Under cruise control in Montevideo

Montevideo is definitely a very different capital city from most of the others I have visited so far. Aside from the port and the old town, there seem to be no tourists wandering around the other parts of the city, which also hold a number of old buildings and shady parks.

Montevideo city beach

After having covered quite some distance during my strolls through the busy and non-busy sections of town, I enjoyed dinner at the Mercado del Puerto. Although I rather tend to prefer vegetables to meat, this smorgasbord of barbeque food was so impressive that I had to go for it. At this market, a lot of stalls serve any kind of meat you can imagine from huge wood fire grills. Several cooks operate these grills, which are about three to five meters wide and one meter deep. They shift around various pieces of sausage, steak and other tasty stuff. After having finished this overdose of meat, I felt like eating fruit and vegetables only for the next couple of days.

The day I arrived in Montevideo, a huge cruise ship was anchoring and spilled out thousands of American tourists into the old town. Cruise passengers seem to be unaware of the environment they visit. A lot of them were wearing a lot of jewelery, cameras and fancy clothing. No wonder, there was a massive presence of “Tourist Police” agents, strategically positioned every 100 meters or so. I called them “cruise control”. Actually, I did perceive Montevideo as being a very safe town. But these cruise bums seemed to be eager to push the limits of testing honesty of the locals.

Downtown Montevideo

Then, after buying two, three souvenirs, some of them would sit in one of the beautiful park restaurants and having a drink and a chat before returning to the ship three hours later. I wonder what they tell back home about Montevideo.

Nevertheless, watching these visitors was fun. One older lady was asking for “ice” for her beer. Since the Uruguayan waiter was unaware of this English word, she would repeat the same word – by a louder voice: “ice – ICE – ICE!”, until some other people would jump in to help and tell the lady the word in Spanish: “Ice is called ´hielo´”. “Oh, thanks. Waiter, please bring me ´yellow´”. He understood, despite the strong accent. I was almost peeing in my pants watching this and other episodes.

This capital is a juxtaposition of signs wealth and poverty. There are beautifully restored buildings located next to crumbling structures everywhere in town. The main showpiece of Montevideo, the Independence Square, features on one side beautiful colonial style buildings. Next to them, on the other side of the square, there is an ugly multi-story residential building, which you’d expect to see in a ghetto such as Clichy-sous-Bois, near Paris. This probably explains why I struggle to give a thumbs up or down to this destination. Actually, at the same time as I was put off by some of the views, their context actually made it interesting for me. It’s hard to explain…

And then there are the people. As pointed out in an earlier post, I love the Uruguayan way of life – which is largely visible – not only in the countryside, but in this capital city as well. Everyone is so friendly and helpful to each other and to tourists – definitely not typical for megacities. One million people, which is a third of the country’s population, do live here. Founded around 1730, the city boomed very quickly, partly because the Spanish allowed slave trade for the region to go only through the port of Montevideo, instead of neighbouring Buenos Aires (Argentina). Another reason for the growth, was that the Spanish did choose this city to become the main naval base for the South Atlantic.

The city’s street grid would be quite easy to understand. But, as in many other Latin American cities, a lot of streets are named after commemorative dates, which I am unaware of. If the hostel is located in the “213, street of the 2nd May“, the bus station in the “37, avenue of the 18th July” and the tourist information desk on the 2nd floor of the “building of 12th June“, I do start to have a dyslexia attack. Mixing up months, days and house numbers, I tend to get lost a lot along these streets. Who on Earth is able to remember and navigate such a street grid? And why don’t they have a street named after my birth date?

Cruise ship at Montevideo harbour

Although I spent time in a party hostel (which I generally dislike), the stay in this one was absolutely great. All the people in the dorm managed somehow to get around each others wierd sleeping patterns. Staff did a tremendous job of trying to keep everyone happy. Two terraces, one of them on the roof, certainly did help to contribute to a chilled atmosphere. Everyone I talked to, was coming from a beach city further north of Montevideo – or from Buenos Aires. After Colonia del Sacramento and Montevideo, I definitely wasn’t in the mood for yet another beach city (and party hostel). Therefore, I bought a bus ticket going to the back country: Minas is the last town that gets a mention of a very few lines in guide books. After that, I’ll be left to my own handwritten notes about Uruguayan places.

A bit reluctant to test my very crude and very basic Spanish skills, I might however opt for the easy way and continue along the tourist trail (beach cities).

Will I be man enough to wander off the beaten track, not knowing where the bus line ends, not knowing whether I will have a place to sleep at night? Will I regret having thrown away my guide book? Read for yourself the surprising outcome in my next posts…