By Dominic Degrazier
“Tranquila.” In a little more than two weeks here in Uruguay’s capital, Montevideo, I have heard this answer at least 50 times. Locals (without fail thus far) use it to describe their city of 1.7 million inhabitants.
And they are correct: this city is relaxed. It is much more sedated and safe than their cousins’ metropolis of Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Montevideo is a 2.5 hour’s boat ride away from Argentina’s capital to the west, and also shares its northern border with Brazil.
Sitting on the Rio De Plata’s northern banks close to the river’s mouth, the beach waters are a constantly changing mix of river and Atlantic Ocean water.
The geographical location lends to an extremely active port allowing cargo ships, along with passenger cruise ships, in and out of its perimeters 24 hours a day. The set-up makes for a distinctly beautiful sunset panorama.
It would be a vital error missing Ciudad Vieja (Old City) located near the center of town. Here buildings tell stories hundreds of years old via their grandiose architectural styles, their crumbling angles and edges not repaired, and uncountable numbers of balconies among other features.
Artisans sell their crafts along Peatonal Sarandi, which is the main walking street of the city. This pedestrian play-land flows heavily from Monday to Friday with the downtown’s business life.
Men and women in business suits walk alongside tourists perhaps soaking in the magnificence of an aged church, or Mr. Payaso (clown) playing his flute and smiling at everyone.
Eating lunch or dinner outside alongside the peatonal is a must as well. Located next to the well lit and inviting Plaza Matríz, La Pasiva restaurant serves its famous mustard with their ponchos (hot dogs) and a plethora of other menu items.
Locals are still trying to figure out how this place makes their famous mustard – beer has been rumored to be involved in the concoction.
And if looking for a more upscale venue, next door is the Tavern La Corte serving top quality meats and more. Here is a beautiful opportunity to hear artisans play their music, watch tourists and locals pass by, and enjoy the climate and ambiance that Montevideo and Ciudad have to offer.
Calle 18 de Julio
This street, named for the country’s Independence Day in 1830, is the city’s artery to downtown. Spanning more than thirty blocks, it offers store after store selling shoes, furniture, food and much more.
These venues are mainly aimed at local people, so the prices are a bit lower than found in the Ciudad Vieja the further you are from downtown.
The busy avenue dumps itself into the main plaza of Montevideo: Plaza de Independencia. Uruguay’s greatest national hero, José Gervasio Artigas, is commemorated here – and in no small way. Riding on his valiant fighting horse, Artigas’s statue is larger than life… about 10 times larger than life.
Taking more than a few photos of this mammoth bronze casted figure is almost mandatory. Artigas’s remains are actually housed underneath the plaza in a guarded mausoleum. Uruguay takes Artigas and his role in their history very seriously.
The Newer Side of the Uruguayan Peso
What value Ciudad Vieja holds in character and history, areas like Parque Rodo, Pocitos, Buceos and Carrasco match with hip restaurants, clean neighborhoods, shopping, and beach scenes complete with parks and an outdoor skating rink.
These areas are where the professionals and foreigners are known to live. Don’t be surprised to feel very at home when eating or drinking in many of their establishments.
American music, such as Billy Joel or Jamiroqui, is commonly played and the themes of venues match those found in the States.
Oh yes, along with some of the prices as well!
If you are looking for shopping times, Punta Carretas will handily put you into a big-mall America atmosphere. This modern shopping center is actually built on a former prison site, but you would never know it by its appearances.
The layout, the gigantic size, and the offerings of this shoppers’ Mecca will have you spinning…and spending most likely.
Lining Montevideo is La Rambla – a very nicely constructed boardwalk stretching along the beaches and rocks of the area. Take a stroll in the early evening and you will be surrounded by runners, walkers, and many cyclists peddling past you on the street. Montevideo is an active community that enjoys spending time outside.
La Rambla is also one of the Montevidean’s favorite locations to drink their tea-like mate. This is done out of small cups with a bombilla (metal straw with a filtered end).
Many people, upon first seeing this, think that the drinker is smoking marijuana or entertaining another illegal substance. Don’t be fooled, as it’s very similar to bitter green tea.
Mate clearly signifies something in this society – friends and strangers alike sit down with one another, sip from the same bombilla, and enjoy the tranquility that is so easily achieved.
Ask a local about their mate and you will most likely find yourself involved in a long conversation with an invitation to sit down for a session.
“Que Pase Bien”
This is the common phrase heard upon saying goodbye. It is said in wishing one another a good day – whether a customer is walking out of a store, or friends are saying their farewells.
One walks through and around Montevideo and a sense of “this place isn’t finished yet” can arise. The city hosts beautiful weather year-round, has a succinct advantage in location within South America with its port, and is also surrounded and heavily influenced by two amazing cultures in Argentina and Brazil.
Yet it is still not overly congested and retains a sense of “town”. It will continue to grow – hopefully not at the expense of its own atmosphere.
A Montevideo visit rendered sooner than later is advised. And make sure to say hello to Mr. Antonio the Payaso!
Best Restaurants For:
Don Tiburon or El Pelenque restaurants are the most well known; best visited on Saturdays
located at the Port of Buceos; tel. # 6227930
Empanadas (meat, chicken, vegetable or cheese filled pastry: small, tasty and convenient))
La Taberna del Diablo
tel: 712.5506 – Pocitos, Ciudad Vieja (at the intersection of Calle Alzaibar and Peatonal Sarandi)
La Barca – Ciudad Vieja, Pocitos, Malvin
Accomodation around Plaza de Independencia:
Travel to and from Buenos Aires:
Dominic Degrazier is a freelance writer and photographer. Growing up in Southern California, he then moved east to Texas for university, and kept on moving east to London, Copenhagen, and San Sebastian after graduation. Hooked on the world, he then lived in Australia for a year, and travelled through parts of South America for another year. Visit his blog Moving Montevideo.
Read more GoNOMAD stories by Dominic Degrazier:
If you liked this article, you may like these as well:
If you like the articles we publish, maybe you can be one of our writers too! Make travel plans, then write a story for us! Click here to read our writer’s guidelines.