March 22 – April 19, 2017 (Early fall)
Currency: Peso ($)
Visa: 3 months
Cost of living: High
In a lot of ways, Montevideo and Buenos Aires are alike. Each is the capital and largest city of its country. They both grill a lot of beef, drink a lot of wine, and consider mate a national treasure. They share similar Spanish and Italian cultural influences, and even have the same accent. But even though they’re only 200km away from each other, these two cities on opposite shores of the Río de la Plata feel worlds apart.
Montevideo is the laid-back little brother, Portland to BA’s Seattle. We were charmed by the wide tree-lined streets, sleepy Old Town, and especially by the Rambla. The city’s entire waterfront is one grand waterfront esplanade. People from all walks of life spent afternoons there: fishing (for sport or dinner), skating or strolling, on family picnics or first dates. There was a sense of community everywhere we went. It could be, and certainly appeared to us, the most livable city in South America.
Where we stayed
We chose an Airbnb↗ in the Palermo neighborhood, notable for being close to peaceful Playa Ramírez (and nowhere near the overtouristed Playa de los Pocitos). The apartment took up the front half of traditional home that had been split into a duplex. It was painted a pastel blue, not at all out of place for the neighborhood! Unfortunately, we had a communication issue with our host and ended up locked out for the first few hours. But once we made it inside, we found a modest but livable little home for the month.
The unit was a split level. A corner staircase connected the lower floor (kitchen and living room) with the upper (bedroom and bath). As far as amenities, we appreciated the oven and microwave, and the spacious bedroom had a welcome desk and plenty of closet space. On the other hand, the TV was ancient and essentially unusable – just one or two fuzzy local stations and no HDMI – and the wifi constantly cut out. The apartment was poorly lit, with little natural illumination in the day and severely underpowered light fixtures at night. And we were under constant attack from mosquitoes. Bugs were essentially a non-issue while out and about, but sitting at home with the windows open invited relentless pests from miles around. They were clever bastards, too. Often they would lie in wait for hours before stealthily attacking when our guard was down, and would flee into obscure corners the moment they sensed us react. Sometimes hunting them down at night took hours. It was murder on our sleep schedule.
Oh, and as has become something of a tradition for us, we had a plumbing issue that flooded a portion of our apartment. Luckily it was late in our stay, but it put our washer out of commission and we had to make use of a laundromat, which was much more expensive here than in Playa↗.
Nevertheless, we mostly quite liked our stay here. The location more than up for the relatively minor faults with the building. Our neighborhood was mostly residential, with only one business (a garage) that occasionally made midday noise. Shops were close and shopkeepers friendly. Though Montevideo is relaxed in general, the season we visited was especially slow. Many people fled the city to take advantage of the last beachgoing opportunities before summer ended. We cherished the emptiness, though. The large, tree-lined streets made walking much more comfortable and less sweaty than the mercury implied. All in all, it was one of the more soothing places we’ve been.
What we did
Just three blocks from our apartment sat one of our favorite attractions in all of South America: the longest continuous sidewalk in the world. La Rambla rings the entire coastal shore of the city, all 22 km of it, in a luxuriously-wide and beautiful walkway. It links the Ciudad Vieja to Carrosco far to the east. There, it merges with the Ciudad de la Costa’s own Rambla for an even-longer network. We took advantage of the proximity and strolled it nearly every day.
Different segments had different namesakes, from Great Britain and Perú to Charles De Gaulle and Gandhi. The section closest to us, Rambla República Argentina, was among the most pleasant and popular. A small skate park was favored by kids and families, and next door Playa Ramírez was backed by a soccer pitch, a carnival, and the excellent Parque Rodó. On weekends, the city quieted down but activity on the Rambla picked up. People roller bladed and biked, sat and watched ships pass into the sunset, or simply strolled and sipped the ubiquitous mate – gourd in hand and thermos of hot water tucked safely under arm. Without a doubt, our daily walks on this jewel of Montevideo were the highlight of our stay.
