Picture the scene: I am standing on the deck of a modern cargo ferry, camera in one hand and beer in the other, the city of Buenos Aires is slipping away and is soon lost in the early morning haze. The backpacker next to me turns and asks, “Do you know anything about Uruguay?”
I shake my head and the question is passed along the line of sleepy travelers. A Mexican wave of shaking heads is clearly visible. None of us know a thing about the country and when we finally step off the boat we are surprised to see that people don’t in fact have two heads and are largely normal. “Welcome to Uruguay” reads a sign. Underneath in smaller print: “Winner of two World Cups.”
According to the CIA fact book, Uruguay is South America’s second smallest country and draws more visitors per capita than any other South American state. Its 500 km coastline is one long, white sandy beach, occasionally interrupted by dunes, pine, acacia and eucalyptus trees. For some bizarre reason, which I just can’t figure out, Uruguay is often called the Switzerland of South America. Personally, I would have had to have been very drunk to have come up with this marketing slogan. The Argentinean tourist office gave me a leaflet called “Uruguay – the Country with a Beach”.
Things to Do and Places to See
Colonia del Sacramento
Essential to everyone’s visit to Uruguay, and in fact South America, is a trip to the wonderful town of Colonia del Sacramento. The local tourist office describes this as ‘like a walk back in time.’ Founded in 1680 by the Portuguese, this old colonial town is
renowned for its cobbled, windy streets and colorful houses reminiscent of old Lisbon. Thankfully there are none of Lisbon’s other attractions such as stroppy taxi drivers, crap food, a terrible national airline and nothing to do on a Saturday night.
Due to its colonial beginnings, the city’s layout is different from the majority of
Uruguayan cities. Its cobbled streets and houses alternate with small bars, excellent restaurants, art and craft shops, museums and a large yacht harbor. It is one of the nicest places I have been in South America. From my diary:
‘…on the banks of the chocolate colored Rio Plata the town sits sunning itself in the afternoon sun. Royal palms and proud looking sycamore trees line the streets and a gaggle of nuns are moving from pool of shade to pool of shade. We find a nice little cake shop, which sells enormous croissants and spicy little quiches. I hand over a wad of the beautiful colored money and get another wad back and a big smile from the pretty assistant. We sit on a stone bench in the shade of a majestic Royal palm. Two elderly nuns join us and take out their sandwiches. We all eat in silence under the watchful gaze of the Jesuit built church. I could be in a novel by Voltaire and I can’t remember ever being as happy as I feel now.’
After wandering around a bit more, and sampling one or two of the excellent ice creams I wrote that;
‘…Uruguay is turning out to be a pleasant surprise…we seem to be the only tourists here. The town is sleepily charming and each turn takes us deeper into the maze of cobbled streets that make up the town. Every now and again we come across little stone built houses that look like Welsh cottages made from irregular lumps of stone that look hand carved. Some of the houses have solid looking iron bars across the windows. The old town wall is crumbling away but there is enough left to wonder at the engineers who built it and what their life must have been like. The sea is the only sound we can hear. I keep expecting the Count of Monte Cristo to come galloping around the corner. Instead I am nearly run over by a Japanese couple driving a rented golf buggy.’
Uruguay and especially the area surrounding Colonia must be a Mecca for vintage car fans (I can understand the fascination with vintage wines, but not for cars) and I don’t think I saw a car that was made later than about 1930. I don’t know quite what the Uruguayans do with their cars but they are all perfectly preserved. There must be a fortune driving around the average Uruguayan town.
The only other means of transport in Colonia is to rent a golf buggy from one of the many agencies that line the towns only street. I was sorely tempted to rent one for the day and cruise around the cobbled streets but I was beaten to it by the inevitable group of Japanese tourists which follow me everywhere I go in the world. I had no resort but to sit in the sun, drink wonderful Uruguayan beer and feel content with life.
After the sun had set and I had engaged the owner of the hotel in a long conversation about football (Uruguay won the first World Cup and won it again a few years later when they beat Brazil in Rio’s Maracana stadium – I would have given my left arm to be there that night despite the fact even my mother wasn’t born at the time), we wandered out on the streets in search of food. The first cafÃ© we came to was as much down-at-heel as we could find in the town and we ordered the local dish of civito al plato and a couple of beers. The food arrived a few minutes later and was according to my diary:
‘…a monstrous pile of sizzling food which took up most of the table. Two large steaks, two greasily divine fried eggs, a funky salad of pickled things (origin unknown), a huge Russian salad and a huge pile of fries. Not bad for US$12.’
