Uruguay – Cerro Catedral

Cerro Catedral – Roof of Uruguay (1685ft)
Night-winter ascent
Eric Gilbertson
4:15pm June 29 – 11am June 30

“Usted ha viajado por todo el camino de los Estados Unidosuruguay3 por menos de un día en Uruguay??” [You’ve traveled all the way from the US for less than one day in Uruguay??] the confused woman on the other side of the counter asked me in Spanish. I had just passed through customs and now needed to pick up a rental car for the next leg of my journey to Cerro Catedral, the highest mountain in Uruguay.

“Sí. Quiero subir a la montaña más alta del país y ver un poco de Montevideo, pero luego volar a Paraguay mañana. Por desgracia, sólo tienen el fin de semana para ambos países.” [Yes. I want to climb the highest mountain in the country and see a little bit of Montevideo, but then I fly to Paraguay tomorrow. Unfortunately I only have the weekend for both countries.] I replied, handing her my car reservation form.

I think she understood me, because she started filling out a bunch of paperwork and finally handed over a set of keys. I threw my bags in the back of the little blue Hyundai Accent, hopped behind the steering wheel and took off.

My journey had started 24 hours earlier in Boston with a flight to Dallas, TX on Thursday evening. I had everything worked out perfectly on paper, with another flight planned to Rio de Janeiro, just enough time to clear customs in Rio, and then a set of three more flights that would get me to Montevideo, Uruguay on Friday evening. I had given myself 18 hours on the ground in Uruguay, which should be plenty of time to hit the highpoint of the country. But trouble started once I hit Dallas.

“I’m sorry, the plane to Rio de Janeiro is still in Rio de Janeiro and won’t be here for another 12 hours,” the American Airlines ticket person told me at the check-in gate, handing me a fistful of vouchers. “We’ve booked a hotel for you tonight, though, and can give you these meal vouchers.”

Vouchers?! I wanted Cerro Catedral, not some silly free food. Cutting 12 hours off of my planned 18 hours on the ground in Uruguay just wouldn’t cut it. There had to be some other way to get there, I resolved.

“Are there any flights to Montevideo, Sao Paulo, Buenos Aires, or anywhere else close by I could get on instead? My final destination is really Montevideo,” I asked hopefully.

“Yes, we have a flight leaving to Sao Paulo in 40 minutes, but you’ll need to go back outside security and check in for it. I’m sorry we can’t help you get to Montevideo because you’ve booked those flights on a different airline.”

I hurriedly turned away and jogged back to the check-in counter. They printed out a new ticket for Sao Paulo, but had no idea what to do on my other flights since I had booked those with a South American company with no offices in Dallas.

Back in security I called up Matthew and he searched online and found the number for TAM airlines, the other one I had used. I called them up, but they couldn’t help me because I had booked through cheaptickets.com. Again I called Matthew and again he gave me the new phone number. By now I was walking down the terminal getting on the plane, still on the phone.

By the time I took my seat I finally got ahold of the cheaptickets person and explained the situation. What she said didn’t sound good. If I didn’t show up for the first leg of my Rio-Montevideo flight, the whole itinerary would be canceled (so I couldn’t just buy a new ticket from Sao-Paulo to Montevideo). Changing my itinerary would be super expensive, but she suggested looking at a different airline. Then the pilot on the intercom said all electronic devices must be turned off.

“Can I just authorize you to buy one of those tickets?” I pleaded desperately.

“Just one moment while I find you the cheapest one – this will only take a few minutes,” she replied.

“Well I have zero minutes. Sorry. Dang it.” I had to hang up. There was nothing else to do but go to sleep and hope for the best in Sao Paulo in ten hours.

At 7:30am we touched down in Brazil and I immediately ran over to the TAM airlines counter. Luckily they spoke a little bit of English (I didn’t speak any Portuguese), and said they had two direct flights to Montevideo – a cheap one getting there at midnight and an expensive one getting there in the afternoon. I was pretty sure my car rental place wouldn’t be open at midnight, so I had to take the hit and do the afternoon flight. But Uruguay would still happen after all.

I landed in Uruguay at 4:15pm, picked up the car, and started driving East. It’s actually very easy driving in Uruguay because all the cars are so tiny that you never worry about hitting anything. I only got honked at once the whole time.
uruguay4I was driving on the Ruta Interbainearia, which was the equivalent of an interstate down there. One thing to remember is that it’s the middle of winter down there in the southern hemisphere, and that means the days are very short. By the time I started driving it was already dark.

