The friendly local tourist office provided us with a wealth of pamphlets and we quickly found out that Montevideo was founded in 1726 as Spain's response to the growing influence of Portugal in the River Plate area
. Valuable trade was being lost to the fortified contraband port of Colonia del Sacramento further up the delta and this inequity needed to be nipped in the bud - not to mention the nuisance of attacks by British and French pirates! The Bahía de Montevideo provided a natural deep-water harbour and the adjacent headland a suitable site for a walled city. The port flourished for a couple of centuries on the basis of the thriving agricultural sector inland, but today the signs of the economic decline of the past few decades are very obvious. As we wandered the streets and plazas we could well imagine the magnificence of yesteryear, but unfortunately the current reality is one of dispirited neglect. Buildings are crumbling, many businesses are closed, and there are 'for sale' and 'for rent' signs everywhere.
On one corner of Plaza Independencia the imposing Palacio Salvo still stands in proud resplendence, but for all that almost looks like Uruguay's eclectic space shuttle ready for take-off. At twenty six stories it was once the highest building in the city, but now that dubious honour lies with the garishly modernistic steel and tinted-glass telecommunications tower down on the waterfront. The newly renovated and handsomely classic lines of the Teatro Solís caught our eye, as did several other imposing palaces and public buildings. A big effort has been made to maintain the Old Port Market area, and it still attracts hordes of visiting tourists - the majority of them from Buenos Aires, just across the river estuary
. We were there just before lunch time and dozens of huge wood-burning parrilla grills were being loaded up and tended with loving care. By mid-afternoon we retrieved the van and headed for the 'La Rambla' - a scenic boulevard that winds its way east along the waterfront towards the beach resorts out of town. But the city was not done with us yet, and first we had to contend with a massive traffic jam of taxi drivers protesting the soaring price of gas. At least it gave us a chance to get a close up look at the neoclassically ornate and rather impressive Legislative Assembly.
Finally we were on our way to spend a few days exploring the famous beaches and resorts of eastern Uruguay. Although most Argentinean tourists head for the glamorous resorts like Atlántida, Piriapolis and Punte del Este, we definitely prefer the less populated stretches of sand, so we left the high-rises and classy yacht clubs behind and pressed on up the coast. We found what we were looking for in the laid-back little maritime community of La Paloma, with its landmark lighthouse and plenty of opportunities for long beach walks and quietly watching stunning sunsets.
A little further along the coastline we spent a fascinating day at Cabo Polonia, where an isolated little fishing village is haphazardly constructed on a rocky point. It can only be reached by foot, on horseback, or by a 4 x 4 truck drive through the loose sandy terrain and what the local tourist office proudly touts as the highest sand dunes in South America (sorry guys, they don't quite measure up to the massive dunes of Huacachina in Peru!). At least here the fragile ecological area has been declared a protected zone, and sand-boarding is prohibited - so we weren't tempted to break our necks again at that Xtreme sport
! We spent the afternoon quietly making friends with a large colony of sea lions that come ashore some days from an island off the point, and spend their time sunbathing just beyond the lighthouse. We found an inconspicuous spot amongst the rocks and settled down to watch their antics. Occasionally a ruckus would break out over some territorial dispute, and there would be a session of barking, growling and back-biting. The huge dominant male ignored all the fuss unless some unusual movement or sound caught his attention. Moving around on the rocks these marine mammals look quite ungainly, but are in fact surprisingly agile and sure-flippered. Once in the water, they are in their element and are beautifully lithe and supple, and very powerful swimmers.The cold Atlantic swells and breakers didn't seem to bother them a bit, but it certainly deterred us from joining them in the water, as we had with their cousins in the Galapagos Islands!
Montevideo has the reputation of being one of South America's more interesting and manageable capitals. It is only about a tenth of the size of Buenos Aires, and most of the sights worth seeing are within walking distance along a twenty five block axis through the Old City and the downtown core. We had business at the Paraguayan Embassy (more of that in a later TP entry), so while we had some time on our hands waiting for the bureaucratic wheels to grind we opted for a decidedly urban walking tour for a change. We found a convenient parking lot for the van and headed off towards Plaza Independencia. This large open square with its massive monument to José Artigas - Uruguay's national hero and father of independence - marks the junction of the colonial Ciudad Vieja with the bustling commercial centre of the modern city.