I have wanted to write about Montevideo for ages as it gives me a good excuse to tell my infamous Uruguayan priest story…
Many years ago when I first started traveling to the north east of Brazil, the cheapest route from the UK was via New York. One memorable occasion I was standing at JFK’s baggage carousel waiting to hear where Continental Airlines had sent my bags this time when an elderly priest, complete with leather bible under one arm and a dog collar wandered over to me and tapped me on my shoulder.
“Where are you going to?” he asked me, “If your bag ever turns up.”
“Fortaleza,” I replied, “and you?”
“Well,” he said, carefully laying down his bible and adjusting his dog collar, “if these f***ers haven’t lost my ***dammed f**king bag again, like the useless s**theads did last week, I am going to Montevideo.”
“Oh, I have never been there. What is it like?” (Actually, I didn’t even know where Montevideo was then).
“It’s the biggest sh**hole in America, the people there are all complete ****holes, everyone is pissed most of the time and I don’t ****ing like it one bit.”
“And if my bag doesn’t turn up soon I’ll never have time for a pint or two before boarding. ****!”
At that stage my bag suddenly appeared and I had to run to get my connection to SÃ£o Paulo but I had heard enough to want to go to Montevideo someday and perhaps even go to a church service or two.
I don’t know what I really expected of Montevideo, apart from mad priests, but I was pleasantly surprised. My first view of Montevideo was from the central bus station that was as modern as they get and extremely well organized and well policed. There were even friendly taxi drivers ready to take me downtown for the going rate.
Montevideo has a number of established tourist sites but the real joy of the city is wandering around the city and poking into all its nooks and crannies. Almost every turn leads you to an impressive piece of architecture, a wonderful restaurant or wine bar (Montevideo has some of the best restaurants in South America) or into some dimly lit, cobbled back street which probably hasn’t changed since the Portuguese were in town. My overall impression was that I had wandered onto the set of a very optimistic Tim Burton movie.
A short tour of Montevideo
Start at the central square of the Plaza Independencia. Firstly admire the memorable statue of the famous Uruguay hero (no one actually seems to know who it is) who did something famous sometime or other. Turn away from the statue and look back along the wide avenue.
On your right hand side at about 11 o’clock you should be able to see the Palacio Salvo (tell me this wasn’t designed by Tim Burton). Take of few pictures of this stunning building that was once South America’s tallest building and is one of the finest looking in the Southern Hemisphere.
Turn back towards the statue and veer off to the left. You should, if I haven’t muddled up my lefts and rights, after a few minutes walk come to the Theatro Solis. Last time I was there it was covered in scaffolding but it’s meant to be opening again soon.
Turn back to the main square and walk straight. You will pass under a portal that marks, I think, the edge of the old city walls. You are now in one of the best areas for good, cheap food in South America. The first street on your left is lined with excellent restaurants. Most offer extremely comparatively priced ‘executive lunches’ where for about US$5 you can stuff yourself stupid on a buffet of unprecedented decadence and glamour. I actually got chased down the street by the owner of one restaurants in this area after I refused my sixth lunchtime bowl of strawberries and cream.
Back on the main street keep walking straight, past the unobtrusive McDonald’s and the calm and shady park until you run out of road (you will pass a department store and supermarket on the right which does excellent empanadas). You will pass through an area which looks somewhat dodgy – don’t worry, it’s not as bad as it seems – and now in front of you is the Mercado Del Puerto. Loosen your belt another two notches and prepare to enter culinary heaven.
Within the wonderfully wrought iron market is a plethora of middle to upper class eateries that specialize in large meat dishes and seafood. Despite the market’s modest exterior, the food is wonderful. I suggest you plan to stay here for at least a couple of weeks, find a good restaurant and settle down to work your way through the menu.
For those of you who are not such dedicated carnivores, there are a million and one whisky bars in the central market which all have to be tried before you are allowed an exit stamp. Regular readers will not be surprised that I love Uruguay so much as it provides my three main needs – whisky, meat and cakes – in admirably large portions for a reasonable amount of money. I never did come to grips with why the Uruguayans are such whisky drinkers but I did my liver a lot of damage trying to find out.
There are also a number of museums in Montevideo but I, for reasons quite unknown, never made it to any of them. But I guess that they are a lot of fun – especially those which are about whisky.