Uruguay is a curious case. Located between Argentina and Brazil, it’s a perfect destination for any backpacker but it’s often overlooked. To be fair, it doesn’t have the same romanticised image as its neighbours and from the outside, it may not be that clear where to start or what to do. Half of the population live in the capital, Montevideo, there are a couple of commonly visited beach towns, but the rest is still relatively lightly trodden.
My first stop is Montevideo, primarily due to its convenient transport links with Rosario, Argentina. It’s also the best place to be introduced to Uruguay – the more you learn about its formation and history, the more you can embrace the lifestyle. In the colonial era Uruguay was constantly fought for between Argentina and Brazil. These disputes continued until 1828, before the aforementioned countries and the British Empire reached an agreement to stop the conflicts and form a new, independent country.
Having been formed as a way of stopping wars, it feels apt that Uruguay is now one of the most stable and progressive countries in the continent. It isn’t suffering financially like Argentina, or politically like Brazil. Development is continuous and democratic – Uruguayan law states that no president can run in two consecutive turns and voting is mandatory. It was also the first country in the world to legalise marijuana, so the state can profit from such a popular asset.
Montevideo itself has the perfect balance of the conveniences of a major city, while being small enough to be accessible and welcoming. Add to that 22km of coastline, dotted with beautiful sandy beaches, and you’re onto a winner.
It’s those sandy beaches that make the ideal spot for people watching, and a primer to life in Montevideo. Even during the summer heat, you won’t find a Uruguayan who isn’t permanently sipping on their mate (a strong, bitter herbal tea). It’s so widely consumed that Argentinians have a joke that Uruguayans are born with a crooked arm to hold their thermos and mate together. By day, the beaches are quiet and relaxing, the perfect spot to just pull up a chair and be lulled into tranquility by the the clouds floating past and the gentle tumbling of the waves over rocks. After a few days in Montevideo you start to notice the same characters in the same spots every day, spending another afternoon gazing into the horizon.
By evening, it’s the perfect place to watch the sun go down over a beer, as the locals catch up with friends after work and the windsurfers make the most of the brisk winds.
Central Montevideo is an enjoyable stroll. It has its charms, such as murals by famous Uruguayan artists, but feels almost familiar. Much of this is down to its similarities to Buenos Aires. They’re often referred to as sister cities, to the extent that there are even buildings which have been replicated in both places. The difference however, is that while in Buenos Aires it can feel like a mission to get to where you’re going, walking around Montevideo is always pleasant. There’s an almost lackadaisical feel during the summer holidays: suited up office workers enjoy long lunches with colleagues in the parks, mothers sip their mate while their kids kick a ball around, and the marijuana buyers patiently queue around the block waiting for the week’s shipment to arrive at the pharmacy.
Even the birds seem completely chilled out, happily sauntering up to say hi as I laze in the park.
Meat on display
Any walk through town will inevitably lead to Mercado del Puerto, a market which specialises in meat traditionally grilled over a wood fire. When you first step inside it again feels almost familiar – the building itself was meant to be a train station in Bolivia modelled on U.K. stations, but they were unable to complete the project so it was built in Montevideo instead. Its long, curving glass roof and eye catching clock are very reminiscent of King’s Cross and Paddington.
The trick is to avoid the smarter looking restaurants with white-shirted waiters and clean tablecloths, and instead pull up to a barstool in front of a grill. While the market itself maybe be somewhat of a tourist attraction now, the people working there are still a perfect snapshot of the Uruguayans you’ll find throughout the country. They’ll encourage you to get a beer in while happily talking you through what’s going on the grill, while ribbing anyone else that happens to come to their bar wearing the wrong football shirt. Watching them work is a spectacle in itself – mystery meat is expertly thrown around the grill, carved up and served in front of you. Cooking this way is a proud tradition, and one which the cooks are only to happy to share. Get in their good books and you’ll find beautifully toasted garlic bread and delicious offcuts of beef landing on your plate, a gift which I’m only too happy to accept.
Even more meat on display!
It just so happens that over this weekend Montevideo comes alive at night for one of the biggest nights of their carnival. While it may not be a world renowned event like in Rio or Notting Hill, it has it’s accolades. It’s the longest carnival in the world, running for 40 nights from January. One curiosity is that nights where it rains don’t count, so carnival can even run until March in some years. Tonight is the desfile de llamadas, one of the biggest events of the carnival season which parades through one of Montevideo’s smallest streets. This means tickets for the limited seating area are long sold out, so your options are to either squeeze into a spot of pavement, or pay a local resident and perch on their balcony with them.
The procession itself is a celebration of dance, drums, and daring outfits. As well as the expected skimpy costumes, the groups parading are a varied bunch: they range from the association of blind people (participating for the first time) to a dance ensemble dressed as vegetables.
The morning after a night of music, beers and churros brings a welcome return to the normality of life in Montevideo. Lazy mornings are spent in the many delicious bakeries, followed by a snooze on the beach. Montevideo and its citizens are laid back and warm, but still know how to show you a great time. Whether you want to spend the day working on your tan, working up a sweat with a scenic cycle along the waterfront, eating yourself into a meat coma, or simply strolling the streets and admiring the picture perfect fruit stall arrangements, there’s something here for everyone.