Latin America never failed to impress us with its markets, and here was no exception. Montevideo’s popped up weekly all across the city. Our nearest was on Salto street. Every Saturday morning, we stopped by for our pick of fresh, seasonal fall-harvest vegetables and a street food snack or two. The best empanada stand in the entire city was there, serving up piping-hot Venezuelan-style empanadas with pulled pork or chicken and a side of fabulous homemade garlic sauce. A clothing market opened up near Parque Rodó on weekends, offering prime window-shopping opportunities on walks across town. But the largest market was Feria de Tristan Narvaja. This Sunday market takes over more than a dozen blocks of the Cordón district and features everything imaginable. Antiques, power tools, records, cookware, and all manner of knockoffs and real deals. Pet peddlers even ply puppies to passerby. It is wall-to-wall and often suffocatingly crowded, but absolutely essential to see at least once.
The Ciudad Vieja (Old Town) has a good deal of historical charm. Pretty but crumbling buildings shade quiet brick walking streets, and the area around Mercado del Puerto is full of restaurateurs pushing parrilla menus and artisans hawking wares. But many of our favorite sights were the murals that hid around random corners and lit up dark alleys. They turned up everywhere; some fun, others thoughtful or adventurous, a few all of the above. The original city lay entirely within the walls of a since-removed fortress. Puerta de la Ciudadelas marks the site of the former gate, and its removal paved the way for Plaza Independencia and the unchecked growth of the city beyond. Mercado Agricola is well north of this area, past the legislative palace of Uruguay. It was a former green market, but has been remodeled into a much more touristic attraction reminiscent of Seattle’s Pike Place or Barcelona’s La Boqueria↗.
Food & Drink
While none of the grocery stores in our neighborhood were very large, we were spoiled for choice. Super Frigo was closest, but we also frequented Red Market (they had the best chicken), Multi Ahorro, Disco, and the Salto farmer’s market. The weekly markets tended to have the best and widest selection of produce and were quite a bit cheaper than grocery stores.
Cattle outnumber people in Uruguay, so beef is a national birthright. On weekends many families set up a parrilla (grill) on the sidewalk and prepared an afternoon asado (barbecue) feast. It was every bit as affordable and delicious as in Argentina↗. Other popular meat-delivery methods included chivitos, sandwiches made of thin-sliced steak with various burger-like toppings, and milanesas, breaded and fried fillets similar to Wiener schnitzel.
For any special occasion, a parrilla (referring to the steakhouse as well as the grill) was in order. We visited Cabana Veronica at the Mercado del Puerto on Kevin’s birthday for a full-course asado. In short order, a veritable cornucopia of meat appeared at our table. We slowly but surely worked our way through the absurd pile of protein before us: chorizos, morcillas (blood sausage), chicken, and especially asado de tira, beef short ribs. A handful of token grilled vegetables topped the spread, but it was clear they were there for color and not to be taken seriously.
Our home-cooked meals took advantage of the cheap and ubiquitous meat without skimping on the greens. We baked quite a few stuffed peppers during our stay, and even branched out into stuffed pumpkins and squash. Zapallitos, globe-shaped zucchini native to the area, went well in ratatouille.
Meals had to be robust, because snacks cost an arm and a leg. Even off-brand chips were wallet-busting despite being essentially flavorless. Spices were similarly expensive and much harder to do without. Yogurt came in bags that were tricky to store, but, like the beef, Uruguayan dairy did not disappoint. For Easter, stores suddenly overflowed with decorated, hollow chocolate eggs. Some were as large as an American football, and all were thoroughly decorated with icing. Of course, chocolate of any shape is delicious.
Uruguay’s essential accessory is yerba mate. It is an obsession. Entire grocery stores aisles are devoted to it. Farmer’s markets offer dozens of varieties. The special filtering bombilla straws and hollow gourds seem like they make up a sizable portion of the local economy. Stands sell hot water to top up one’s thermos at events and even at the airport. But the preparation of mate is a very personal (and social) thing, and a restaurant or bar offering the beverage would be sacrilege. Thankfully, our host left us all the equipment necessary to prepare it ourselves. We tried a mass-market brand, the ubiquitous yellow-labeled Canarias. Thanks to some online tutorials, we were infusing in no time. And it wasn’t bad! Probably won’t unseat coffee for us anytime soon, but we could see how it could fill a similar lifestyle niche.
