Exploring Uruguay’s Montevideo

Montevideo, Uruguay – July 2015

I hadn’t planned on visiting Uruguay, if anything I had bad lucked into it. I need to leave Chile every 90 days due to not having a visa. The closest country, Argentina via an overnight bus across the Andes, charges a $160 reciprocity fee. The next closest, Bolivia, includes a long bus ride and a $90 fee. Peru is too far to bus for a short trip and is not cheap to fly to. This made the round trip flight to Uruguay comparable in price to any of the countries that border Chile. Bad luck made this great trip the most reasonable of my options. My girlfriend told her professors that she was sick and we were soon on our way.

We arrived in Montevideo at night and wandered around downtown mapless for a bit. We weren’t sure what we were seeing, but the Christmas lights lighting some of the parks were quirky fun and the monuments were mostly well-lit, giving them a mystique. One unique highlight of the trip was a guy walking up to me, giving me a bag of marijuana via handshake, then whispering as he tried to sell it to me. Marijuana is legal in Uruguay. I don’t smoke, but do apparently looked like a naïf who would pay quadruple price on the street.

The next morning brought more exploring. We made our way towards Avenida 18 de Julio (Uruguay’s Independence Day) and Plaza de Independencia. Along the way came Fuente de los Candados (Fountain of the Locks), where couples place locks to signify that there’s no hope for escape, then Plaza Fabini, a quiet square downtown.

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This perfectly decorated pizza restaurant was also along the way.

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Next up was Plaza Independencia. Central was a statue of General Artigas, who led the war of independence against Spain. Invisible from across the plaza was a mausoleum built for him under the statue, which deserves its own article…which I’ll post it next Wednesday. The plaza was surrounded by Solís Theatre and the president’s offices, the Estévez Palace and the Executive Tower.

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Next we stopped at Teatro Solís. Built in 1856, it is Uruguay’s oldest. The theater had a very European feel… as did much of Montevideo. Uruguay itself felt much closer to Spain or Italy than to any of its South American neighbors. Much of this is due to post-World War II immigration, though some locals will tell you sheepishly that genocide against the indigenous by Uruguay’s first president played a larger role.

The theater featured a free tour and a brief performance in the lobby by local students while we were there.

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A half block from the theater was Puerta de la Ciudadela (Gateway of the Citadel), the last remaining wall of the Spanish fortress there. It now separates the modern Montevideo from the old city.

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Just beyond this is Peatonal Sarandi, a walking street full of cafés and boutiques. The highlight of the street is the celebrity stars. Each is meant to honor an influential Uruguayan. Other world figures are given stars as well, as the developers felt there were not enough famous Uruguayans to fill the area. It is similar to the Hollywood Stars, minus the entry requirement of winning the genetic lottery.

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We walked for a bit and ended up in Mercado del Puerto for lunch. The market is built on the bay of the Rio Plata, a river that grows to over 100 miles wide and 180 miles long. Buenos Aires is on the opposite side of the bay, and the river and its distributaries enable trade into much of Uruguay, Argentina, Brasil, and Paraguay.  The market was originally built to handle trade with the ships coming into the bay, though now it is a smokey building full of traditional barbacoa restaurants.

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The English, who designed the market, left their mark.

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Nearby was another artisanal market. It takes the cake for the funnest decorations I’ve seen.

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We then braved the moderately cold breeze and went to see the river, which is so wide that we mistakenly thought it was the ocean. You cannot see the other side. Some cannons remain as relics, but are pointed towards the city instead of into the bay.

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Next up came the Rambla de Montevideo, a boardwalk along the river. It featured gardens, a skatepark, and exercise equipment. Most of all, it featured beautiful views of the river and the city.

That night would be the Copa America (the premier South American soccer tournament) final, so we decided to stop by the FIFA museum before watching the game. The museum is located inside Estadio Centenario, the location of the first World Cup final. The stadium has been renovated since then, but its comically bad bathrooms and concession stands remain. The museum was… meh.

I was disappointed not to find any mention of Mexican success in the World Cup. I remember many of my friends being quite arrogant about the quality and history of the Mexican teams. Then I remembered that Mexico only made it to the quarterfinals twice, and those tournaments were both held in Mexico. And they lost both quarterfinal matchups. Regional amigos Costa Rica and the US have done the same, but have been magically able to do it outside of North America.

IMG_2565That night we avoided the cold and huddled into a packed Burger King to watch the match. Chile won. Dramatically. I could imagine Santiago erupting as Alexis Sanchez chipped the winning penalty into the center of the goal. The Chilean celebrations for the quarterfinal were insane (I wrote an article about them here). But now I was in Uruguay. There were no more than 50 people outside watching the game in the main plaza, and the winning penalty earned a light clap by those inside the restaurant. We made sure not to celebrate loudly. Chile had previously knocked Uruguay out due to Uruguayan star Cavani being ejected after retaliating when a Chilean player put his finger up Cavani’s butt. You can’t make this stuff up.

That was our final night in Uruguay. We had explored Colonia del Sacramento and Punta del Este on prior days, but those are other stories and shall be told at other times. The next morning we headed for a local market before the airport, but the amount of pets for sale being held in tiny cages put a damper on the day.

IMG_2568Not wanting that to be our final impression of Montevideo, we stopped by the park near the bus station on the way to the airport in an attempt to scrub our memories.

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All better?

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