Montevideo

Why Montevideo:

When booking flights back to the US from Buenos Aires, I discovered that I could save $1400 by flying back from Montevideo, Uruguay instead. 

This sparked the idea of visiting Uruguay. It would be a new country and my business school roommate José lives there. Additionally, it would be during the World Cup, which would be a fun environment. Montevideo is considered to have the highest quality of life of any Latin American city so I looked forward to experiencing the good life. 

The original plan was to spend 3 days in Montevideo including a day trip to Punta del Este. However, a work commitment came up and I had to be back in the US a day sooner. While I wouldn´t see everything in my 2 days, I felt confident that I would get to visit the key sites. 

November 23, 2022: La Familia de José

After 3 hours on the bus from Colonia de Sacramento, I arrived at Montevideo´s Tres Cruces station. Like many Latin American cities such as Panama and San Pedro Sula, the bus terminal is connected to a huge mall. 

I then took an Uber for 15 minutes to reach José´s apartment in the coastal Pocitos neighborhood. When I entered, I was greeted not only by José but also his brother Juan (who used to live in Barcelona) and his father dressed to the nines in a suit. I smiled because he was exactly as I had imagined.

For dinner, we ordered sushi which was delicious. Being from Los Angeles, I have always been stuck up about sushi as there are more Japanese in LA than in any city in the US and theoretically had better chefs and fresher fish. However, it turns out that more than 50% of the entire global Japanese diaspora lives in Brazil and that Sao Paulo has more than double the number of Japanese as LA. Uruguay, due to geographic proximity, has strong cultural connections with Brazil, so it should be no surprise that the sushi would be very good. In Brazilian fashion, they put cream cheese in many of the rolls. 

It was very special to catch up with my former roommate and meet his family. I loved to see that Jose´s family gets exactly who he is. 

November 24, 2022: Central Montevideo

The World Cup match vs South Korea started at 10:00, so I spent the morning walking around the Pocitos neighborhood. It reminded me a lot of Rio de Janeiro´s Copacabana. The beach and surrounding areas were beautiful.

At 10:00, we turned on the World Cup match. José invited his two sisters to watch the game. José is a man of passion and patriotism and it showed during the match. He stood for the national anthem. During the play, he yelled obscenities at the screen just like he used to do when playing FIFA. In what was one of the funniest moments of the year, his sisters also yelled the same profane statements at the screen such as “La Concha Tu Madre”. Yes, they are related!

The game ended in a disappointing 0-0 draw. At that point, Ubers to get anywhere were exceedingly expensive so I took a public bus into the center. This ended up being a big money saver for me because I learned that the bus system is efficient and cheap. 

Montevideo was founded by the Spanish in 1724, nearly 40 years after Colonia de Sacramento. The original city occupies a peninsula, but the city expanded during a huge wave of immigration in the early 20th century. While the city center contains many key institutions, the money has moved east. 

The dense center of the city has many buildings from the early 1900´s and surprisingly few from the Spanish period. My first stop was the Mercado del Puerto. The market opened in 1868 as the city´s main meat market. Today, it still sells meat, but cooked, since the market is now full of parrillas (Uruguayan steakhouses). 

I found the steakhouse with the best Google rating, which also happened to have a spinning wheel of meat over the grill. The steak lived up to the hype.

Continuing through the center, I stumbled upon the Palacio Taranco. This French-style palace is now a decorative arts museum run by the government (and therefore is free!). Most of the rooms are still fully furnished. 

I wandered my way to the oldest square of the city, Plaza de Matriz. This leafy square contains the cathedral and a few other important buildings. I went into the cathedral, which felt new and largely uninteresting by cathedral standards. 

Near the square was a museum about a plane crash in the Andes where the survivors had to resort to cannibalism to survive. Unfortunately, I did not have enough time to visit, but I heard great things.

Just to the east was the main square, Plaza Independencia. The square contains many important buildings such as the president´s office (a flashy modern high-rise), the only remnant of the city´s Spanish period: a city gate, the former tallest building in all Latin America, and a memorial to the country´s liberator. 

While I did not get to see any of these, I did get to visit the former Presidential Palace which is now a museum of the many presidents of Uruguay. The museum (which does not allow photography) contains an impressive array of artifacts from the early presidents including sashes, swords and even death masks. The wildest artifact was the taxidermy black Labrador retriever of a president from the 1800´s. It was sitting in a glass box on the floor. 

