Looking back at all of our border crossings undertaken in East Africa, our crossing from Brazil into Uruguay was an absolute pleasure. Being that we entered Uruguay in the early hours of the morning, we slept through the whole event as the bus companies take responsibility for stamping your passport. As such, our first glimpse of Uruguay was a gorgeous sunrise over the farmlands of the interior as we made our way towards the capital, Montevideo. Most buses driving this route stop off in the small coastal city of Punta del Este. From here travellers have the option of heading east along the Uruguayan coastline popping in to visit the beaches at various coastal towns such as La Paloma and La Padrera. Feeling sufficiently “beached-out” after our escapades in Brazil and with the arrival of Autumn and it’s cooler weather, we decided to head straight for the capital.
Having managed to workout the local bus routes we arrived at our accommodation in the Montevideo Old City to find the streets scarcely populated over the Easter weekend. The only people milling around were tourists snapping a few photographs and trying desperately to locate a shop or restaurant open for business. Mostly Spanish and Italian descendants, Uruguayans have certainly inherited a mastery in “the art of doing absolutely nothing”. On a free-walking tour of the Old City, our guide boasted that aside from getting worked up about football, Uruguayans proudly consider themselves to be the laziest nation in the world. We think that there might be another reason for this lack of enthusiasm for productivity and that is the fact that marijuana has been legalised in Uruguay. Walking along the streets you’ll find that there is enough second-hand weed smoke drifting through the air to get you high.
Another characteristic of the Uruguayans which we found quite amusing is their national love of drinking mate, pronounced “ma-tay”, a tea comprising of herbs that the locals drink from sun up to sun down. This drink isn’t available at a café because everyone brews their own tea, being sure to carry a thermos of hot water and a bowl-shaped cup with them at all times. Whether cycling to work, walking their dogs or strolling along the Rambla, everyone goes about their daily business with this permanent fixture attached to their arm. We’ve had a think about things and considering that drinking mate is a national pastime and weed is legal, it’s just a matter of time before the locals combine the two to create a potent yet socially acceptable drink that will knock your socks off.
From the Plaza of Independence one walks through a portal and into the area referred to as the Old City of Montevideo. Home to offices and residences of Uruguay’s elite, this area is where you want to be positioned as most attractions are located here and are in easy walking distance of each other. Wandering the avenues and admiring the surrounding architecture, enchanting monuments, fountains and squares lined with trees, you’d be forgiven for thinking that you are in Europe. Quaint book stores, cafés and the chiming of bells from the cathedral lend themselves to the relaxed atmosphere. As in most South American cities, graffiti is unavoidable, but can either be seen as an eyesore or admired for its artistic flair.
Wanting to see the inside of the cathedral which is generally closed to the public, we happened to walk past to find the doors open and a service about to get underway. Keen to sit down and take in the experience, Gary made his way towards the front. I however did not share his enthusiasm. Having spent thirteen years of schooling at a catholic convent, while not Catholic myself, I have a healthy appreciation for just how long and drawn out these services can be especially given that it was Good Friday. Half an hour into a mass conducted entirely in Spanish of which we understood absolutely nothing, it became clear that a quick exist was not going to be possible as the two blonde foreigners were positioned under the watchful eye of three priests, countless alter boys, the congregation and God. Two hours later we walked back out onto the street with a feeling that our Easter church-going duties had sufficiently been fulfilled, perhaps for a few years.
Uruguay introduced us to the South American culinary experience of an asada. This is the local equivalent of a barbecue or as we South Africans refer to it, a “braai”. Every Saturday a large food market is set up in a warehouse located in the Old City where numerous restaurants offer beer, wine and asada to their patrons. In search of this food market, we could smell the delicious aromas emanating from within the venue while still a few streets away. As enthusiastic as we South Africans might be about our braaing abilities, we have to admit that given the roaring fires, gathering of large families, flowing Uruguayan wines and the grand scale on which all of this was put together, these locals seem to know a thing or two about sizzling meat and adding all the necessary trimmings.
Sunday markets located on the outskirts of the Old City sell anything and everything one could possibly be in need of. As we got swept along in the crowd, stalls selling cheese and fresh produce transformed into stalls selling underwear and toiletries. From antiques to goldfish and used tv remote controls, the variety of wares on offer was endless. Most stalls appeared to be owned by little old ladies, but don’t be fooled by their diminutive appearance as they are every ready to aggressively haggle over prices. This wouldn’t be a South American market experience without a few drums in the picture and before we knew it we were surrounded by a group of candombe drummers somehow managing to dance and keep their rhythm amidst the surging crowds.
If the high carbohydrate diet that accompanies a South American trip is getting the better of you and you are in need of some exercise, head for La Rambla. The renown Rambla is a promenade that snakes around the city, stretching along the river for approximately 25km. Aside from being used as a great running, cycling and dog-walking path, there is a local saying that when translated goes something like “let’s go to the Rambla to be romantic”. This saying must ring true as we passed numerous couples having a cuddle and sharing the compulsory cup of mate.
The small town of Colonia is a great stepping stone between Montevideo and Buenos Aires. Parts of the town have been declared national heritage sites and as such give you a glimpse of the colonial lifestyle before Uruguay gained its independence. Bustling with tourists, various historical buildings and museums are waiting to be explored and good food and wine can be found in abundance close to the picturesque marina. However, it is noteworthy to mention that we found Uruguay to be very expensive and Colonia in particular. Not only did we have to contend with a depreciating exchange rate, but living costs in Uruguay are high with items costing approximately four times the amount that we would pay back home in South Africa. Chatting to other tourists, we soon realised that we weren’t the only ones sharing this opinion and decided to get a move on into Argentina where hopefully the pressure on our bank accounts would ease up a bit!