“We’ve been stranded in the best country in South America”
Elle and Jeremy rolled their motorbikes off the ferry from Buenos Aires at the tiny colonial town of Colonia del Sacramento on March 11. They’d ridden up from Tierra del Fuego and were making their way slowly back home overland to Canada. After a couple of days in Colonia, they asked their hotel receptionist to extend their stay and were told that it was impossible–the hotel was closing. The very next day the borders closed.
Jeremy remembers that they were asked to leave not one, but two hotels as Uruguayan businesses voluntarily closed down from the very first weekend the first COVID 19 cases were announced. They quickly decided to book a rental—for a month—which at the time seemed an eternity. They were to shelter in that same rental for the next twelve weeks, just leaving the little house once a week to get groceries and spending most days in a small but sunny internal patio.
Overland from Canada to Tierra del Fuego and back up
Jeremy Kroeker is a writer and his wife, Elle West, is a motorcycle instructor with the best internet handle I’ve heard in a long time–@ElleOnWheels. Jeremy’s most well-known book “Motorcycle Therapy“ recounts his motorbike expedition from Canada to Panama and back. His second recounts a similar journey on two wheels through the Middle East—Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt.
The adventurous pair, both 47, had started this trip, seeking inspiration for Jeremy’s next book, from their home town of Calgary in mid-August 2019. They rode through the USA, Mexico and Central America taking a ferry from Panama to Colombia to get around the Darien Gap.They worked their way through South America until they reached Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego in January–the southern-most point every motorcyclist covets on their checklist of far-flung destinations.
Sheltering in place in Uruguay – nothing but warmth and friendliness
Ostensibly trapped in Colonia, Jeremy and Elle took sheltering in place very seriously. They knew next to nothing regarding their unexpected host nation and at the same time Elle was reading worrying social media posts from other English-speaking riders elsewhere in Latin America who were warning that as outsiders they were being regarded as a health threat. Motorcyclists and mobile home drivers told of being kicked out of rental accommodation by owners under pressure from fearful neighbours. Others found themselves stuck for hours at roadblocks in Peru, harassed for doing shopping or escorted out of national parks by police in Argentina.
“So we were a bit worried what might happen to us here in Uruguay,” recounts Elle. “But we found the exact opposite–we were given nothing but warmth and friendliness.”
The couple have never felt in any danger during their stay, including from petty crime. Jeremy said: “I know crime must exist in Uruguay— like it does everywhere in the world—but we park our motorcycles on the street and have felt very comfortable with our belongings and with our safety.”
Even getting gas was an adventure
So, as a consequence of the uncertainty of how they would be received as travelers and respect for the quarantine, the couple’s bikes–a 2016 Kawasaki KLR 650 and 2013 BMW F700GS, for the enthusiasts–sat untouched for almost 10 weeks. When they decided to start taking day trips and explore a bit of the country, there was a brief moment of tension regarding whether the motors would start up or the batteries had lost their charge.
At that point, says Jeremy, even getting gas felt like an adventure. So they limited themselves to “short rides around the beautiful countryside” in Colonia. Eventually they rode the coastline to Rocha but by this point winter had set in and being on a motorbike without the adequate seasonal gear (remember, they had never expected to be in this part of the world at this time) was somewhat harsh–even for Canadians.
This reminds me of the experience of a friend of mine, coincidentally from the same city as Jeremy and Elle. In Calgary, winter temperatures regularly drop to -40° C. Despite growing up with such extreme winter weather, this friend told me that she had never felt as cold as she had in Uruguay in August. Jeremy feels the same. “In Canada we are used to the cold and our houses have been designed for it. So at least when you get inside it’s warm and comfortable.” [Editor’s note: Houses in Uruguay are not generally well-insulated.]
With a deadline to return home by September–more than a year after they had left Canada–, the couple decided to relocate to Montevideo and think about how to ship the motorcycles.
How to get home to Canada with two motorcycles in a pandemic
As the borders were closed, riding home was no longer an option. The second option was to store their motorcycles in Uruguay for a year. Elle recounts how heartwarming it felt to receive several offers to store their bikes free-of-charge. Selling the bikes was not likely as they have Canadian licence plates and can’t be legally registered in Uruguay. So the option that they started to take most seriously was shipping the motorbikes and flying home separately.
That’s where they came onto my radar as they asked to join Discover Uruguay–the Facebook group hosted by Guru’Guay for expats and Uruguayans–asking for advice regarding returning home to Canada with two motorbikes in a pandemic. An unexpected boon was finding that the Canadian Ambassador is also a member of Discover Uruguay. She even invited the travelers around for tea.
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Chocolate v dulce de leche
Elle jokes that the only complaint she has about Uruguay—besides the winter weather for which they were unprepared—is that she’s found it almost impossible to find good plain dark chocolate. The chocolate always seems to be filled with or wrapped around dulce de leche. I told her that Uruguay does have good chocolate but you need to know which brands and where to buy them. Like many good things in Uruguay, you only know about them if a local tells you about them. They are not immediately evident or findable on a Google search like they tend to be in more developed countries.
So Jeremy and Elle will be flying out of Uruguay tomorrow. I scheduled the story for today so that they can take physical copies of the newspaper home and show friends and family how two Canadian adventurers came to grace the back page of Uruguay’s oldest newspaper. Their next adventure will be just getting home. It’s a 48-hour trip passing through Spain and Portugal before reaching Canada.
We’ve been stranded in the best country in South America
I asked them what they’ll remember most about being stuck in a pandemic in Uruguay. Jeremy raves about Cabo Polonio. “The truck ride in, the big sand and the wildlife was a little bit of Zen in the midst of a bit of a stressful time,” he recalls.
Elle sums it up: “We’ve been stranded in the best country in South America. The best for health care and controlling the virus, but also for beauty. We are on the edge of the ocean. Everywhere we go, we have had the ocean at our doorstep.” She’s loved the scenery, experiencing “beautiful cities like Punta del Este off season” and that quintessential Uruguay off season experience: having the beach entirely to yourself—or as Elle points out, to share with the odd seal.
As they leave tomorrow, Jeremy confesses: “I’m a little bit sad. We do need to come back to Uruguay at some point and explore more inland because it’s not just beachside communities. I’ve heard great things about the entire country, so more exploration is in order.”
You can find more about Elle and Jeremy’s adventure in Uruguay in their Youtube channel.
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The Uruguay Coronavirus Chronicles – our videocast as a public service to English-speakers
Discover Uruguay group – for sharing & support during this taxing time
The Guru in El País newspaper
This article was originally published in Spanish in El País, one of the most important newspapers in Uruguay. We recently partnered for creating original content about foreigners traveling or living in Uruguay to inspire the expat community and Uruguayans themselves to explore their country. You can follow Karen’s column in El País on Wednesdays, both the digital and printed version. We are also publishing the translated Englifh version of these articles here in guruguay.com:
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