In Search of the Uruguayan Ñandú - unexpected turns and first impressions in Punta del Este

It is my fourth day in Uruguay. I’m having a new experience, in that I am ascending and descending at the same time. I am ascending up Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs”.  I have shelter, safety, food, can drive, and have figured out how to make phone calls. However, I’m descending further and further down this dreamlike rabbit hole called Uruguay, where my expectations of the world as I know it can unexpectedly change at any moment.

It’s just after noon on a fall day in Punta del Este. My basic needs are met, my current work obligations are up-to-date, and I have spent a little time addressing future security. I close my laptop computer and decide it's time to have some fun.

I walk from my rent-by-the-week apartment to the Brava Beach to see if there is any surf. There is set after set of overhead waves with just two guys out. (It is fun to watch, but the waves are too big for me.) Then I look to my right and there on the beach just 20 feet away is something that looks like a penguin. I look back at the surfers and try to figure out what it was I just saw. I look again – it is a penguin.

I jog the two blocks back to my apartment and come back to the beach in my rental car with my camera.
Penguin on the beach in Punta del Este
After creating photographic evidence of the penguin on the beach, I evaluate my situation. I have free time, a full tank of gas, a camera, and my thoughts are bending in the direction of flightless birds. I have heard mention of a large flightless local bird called a ñandú that looks similar to an ostrich and is said to run at great speeds across the pampas of Uruguay. I decide to drive to the local zoo to see if they have a ñandú.

Ñandú is the Spanish name for a bird species called rheas. There are two kinds of rheas. There is the Rhea Americana (also known as the Greater Rhea), which is native to Uruguay as well as the grasslands of Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Argentina. Then there is the Darwin’s Rhea (also known as the Lesser Rhea) which is found in the high plateaus of the Andes in Peru and Patagonia.

Rheas are part of a bird category called Raitites, which includes Ostriches and Emus. The ñandú is the largest bird in the America’s with an average weight of around 24 kilograms (53 pounds) and average height of 1.5 meters (around 5 feet). The more I think about it, the more I want to see one. It is my hope that there will be a ñandú at the zoo.

If the truth be told, I am becoming a little too accustomed to using the trial and error method of finding places. My only clue to the location of the zoo is a sign I remember seeing that reads: “Zoo 16 km”. I am driving down a road measuring kilometers, because the zoo is 16 kilometers past the “Zoo 16 km” sign, which is located on the side of the road just before the road branches off into three different directions.

I am eight kilometers down the road past the sign when I find myself in a small cluster of five slow moving cars in the middle of hundreds of horses with riders who have filled the road. The riders are all wearing large numbers on their shirts, and all the horses are cantering. There are people on both sides of the road watching. Somehow on the way to the zoo I got swallowed up in a large procession of cantering horsemen wearing numbers.

After a while, two small pickup trucks filled with men in military uniforms move past me. Apparently military personnel are helping to officiate and manage the horse cantering event, and some are moving to the front of the herd. I get behind one of these trucks and follow it until I am out of the sea of horses.

Fifteen minutes later I am three kilometers past where the zoo should have been. I am on the wrong road and now at least 35 kilometers from the zoo - but not very far from José Ignacio. I have heard about José Ignacio. It is a small fishing village that became a popular surfing beach, and has since gentrified into a low-key getaway community for South America's rich and famous. Since I am so close, I decide to visit José Ignacio for the first time.
People on the beach at La Huella's restaurant in Jose Ignacio
Horses at La Huella's
In José Ignacio, I get out of my car and walk toward the beach. I come upon the restaurant called “La Huella”. It is early afternoon and the place is packed. Dining spills out onto the deck, and from the deck onto the surrounding beach. People are enjoying themselves. As I am taking in the scene, I am struck to see hitching posts. There are two hitching posts with three horses hitched outside of this landmark restaurant. (On a later visit I realized that one of the hitching posts was an outdoor beach shower to which people tied their horses.)

So I am walking on this big sandy beach on a picturesque cove passing small red fishing boats pulled up onto the sand, toward a beautiful lighthouse on a rocky point. It is cool and balmy.