I then walked a block over to the landmark Teatro Solis. Since there are no regular tours, I was advised to see a show. Any show. As luck would have it, there was a show that was free! The description did not say anything other than it would contain traditional arts and culture. 

As the curtain opened, I had no idea what was going to appear. It turned out to be a choir of ancient people singing traditional Uruguayan songs. They sang 2 songs before equally old dancers performed. Then a different group of seniors performed theater. 

The 7th or 8th act was a troop of partner dancers dressed in old-timey outfits. The leader waved a large Uruguayan flag- which I totally get since Uruguay is by far the best place to live in the region.  

While I genuinely enjoyed the show, I had places to be, so I started the walk home along the coastal path which took an hour. 

Right near José´s apartment, I stopped at the most unusual Castillo Pittamiglio. Built in 1911, this castle – wedged in between modern apartments – is a home for magic and alchemy…whatever that means.

The tour led us through Disneyland-esque themed rooms with video projections of the elements, Masonic imagery, and other symbols. The bottom of the house smelled like formaldehyde which made me seriously question if they store dead bodies. 

Back with José, we saw an art show where his brother Juan was exhibiting a painting before getting dinner with his family. 

November 25, 2022: The Outskirts and Loose Ends

I started the day by walking to the country´s main football stadium, Estadio Centenario. The stadium contains a museum about Uruguay´s impressive football history, which helps explain its obsession with the sport. 

In 1930, Uruguay hosted the very first World Cup, which they won. All the matches were played in Montevideo, but the final was played in Centenario. The trophy from that World Cup, along with many other artifacts are on display. 

The museum entrance ticket also allowed me to see the upper deck of the stadium. The seats are very spartan. The craziest thing about the stadium were the design tactics used to keep people away from the field. The upper deck was separated from the lower deck by a huge drop. Additionally, the field was surrounded by a moat! With water! I am sure there are reasons why these features were installed. 

I then took a bus to the Mercado Agricola de Montevideo. (MAM). Built as a produce market, it soon became too small to meet the demand for the rapidly growing city. So, the vegetables moved further outside the city to a larger market and MAM became a retail market. While produce is still for sale, there are also butchers, prepared food sellers and more. It reminded me a lot of the markets in Spain. 

For lunch, I Ubered to the upscale Prado neighborhood. I ate at a steakhouse called Don Andres. Since it was noon, I was the only person in the restaurant. I ordered a steak which also came with a welcome drink, appetizer and shot of limoncello. With the 22% discount for paying with a foreign credit card, the bill was about $17, an incredible deal by US standards but likely extremely expensive for Uruguay. 

Nearby was the average-but-free botanical garden and on the other side, a colonial-era house that now houses an art museum. The highlights were the monumental paintings by Juan Manuel Blanes. 

Having missed a few attractions in the center, I then returned to Plaza Independencia. The Artigas Memorial, which was closed yesterday, was opened. Located underneath the plaza, the memorial contains the ashes of the national hero displayed in a large jar in the middle of a spartan room. The ashes are guarded by two soldiers who did not originally see me enter because they were both on their phones!

I also arranged a tour of the monumental Salvo Palace. Because I needed to wait an hour for the next tour, I stopped by the Torres Garcia Museum, containing the works of one of Uruguay´s most famous artists. His arguably most famous work is an ink drawing called America Inventertida which shows South America where South is at the top. The point being that having Europe/the US at the top is imperialist and that the Latin America art and culture scene needs to be autonomous. Garcia penned the term “School of the South” to reflect this desire.  

Finally, it was time take the guided tour of the Palacio Salvo. The building was originally the tallest building in Latin America. It has a twin in Buenos Aires too, called the Palacio Barolo. Palacio Salvo was built as a hotel and was inspired by the 7 days of creation. However, the hotel did not work out and instead the building is mixed use with apartments and offices. The building is very unusual in the inside such as one floor that is decorated far uglier than the rest because it was designed for the hotel staff. There are also some spectacular views of Montevideo from the various roof decks. 

By this point, I had seen what I wanted to see and headed back to José´s to get dinner, sleep a bit and head to the airport for my 5:00 flight to Sao Paulo. 

Final Thoughts:

Montevideo is probably the most livable city in South America. It has great weather, good jobs, low poverty, good infrastructure, and nice cultural institutions. The parks and beaches are lovely, and the food is good too! What more can you want? While the city does not have any blockbuster attractions, there are more than enough things to see to keep you busy. 2 days is probably the optimal amount of time to stay as a tourist, but I could also stay a lot longer and live here. 

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