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Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Road, the Lighthouse and a Cape Called Cabo Polonio

Last weekend was supposed to be a trip to Punta del Este. At the height of the planning with seven of us here, six Pinoys and a Mexican, we received an invite from a colleague to visit their houses in Cabo Polonio. With the aid of a few blogs in English, our impression was that it’s like a ghost town with a nice beach, no electricity and a no serviceable supply of water. A colleague articulated it by saying “like going back to boy scout days”. We said no at first until we ended up just moving the Punta del Este trip to another weekend this month. Some backed out but most maintained their sense of adventure.

The trucks that transport passengers from the park entrance to the cape
Our call time was at 8am. We managed to come up with a small rental car on the last minute and that saved a lot of effort. Optionally, we can just take a bus from Tres Cruces and endure the 5-hour trip (which I don’t mind since I’m used to it on my regular trips to Quezon Province). The other car, a 4x4, is courtesy of the one who invited us. Each car has five passengers. The difference is that one went all the way to the place while the other stopped where the busses stop, parked the car there and took a bumpy truck ride which is undoubtedly more fun and more definitive of Cabo Polonio.

The dirt road on our way to the scenic route
Gauchos at work
A bridge at Valizas
I was assigned to the 4x4. Ours was more or a scenic route as we went straight past a rotunda and took a dirt road (probably scary at night) that leads back to the highway if we turned right instead. There I finally saw a real gaucho (cowboy) herding a handful of cows. No complaint whatsoever from my end since our “driver” made it a point to act as tour guide when necessary. We had two stops along the way (on top of the small ones for picture taking). One’s at the supermarket along Ruta 9 to buy vegetables and another at a fishing village in Valizas for some shrimps. The latter is just around two kilometers past the drop-off point for Cabo Polonio so we had to maneuver back somewhere.

Sand dunes on the way to Cabo Polonio
The gateway to the beach area is also the entrance to the national park complete with a checkpoint and park rangers. It’s protected now by the government as opposed to, say, decades ago, we were informed. This means that not all roads or sand dunes can be accessed by the truck. Private cars, on the other hand, have its own route, passing through a Twilight-esque fences of pine trees, giving a hypnotic vibe as the sunrays try to penetrate in the narrow gaps. Sand dunes became visible when we came close to the town. It was a nice experience that we were given a chance to stop in one of those, run through it and have more pictures. After an estimated travel time of four hours, we finally reached Cabo Polonio.

The lighthouse, the inspiration behind Jorge Drexler's song "12 Segundos de Oscuridad"
From afar, the lighthouse can already be seen. There are some electric cable posts along the way and this provides power solely to the el faro. Scattered small houses inhabit the area, usually with a maximum of two small rooms and a porch to overlook the Atlantic Ocean. They are not as uniform as those in Santorini but each has a character to tell. Accordingly, the place has a population of just 89 and the rest are tourists. Before we headed for lunch at La Perla restaurant in the “town proper”, we were given some instructions on how to manually flush the toilet and other Survivor kind of stuff.

From left to right: Seaweed ball, calamares romana and grilled fish
The “centro”, as another colleague puts it, their “5th Avenue”, is lined up of restaurants, souvenir shops, some posadas (hostels/inns) and the spot where the trucks pick up passengers. After having our late lunch (we had calamares romana, grilled fish, seaweed balls and some Heinekens, all good), we took the rear entrance of the restaurant facing the other side of the cape and headed to the lighthouse. Some went directly to the beach. Unfortunately, the lighthouse wasn’t open for a visit as there’s a lack of staff that time. We just enjoyed the view from there, including a prohibited rocky area with four or five seals having a ball with their sun bath. It’s one of my rare chances to see this kind of amphibians on their natural habitat.

Majestic sunset at Cabo Polonio
From roughly 4pm until sunset at 8pm (videos of the cape during sunset here, here, here and here), we were on the beach. I haven’t swum in a sea for more than three years now. I actually can’t remember the last time. The Atlantic is cold but I managed to conquer it along with the rest of the Manila Mafia. When we headed back to the house where we stalled our bags to freshen up, we Pinoys were sent to another house which is just some meters away (the third house is occupied by the owner’s son and two other friends). It was starting to get dark. To take a bath, for instance, we had to light some candles. The whole she-bang is old school. For the shower alone, we had to get water from the pump inside the house. In the Philippines, this set-up is very unusual as we always install this kind of pump in the backyard. Using a pail, we need to pour the water to another pail that is hanging inside the bathroom. It has a string that you need to pull for the shower. Clever!