I drove through San Luis, Pan de Azucar, and Barrio Asturias before cutting due north on Ruta 39. The road started getting bad here, with lots of potholes, and fog rolled in cutting my visibility to about 20 feet. Then it started raining.

I had brought a car GPS along with a waypoint marked for the next turn, and that proved to be indispensable. The next road was an unnamed dirt road that would be easy enough to miss even if it wasn’t at night, in the rain, with only 20ft visibility in the fog. I nailed it though and stopped the car at the start of unnamed road to take a break. I had been driving for 2.5 hours so far.

uruguay2As I stepped out of the car I noticed a little green sign that simply said “Cerro Catedral.” Could this little hill really be popular enough to warrant a sign all the way out here? I didn’t think it even had a trail to the top. It was still pretty far away down the unnamed road, and it was unclear whether the sign meant “turn here for cerro catedral,” or “this is the summit of cerro catedral”. I snapped some pictures in the fog and got back in the car before I got too wet from the rain.

The dirt road was rough, but still passable in my little Hyundai accent. I drove through rolling hills with short scrubby bushes on the sides that reminded me of western Oklahoma. A couple times some giant hares darted out in front of my car, but I’m pretty sure I missed them.

At 8:30pm I crested a hill and stopped to look at my GPS. According to the screen I was at the place where the hiking would start, but I didn’t see any sign in the road. The visibility now was even less, so I got out of the car to look around. It was still raining. With my headlamp I spied another green sign that looked like it used to say “Cerro Catedral,” but it was riddled with so many bullet holes it was pretty much unintelligible. This had to be the spot. The true summit was a mere ¼ mile up hill in the farmers field, but almost zero visibility it was still going to be tricky.

I pulled the car over on the side of the road, took out both car and hiking GPS units, donned my rain jacket, and started hiking. I had to crawl over a metal fence next to the road, and then started walking uphill. It was tough to strike a balance with visibility: if I turned my headlamp on I could avoid stepping in all the cow pies on the ground, but could only see a few feet ahead of me, and if I turned my headlamp off I could kind of see ahead of me from moonlight, but couldn’t see the cow pies.

I opted for an alternating strategy and this was mostly successful. When I thought I was on the highpoint I whipped out the GPS, only to discover I had headed pretty far in the wrong direction. I turned around to correct my error, and then heard a big grunt and a large creature running away. That was pretty scary, until I realized it must be a cow. Hopefully it wasn’t a bull.

I finally got close to the summit and turned off my headlamp. I could make out five big animal silhouettes standing right at the top, not budging. I started whistling as I walked up very slowly, hoping to scare them away without making them too mad. Eventually they all sprinted away in the same direction (which was not towards me). I bumped into a big stone structure, turned on my headlamp, and realized I was on the top of Uruguay! Someone had erected a little monument to celebrate the highest point in the country.

On the summit

On the summit

I tried to admire the view, but there wasn’t much to admire. I could either see dense fog five feet from my face (with the headlamp on), or darkness (headlamp off). And it was still raining.

My summit picture was a bit difficult because of the visibility problem, but I think a detective could still reach the conclusion that I was indeed on the summit. After running out of excuses to continue getting cold and wet on the summit I turned around and headed back to the car. This time I didn’t get lost, and crawled back over the fence to the car at 9pm. This was the perfect place to stealth camp because I was certain nobody else would have any excuse to drive up this road tonight.

I curled up in the back seat of the car, took out my sleeping bag and went to sleep.

At 4:30am my alarm went off and it was still foggy and rainy. I grudgingly got back behind the wheel and started driving back. I had an 11am flight, a 3-hour drive, and still wanted to see a little bit of Montevideo.

In Montevideo

In Montevideo

Luckily the fog lifted by 5:30am and I was able to make pretty good time back to Monte. I even had an extra hour to cruise into town, before turning around back to the airport. My Grandpa actually lives in Montevideo’s sister city in the US – Montevideo Minnesota – so I definitely had to snap some pictures of the Jose Artigas statue that’s just like the replica back in Minnesota.

I made it to the airport just in time to start the next leg of my journey – to Cerro Tres Kandu, the roof of Paraguay.

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