Nestling between the giants of Brazil and Argentina lies little Uruguay, once a political buffer state that today seems neglected by mainstream tourists.
The countryside is an extension of the Argentine pampas and is dotted with cattle and sheep. Montevideo, the main port and capital has a population about 1.4 million, which is home for about 40% of the total population of 3.5 million. It is a long established welfare state and has a high level of Government employment.
Its economy is export orientated and based mainly on agricultural products such as beef, sheep meats, wool and crops (rice, wheat, corn, citrus, wine) and fishing. Tourism is important especially in the beach resorts of the Atlantic coast. Group tours in the countryside are becoming increasingly popular and include bird-watching, wine, fishing (dorado), and ranch visits where horse riding and trekking is enjoyed.
Compared to the huge bustling and vibrant city of Buenos Aires just 200 kms across the estuary of the Rio Plata, Montevideo seems a sleepy city content in its isolation from the rest of the world. This is part of Uruguay’s charm. High stress living is rejected for a more simple life. Living conditions range from the elitist Atlantic beach resorts like Punta del Este enjoyed largely by comparatively wealthy Argentines, to the rustic peasantry of rural villages inhabited by flamboyant gauchos or cowboys.
The painless way to arrive in Montevideo from afar is to fly in direct from say Rio de Janeiro, Miami or even Madrid. Alternatively, you may come by international bus and arrive at the super-efficient bus terminal and shopping complex called Tres Cruces. These buses are topnotch in service like those found in most of civilized South America.
Travelers from Buenos Aires have to circumvent, or cross the River Plate or its estuary. The first bridge access to the north is across the tributary Rio Negro between the towns of Fray Bentos and Mercedes, which is the route taken by the overnight buses to Montevideo (8 hours).
More exciting it is to cross the estuary by the high speed luxury ferries, or hydrofoils, which are operated by Buquebus. They take about 45 minutes to get to the nearest Uruguayan port of Colonia from where it is a further 180 km bus journey to Montevideo, or alternatively, you can go direct to Montevideo, taking about 2 hours.
Conventional ferries operate also and take about three times as long to get there. In the summer high season Buquebus provide services to the Atlantic beach resorts of Piriapolis, Punta del Este and La Paloma.
The budget traveler should have no trouble finding congenial accommodation in Uruguay because the cities and resort towns have good hostels available. Check the Hostelling International website for online booking. Some hostels have community kitchens available for guests to cook their meals in which case you can have fun buying food at a nearby supermarket and cook up a meal with the company of other travelers. Dorms are usually segregated male/female but sometimes mixed; also important is Internet access.
Where to go and what to see:
The historic port of Colonia, only 50 kms across the sea from Buenos Aires, is worth a stay of a day or two to explore the fascinating old shops and galleries while roaming its cobblestone streets. Vintage and classic cars are common, suggesting a time-warp back into US gangster days. You might see an old Nash, a Studebacker or Buick, some with canvas tops and even a Model T Ford still proudly in use.
The pace of small town Uruguay is that of the bicycle, of which there are many. The chief mode of transportation is the motor scooter often with two or even three people aboard. They putter about straining under their load of humanity in a world without traffic lights or parking meters. Some housewives use a horse and gig to go shopping. Even in Montevideo you will sometimes see a horse and cart used to collect city garbage and transport goods. The cost of new imported motor vehicles is high because of tariff restrictions.
Uruguay is the home of yerba mate . This is a tea-like beverage sipped from an elaborate flask or gourd, using a bombilla, or metal straw 15 to 20 cm long with a strainer at one end. It is a Guarani Indian beverage made from the dried, sometimes toasted leaves of the shrub “Ilex paraguariensis” which is related to holly. It contains somewhat less caffeine than ground coffee. It is a stimulating and slightly bitter drink usually taken plain. The taste is an acquired one. Only tourists add sugar which is frowned upon.
