money on the Uruguayan side of the town as the only cashpoint we could find didn’t accept foreign cards. Not to be thwarted, we crossed over to the Brasilian side where there were several banks doling out Brasilian Reals, filled up our wallets and crossed back over the street to one of the hundreds of moneychangers and finally, in a roundabout way, we managed to get our hands on some Pesos.
The South of Brasil is the home of Gaucho culture and with it the world’s best grilling of meat. Everywhere you go are Churrascaria restaurants where skewers of meat are carved off onto your plate at the table. The meat keeps coming until you are defeated by the sheer quantity.
In Brasil the spiritual home of Churrascaria is the Southern city of Porto Alegre and in this town one of the best is Galpao Crioulo. The restaurant is right in the middle of the city but we were relieved to find wide streets and ample secure parking right outside the restaurant.
As we walked up to the entrance we were greeted by a Gaucho server grilling meat in the traditional way on upright spits over an open fire.
Once inside the meat started coming, and despite making a small error in visiting the salad/sides bar, we revelled in at least 12 different types of meat carved at our table by a bunch of really friendly waiters. We were very surprised by the chicken hearts that were very tasty but the highlight was really the 3 or 4 different types of beef which was amazing. As a tip just focus on the meat and don’t fill up at the salad bar – don’t waste the space !
While we were eating there was a display of Gaucho dancing including a guy spinning a bola blindfolded, around a volunteer’s head. Rather him than me !
It was a fantastic Saturday afternoon and when we finally left we drove a few miles south before finding somewhere to spend the night and sleep off our meat sweats !
We had one final stop in Brasil which was the holiday town of Cassino. The town is set up as a sea -side resort for Uruguyans and Argentinians but we just couldn’t see the attraction. It didn’t help that the sea was really muddy and the beach particularly windswept. It may just be the time of year but we were definitely not enamoured.
Despite the mixed weather we decided to head into the mountains (well really hills compared to much of South America) of Rio Grande du Sul. The mountains in Rio Grande are the one place in Brasil where it occasionally snows.
Our first stop was the town of Praia Grande where we checked with the local tourist office that the road into the mountains that was labelled on our maps as a 4×4 only track was passable in a truck of our side. The answer, in a mangled mix of Spanish and Portugese, was pretty ambiguous but we decided to give it a shot anyway. The alternative route was a lot further and paved the whole way but where is the fun in that.
The plan was to drive up into the mountains and visit the Parque Nacional dos Aparados da Serra which has a number of huge canyons breaking up the edge of the mountain plateau. The road started off as paved with rocky breaks on the corners but soon became unpaved. As soon as we gained some altitude the temperature dropped, the clouds closed in and the visibility dropped. This scotched any idea we had of getting views.
As the weather was killing any views we kept driving and after a particularly challenging short cut where the road narrowed and roughened we ended up on a paved road to the resort town of Canela. This is popular with Brazilians as a great place to escape the heat of the rest of the country.
In Canela we visited the amazing Parque Estadual de Caracol whose centrepiece is a massive 131 metre waterfall. There are several viewpoints for this including the bottom of an 800 step staircase at the foot of the falls. There are a number of other smaller waterfalls here and a nice walk through the forest where we saw coati.
After spending the night just outside the parque we awoke to a grey miserable day so we decided to drive back out of the mountains, through the incredibly touristy town of Gramado and back down to sea level. Descending back to the lowlands was rewarded by improving weather as blue sky broke out through the clouds. Looking back to the mountains we could see a band of dark grey clouds hovering over where we had been.
We had heard that near the town of Tres Coroas that there was the largest Buddhist Temple in the Americas. We had a bit of trouble finding our way there but eventually we found the steep cobbled road that took us up to the hilltop temple. Once we had negotiated the security on the door – an automatic gate which is only opened by talking to a monk on an intercom (who only speaks Portugese).
The temple itself is amazing with really ornate buildings and temples including buildings with massive powered prayer wheels which turn constantly supposedly distributing the prayers inside to the winds.
We came back down to the coast after exploring the Valle Europa and decided that it was time to find a nice beach to rest up on for a couple of days.
We drove into a peninsula called Porto Belo in search of our perfect beach. The first town is Porto Belo itself where the beach front is built up and it’s pretty difficult to get near the beach itself. Despite help from the local tourist information office we couldn’t find anywhere near the town to park for the night.
