Uruguay fills an interesting space in South America. It was originally created to exist as a buffer state between the Brazilians and the Argentinians, to help balance the power struggle in the region and to put an end to a war between the two regional powers. It is culturally close to Argentina, both in language and in history, but also shares some similarities to Brazil. In fact, I was told that closer to the Brazilian border you can hear a form of Spanish known colloquially as Portuñol.
I visited Montevideo, the capital city of Uruguay, in January 2012 as part of a speaking tour of South America and Antarctica called Sharing the Point. We arrived via ferry from Buenos Aires, and spent a few days here on the shores of the Río de la Plata, just enough time to get a feel for this laid back but yet cosmopolitan Latin American City.
The people of Montevideo are similar to those of Argentina in that they are primarily composed of European immigrants, mainly from Spain and Italy, but also from France, Britain, and Germany. One local joked that Uruguay’s immigrants come from any country that has lost a war.
Montevideo is home to half of Uruguay’s population, and is subsequently the most important city in the country economically. A pleasant city overall, it retains a very European charm, but yet there is no mistaking you are in Latin America when you are here.
The old Spanish fortress known as the Fortaleza del Cerro sits on the top of a hill that has an excellent view of the city itself.
The fortress overlooks the Villa del Cerro and La Teja barrios, or neighborhoods in the immediate foreground, with the main portions of the city, including the Ciudad Vieja, or old town, located in the built up area directly across the bay.
One extremely interesting area of the city we visited was the Prado barrio, an older part of town that was previously the home for many of the cities mansions. It was obvious that this neighborhood was incredibly wealthy at one point, and the number of dilapidated mansions in the area was almost heartbreaking. With any luck, this neighborhood will be revived one day without sacrificing any of the rich architectural heritage here.
The Prado barrio was also the home to a massive Gothic church called the Iglesia las Carmelitas. The level of detail on this building was impressive, but it was boarded up and showing signs of neglect when we visited, another sad reminder of the former glory of this neighborhood.
The central square of Montevideo and most important plaza is the Plaza Independencia. As far as plazas go, this one is really quite nice, with the requisite fountains, green spaces, and a giant statue of the local hero and independence figure José Artigas.
The plaza also marks the border between the downtown business district of Montevideo and the Ciudad Vieja, or old City of Montevideo. The Puerta de la Ciudadela, or gateway of the city still stands, though the extensive city walls that the gate originally allowed passage through have been removed.
Within the borders of the old city is one of the more pleasant parks, the Plaza Constitución. It is the oldest plaza in Montevideo and is surrounded by historic buildings and a beautiful old fountain.
The Igelesia Matriz de Montevideo is located at the edge of Plaza Constitución and has one of the more beautiful interiors of any church in the city.
Like the Argentinians, Uruguayans love their meat, and the local cuisine reflects this. It isn’t challenging to find a place that serves up some of the famous local meats and sausages, and carnivores will be pleasantly surprised at the quality. The blood sausage in particular has a distinct taste here, and is worth trying even if you have written off that particular type of encased meat offering before.
After failing to find a ‘local’ tango joint in Buenos Aires the night before, I and my traveling speaker friend Joel Oleson were determined to find one here in Montevideo, which shares the distinction of inventing the Tango dance form with Buenos Aires.
What we found was a Tango club called ‘Joventango’, or ‘Youth Tango.’ Ironically, most of the participants in the Joventango were older couples in their 70’s and even 80’s. It was quite the experience to see how real, passionate Uruguayan tango was performed, especially among the experienced older set. Many of the women had their eyes closed the entire time they were dancing, yet seemed to float effortlessly across the floor.
The Joventango club meets in a different location that is only published last minute, so we were lucky to stumble upon this gathering, particularly since it may be some of the last organized non-tourist tango gatherings like this. The friendly locals, who were happy to chat with us, noted that this art form is currently dying, and that there are not enough young people to keep it alive. We were told by several of them that in 10 years this type of club will not exist anymore, a sad fate for such a beautiful art form.
Probably the most impressive side of Montevideo can be found in its long beachfront, known as the Rambla. On a sunny day in summer like the one we visited on, one can find a huge number of people out swimming, biking, jogging, fishing, or even drinking mate from pipe-like gourds, a curious local drink used as a stimulant.
Any beach on the river side of the Rambla is state-owned, and belongs to the public, so all of the beaches are open to anyone, and there are no walled off areas or private beaches here. Indeed, visiting the riverfront area of Montevideo was one of the highlights of the trip for us, and really set the mood for the entire city.
By the way, you’ll note that I said ‘riverfront’ and not ‘oceanfront,’ as technically Montevideo is at the mouth of the Rio de la Plata. However, it really depends on how you define where the river ends and where the Atlantic Ocean begins, as the other side of the mouth of the ‘river’ is nearly 200km away. So, if defined as a river at this point, the Rio de la Plata would technically be the widest river in the world.
Montevideo is often compared to New York, but I think a more fitting comparison would actually be Miami, especially when it comes to the Rambla beachfront. The attitudes here are also more laid back, similar to what you’d expect in a beach community. The Uruguayans definitely have a good thing going when it comes to their capital city, and I hope to make it back here some day in the near future to experience that vibe again!