Wedged between Brazil in the north and Argentina to the west, Uruguay has become Isabel Gilbert Palmer’s latest “I’ve fallen deeply in love with” part of the world. On the road during the month of January she travelled along the Uruguay coast, from Montevideo to Punte Del Esta tracing the coastal Ruta Gastromica from the seaside villages of Puente La Barra to Jose Ignaico and on the dusty ribboned backroads to Pueblo Garzon.
Isabel shares some of her southern hemisphere summer finds and later stories during the same month, of travelling further afield to Argentina, the city Buenos Aires, her drive across the Pampas to Mendoza and the wine fields at the foot of the Andes.
People, places, art, food, wine, where to stay and sunshine. An unforgettable Latin American experience and fortune willing she’s doing it all over again, and more next year.
In the meantime memories are made of this .
La Barra is one of the old fishing villages strung along the Atlantic coast from the lustrous city of Punta Del Este, one of the most cosmopolitan places to live in Uruguay, and which continues to be a chic holiday paradise during the southern hemisphere summer months.
La Barra by its nature is a hamlet, less contrived, less busy, less complex, slouchy chic and more relaxed. The set theme for slow living, informality summer mooching about with locals and holiday makers, children and dogs. Small hotels and a village of family rentals, cafes, open air bars, late night spots, pop-up restaurants, antique shops, art galleries, charming beach house interior design shops, with retrieved country effects and outdoor furniture.
It sits ten kilometres from Punta as the city is called by locals, along route 10 which rolls along the coast stitching together the communities of Manantiales, La Juanita and the effortlessly stylish jewel, Jose Ignacio.
Found on Ruta Gastronomica, Uruguay
On the central street in La Barra are Borneo Coffee and its owner Tommy Moche.
Borneo is a find because the artisan coffee scene has not quite boomed in Uruguay yet.
New Zealand’s flat white obsession began thirty years ago and the beachside cafe scene, blossomed simultaneously in Australia and on the West Coast of USA.
Starbucks from Seattle (once purists) is legendary and with the UK coffee scene, the tenth monkey effect ushered in a new vibrant global cafe culture ,and with it the rise rock star cult of the Barista in centre stage.
Tommy how come Borneo finds it home here in La Barra?
I opened Borneo in 2016 so its the third year here but I have been coming from Buenos Airies to Uruguay with my family since childhood. We spent all our summers in our holiday house on the beach and surfing became the centre of my life. I opened a surf shop in Buenos Aries for three years and in winter time travelled the world looking for the best surf of course and the cafe culture that went long with it and things became clear. Why not combine both: surf and coffee.
What happened next?
I closed the Buenos Aires surf shop, moved to Uruguay determined to exchange a city life for a kind of “island in the sun life”. I began putting Borneo together and took on building my eco house as well. In fact I actually finished Borneo before the house.
And what does the Borneo name mean?
I grew up sailing and stole the Spanish nautical term, it refers to the swing a boat makes, moved by the wind and currents while anchored at sea. It’s a symbolic gesture for me, having dropped my anchor in Punta and adapting to a new place.
What cafe places out of South America have inspired you to help fuel your dream?
I mostly grew fond of cafe vibes while traveling through the coast of California, there are many great coffee spots all along the coast. Some better than others in terms of beans, but I like to focus also on the vibe I find in each one. One place that also inspired me was The Bakery at Santa Teresa, Costa Rica. I loved coming out of a surf session and walking straight to that place for breakfast.
What did you think you and Borneo would bring to La Barra?
Community, a place to connect locals and the summer people, travellers passing through. It does and has happened. Besides it is not a bar, there are enough of those here. I did not have set fixed aims for achieving success. I wanted to bring what a I had seen elsewhere on my surfing travels, create a small downtown hangout place to my own design.
I built the furniture myself and that was satisfying, and gives the place its own psychology. Something familiar yet unique which reminds people of places they have probably been to out of Uruguay but see as 100% original here.
Good cafes are kind of like the owners sharing hospitality in their own home, their idea of design, or not, colour sense, atmosphere and that goes right down to the last crumb from the food cabinet. My mother painted the big wall mural so she added a touch of drama to it and Borneos identity .
I wanted really good coffee which means really good basics. My La Marzocco FB80 machine was essential as was buying specialty coffees and I did figure out the best available from Uruguay and Argentina but I always bring back beans from my travels to work with. I am thinking of extending my own roasting building given the success so far. I began roasting small batches in my loft above the cafe and am thinking of taking the next step in being an independent roaster .
Do you do the Barista thing?
Occasionally and behind the counter I sometimes serve but I am also doing the admin and buying stuff and seeing to daily needs and keeping the social hum going, knowing and acknowledging regulars, talking, listening, patting dogs filling their water bowl, being the social politician.
Where does your staff come from?
Some are my friends who come and go. Sabine has been with me from the beginning and holds the place going when winter sets in. Local Uruguayans, others who walk in. Friends tell friends . It has never been a problem. At the moment Thomas whose French and his girlfriend Helen whose Uruguayan, they’ve both worked with me for two seasons. Then there is Tavo who is Venezuelan and his Argentine girlfriend who have been here this summer. I think we are a pretty connected team and part of the circle of local working chefs, restaurant owners who have summer pop ups here and wait staff. In down times we meet up away from work go on picnics, surf together, cook for each other at home.
How does the rhythm of a Borneo day go?
Europeans and Americans usually come in in the morning, then the keep fit beach jogging crowd and cyclists before midday and the end of the day the South Americans turn up.
During the high summer season here mid December until end January Brazilians, Paruguyans Chileans and Argentinians flood the coast not only the young and footloose but families and increasingly more Europeans, Swiss, French, Germans choose summer here rather than go to winter sports back home.
And how does the food thing go? Does Sabine your number one, have autonomy ?
Yes she takes care of the baking and food corner, orders from suppliers and has complete liberty to make what she wants and sometimes I meet some surprises, like when she creates a new pie or Pho .