Mate is drunk throughout Chile, Argentina and southern Brazil, but more so in Uruguay and Paraguay. Every office desk has a thermos flask of hot water from which to make it. Even motor scooters have special holders for a thermos flask and gourd so that their drivers can sip away at a moments notice. Courting couples promenading Las Ramblas may carry two thermos flasks in fancy leather holders.
The gourd is loosely filled with yerba mate (looks like chaff) and hot water is poured in to a fairly stiff consistency. The infusion is sipped gently, refilled with hot water, and passed onto your companion to sip, like smoking a Red Indian peace pipe. This sharing of one’s mate drink is an important social custom which promotes bonding and friendships.
The place to see antique silver mate paraphernalia, plus gaucho silverware and weapons, is the Museo del Gaucho y de la Moneda located in the Banco del Republica, on the main street in Montevideo.
The main avenue of Montevideo is Avenida 18 de Julio which contains the major commercial office and entertainment buildings. It starts at Plaza Independencia and runs eastwards to, and through, Plaza Cagancha which is noted for its daily crafts market and woolen goods. At the western end of Plaza Independencia is the huge statue of national hero Jose Artigas astride his horse, an impressive 17 meter monument that is duplicated on a smaller scale in every Uruguayan town. Below the statue is the Mausoleo de Artigas which has a 24 hour guard of honor.
General Jose Artigas was born in Montevideo and lead revolutionary forces to attack the ruling Spanish and/or Portuguese between 1811 and 1815. Success was varied and short lived. When the Portuguese finally captured Montevideo in 1820 he sought exile in Paraguay. He is remembered as the father of the Uruguayan independence movement. Uruguay, with Argentine support, became an independent nation in 1828.
This plaza, and close by Plaza Constitucion, are the gateway to the old part of the city (Ciudad Vieja) and the extensive port area where foreign ships and ferries come in. It is a lively entertainment area at the weekends. The center of activity is the Mercado del Puerto.
This ramshackle port building is like an iron smelting works with its darkened interior lit by dozens of huge charcoal burning grills loaded with strips of beef, sides of pork and sheep meat, sausages of all types and offal. Uruguayans eat more meat than the Argentines and drink copious amounts of mate, which is said to aid digestion. Popular here is Uruguay’s national drink, the “medio y medio”, a mixture of white wine and sparkling moscato, the latter being of Italian origin made from the Muscat grape. Restaurants spread over the sidewalk. Crowds fill the nearby streets and plaza to watch the street artists and musicians perform. It’s lots of fun!
The “in” place to visit in Uruguay is the Atlantic beach resort of Punta del Este, that is if you are feeling wealthy. Many film stars and socialites have multi-million dollar homes here and elsewhere along the “Riviera Coast”. It is the play ground for wellheeled Argentines who might have found their home beach resort of Mar del Plata crowded and boring. Elite night spots maintain exclusivity by charging high prices; some bars may charge you $10 for a glass of Coke!
Punta del Este is not for the budget traveler but you can get the feel of the place by taking a half day bus tour of it from the adjacent beach resort of Piriapolis located only 30 kms away. Piriapolis is where the Uruguayans go on vacation and it is much more affordable.
Piriapolis is a small and delightful spot to hang out in. It has a safe white sandy beach, no surf, and a long stretch of budget hotels and restaurants on the beach front. In the good old days steam boats came across from Buenos Aires carrying the hoi-poloi to stay at the enormous Hotel Argentino which is an elegant 350 room palace on the Rambla de los Argentinos, facing the beach. Now long past its prime, it provides full board and houses a casino, thermal baths and other luxuries.
From the beach front it takes a little hoof-power to hike up the nearby hill top of Cerro del Toro early in the morning. The summit rocks are shared with the ubiquitous statue of Christ. Here you can admire the coastline as far as Punta del Este to the east. Beyond Piriapolis northward in the haze is the intriguing rounded granite knob of Cerro Pan de Azucar, one of the highest points (493 meters) in Uruguay.
The beaches and wine, the wonderful food, plus low stress activities make Uruguay a very pleasant stop over. Why not try it out?