I had read before coming to Uruguay that the country’s citizens deeply resent either their country or their people being compared with Paraguayans. Without wishing to enter into a debate about the merits and disadvantages of each country, it would be easy to understand their dislike for such a comparison for no other reason than the two people have nothing whatsoever in common.
The easiest way to compare the two would be to say that Paraguay is, like Brazil or Colombia, an explicitly Latin American country in respect of its culture, customs and ethnicity of its people while Uruguay is, like Argentina, an isolated slice of Europe rather uncomfortably stranded at the fag-end of South America.
In many respects, the rather European and comparatively opulent style of Montevideo made it seem a little unremarkable when compared to the “wild west” nature of Asuncion. It was, however, a very pleasant place to spend a few days, even if it did an certain air of familiarity to it.
The Old Town and Port
Having arrived into town quite late at night and being unable to get to sleep as a result of the prehistoric conditions in my hotel (of which more later), I had a relatively slow start to my first day in Montevideo.
After a late breakfast and few plans as to what I was actually going to do with the day, I made a rough plan to go and see some of the city’s tourist attractions. Given that my hotel was located just off one of the city’s main roads, I decided to take a walk around the area near my hotel in order to do some people-watching and soak up the atmosphere. This turned out to be quite a good plan as my random wanderings led to me, after just a few minutes walk, to the city’s set-piece square, the Plaza Independencia:
Before coming to the square I had already concluded that there was relatively little about Montevideo that could be described as particularly Latin American. Sure, there were a few traders dotted around the edge of the square selling traditional goods but the majority of the buildings – from the glass-edifice of the President’s office to the peculiar Palacio Salvio – would not have been out of place in Europe.
On the western side of the Plaza was a large ornamental gate which marked the formal entrance into the city’s Old Town; a pleasant mix of modern boutiques, souvenir shops and cafes with shady terraces that looked like highly agreeable places to spend a few hours.
Eventually, I came to the square that was home to the City’s Metropolitan Cathedral. While I always enjoy visiting cathedrals when on trips – if only to look at their astonishing architecture – I was particularly keen to see how the building compared to that I had seen in Asuncion. The two buildings could not have been more different. While Asuncion’s cathedral had an almost Protestant air to it with bare white walls, sparse decorations and seemingly-acres of open space, Montevideo’s was the very epitome of how you’d expect a Catholic church to look. An imposing grey structure with thick walls to keep the building cool during the ravages of the Uruguayan summer, the floors were covered in ornate tiles and its ruby red and marble walls were covered in elaborate monuments to saints and fallen heroes from throughout the country’s history.
A few minutes on from the cathedral I came to the city’s port district. After a couple of wrong turns that took me to a part of the seafront filled with crumbling buildings that was clearly not intended as a place for tourists to visit, I found myself back on the main thoroughfare. While the port itself is largely devoid of charm, largely because it is active use as the main means by which people and commercial goods made their way between Uruguay and Argentina, its surroundings are well worth a visit. I was particularly taken with the Mercados do Portos, a former fishmongers’ hall which is now home to twenty or so bars and restaurants serving a delicious range of fresh fish and barbequed meat dishes.
After a couple of hours of rest back at the hotel, I returned to the Mercados do Portos in search of dinner. As it was a Monday evening and very, very few tourists appeared to be around, a lot of restaurants had taken the opportunity to cut their losses and close early. I was more than a little sceptical about those places that were still open; concluding their elaborate décor and the warm welcome I received at the door for so much as looking at the menu in the window would result in their being tourist traps with disappointing food and extortionate prices. Nevertheless, I settled on a place called El Peregrino.
I shouldn’t have been so cynical. El Peregrino was, in a word, outstanding. Controlled by a craggy-faced old-timer with a name like Giovanni, Mario or Serafino, I was immediately handed a platter of cheeses, chutneys and garnishes which could never easily have served as a meal in themselves. Indeed, Giovanni looked a little disappointed when I only wanted the Uruguayan Ham platter as a starter. He quickly perked up when I ordered a steak which he enthusiastically claimed was “from his brother’s farm”. (I am sure this comment was deployed for marketing purposes and his brother actually works in the kitchen, along with the rest of the extended family but anyway…). Without going into too much further depth, the food was remarkable and the bill, at £25, outstanding:
Full of steak and fuelled by the type of joy de vivre one can only get from a good bottle of Argentine Malbec, I retired to bed a happy man!
Walk to the river-front
I must confess that, after a day in Montevideo, I was beginning to run out “tourist attractions” to visit. I was starting to get a bit bored. Rather than let this developing sense of boredom develop into a sense of full-scale apathy that could have seen me kill the remaining couple of days aimlessly surfing the internet, I found a map of the city and decided to go for a long walk in order to see a bit more of the place.
The most logical route I found which would allow me to cover a lot of ground and also get to see as much of the famous river promenade as possible. NB: I say “river promenade” but, for all intents and purposes, it is a coast-line. The river plate (“Rio de la Plata”) that runs for 290 miles between Uruguay and Argentina which, at the mouth of the river, reaches a distance between the two countries of 140 miles.
After having spent much of the past two weeks grappling with the searing heat, the fresh breeze coming off the river was a more than welcome arrival. The mixture of breeze and slightly overcast day meant I was able to cover a huge amount of ground without so much as breaking a sweat. At half-kilometre intervals along the promenade were posts marking the distance walked; something which encouraged me to set myself a goal of covering 10km before dinner. My route was as follows:
If you’re in Montevideo I would strongly recommend following the same trail in order to ensure you cast the net a little wider than just the river-front areas closest to the city centre. Indeed, the parts of the river-front closest to the main port have very little charm about them with a string of rather unpleasant high-rise buildings providing the backdrop for what is essentially just a long slab of concrete abutting an expanse of murky, brown water.
