Mooching about Montevideo

Trip Start Nov 06, 2009
Trip End May 28, 2011

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Where I stayed
El Viajero Downtown

Flag of Uruguay  ,
Monday, December 27, 2010



We decided to pop across the river and spend a few days in neighbouring Uruguay. 

We'd actually tried to go before Christmas but the Colonia Express ferry we were booked on to got cancelled due to 'technical problems' so we had to reschedule for after Christmas. No biggie, we didn't mind too much.

It was a little annoying however, that when we did finally make it on to the ferry, the supposedly 55 minute trip ended up taking over 3 hours - due to mysterious 'technical problems' again. We eventually docked in Colonia, where fortunately the buses are more reliable than the ferries so we were able to hop onto one leaving in 10 minutes that got us to Montevideo a couple of hours later - although not quite to the bus terminal as it turned out that the bus terminal was on fire. Hmmm. 
It was about 5pm by the time we arrived at our hostel, the very nice El Viajero Downtown, set in a beautiful old townhouse around a pretty courtyard. We hadn't had breakfast yet, nevermind lunch, so as soon as we'd dumped our bags we set out hunting for food.
Downtown Montevideo was like a ghost town on Boxing Day. Everything was shut and eerily quiet. Except for trusy old Maccas. So we shamefully but hungrily sat down in plastic air-conditioned McLoveliness for the second time this week.
We made the most of the city centre being empty and did a circuit of the man attractions in Downtown Montevideo and Cuidad Vieja.
Montevideo started out as a strategic military post and counter colony for the Spanish, founded in 1726 to defend the Rio de la Plata and the eastern coast from the Portuguese who had founded a colony at nearby Colonia del Sacramento. It soon became an important port, beating rival Colonia in commercial and cultural significance. When in 1828, after a 3-way struggle between Spain, Argentina and Brazil, Uruguay finally gained independence, the city became the country's capital.
We walked around the main Plaza Independencia, with its huge equestrian monument marking the spot of the mausoleum of revolutionary leader and national hero, JosÚ Gervasio Artigas, 'the father of Uruguayan independence'. From the plaza we also saw Palacio Estevez, the original presidential palace, the Palacio Salvo (with its 26 storeys, which once upon a time made it South America's tallest building) and the impressive 1856 Teatro Solis, the country's oldest theatre.
We'd assumed that the Cuidad Vieja, the oldest part of the city, would be the highlight of Montevideo. We had visions of beautiful old houses with colourful window boxes lining quaint cobbled streets. A flowery plaza where locals mill about passing the time of day and drinking mate out of thermos flasks. And perhaps a few musicians filling the air with sweet sounds while friendly artisans peddle their handicrafts to shiny happy tourists passing through.

There were indeed old houses and cobbled streets, however beautiful and quaint they were not. The could-be, should-be, once-were, beautiful old houses have fallen into disrepair and been left to rot; all crumbling masonry, rusty balconettes and smashed up windows. The overgrown plaza deserted but for a couple of hobos asleep on the benches, it's crumbling centrepiece defaced with mindless graffitti. The cobbled streets strewn with rubbish and tramped by drunken old guys, shifty-looking young guys, and ragged kids begging for monedas from the very few (i.e. just us) not very happy (but quite shiny owing to the oppressive heat) tourists who dared venture there.
It turns out that Cuidad Vieja is in fact one of the most neglected parts of the city, and at night police officers actively discourage tourists from going there - we met a couple of girls in our hostel who'd tried to go there in the evening and were turned away by police who told them it was too dangerous!
So we didn't stay long and decided that a stroll along La Rambla, along the waterfront, might be more pleasant. There were a few folks casting fishing rods over the grafittied harbour wall, some wrinkled women sunbathing in garden chairs on the pavement, and a few teenagers splashing in the murky brown waters around the small rocky outcrop that constitutes the old town's beach.

Perhaps the Boxing Day emptiness and post-Christmas litter made the place look dourer than usual. Or perhaps we've been spoiled by the beauty and excitement of Buenos Aires. Or perhaps we had higher expectations of this country that is supposedly the most economically developed in South America, has the highest quality of life and human development in the continent, boasts the lowest income inequality in Latin America (and is second only to Canada in all the Americas), is ranked the 41st highest quality of life in the world, and was the first country in the world to provide every child with a free laptop computer and wifi connection (!). 

Perhaps we just didn't get it, but Montevideo was for us a bit of a disappointment. Having said that, it wasn't all bad; Parque Rodˇ was a little more inspiring - one of the city's various French-inspired green spaces. It's named after Uruguayan writer JosÚ Enrique Rodˇ, to whom there's a monument in the park. We found a nice shady tree by the lake there under which to have a picnic.
The Mercado de Artesanos was pleasant too, although they have a Soviet-Russia style trading system going on; in order to purchase a solitary fridge magnet memento of Montevideo for one's mother one must not simply select the desired magnet and part with the appropriate cash payment. Oh no! The process is thus:
One must select the desired fridge magnet
Somehow attract the attention of the appropriate vendor (who may be half way across the room chinwagging with a friend over a matÚ)
wait for vendor to write out a reciept for the value of said item
be quoted ten pesos more than the price written on the fridge magnet
point out that this is ten pesos pesos more than the price written on the fridge magnet
wait for vendor to write out a reciept for the correct value of said item
try to hand over cash payment
have cash payment refused
be handed reciept but no fridge magnet
be directed to a cashier across the other side of the room
wait for one's turn in queuehand over reciept to cashier
hand over cash payment
be handed second receipt but no fridge magnet
join a second queue next to the first queue
wait for one's turn in second queuetry not to throw things at vendor/cashier's head
hand over second recieptwait for second cashier to find fridge magnet
wait for assistant to wrap fridge magnet
wait for assistant to place fridge magnet in carrier bag
vow to never ever again spend 30 minutes purchasing fridge magnet.

Ok, maybe not so good afterall...

But the final good thing we did in Montevdieo was get to see Alison & Matt again. They arrived in Montevideo a couple of hours before we were due to leave so we met up with them for lunch. We had the national Uruguayan dish of 'chivitos' at Cafe Tinkal. 
Chivito means 'little goat' and the story goes that that dish came about when one day a customer from Cordoba went into a restaurant in Punte del Este and ordered a dish of baby goat meat like she'd had in Argentina. As the restaurant owner didn't have it he served her a sandwich instead and so the 'chivito' was born.

Usually it's a white roll sandwich filled with a thin slab of churasco beef, bacon, mozarella, lettuce, tomato and mayo. As Alison and Matt don't eat meat they got the vegetarian version which was essentially just a grilled cheese sandwich. Not quite what we expected from the national dish (and people say British cuisine is plain!), nevertheless pretty tasty.

With full bellies we headed to the bus station and hoped that Colonia would show us another side of Uruguay...

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Hawk on

Based upon your experience with the fridge magnet, is it any surprise that someone who orders goat meat should end up with a grilled cheese? Can you imagine the receipts required for that particular transaction?

Loli on

Todavia me estoy riendo en la compra del fridge magnet!!! te amoxxxxx

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