During our extended time in Buenos Aires (BA), we took a four day break to visit Colonia and Montevideo in Uruguay. On the fast ferry Colonia is just an hour away from BA, and once in Colonia, it’s an easy 2.5 hour bus to Montevideo from the Colonia port. We were looking to get away from the hectic life and high prices of BA. Certainly the pace of life in Montevideo was slow compared to BA, like the turtle to the hare. But boy were we wrong about the second thing, prices were different in Montevideo, and to the wrong end of the scale; much higher than in Buenos Aires, even higher than in Chile. How the locals deal with that is beyond our comprehension as they assured us that their salaries are low. In Uruguay we saw a bigger racial mix: white European looking, dark Brasilian types, and the in between mix; as Uruguay is sandwiched in between Argentina and Brasil.
After being in BA, Montevideo does not seem to have many attractions, but we really enjoyed being there. Not only was it quieter and cleaner than BA, but it seemed to me that there was a higher joie de vivre there. People were really relaxed, friendly and easy to talk to. We walked through the old town taking in the old historical buildings and many monuments to the greatest national hero, Jose Gervasio Artigas. There was a particular building in the Plaza de Independencia, the Palacio Salvo, which Tony fell in love with. It has to be the most magnificent building in South America. The construction was made by an Italian architect and completed in 1928 intending to become a high class luxurious hotel, but it never served as a hotel. Palacio Salvo is a national icon of pride. The construction is so spectacular that it really clashes with the 70′s and 80′s buildings around. We have not done any further research on the subject, but our first impression of Montevideo is that it was a rich city with former glory, but somehow collapsed and declined. Now it’s mainly full of 70′s and 80′s buildings, in my opinion, architecture’s darkest period, as evidently the biggest decor on these buildings are external AC units. Montevideo reminded me both of La Habana in Cuba and Bucharest in Romania.I contacted a local to have an insight on the city, my Uruguayan friend and former colleague in Brussels, Cristina. She gave us wonderful tips on how to enjoy Montevideo as a local. And we sure did! We had lunch at the famous and full of ambience Port Market (Mercado del Puerto). Ironically, their specialty is meat, not fish. It’s an old-style aluminum warehouse with plenty of character with about a dozen restaurants serving the big Parrillada (all sort of meat products on a grill). They all have the same steep price, but it’s quite an experience full of charm to have lunch there, sitting on a bar stool watching the grill, while Gauchos (cowboys) come and serenade you with their guitars. Cristina said we had to order a cup of Medio y Medio (Half and Half), a famous local drink consisting of half sparkling sweet wine and half white dry wine. Not bad! In fact so good, that we later had a full bottle of it at a local bar. We also tried the local specialty “Chivito” a big sandwich with meat, bacon, and egg. The rest of the food is very similar to the Argentinian diet: various grilled meats and their own style pastas and pizzas. Oh and how can I forget their obsession with “completos”, plain hot dogs, which we skipped as Tony had sufficiently indulged in them in Santiago. Uruguayan wine is not as famed as the Argentinian, but lately they have been developing quite well the Tannat grape which is a red grape that has become the signature Uruguayan grape.
We walked through the market area, the old town and just as we were making our way to the port to take pictures of the fishermen, a policeman stopped us. He said we shouldn’t go any further, or we would come back without camera. It didn’t seem dangerous at all to us but we obeyed. All cities have dangerous areas, and usually the port is one of them. We were pretty impressed with Montevideo and their policy of protecting tourists. There was a tourist police in every corner of the Old City, not bad at all. However during our walk, the police had to stray their attention from the tourists for a few minutes as two local teenage girls engaged in a heavy fist fight and hair pulling, and to which we must admit that we were quite amused to watch ourselves. We also rode public buses to the other side of the city and we discovered the onboard busker phenomena. In a short ride, at two different stops, two different groups of singers with guitars got on the bus and delighted the crowds with their music. We’ve seen buskers in the metro in almost all of Europe, but not in buses. While in Europe most people try to avoid them like the plague, in Montevideo people seemed to really enjoy it as they clapped and gave them plenty of change. It was so good that we also contributed to their art, a thing we never do; and Tony even chanted “otra otra” (encore) and they pleased him.
A very important recommendation from Cristina was to “Matear in the Ramblas” during sundown. Matear is to drink the mate while you go places and that’s what a lot of Uruguayans do all day. It’s a national tradition in Argentina as well, but an obsession in Uruguay. Mate is a bitter herb which is consumed in a hot water preparation and drunk by sipping a metal spoon/pipe from a dried-pumpkin cup. Since we arrived in Uruguay we noticed this tradition immediately. People all over town carry during the whole day their hot water thermos, their herb and their pumpkin cup and sip it all day long. Tony really wanted to engage in that tradition but it was served nowhere. We were told that it’s a very personal affair, not something one buys in restaurants or bars. So off we went until we found our perfect mate glass and spoon, a hot water thermos, and the herb. With all our new gear and some instructions on preparation we hit the ramblas (waterfront promenade) during sunset. Mate is quite bitter, an acquired taste, or probably an inborn trait; but it was really cool to walk down the ramblas, mate in hand, doing as the locals do.
Montevideo does not have the size or wonders of Buenos Aires, but it makes a relaxing break from the craziness of it; in our opinion well worth the visit!