OYOP: Uruguay, I’m glad we met
Uruguay was never on a list of places that I planned to visit. It wasn’t a country that I ever thought or knew much about before. Yet somehow, it ended up as the 5th country we visited on this one-year trip and the 10th country we have visited together. On top of that, Uruguay was a really nice place to spend a few days, and I would have enjoyed a much longer stay.
To get to Uruguay from the Patagonia region, we took a 4-hour flight from Ushuaia, Argentina to Buenos Aires, Argentina. We spent a quick night in Buenos Aires then took the 1-hour ferry the next morning into Colonia, Uruguay where we connected on the 3-hour bus to Montevideo, the capital city of Uruguay. We were already happy about choosing to visit upon arrival when we realized we’d mistakenly thought that Uruguay was going to cost us another hefty $160 reciprocity fee, which we have paid to enter Bolivia, Argentina and will do in Brazil, but there was no cost at all to enter for US citizens.
Uruguay is a relatively small country with a population of just over 3 million people, of which about a third live in the capital city of Montevideo. It is also considered a very progressive country, having legalized same-sex marriage and the sale of marijuana a few years ago. Montevideo has a different feel than the other South American cities we’ve visited. It is beautiful and tranquil, and it feels distinct and more European, less of a mixture and more as if the current culture that exists was always this way. There were also very few stray dogs in the streets, a contrast to what we have seen almost everywhere else in South America. It was easy to see in the relaxed, confident nature of the Uruguayans why their country is consistently rated as having the highest quality of life in South America.
We arrived mid-afternoon in Montevideo, hungry, and remembered vaguely reading that there were restaurants in the Mercado del Puerto, Port Market, in the Ciudad Vieja, Old Town, near where we were staying. The walk in the old town was pleasant, through lively, cobblestone streets with street musicians and touristy art for sale. We reached the Mercado del Puerto, an old train terminal turned into a “market” which is really dozens of grills and seats lined up by gourmet meat restaurants one after the other. It was a steak-lover’s paradise. We were greeted with samples of sparkling wine and explanations of meats. We browsed for a while, then settled on two barstool seats facing the cook grilling in the middle of the bar. We ate way too much meat and spent US$17, topping the Argentinian steak to become the most expensive meal of the trip, but it was well worth it.
We also visited the Museo de Carnaval, the museum of the country’s Carnaval history. While the Carnaval in Uruguay is not as widely known as the Rio de Janeiro celebration in Brazil, it is still deeply rooted in the country’s history and, at 40 days of celebrations, parades, and shows, it is the longest one around. We marveled at the costumes and masks, trying to stretch our time around the tiny museum, and upon exiting, we struck up a conversation with the one girl working at the entrance to discover that we were in town for the last weekend of Carnaval celebrations. I think it was just a little Mardi Gras magic sent over from New Orleans since we were homesick for the celebrations we missed this year.
The next day, we visited nearby Punta del Este, a ritzy beach resort town with supposed frequent celebrity spottings. However, it seems that the summer months are coming to an end and so are the celebrity or any other people sightings at the beach. The beach scene was low key and the only people who were left to wander the beach on the chilly, windy day were those of us who did not “tan it, tone it, and buff it”, as the guidebook kindly suggests, before showing up. Still, the beach was beautiful, the sand was soft, and we explored some pleasant, country roads along another nearby beach town.
When we returned, we headed out for the Carnaval celebration. Since our conversation with the helpful Uruguyan girl was in Spanish, we weren’t entirely sure what we were getting into, but we had an idea that it had to do with this year’s best performers. The show’s attendees proved to be in a Uruguyan calm, peaceful fashion. Instead of rowdy crowds with bottles of booze, the groups were families and friends who brought blankets, croissants, and of course, mate. The mate culture in Uruguay is omnipresent. Yerba mate is compared to a strong, green tea with a stimulant effect similar to caffeine but with all of the herbal goodness qualities of tea. The mate is densely packed into a gourd called a calabaza, or just also called mate, which is a hollowed-out squash, and it is sipped through a speciality metal straw called a bombilla. I have never taken such a quick and strong fascination to an aspect of a culture as I have mate. It is quite interesting to see the vast majority of Uruguayans living their everyday lives while constantly clutching their mate gourds in one hand with a thermos underneath their arm. It is so inconvenient to have only one hand to work with in the supermarket, on the bus, at work handling paperwork, but the mate trumps the importance of these other daily activities.
The Carnaval show was a theatrical performance of local Carnaval music and candombe dance, a type of dance brought over by the African community years ago, which plays an important part of the Carnaval traditions today. It is the only part that Uruguyans can claim is distinctly part of their culture and not shared with the neighboring countries. For about an hour, we enjoyed multiple performances with risqué sparkling costumes, marches, dances, drums, and music, all performed on stage in an open-air velodrome as the spectators watched from seats below and clapped at the end of each song. Unfortunately, it started to rain, but we smiled as all of the prepared locals pulled out umbrellas and rain jackets, when the host announced that the remainder of the show was cancelled. It was only raining for a couple of minutes when the announcement was made, and still everyone calmly filed out of the velodrome as if this was not such a shame as I thought. I found myself comparing it to New Orleans’ celebrations that carry on in heavy rain, because the party must go on in the streets or the entire city would be disappointed. Just as we were trying to hail a taxi and others were hopping in their cars to go home, a busload of costumed performers with face paint and top hats pulled up, blocking in cars from leaving, and hopped out onto the streets getting soaked from head to toe, singing Carnaval songs and putting on an unexpected street performance. Everyone gathered into a circle around them clapping, dancing, and cheering, until the lively performers danced their way back on to the bus and left us in a cheerful state, a stimulant even greater than mate. It turns out we weren’t so different after all.
On our last day in Montevideo, a very special day since it also happened to be James’ birthday, we attended the local’s favorite Sunday activity, the feria, a sort of antique show/flea market/social event that happens every Sunday covering many blocks of the city. We joined the mate-toting locals on the streets, and walked shoulder to shoulder through endless streets, asking locals about the mate culture to pick out the perfect gourd, browsing through old photographs of the city, and tasting savory street meat. Then, we headed over to the rambla, a boardwalk along the Rio de la Plata, “silver river”, that covers several kilometers along the riverside of the city, where the walking, biking, and people watching opportunities are endless. We ended the day with birthday treats of wine, cheese, and sausage.
We spent our last day in Uruguay in the town of Colonia. Colonia is a very small town in which you feel that you have either stepped back in time or into a storybook or both. It is also only a 1-hour ferry ride from the bustling Buenos Aires and would make a perfect day trip when visiting Argentina to get out of the city for a day. It may be the most romantic town I have ever seen, with pastel colored buildings, perfectly spaced out trees lining every shady street, benches facing the river in pristinely clean parks. It is a city for lovers, poets, fairytales, and though there is not much to do but slowly stroll, greet the locals as they plant gardens or tend to tea shops, it was, along with Uruguay in general, a difficult place to leave.