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|
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|
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|
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.
|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|
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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