I look out to the water to see a beach break coming into the middle of the cove and a point break by the lighthouse. There is a small group of surfers at each break, where they catch wave after wave until they are exhausted. I believe for a little while this must be heaven. (The surf in Uruguay isn’t always good. I just hit it at a good time.)
Jose Ignacio lighthouse

Small home in Jose Ignacio
I then walk through the residential neighborhood with many small simple single-family homes along and above the beach. The small homes have varied designs, but individually and as a group seem to ornament (as opposed to dominate) the natural coastal setting. I take pictures.

It is sad to leave José Ignacio, but I remember that I am on a quest to find the ñandú and start back down the road in the direction of the sign that reads: "Zoo 16 km".

Since this trip, I learned that ñandú prefer a diet of certain pampas grasses, but will eat other types of broad-leaved plants, seeds, and fruit. Ñandú (especially young ñandú) will also eat a variety of bugs including flies, grasshoppers, and beetles. They will even occasionally eat scorpions, snakes, rodents, and lizards.

Outside of breeding season you may see ñandú in groups of 10 to 50 along the highways of Uruguay. Ñandú have good eyesight and hearing. When not protecting a nest or hatchlings, ñandú will usually run when confronted with danger. Ñandú are fast. They can hit top speeds of 96 kilometers per hour (60 miles an hour) on smooth level terrain, and can run at sustained speeds of 48 kilometers per hour (30 miles an hour). When escaping danger they will often run in a zigzag pattern, extending their wings for balance when making sharp turns. Like ostriches, ñandú can vanish in grasslands by lying flat on the ground with their neck and head straight out in front of them.
Pizza place in La Barra

As I am going down the road I drive through La Barra. La Barra has an artistic surf culture as well as a high-end hotel and a casino. (The casino is owned by the Angola national oil company but managed by others). Art, famous surfing beaches, yoga, funky pizza cafes, nightclubs that sit dormant outside of high season, and a few full-service landmark hotels - this is La Barra.

Produce market in La Barra
I stop in La Barra to take a couple of pictures and buy some tangerines and bananas from a small produce market. I will come back again soon, but I must get going. The ñandú is calling.                                                      
After La Barra I reach the “Zoo 16 km” sign, note my odometer reading, and start down one of the other roads.

Ñandú have different mating and nesting rituals than most other birds, with the male taking all the responsibility for incubating the eggs and raising the hatchlings. The male ñandú will mate with a harem of between two and a dozen females. The male will then build a nest on the ground for the eggs of the females with which he has mated. The male will usually end up with between 10 and 80 eggs (with an average of 27) in his nest. Once the eggs are laid, the male turns his attention to incubating and caring for the eggs.  The group of females he mated with will move on to mate with other males and provide their nests with eggs.

Sometimes a male ñandú will allow another younger male to sit on his nest, while he leaves to get food and water. The males protect their nests from all predators and potential danger and will not even allow a female ñandú to approach. If a ñandú’s nest or hatchlings are threatened, he will fight by kicking with his strong legs and striking with his sharp three-toed clawed feet.

Ñandú eggs incubate four to six weeks. The chicks are said to communicate with each other through their touching shells and all break out at the same time, even if their eggs were laid up to two weeks apart. The father protects and cares for the chicks after they are hatched. The ñandú are full-grown in six to eight months and are able to mate when they are two years old. They live to be 20 to 30 years old.

In less than two kilometers down the new road, past the “Zoo 16 km” sign, I am in the middle of farm country. There are big rolls of golden hay on smooth green fields. Many of the crop fields are lined with trees (forming wind breaks). Apparently some of the branches fall after high winds, because on each side of the road there are people looking for sticks. (They sell the sticks as firewood.) There are people with bicycles with carts for sticks, motor scooters with carts for sticks, donkeys with carts for sticks, and one old small car with a place to stack sticks on the top. Then I pass out of the tree lined rectangular fenced fields into large rolling pastures with scattered groups of grazing cattle.

I finally get to the zoo. It’s the San Carlos Zoo. Sure enough, they have a pen with ñandú. They are very tame and one comes up close. I take pictures.

It is getting dark. In my camera I have images of a penguin, a lighthouse, small elegant beach homes, a fruit stand, and a ñandú. I drive out of the zoo parking lot and start down a road that I think may lead back to my apartment.

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