We explored a narrow road up a peninsula with little Mediterranean-esque villages. It was very pretty but we were much too big for the road so we headed back to the main road.
We visited a town on the other side of the peninsula called Bombinhas which was a bit bigger but there was no camping here and it was still difficult to access the beach. We kept going and eventually ended up in a really quiet area called Canto Grande.
To our surprise we found a full service RV park which was completely empty. There was even a big building at one end with grills, sinks, table football and a pool table. We enjoyed having the place to ourselves and making it even better was a lovely deserted beach only 100 metres away.
We spent a couple of days in Porto Belo and then drove a bit further South to the Island of Florianopolis. The bridge over to the island has the city of Florianopolis on either side and this is the capital city of Santa Catarina with over a million people. We took the opportunity to stock up at a big supermarket but didn’t hang around in the very busy city. Instead we drove to the Eastern side of the island and found a campground on a causeway cutting a big lagoon in half.
Unfortunately soon after arriving on the island it started to rain – hard. This meant that when we went to explore the island the following morning there was some flooding. We didn’t have a problem with the water but all the cars had to turn round.
The island has some beautiful beaches but we couldn’t find any deserted beaches with no buildings to camp on or next to, so in the end we didn’t hang about in these areas for too long.
While walking on one of the beaches in Florianopolis we were joined by the scary looking dog pictured below. Fortunately he was perfectly friendly and befriended us for the whole walk.
We left the little Ihla de Sao Francisco and headed slightly inland to a rich fertile valley called Valle Europa. This region of Brasil was settled by German immigrants in the 19th century after immigration to the USA became more difficult and consequently has a distinct German character, with German as likely to be heard on the streets as Portugese. In fact as late as the 1920’s 70% of the population of the region still spoke German as their first language.
We first visited the small town of Pomerode which is considered the most German town in Brasil. It’s a quiet little town with not too much to recommend it. It seems prosperous but most of the buildings are fairly recent.
We visited the Pomerode zoo which had a good selection of animals in fairly good conditions.
The highlight of our visit to Pomerode though was our visit to a traditional German restaurant. This was an absolutely excellent meal at the restaurant Wunderwald. The food was German but with a Brasilian influence. Our meal was a big platter to share of Duck, Ham Hock, sausages, gammon, sauerkraut, red cabbage, cassava and a whole bunch of sauces coupled with some local brewed German beer which was also excellent. Communicating with the waitress was interesting but we managed in a mix of Spanish, German, English and even a few words of Portuguese from our phrasebook.
In the morning we drove into the biggest town in the Valle Europa, Blumenau. It was Sunday so the traffic wasn’t too bad and we managed to find somewhere to park right in the middle of town. This allowed us to explore the centre with its odd mix of European/German architecture and Art Deco. It is however a slightly Disneyland version of Germany !
The Valle Europa is a very pleasant area that deserved more time than we gave it. Suprisingly although not very high it was a few degrees cooler than the coast and gave us a very enjoyable night’s rest.
After leaving Igaucu we wanted to drive to the coast to spend some time checking out Brasil’s famous beaches. The only problem was that the coast is A 500 Mile cross country slog away. We managed to drive this in two days stopping off at one of Brasil’s amazing truck stops for the night.
Of all the countries that we have driven through Brasil definitely takes the prize for massive number of trucks. There are loads of them and sometimes it feels like they are the only things on the road. The plus side of the vast number of trucks is that there are lots of truck services as well – every town seems to be brimming over with mechanics, truck washes, spare parts and other services.
The trucks also mean that there are lots of petrol stations with big areas for overnight parking – we’ve even seen nice parking areas with picnic tables and grills. They also have showers for truckers and good restaurants. These are good places to spend the night and free.
When we finally hit the coast we drove straight onto the Ihla de Sao Francisco which is a small island separated from the mainland by a narrow channel which is bridged by a causeway.
We drove straight across the island to the beautiful East coast where we parked up for the night along the beach front at Praia de Enseada.
We were parked opposite a café and straight away noticed a small band of monkeys on the roof. The owners were feeding them fruit and the hung around until dark.
The beach itself was beautiful and mostly empty giving us a great sunset.
In the morning we had a lazy morning on the beach before driving to the main town on the island, Sao Francisco do Sul. This is an old colonial town, our first for what seems like a long time, and although small had a very relaxed vibe to it.
The town was very pretty and despite the narrow streets we had no problems as there wasn’t much traffic.