The city of Montevideo [mon-teh-veeh-DAY-oh] is the capital of Uruguay and is located on the eastern bank of the River Plate. It was declared 2013 Latin American Culture Capital. The official language is Spanish. This placid city is one of the travel destinations on the rise for 2013 according to TripAdvisor.
Many airlines fly to Montevideo. American Airlines has direct flights from Miami and Iberia flies direct from Madrid.
From Buenos Aires, located across the River Plate, there are daily flights and ferry crossings either directly to Montevideo or to Colonia. The trip from Colonia includes a bus ride (included in the ferry ticket).
All year round. Winters are relatively mild. However, it can get hot and humid in the summer.
A slow-paced, beta city where locals are friendly and polite.
It is a pedestrian friendly city with a good public bus network. Taxis are affordable and available.
We stayed at the Esplendor Montevideo, a centrally located boutique hotel (Soriano 868). There are many other accommodation options, of course.
Uruguay’s flagship wine is tannat, a red that goes down a treat with the local beef. The national drink, however, is mate (MAH-tay). Artisans sell hand-crafted mate cups at arts and crafts fairs dotted around the city. I bought two beautiful watercolours by a local artist depicting candombe scenes.
Uruguay is famous for its chivito sandwich. Try it at least once. It is served everywhere but the most traditional place is La Pasiva, a local restaurant chain. Beef is very good in Uruguay. Head to Mercado del Puerto and take a seat at the bar of any parrilla (Parrilla is Spanish for both steak house and grill) inside the market or at Las Martas across the street. Start with a chorizo (pork sausage) and a provoleta (a slice of grilled provolone cheese). If you’re feeling adventurous, go for a morcilla (black pudding) and a choto (grilled intestine.)
Follow with a juicy, tender spot of beef washed down with a glass or two of tannat. Finish your meal with flan casero con dulce de leche y crema (crème caramel with dulce de leche and whipped cream) or a postre Massini (like a fresh cream pie with caramelized sugar on top). Have the paramedics’ number handy in case you go into a food-induced coma. At the Mercado del Puerto order a “medio y medio”, white wine and sparkling wine in equal proportions, the beverage of choice of port workers.
Wander along the streets of Ciudad Vieja (Old Town). This area used to be walled and is the oldest part of the city. The wall was pulled down between 1879 and 1891; only the gate remains and is located at one end of Plaza Independencia. Take in the architecture and the fine examples of street art.
Plaza Independencia marks the boundary between Ciudad Vieja and modern Montevideo. The monument in the middle is that of José Gervasio de Artigas, Uruguay’s independence hero. On one side of the square are the Presidential Offices, a non-descript modern building with two grenadiers standing guard (we saw the changing of the guard at 6 pm by pure chance) and other government buildings. The famous Palacio Salvo is on the 18 de Julio Avenue end. Finished in 1928, it was, at one point, the tallest building in South America.
Peatonal Sarandi is a pedestrian thoroughfare that runs from Plaza Independencia down to the river. There are shops, restaurants and artisans along the way. The cathedral, Iglesia Matriz, is located across from the Plaza Matriz.
The Mercado del Puerto (Port’s Market – Rambla 25 de agosto de 1825) was built in 1868. Its iron structure was cast at the Union Foundry in Liverpool and shipped to Uruguay. There are many parrillas and shops inside.
The ramblas (riverfront walks) are a pleasant area to walk, breath fresh air and enjoy different views of the city and the river.
In some places the white sand beach is quite wide, as in Punta Gorda, Playa Malvin or Carrasco. Locals take full advantage of the beach in the warmer months. Carrasco is an upscale neighbourhood that also offers fine dining.
A potted history first
The tiny historic town of Colonia del Sacramento has a long and interesting history. It was founded on the shores of River Plate in modern-day Uruguay by the Portuguese in 1680. According to the official version, the idea was to stop the Spanish advances into Portuguese territory, but many historians think that, in reality, their aim was to take advantage of the lucrative smuggling activity that was taking place across the river in the town of Buenos Aires.
This didn’t sit well with the Spanish, who attacked the new settlement. And then they razed it to the ground during the war of Spanish Succession. The Portuguese eventually imposed their sovereignty, only to resign it in 1762 to the Spanish (who else?). Colonia became part of the Spanish Empire and then of Uruguay when it declared its independence in 1828.
A day trip to Colonia
Colonia sits across the river from Buenos Aires, only an hour away if you take the fast ferry or three on the slow one. I have to confess that I’d never visited this lovely place until our friends from Dallas said they would like to see it.
We sailed at noon from the Buquebús terminal in Buenos Aires (on the intersection of Avenida Cordoba and, well, the river). Buquebús is one of the ferry companies that offer daily crossings to Uruguay. What with the voyage and the time change (Uruguay is one hour ahead); we got there at about 3 pm in time for lunch. We chose a lovely restaurant but unfortunately, the parrilla (grill) was closed for the day so we had a chivito (a huge beef sandwich with lots of trimmings). We washed it down with a bottle of tanat, Uruguay’s flagship wine.
After lunch, we wandered about the historic centre. The older the street, the more irregular the cobblestones. The Calle de los Suspiros (Sigh Alley) is probably the prettiest and cheerful. Its low buildings are from the first colonial period and the river makes a beautiful background. I could almost see Portuguese galleons patrolling the waters, on the lookout for the Spanish enemies. Or drunken sailors taking a tumble on the big stones while trying to find their way back to their ship.
There are a handful of museums (Municipal, Portuguese Tile, Regional Archive, First People, Spanish and so on). We didn’t have enough time to visit them but I was told at the Tourist Information Office (located outside the port) that you can buy one ticket for 50 Uruguayan pesos, which gets you into all of the museums.
We did climb up to the top of the lighthouse, which dates from 1857. The views from the top are spectacular but it was quite windy. That and my fear of heights meant that I didn’t stay very long, only long enough for a photo. Below the lighthouse are the ruins of an 18th century Franciscan convent.
Colonia was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995. It is a great place to wander about, enjoy some fresh air, and escape from the hustle and bustle of the big city. There is a photo opportunity everywhere you look. The wide river, the colorful colonial houses, the flowers on the window sills, the typical streetlamps. Find a place to sit down and enjoy the peace and quiet. Granted, we were there on a weekday, however, I understand that weekends are more hectic. The locals are super polite and friendly and have that small town warmth that makes you want to stay forever. I fell in love with our neighbors – I mean, with Uruguay. I want to go back for more.