Candles everywhere
We readied ourselves (the Manila Mafia) at around 10pm and with the aid of a flashlight, off we went to the first house where a parrilla was ongoing. Using a candle in a makeshift lamp (a 5-liter Salus container with some sand on it, very common in the area), all of us from three different houses sat down and shared wine, beer and some finger food in the porch area. Dinner was finally served at close to 1am. We missed the initially planned bar hopping but it was fun nonetheless. It was serene when we went back to our house (which is called “Lucifer 1979”, by the way). It was a full moon the night before and it was still generously evident on that Saturday evening. Some houses are well lit with candles while the rest, the majority of the community, was embracing darkness. From afar, el faro was standing tall and proud as always with its light rotating very calmly. Now I understand why the Oscar winning Uruguayan singer Jorge Drexler (“Al Otro Lado del Rio” for “Motorcycle Diaries”, 2005) got inspired by the place for his song “12 Segundos de Oscuridad”.

The beach area of Cabo Polonio
Sunday was more of “anything goes”. We planned to wake up at 7:30am but something messed up somewhere because of the DST change. We had a morning stroll along the beach, took a thousand more pictures (there's a video here) and had our breakfast of biscochos and medialunas from the “supermarket”. For lunch, we just finished some leftovers from the night before. After a short trip to the souvenir shops, half of the group was already making their way back to the park entrance through the truck. Guess I have to visit Cabo Polonio again just to try out that thrilling ride. The 4x4 group, the other half where I belong, finally left the cape at 5pm. We had a quick stop at La Pedrera (a quick video here) and headed back to Montevideo while the sun was setting down in between the trees.

Another sunset poetry on our way back to Montevideo
Back to my comfy bed in the apartment on the same evening, I was visited by some thoughts. Definitely there’s more to Uruguay than the three popular ones namely Montevideo, Colonia and Punta del Este. Cabo Polonio is a real beauty, a stealing one. The beach alone boasts of a stretch of fine sand and blue water from the Atlantic Ocean. It’s best for anything that you can do with just the beach. No banana boat ride. No snorkeling adventure. Surfing board, yes, and some ATV’s but those are either brought by the visitors or used by the residents. Not the usual for-rent that you can see in most commercial and highly overrated beach resorts. This brings me to what I love the most about Cabo Polonio. It made me appreciate the beach as nature and not as anything industrially fake. I hope the inhabitants would keep its magic as it is. No electricity, no big pipes for the water and most importantly, no noise at night. The sky is even clearer on that side of the planet. I haven’t seen such a gathering of stars shining that bright and joyously like a sparrow while the moon, luminous as ever, looking back at us from a distance. The enchanting sound of the crickets, as always, is a fitting companion for a good night sleep.

The rest of the pictures, all 918 of them, can be found here.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Pinoy Asadores 101

Last Saturday was work day for us so we had to do something fun in the evening to make up for the slightly lost weekend. Our boss thought of having a parrilla at his place (technically, it’s for the whole building but the grill is just across his apartment unit). He assumed that the portero (or any Uruguayan man) could be our asador (the one who will do the barbecue) but no luck. We ended up doing it on our own and tried to be a Uruguayan as best as we could.

Below is our attempt in pictures:

1. There are to two types of wood to consider. One is very thin and could easily burn. This is the type of wood that has to go first in the small slot of the grill.

2. The big woods, on the other hand, are the ones that turn into charcoal. Both woods can be bought from the supermarket.

3. Sprinkle some fire starter in the wood. Ours is a gel-like liquid that our boss calls “lubricant”.

4. Use a special matchstick (acendedores).

5. Start the fire first with the thin woods.

6. Then start piling up the big woods on top of the thin ones.

7. Usually, the parrillas here have two tools to use. One is like a hook that is used to spread the charcoal from the slot to the rest of the grill and the other is like a small shovel. Utilize accordingly.

