Once I read about this place, in an excellent Uruguay guide written by Tim Burford, I was ready to go, as it sounded like a wild region in the middle of nowhere, always a personal favorite. Asking about it, even friends who grew up in the Rivera region had heard of it but knew nothing. And there’s a solid reason of course, namely as it’s a day’s drive from Montevideo across some wide open empty grasslands. So we took Ruta 5 north out of funky San Gregorio de Polanco, and through profuse commercial forest before following some sketchy directions into the exalted valley, walled in by flat top mesas reminiscent of the Mogollon Rim country of Arizona.
Certainly one of the reasons for the scarcity of visitors is the distance and sketchiness of directions and side roads, and private interests controlling all, making for limited access. Not necessarily a negative, considering the amount of crap that clueless visitors tend to leave behind. So there are less than a dozen places to stay in the valley and pay for a guided hike, bike, horseback ride or motor tour. The two main waterways, the Lunarejo and Laureles rivers, each spawn several tributaries, and featuring lots of waterfalls and tight basaltic gorges. Huge swaths of planted biofuel forest divide the vast ranch pastures, and tightly protected sections of protected canyons and gorges are surrounded by the rest.
We were lucky enough to find the Miradores del Valle, a real working ranch with lots of livestock and domestic animals and run by an especially hospitable family. We rented a sweet cabin bedroom with a decent kitchen and bathroom for 1200 pesos a night, around $30. Straight out the front door up the hill was wild territory, and we took a couple of good rambles checking out the adjacent woods. Juan and Paula led the way, with G on horseback as her feet were a little sore, and both locals know a ton about the local flora and fauna, especially ‘yuyos’ and assorted natural criolla remedies for various medical infirmities. After cresting the ridge up above the property, we dropped into a steep, tight basaltic gorge, or ‘quebrada’, featuring a splendid couple of waterfalls, along with the most gigantic wasp nest of my time. Fortunately, they stayed put as they most always do, and there were other notable sights along the way, including a birds nest as fine as a bee’s wing, thank you Richard Thompson.
Here we arrived at the lovely ‘Caida y la Cueva’, with an alcove recessed behind one of the falls, and the upper falls just as beguiling. Though the route into the gorge is steep, it’s short and not any problem for most. It’s a hike that provides a lot of payoff for a short wander, and is worth as much time as can be spent. A glorious green grotto, good as gold.
From the top it was a leisurely stroll back to the ranch, past a patch of criolla woods with a 600 year old Ceibo tree, one of Uruguay’s true totems and a national symbol. It looks like it will handle another 600 with no problem, and I had the sensation of being in the presence of a superior being, like a Sequoia. The rest of the afternoon was spent eating and relaxing, and bringing food with is a must here, as the accommodation provides no meals, but the kitchen is up to snuff so most anything can be prepared with no problems. One recommendation for light sleepers; earplugs to mitigate the abundant animal sounds, from the most pleasing, the distant frogs and crickets, to the closer, more boisterous calls of the sheep, cattle and roosters. The close sound of the horses munching grass outside the cabin, on the other hand, was a very pleasant one, an almost zen like ambience similar to flowing water. But the total serenade is quite a novelty for city dwellers like myself.
One feature of this valley is that private landowners control almost all of the territory, so virtually every excursion requires paid permission and an accompanying guide. The prices are very reasonable, ranging from 300 to 1500 pesos, depending on the distance and mode of transportation. We were very eager to check out the celebrated ‘Catarata del Indio’ until finding out that the distance down a rough dirt road was 20 k each way, and actually on the Laureles River and not the Lunarejo here. But there are several other treks worth taking, including the Pozos Azules, Cascada de la Virgen, and Cueva del Indio and three or four nights would be enough to get to most of the featured garden spots. Stock up on groceries, take your time, and take in an exceptionally unique eco system.
Miradores del Valle has a prolific quantity of domestic animals, including lots of sheep and cattle, several horses, hens and roosters, perhaps a dozen dogs and at least 3 cats. So animal lovers have a lot to love here, and the isolated rural setting is tranquil and peaceful as it gets. After lunch we were ready for out next outing, this time a drive to a nearby beauty spot with a swimming hole. Juan drove the Toyota pickup outfitted with bus seats in the bed, and we got a grand view of the countryside coming and going half an hour. Our destination was a creek that had cut a narrow channel in the rock, similar to Slide Rock at Arizona’s Oak Creek. Small waterfalls closed off each end, and we spotted a fine looking lizard while soaking up the scene. Pitangas, the small berries that resemble miniature cherries, were abundant here and we munched a bunch. A swim afterwards provided a cooling rinse, and we got a terrific close view of rugged Cerro Bonito, along with Cerros Boqueron and Peludo.
Miradores del Valle is 12 kilometers down a gravel road off of Highway 30, just north of Tranqueras on the road towards Artigas. They will provide explicit directions and plenty of Uruguayan hospitality.
Contact them at: email@example.com or by cell at 098149294
There are several other lodging options spread out in the valley offering different services and excursions. A couple of these, El Caudillo and El Gavilan, seem very professional and accommodating. The link below connects to the park visitor center along with most of the posadas in the area: