Where Are The Locals? – Salto, Montevideo, Colonia, Uruguay

Where Are The Locals?

Salto, Monte Video, Colonia, Uruguay

City View
City View
I spent a week in Uruguay as part of a two-month overland trip with Oasis Overland. We entered Uruguay from Brazil into Salto. We stopped in town for lunch and a supermarket shop. It was incredibly cheap. A bottle of decent wine was only 70p and a tasty restaurant lunch, with wine, was less than two quid. Our first night, we stayed at a campsite just outside of the town, close to several thermal spas and a water park.

A group of us decided to treat ourselves to a day at one of the health and beauty spas. I had an all over body conditioning treatment. First, the beautician applied a body scrub, then a white clay-like substance, which was left to dry. It was a bit unnerving lying in the treatment room not quite understanding the beautician’s instructions as my Spanish didn’t stretch to “exfoliate, rinse and repeat” or “deep tissue massage”. I misunderstood the “treatment over” instruction and remained on the couch waiting for my next lotion until the lady walked back in again with her next client – oops! I spent the afternoon relaxing in the different thermal pools and spa baths – much needed after three weeks in a truck.
The next day we were up at dawn to break camp and head for Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay. The scenery along the way reminded me of New Zealand (the Kiwis with us agreed) – very flat, green fields dotted with cows and trees. Roads were very long and straight (if a bit bumpy) with hardly any traffic. Houses were low, single storey box-shaped; some painted in pastel colours with well-kept classic cars parked outside. I saw several horse-drawn carts. They seemed to be the equivalent of England’s long-gone “Rag and Bone” men – people who collect useful rubbish and metal items that can be recycled for money. Uruguay has poverty, but not on the scale seen in Peru and Bolivia.

Montevideo is a pleasant, clean, compact city. It doesn’t have the same number or scale of beautiful buildings seen in other cities I visited in South America. We stayed at a hotel in the city centre, and set out to explore. The sea that separates it from Argentina positions Montevideo, but I couldn’t find a beach of any kind, just a high seawall. In the evening, we all met up at a restaurant at the meat market – Mecardo del Puerto. It’s a huge building, very similar to Spitalfields in the City of London. Inside were several open Barbeque meat grills where you sat up at the counter, pointed at which slab of meat you wanted and they would cook it to your preference.

The steaks were the size of encyclopedias, falling off the plates – not really the best place to be a vegetarian. I struggled to find something on the menu that didn’t have meat of some type in it. Eventually I settled on a omeletta con patatas thinking I would get an omelet with potato and other vegetables, maybe even a side salad. But no, I was presented with an omelet that had chips inside it!

The Old & the New
The Old & the New
On the way back into town we passed a fancy hotel with armed soldiers and a crowd of spectators outside. Not wanting to miss a Uruguayan celebrity, we hung around rubbernecking. Then who should come out of the building but none other than Prince Phillip of Spain! Apparently, he was in town on an official visit as the President of Uruguay was changing the next day. It did mean that the Palacio Legislativo was shut to visitors, but we were pleased with our celebrity spot.

Later that evening, my friend and I were drinking at a bar off the main street. We started chatting with two Argentinean blokes who were “choreographers” at a local sex club. They could earn more money in Uruguay than in Buenos Aires, which seemed a bit unbelievable to me. They introduced us to their transsexual friend, Natasha. She had boob and bum implants, and they were huge!

Pablo and Chino then took us to a backstreet shop that sold plastic bottles of wine from a huge wine fountain – a bit like a Slush Puppy machine. We ended the night being taught to pole dance round a lamppost in the central plaza. The next morning we found out that the plaza was where the prostitutes hung around looking for business. So I wouldn’t recommend this activity with two strippers. However, Monte Video is a great place to stock up on genuine label clothes as they are so cheap. I picked up a pair of Converse trainers for the equivalent of eight quid and Levi jeans were on sale for just over ten quid.

Our next stop was a town called Colonia. En-route we stopped at a private car museum off the main highway. My dad would have loved it. The garage was full of restored cars and motorbikes, including a Norton and a Chevrolet, a Studebaker and a black hearse. The owner, a passionate man whose hobby got out of control, had also made sofas out of the back seats of Volkswagon Beetles and several tractor seat stools.

Colonia itself is a lovely little town next to the river, so wide that it looks like the sea. We stayed at a campsite on the outskirts of the town close to the bullring. The old town, barrio, has cobbled streets, quaint antique and gift shops. Classic cars are everywhere, still in excellent condition and used by the locals. We saw several old Fords, a Chevrolet and a Studebaker. We had a meal in a converted water tower and wandered around an artisan market.

Have Car, Will Travel
Have Car, Will Travel
The strangest thing about Uruguay is the lack of people. There were no crowds, no traffic jams. We were the only customers at every café and restaurant. Where was everyone? Maybe it was quiet because of the public holiday and the new President. Maybe it is always quiet. It would be good to know from anyone else who’s been to Uruguay. Where do the locals hide?

I had a fantastic time and I will definitely return one day to explore more of this time-warped country. We left Uruguay by ferry to Argentina, and straight into Buenos Aires. It was an hour-long journey with a simple border-control process into a city and country totally different from Uruguay.

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