8. The traditional Uruguayan way is to wait for like five hours to create the charcoal as it will naturally drip from the slot. Since we didn’t have enough time (it was already 8pm), we had no choice but to play around and bang the slot to force the charcoal to drip.

9. Spread the charcoal all over the grill.

10. Once the grill becomes hot, clean it with an old newspaper.

11. Start putting the meat (steaks, chorizo, morcilla, molleja, etc.) and other food (red bell pepper, etc.) on the grill.

12. Manage the grill properly. Spread more charcoal where it is needed. There’s a portion on the grill that is movable and it’s there for a purpose.

13. After a few minutes, put some special salt (parrillera sal entrefina) on the meat.

14. Optionally, you can set garlic in a foil on fire, as in on top of the charcoal just beneath the grill. Some are doing it with potatoes and even eggs.

15. To keep the charcoals burning, fan it with, err, a tray.

16. Make sure that your chimney is working, of course.

17. Check on the meat from time to time.

18. In between, have some beer.

19. Or prepare some salad.

20. Serve the meat when ready.

21. Enjoy the food. In Spanish, “Buen provecho!”

22. And enjoy more meat.

23. Take a rest when already full.

24. Or sleep.

25. Or dip your feet in the nearby pool.

26. Or invade the fridge full of Häagen-Dazs.

27. Just make sure to clean the parrilla before leaving the place.

The rest of the pics here. Plus, some pics here taken at Parrilla del Solis and a relaxing walk along the rambla here.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Criteria Used in Choosing the Best Films in the Philippines

Stitched pictures are gathered through Google
Since it’s the film awards season once again in the Philippines, here’s a very helpful guide on how films are merited:

Cinemanila International Film Festival
100% - Film merits based on jury’s decision;

Cinema One Originals
100% - Film merits based on jury’s decision;

Cinemalaya Independent Film Festival
50% - Film merits based on jury’s decision;
50% - Should be credited to the committee for imposing their cast selection and other “filmmaking” strategy;

Catholic Mass Media Awards (CMMA) for Films
90% - Films that don’t promote RH Bill;
10% - Film merits based on the showbiz side of the priests and bishops;

Gawad TANGLAW (Tagapuring mga Akademisyan ng AninoNG GumagaLAW)
30% - Kapamilya production (actors, Star Cinema, etc.);
20% - Ideally, anything educational;
50% - Film merits based on the showbiz side of the professors and college deans;

Star Awards for Films (by PMPC or Philippine Movie Press Club)
79% - Kapamilya production (Kapamilya actors, Star Cinema, etc.);
20% - Connections and possibly, under-the-table transactions;
1% - Film merits based on the choices of our dear tabloid reporters;

Golden Screen Awards for Films (by EnPress or Entertainment Press, the break-away group of PMPC)
79% - Kapuso production (Kapuso actors, GMA Films, etc.);
20% - Connections and possibly, under-the-table transactions;
1% - Film merits based on the choices of the remaining tabloid reporters;

Film Academy of Movie Arts and Sciences (FAMAS) Awards
90% - Connections and possibly, under-the-table transactions;
10% - Film merits based on the committee’s decision;

Luna Awards (by FAP or Film Academy of the Philippines, our very own Oscars)
100% - Connections, just connections;

Young Critics Circle (YCC) Film Desk Citations
80% - Any film/actor that critics (including mostly of the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino) wouldn’t think of;
20% - Film merits based on the voting body’s decision;

Gawad Urian (by Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino)
80% - Any film/actor that YCC hasn’t cited yet;
20% - Film merits based on the voting body’s decision;

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Cataratas do Iguaçu – Day Zero: Trip to a Natural Wonder

Compared to our other Mercosur adventures (Buenos Aires in Argentina and Rio de Janeiro in Brazil), this one went the smoothest. First, since it is Brazil, we don’t need to worry about any visa as we’re all Philippine passport holders (the Argentina side was out of the question because of this). It helped, too, that there was a long weekend here in Uruguay last February 20 and 21 (carnaval holidays) so we grabbed the chance to plan the vacation ahead. To top it all, we were not required to work overtime during the said dates so the trip was as stress-free as it could get.

