I remember the day I ﬁrst left everything behind and set out in a rental car to explore the Department of Rocha in Uruguay. Rocha covers more than 4,000 square miles and stretches from the eastern reaches of Punta del Este to the Brazilian border. With several large lakes and more than 120 miles of pristine Atlantic coastline, it’s rural Uruguay proper.
I started from Punta del Este. The western part of Rocha is rolling prairie with grazing cattle and sheep. It looks like parts of the U.S. Midwest (except for the Quaker Parrots and the palm trees).
I drove on Ruta 9, the main highway between Brazil and the Uruguayan capital, Montevideo, making short side trips on several dirt roads to see where they led. As I traveled deeper into the country I passed gauchos on horseback herding cattle along the roadside, two horse-drawn carts, and old farm trucks.
I wanted to see the coast and turned south on a dirt road to see if it would take me there. But instead of coming to the ocean, I came to a tiny town with one residential street and a park on the edge of a large lake.
Everything about this place looked like it was plucked from the pages of a children’s storybook. Wooden rowboats tied to trees along the bank bobbed on the lake waters. A stone’s throw down the shoreline, children ﬁshed with long bamboo rods.
Further down the main Ruta 9 I came closer to the coast and turned south again to ﬁnd the town of Punta del Diablo, just three miles off the main road.
This small coastal village—with its summer cottages and a cluster of rustic stores, shops, and restaurants—is where I ﬁrst got to see the blue water of the Atlantic Ocean in Rocha.
At the edge of a wide, sandy cove between two rocky points, wooden boats lay on the beach. Leaving the rental car behind, I walked past the only people in sight…a few ﬁshermen working on their gear, out on the sand.
West of the village, I stepped out onto a long, completely empty beach with sand dunes and a lighthouse at the end. I’ll never forget the effect the view had on me. I had arrived here in Punta del Diablo, my head cluttered with thoughts and concerns. I left with a new simplicity of mind, reminded that, in the end, nature is in charge.
On the way back to Punta del Este, I saw something out of the corner of my eye that prompted me to stop the car and dig for my camera. On the other side of the road, in a pasture scattered with palm trees, stood a large group of Rhea Americana, the largest bird species in the Western Hemisphere, locally known as nandu.
The nandu is a large, ﬂightless bird related to the ostrich and emu. It stands ﬁve feet tall and can run at a steady pace of 30 miles an hour.
All these were new experiences…but the biggest surprise for me after my day’s exploring, was that instead of experiencing it as something totally exotic, I felt a cultural connection. More than once I thought, “This scene would be perfect for a Norman Rockwell print.” I felt like I had gone back in time to a rural American experience, where life was simpler and perhaps more innocent.
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