For some reason, Uruguay has the most inconsistent beer bottle sizes. The most common beers each had their own preferred volumes: Pilsen & Patricia were 960ml, Zillertal 970ml, and Argentinian-import Patagonia 740ml. We drank more of the mass-market stuff in La Floresta↗, preferring to sample Montevideo’s craft brands while we had the chance. Microbreweries like Cabesas were pretty easy to find in the grocery store and had some neat flavors (like a trendy pumpkin beer, though theirs tasted more like green squash). The best place to sample the wares of smaller producers was Montevideo Beer Company. There we tried a Trigo, an American Stout, and an IPA, all of which were above average for South America. Still, anything of quality was expensive and paled in comparison to the average Central European brew. This is not a good continent for beer lovers.
We figured quality wine was easier to find, but surprisingly that was also not the case. Unlike Argentina, Uruguay doesn’t have the luxury of a vast growing region in the rain shadow of the Andes. The near-tropics are just not ideal for grapes. Still, we found plenty to drink that was average-to-good. Tannat is the favorite grape of local producers, followed by Merlot and Cabernet. Traversa’s Robles were consistently good. For Easter we bought a bottle of Bodega J. Chiappella’s Marselan that was the standout wine of the month. On the other hand, one local market sold us a mysteriously ancient-looking bottle for next to nothing. We puzzled over its purpose. Was this some sort of homebrew sold in repurposed bottles? A recent discovery salvaged from an old shipwreck? As it turns out, it was just really old, gross wine.
Anyway, Uruguay’s alcohol of choice isn’t beer or wine. It’s whiskey. Apparently the country is the second biggest consumer of the stuff in the whole world, per capita. And most of it comes from within their own borders, with very non-Uruguay-sounding brands like Dunbar, Old Times, and Mac Pay. We tried the last of those as well as an Argentinian import called The Breeder’s Choice. Neither was anything to write home about, but if we had to pick a winner, The Breeder’s Choice gets a slight edge for having less of a, well, edge.
Stuff of interest
Our SIMs↗ came from Movistar. The SIM itself was about $3.50; 1 GB of data plus texts and minutes was $7 more. Recargas can be bought at many local markets and convenience stores.
Uruguay’s relaxed attitude toward personal choices reminded us a lot of home. Same-sex marriage has been legal in Uruguay for longer than the U.S. Marijuana was recently legalized for recreational use, though this only applies to citizens and not visitors. Birth control was also easy to come by. Many pharmacies just display it on the shelf like any other meds.
As in Argentina, electronics are prohibitively expensive in Uruguay. As digital nomads, we were glad we have the privilege to buy the necessary goods in more consumer-friendly countries.
Like their neighbors in Buenos Aires, montevideanos speak Rioplatense Spanish↗. Double-l (“ll”) becomes “sh” rather than “y,” along with a host of other subtle shifts in pronunciation and slang. So for example, we lived on a cahshey, and ate posho at a pareesha.
This was our first and worst encounter with street crime during our journey, which was especially disappointing given how safe we felt in Montevideo before then. Perhaps we let our guard down too much. On a quiet street with nobody else around, a pair of guys asked us the time – a common setup to a phone-snatching scam. We simply said we didn’t know and kept walking. But about half a block down the road, we were surprised by one of the pair sprinting up behind us and grabbing Danielle’s purse. However, she carries it cross-body and the strap did not break, so he stumbled a bit and yanked at it a second time. Without thinking, Kevin swung the hefty bottle he was carrying at the guy, knocking him into a wall (and unfortunately sacrificing the contents of the bottle in the process). Clearly, the snatch-and-grab was not going as planned and both he and his lookout up the street took off. We walked home, shaken up but mostly unhurt. We reported the incident to the police the following day, more to share our story than out of a sense of justice. Still, the incident was a good reminder to keep our wits about us and not to carry anything we couldn’t afford to lose.
What we learned
Montevideo is South America’s overlooked jewel. Overall, the relaxed pace of life – taking time for family and friends, an emphasis on good food and drink – makes it feel unharried. Perfect for our introverted style of travel.