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Uruguay's Wild Side

An Atlantic Coast haven shared by big ranches and some rare critters

January 25, 1998|JILL KNIGHT WEINBERGER | Weinberger is a Connecticut-based freelance writer

LA PALOMA, Uruguay — My husband, G.J., dearly wished to see a carpincho in the wild, but had to settle for a few, well, carpincho calling cards that dotted the marshy terrain.

"They're fresh," our host and guide, Mario Servetto, assured us, although we did not need convincing.

A nature walk through Servetto's vast Uruguayan estancia, or ranch, La Barra Grande, may have produced no glimpse of native carpincho, better known elsewhere as capybara (the world's largest rodent), but we did see graceful n~andus, more familiarly known as emus, as well as chajas, a kind of wild turkey, and a dozen or so other birds whose names, to me, are simply lovely Spanish syllables. And as we walked with Mario through a shady grove, he pointed out the brilliant red-flowered ceibos and rare, centuries-old ombus, a tree unknown outside Uruguay and southern Brazil.

Here, in Uruguay's small, easternmost department of Rocha, with its 100-mile stretch of south Atlantic Coast and remarkable diversity of ecosystems, unusual fauna and flora are abundant, and North American visitors are rare. At times during our four-day visit to the region last January--the height of the summer season--G.J. and I felt as if we had wandered into a Spanish-speaking Eden.

Visitors are beginning to discover Rocha's rich opportunities for nature tourism. Its unique wetlands have been declared a Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations, and support, according to one source, 120 species of birds, 80 species of fish, 30 species of amphibians and abundant migratory bird populations. Visitors may spot unusual mammals, such as the nutria (a water-dwelling rodent with webbed feet prized for its fur), the armadillo and the pampas deer, and learn about the region's rare flora, such as the ombu and the butea palm, the fruit of which is used to make a local liqueur.

The relatively untouched Atlantic beaches, adequate if not luxurious accommodations, excellent regional cuisine (seafood and the famous Uruguayan beef) all make Rocha a worthwhile destination for visitors who seek a nature-oriented holiday in South America that doesn't require vaccinations, a trek through a rain forest or the rigors of high altitude tourism. Such a visit is easily combined with travel to Brazil, Argentina and, of course, Uruguay's capital, Montevideo.

Uruguayans themselves have been slow to discover this treasure within their own borders. When we told acquaintances in Montevideo that we would be spending a few days in Rocha department, they invariably commented on its beauty, but cautioned, "It's quiet out there--nothing much to do." Indeed, for many Montevideans, a holiday outside the capital means a trip to nearby Piriapolis or to Punta del Este, Uruguay's premier vacation destination, a chic, frenetic and expensive resort in the department of Maldonado.

But 60 miles east of Punta del Este and its yacht clubs, polo matches and noisy night life lies the department of Rocha, whose varied terrain includes extensive wetlands, massive lagoons, rugged hills and a largely undeveloped coastline extending to the Brazilian border. G.J., who was born in Montevideo and lived there until he was 11, was particularly keen to visit Rocha, a part of the country he had never visited as a child. On our previous trip to Uruguay two years before, we had not ventured beyond Montevideo and Punta del Este, and now eagerly took the opportunity to see a bit of rural, unspoiled countryside and coastline.

Basing ourselves in the small seaside resort of La Paloma in the southern end of the department, G.J. and I explored mainly the coast, which was cooler in the January heat than the inland routes through the hills, where the temperatures routinely climbed into the 90s during our stay. We were aided by Omar Nobrega, owner of Southern Cross Excursions, a knowledgeable and energetic booster of eco-tourism in Rocha.

Nobrega, who lived in New Jersey for several years and speaks perfect English, secured a last-minute room for us at La Paloma's modest Hotel Viola, provided us with touring suggestions and arranged for our visit to La Barra Grande. For $64 a night, the Viola was clean and safe, but not as comfortable as we had hoped and a bit noisy.

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Uruguay's 59,000 cattle and sheep ranches have long formed the backbone of the country's agriculture-based economy. But in recent years more and more estancia owners such as Mario Servetto have found both profit and satisfaction in opening up their estates to nature tourism.

La Barra Grande abuts the freshwater Laguna de Castillos, one of five large freshwater lagoons lying just inland from the Atlantic Coast, separated from the ocean by a barrier of sand dunes and marshland. The ranch itself is made up of a variety of habitats, from dry, grassy pampas to wetlands (called ban~ados). Small streams crisscross the estate and feed groves of rare trees as well as providing water for grazing cattle and sheep.

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