Uruguay is a tiny South American Country nestled between Brazil and Argentina. Geographically the same size as Missouri, it has a population of 3.5 about million. Spain was the first European country to reach the area, settling the region in 1624. Not long after the Portuguese took over and a tug-of-war ensued. Then, Great Britain jumped into the fray. The control wars for domination ended in 1828. A national constitution was enacted, and on July 18, 1830 the democratic republic of Uruguay was established. One of the first acts of this new country was to gather and massacre its few remaining indigenous males. The women and children were “saved” and distributed as slaves. This inauspicious beginning has, in modern times, been eschewed. After a long period of military dictatorships, enabled by the CIA among others, Tabare Vasquez was elected president in 2004. As an overt symbol of independence from the US, diplomatic relations with Cuba were restored. Vasquez was wildly popular. He was succeeded in the presidency by Jose Mujica. In 2012 abortion was legalized. Same sex marriage was recognized in 2013. That same year the country legalized marijuana. Uruguay is financially stable, is one of the most secular countries in South America, has an extremely high literacy rate and enjoys a profusion of diverse cultural activity. It is a safe country with kind people and a decent quality of life.
In 1723 the Portuguese established Colonia del Sacramento (Colonia) along the east bank of the Rio de la Plata. We booked a ferry from Buenos Aires to Colonia. The boat ride took about an hour. We had been told a day trip to Colonia was plenty of time to explore. We opted for 3 nights and 2 days. It was a good choice. It gave us plenty of opportunity to roam the entire city, expanding our boundaries beyond the old town.
Lonely Planet describes Colonia as “an irresistibly picturesque town enshrined as a Unesco World Heritage site.” Apt and succinct. The historic district has narrow cobble-stoned streets lined with huge sycamore trees. Large palm trees house flocks of squawking green parrots.We stayed in a gorgeous plush hotel overlooking the river. With the windows opened, it sounded like we were on the ocean.
Montevideo is the capital of Uruguay. Over 1/3rd of the country’s citizens reside there. I was enamored with the city. It has wholesome undertones in a big city setting. Family life is obviously very important. The architecture is wildly eclectic. Older buildings in various states of repair sit alongside modern structures amidst fascist 1950 and 1960s style apartment buildings. The setting is as eclectic as the culture.
Bus travel between cities in Uruguay is comfortable, affordable and common. We showed-up at the bus station in Colonia at 11:30 am and boarded the 12:05 pm bus to Montevideo – reserved seat tickets in hand. It was a 2½ hour ride and a great way to see the countryside. Lot’s of agriculture, clean, wide-open and an interesting assortment of people getting on and off the bus. As if things couldn’t get any better, the bathroom was sparkling clean, albeit bumpy!
We arrived in Montevideo on Friday afternoon and left early Monday morning. The timing wasn’t great. Many establishments are closed over the weekend and Sundays are virtually shuttered. Not to be deterred, we donned our tennis shoes and hit the streets. One of the first things I noticed are the mate toting locals. Yerba mate is a tea made from Yerba leaves. It is pungent and contains a caffeine like substance. Friends pass it around. As best as I can tell, the whole country is cheerfully addicted.
The consumption of mate is more than just drinking. It is a ritual. Special cups are packed tight with mate leaves. A thermos of hot water is carried under the arm (some folks have special carrying cases). The silver straw has a flat filtered bottom. All day long, small amounts of hot water is added to the cup and sips taken from the straw, using care not to close the lips while sipping. If in a group, one person carries the cup and cradled thermos of water. It is passed among friends. I was introduced to mate in Argentina, but Uruguay seems to have embraced the love of the drink widely. Pardon the pun. Not my cup of tea.
One of the most interesting museums I have ever visited is in Montevideo. The Espacio de Arte Contemporáneo (Contemporary Arts Museum) is incorporated into an 1800s prison. Created in a collaboration between Spain and Uruguay it opened during a 2011 bicentennial celebration. Exterior prison walls were left intact and are covered with an array of graffiti. The wall is a striking feature as you approach. The architecture of the prison is incorporated into the exhibits. Individual cells showcase art. Peep holes through the original prison doors give glimpses of exhibits. It is impossible to forget your setting. The museum is small, unnerving, and free to anyone who wishes to visit. When exiting out the rear, you walk through a small park and playground. Somehow, this helps cleanse the soul after an intense encounter.
The locals love their beaches. After work and on weekends, folks congregate along the waterfront’s Malecon playing beach volleyball, roller skating, fishing, bicycling, jogging and just visiting. It is a place to see and be seen. But, mostly to relax with friends and family. The brown river water was not to my taste, but the lifestyle is lovely. One could grow fond of most anything, given time.
One of the few things to do on Sundays, other than hang at the waterfront, is the Sunday market. It is huge! Filled with locals, there is every type of ware imaginable. Lot’s of haggling and buying. The propensity of this society to recycle is showcased by the volume of available used goods.
As with most cities in Argentina and Uruguay, there are public trash and recycle containers on the streets. This is where one deposits disposables. In Montevideo, many of these receptacles are brightened-up by public artists. Porque no?
On Saturday, we took a tour of the Opera house. Not nearly as opulent as the one in Buenos Aires, but respectable with an interesting history. A couple of local actors were hired to spice-up the tour. They appeared on several occasions portraying funny skits filled with lots of physical comedy that could be understood in all languages.
Hungry and thirsty after a long walk, we saw this place across the street from the Malacon. What a serendipitous find! At the Tincal Bar we were introduced to the chivito, a sandwich invented in Uruguay. Anthony Bourdain called it the best sandwich in the world. He wasn’t far off. The name means “small goat,” but there isn’t any goat meat in it at all. The chivito consists of thinly sliced tender flavorful beef with endless options for toppings. Think ham, eggs, cheese, etc., etc. Served with a big plate of french fries, the chivito satisfied my monthly craving for a juicy burger and fries.
The US embassy is just around the corner from the Tincal Bar. It is currently undergoing a major renovation. Work on the $90 million project was continuing in spite of the government shut-down at home.
While in Montevideo we stayed at the Alma Historica hotel, a small boutique hotel right in the heart of old town. Very comfy digs for three nights.
This is a wonderful public mural signifying girl power. Political messages in public art are rife throughout the city.
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Thanks for joining my adventures. See you next time!