Fray Bentos: Not just another border town

We’re never quite sure we’re doing it correctly when it comes to border crossings, but they keep letting us through, so we must be doing something resembling right.

It’s slightly more complicated to take the truck across borders, but it’s really just another step in the process, and the truck gets a visa to go with Mark’s. (It’s his name on the truck). The process involves getting checked out of one country, checked for illicit apples, and and then checked into the next country. There are never signs directing you where to go first or what to do next, and South American border guards seem to have the very strongest accents of anyone anywhere, rendering them entirely impossible to understand even a single word of their Spanish.

To pass from Argentina into Uruguay, we had to pass over a pair of monstrous bridges over the Rio de la Plata and the Rio Parana, the second longest river in South America at over 3,000 miles long. This river is enormous. At more than 220 km across in some places it is also very deep, and large ocean going vessels dotted this truly commercial of waterways.

After a very long day of crossing borders, we spent the night at a campground on the river in Fray Bentos on the Uruguayan side before we planned to continue on to Montevideo in the morning.  

But when you’re travelling like we are, plans often change.  Our experience had so far been about disasters or wrong turns, but our change of plans this time resulted in a really happy detour.

We had read about a former meat packing plant turned UNESCO museum to the industrial revolution at Fray Bentos, and decided to pay a visit before heading further in to Uruguay. Our tour guide led us through the whole factory, which has been preserved exactly as it was on its final day of production in October 1979.

It started life as a factory that processed beef into OXO stock cubes.  Thirty four kilos of beef could be reduced to 1kg of stock, while retaining its full protein content. These tiny beef cubes kept British soldiers nourished during WWI, and both the British and the Germans in WWII.  

With British investment, Fray Bentos was the only meat processing plant in Uruguay, and evolved to produce more than 200 products that were shipped worldwide, and were used on every single continent, including Antarctica.

Their products climbed Everest, explored the North and South poles.  They used every part of the cow, producing fertiliser, tallow, hides, stock, corned beef, among other products. Eventually, they got into the refrigeration game and started shipping fresh and frozen meat, that was stored in a fully refrigerated building, 100m wide x 40m tall, containing 50 enormous cork insulated refrigerated rooms across its five floors.

This was a global factory complex in the truest sense of the word. They brought coal across the ocean in England, and sent the ships back full of meat. They even made their own tin cans and labels on site. The factory produced all of its own power, and and night, sent electricity to the nearby factory town at a time when only the largest cities had power.

It was beautiful.  Marble panels, bronze pipes, white stucco, Art Deco design, beautifully tiled floors and old wood with the deep patina of age, care and love.

We were all three fully enthralled with the giant machines, the intricate workings of the steam pipes, and the ingenuity that utilised every inch of the average 1500 cattle per day that were processed through that plant – not to mention the even higher numbers of sheep, goats, turkeys and other animals.

I’m a butchers daughter, and the facts of workings of this sort of facility doesn’t bother me. As a modern museum, they’ve done a wonderful job of displaying the mechanics of the operation as opposed to the gore of it.

The UNESCO factory museum at Fray Bentos is an engineering marvel and a meat processing masterpiece. This factory is a lasting monument to the Industrial Revolution in all of its glory.

We left feeling as though we had truly gotten lucky. We almost didn’t see this place because we had other plans, and that would have been a real shame.

That afternoon, we ate lunch in the sun in the pretty little town square in Fray Bentos, and decided to spend one more night in this charming border town. We went right back to our same camping spot, and kicked off our shoes for the first time in months.

We played on the squeaky sand beach next to the river for the rest of the afternoon, and soaked up the sun before firing up the asado for a meal of some of that famous Uruguayan beef and fantastic wine.

Fray Bentos was a fantastic first foray into the 15th country of the trip, and we were eager to continue on into Uruguay to see what else it had in store for us!


About the author: Shalena

2 comments to “Fray Bentos: Not just another border town”

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  1. John McPartland - February 2, 2019 at 11:55 pm

    Fantastic journey, enthralling told. I have followed every step cheering the wonder of it all. Runaway thoughts! When do the village speaking tours and PowerPoint presentations begin? Or, you could become authors of ‘boys own’ type adventure books featuring the indomitable Austin and his parents.

    I am proud of you all and am confident that as the years go by what you know about yourselves will be your blossoming and comforting personal aura.

    Love, Dad

  2. Annette - February 3, 2019 at 2:11 am

    What can I say – another very, very interesting read. Shalena you make one feel they are there with you. Yes being from a family involved with the meat industry you certainly would have appreciated the history of the place. The statistics are amazing. I will miss it when you the posts of your adventures finish.


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