Pluna is the only airline that flies directly from Montevideo (MVD) to Foz do Iguaçu (IGU). Though it was not as expensive as our trip to Peru, we booked through the ever reliable Expedia in which we saved up around $100. The only drawback in flying through Pluna is that they have limited flights from Saturday to Tuesday but it wasn’t a problem given the schedule that we were eyeing (February 19 – 21).

Next thing we knew, the four of us (with Mike, Redy and Jacq) were already choosing a hostel for a two-night stay from the list below (including their rating then):

1. Iguassu Guest House

Room Rate: $218.72 / 4 = $54.68
Note: Good location but not clear if we can get the 4-bed room for males;
Average Rating: 94%

2. Klein Hostel

Room Rate: $145.84 / 4 = $36.46
Note: Less than a kilometer from the bus station, just some Wi-Fi concerns;
Average Rating: 93%

3. Hostel Natura

Room Rate: $194.40 / 4 = $48.60
Note: A bit far from the city center and close to the national park, plus Jacq will be assigned to another room;
Average Rating: 93%

4. Katharina House

Room Rate: $170.16 / 4 = $42.54
Note: Wi-Fi is OK, good location, too, and nice Brazilian breakfast;
Average Rating: 93%

5. Hostel Green House

Room Rate: $121.52 / 4 = $30.38
Note: Mixed dorm, rowdy at night because of the nearby bars, just like a house turned into a hostel;
Average Rating: 84%

6. Supernova Hostel

Room Rate: $109.36 / 4 = $27.34
Note: Close to a bus stop, they’ve got lockers but the accommodation looks so-so;
Average Rating: 82%

7. Hostel Bambu

Room Rate: $148.00 / 4 = $37
Note: Six kilometers away from the bus station but with free caipirinha everyday;
Rating: 77%

We ended up playing safe and picked Iguassu Guest House which is easier to locate by public transport than a cab (and we learned this the hard way on our very first day). After waiting for about 15 minutes or so for the bus at the airport (the stop is still within the airport area and only a few steps away from the exit if you turn left), we got tired and just hailed the next taxi. That was already past 8pm. The driver charged us BRL 45 and said that it’s a fixed price for an airport cab. We didn’t contest that but he got a hard time finding the hostel even if we already aided him with a map from a smart phone.

Optionally, by bus, it’s cheaper (only BRL 2.65 each) and simpler. Just alight at the last stop which is the Terminal de Transporte Urbano (TTU) and exit at the back of the station (the façade has “TTU” label on a maroon arc-like wall). From the back exit, the zoo can already be seen from there. Just walk along that street heading to the left and turn right at the corner (Gaucho Churrascaria is seen from the opposite corner). After turning right, turn left to the next corner which is the end of Rua Naipi and stop at 1019.

The Iguassu Guest House at Rua Naipi 1019
My first impression of the hostel is that it is very secure. There’s an elevated electrical fence surrounding it and you can’t get through the metal gate without buzzing first the reception located at the lower part of the house. I guess this kind of security is needed for a big and relatively more developed town (compared to, say, Cusco in Peru) though we didn’t feel any threat along the streets even at night. There we met the hostel staff named Bianca who’s very fluent in English and very welcoming. She said that there was an error in the reservation online so we’re getting the room that is good for eight just for the four of us (we did not complain). Then we settled the other stuff like the Wi-Fi card which is BRL 5 for 24 hours and BRL 7 for three days. They also have lockers for free so long as you bring your own lock, a usual practice in most hostels.

We capped the night with our first (well, for this year) taste of churrascaria (grilled meat) at Gaucho. It was a bit busy and mostly packed by locals who just came probably from a Sunday mass. Since we don’t know a single Portuguese, we got by through observation and a little hand language. It’s a buffet where we got side dishes (and dessert) from a separate table while the waiters were roaming around the area with their own stick of meat, a fork and a knife. Just get their attention and a hearty, freshly sliced meat will be served right in front of your table (just watch out for the knife). When we left the restaurant, a long queue was already forming at the entrance.

That pretty much concludes our first day at Foz do Iguaçu (more pictures here), the gateway to one of the new seven natural wonders of the world.
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