It’s only when you’ve walked a couple of miles along the riverfront that you come to a string of very pleasant parks, yacht clubs and a string of memorials commemorating Winston Churchill, Mahatma Ghandi and the victims of the Holocaust and Armenian Genocide:
After having covered ten miles on foot, I didn’t feel like walking back so jumped on a bus back to Plaza Independencia that cost less than £1 and took about half an hour.
Don’t stay at the Hotel Austral
Before I mention Colonia – a beautiful port town that links Uruguay to Argentina – I just wanted to give a dishonourable mention to the place I stayed: the Hotel Austral (or “Hotel Awful” as I mentally nicknamed it).
To be clear, I should have known it would be bad. After all, it was only £25 a night. But I didn’t realise it would be that bad.
Before I launch a full-frontal assault on the establishment, let me first highlight some of its positive points. Or rather it’s only positive point. The Hotel Austral is supremely well located, literally a stone’s throw from most of the cities main thoroughfares and less than ten minutes walk to both the Old Town and the riverfront. There are some excellent cafes, bars and ornate squares just seconds away. If you’re somebody who can overlook almost anything negative about a hotel as long as it is well situated, then the Hotel Austral is the place for you. The breakfast, particularly the freshly-squeezed orange juice, is also very pleasant.
If you are fond of even the most basic of creature comforts, such as having running water in your bedroom that doesn’t have an unwholesome pong to it or a mattress that doesn’t look like a relic recovered from the top of Mount Ararat after an archaeological expedition to recover items that were onboard Noah’s Ark, then this isn’t the place for you.
After checking in, I headed up to the room in the gloriously retro lift which involved having to both close the door behind you and close a wire-mesh gate before it leapt, with surprising speed, up to my fifth floor room. Except it wasn’t “retro”, the lift just hadn’t been replaced since the mid-50s.
Entering the room, I was almost overcome with a smell of mustiness and damp. Thirsty, I turned on the tap in the bathroom to encounter the aforementioned pongy water which smelt like a mixture of gone-off eggs and one of those sulphurous health spas luvvies adore going to.
I dumped my bags and marched downstairs to request a bottle of water, only for the duty manager that the hotel “doesn’t stock those anymore”. Exasperated, I resolved to try and find some clean water somewhere. Anywhere. Eventually, I found my way to the breakfast room on the first floor where, through a glass door, I could see a water cooler. Salvation! Treading carefully, I managed to pilfer a jug from the unlocked kitchen attached to the room, filled it and carried my precious Amber Nectar to my room. Each morning, before I left the hotel for the day, I hid the jug in my suitcase so that it wouldn’t be collected by a cleaner. Each night, I performed by ritual of forcing my way into the breakfast room in order to access something the United Nations describes as a fundamental human right: clean drinking water. You shouldn’t have to do that in a hotel, even when it only costs you £25 a night!
I probably ought to have read the reviews of the hotel more closely before booking. I also should have avoided reading the reviews of the hotel after I had already checked in, for one of the reviewers mentioned a horrific experience of having been woken in her room in the early hours covered in bed bugs. While I am sure I suffered from nothing other than mosquito bites during my time in Montevideo, the very thought of them possibly being present in the hotel led me to conduct lengthy, Google Image Search-led investigations as to what could have caused the bites. This sense of irrational paranoia meant each of my three night’s sleep were interrupted several times by me abruptly turning on the lights to check whether or not I was under attack by nocturnal carnivores.
For the sake of your ability to drink clean water and broader mental health, don’t stay at the Hotel Austral!
There are several ways to reach Buenos Aires from Montevideo. The first and fastest option is to take a 45 minute plane journey across the river plate, yet this also the most expensive. The second is to take roughly a three-hour boat trip from the main port into the centre of Montevideo directly to Puerto Madero in Uruguay. It’s a relatively expensive journey, costing roughly £50. The third and by far the cheapest option is to take a bus a couple of hours across the country to the port of Colonia and to then catch a passenger ferry to Buenos Aires from there. I went for the third option, largely because it allowed me to spend a couple of hours outside of the confines of metropolitan Montevideo to see a bit of the Uruguayan countryside from the bus window and a few of the sights in Colonia.
The bus journey itself is perfectly pleasant, stretching through the Montevideo suburbs and through some damp-looking countryside that reminded me of the Welsh Marches before ending up at Colonia’s bus station. Thankfully, the bus station isn’t miles from the town centre as it is most South American countries but within a couple of minutes walk of both the Old Town and the passenger port where you can pick up your ferry to Buenos Aires.
Colonia del Sacramento (‘Colony of the Saints’) to give it its full name is a place is one of the most historically significant places in South America with its ownership having alternated on several occasions between Brazil and Uruguay. Indeed, the Brazilian – or rather Portuguese – influence on the town is very clear to see in the traditional architecture of both private homes and tourist attractions such as the historic lighthouse and Basilica. My time in Colonia before having to set sail for Buenos Aires was very limited but I managed to take some quick photographs:
I regret not having more time to explore the town and would recommend that if anyone else finds themselves connecting to Buenos Aires from Uruguay, they might consider spending the night before the journey at one of the many very comfortable-looking guest-houses dotted around the Old Town.
As I write this, I can see the Buenos Aires skyline fast-approaching in the distance. Having been to BA before, I’m a lot more familiar with the city than I have been with other places I’ve visited during this trip. Nevertheless, I look forward to covering lots of new ground, safe in the knowledge that a 40-mile stretch of water now stands between me and the Hotel Austral!