Underdog Uruguay – Is that in Eastern Europe?

Wow – in the past month I have really been neglecting writing posts. It’s because I have been out and about doing and seeing so much! We have a lot to catch up on, and I’ll start here with reflections on my trip to Uruguay.

If you look at a map, you will see that Buenos Aires is just across a river from Uruguay. On a clear day you can make out the edge of the Uruguayan shore – or so they say (I haven’t been able to). It seems like it should be just a quick hop over there, and in fact lots of people pop over to Colonia del Sacramento for a day trip from Uruguay.

So, I originally thought I would do a day trip, or maybe even a weekend trip, to Uruguay. But it’s a wide river delta and the boat to get across is not cheap (about $80 round trip). Plus, to go for only a weekend seemed like too much of a rush. After two weeks of cramming information into my head during class, I thought a break might be alright. I was excited for the opportunity to explore Uruguay beyond Colonia. I decided to squeeze in some time in Montevideo, the capital, and check out one of the beaches that I had been hearing so much about.

I got up bright and early to take the first ferry over to Colonia and spend the day walking around the cute little town before heading to Montevideo. Colonia was my favorite part of the journey. It is bursting with cuteness, and if you arrive early enough you can really enjoy some tranquil moments soaking it all in before the tour buses arrive for their midday stop. I strolled through the old city gates, climbed the lighthouse, went into the church, and meandered through the cobblestone streets for hours. I popped into a few shops, enjoyed a coffee at a café on the square, and had a beer at a local artisanal brewery.

I was fortunate to have a perfect sunny day to enjoy the lovely water views and soak up some of the history. Colonia got its start as a Portuguese fort in the 1600s, pretty much in the thick of Spanish land and commercial activity. At the time, there was not much in what is now Uruguay, so Colonia boasts the oldest church in the country and really some of the colonial foundations of the country. This history buff was a little sad when the time came to head over to the bus station to make my way to my next destination.

I made it to Montevideo around 7pm and went to my hostel in the old part of town. By luck, a friend that I had met in Antarctica was also there at this time so we met up for dinner and to explore the old part of town. My excitement quickly vanished. The old part of town seems to clear out after 6 or 7, and we were left with a ghostly neighborhood where you could literally hear the crickets.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t all you could hear. I’ve been very pleasantly surprised that in Chile and Argentina street harassment is largely not a thing. Hardly anyone does it. Not so in Uruguay. The stares, whistles, and comments made me feel uncomfortable as I walked down the dark, otherwise deserted street with my friend. That aside, we did manage to find a restaurant and had a good dinner and a bar for some wine after, but most of the places in this part of town were closed.

I had a full day in Montevideo, so I was able to see the Ciudad Vieja in all its glory. During the day, there was much more hustle and bustle and it finally felt alive. I did a walking tour, learned about the history of the country and the city, had a great Uruguayan style barbeque at the admittedly touristy market in the center of the old town, and strolled along the ocean a little bit. I stopped in a bar, tried some Uruguayan brews, and hung out with the bartenders awhile. We talked about, among other things, how people are often surprised that they speak such perfect Spanish… because they think Uruguay is somewhere in Eastern Europe. (Seriously, Miss Teen South Carolina wasn’t wrong: we need more map education!)

I had a pleasant day, but ultimately am left with the feeling that Montevideo is the more expensive, less interesting version of Buenos Aires. The cities have a similar architectural style and everyone is constantly eating meat and walking around drinking their yerba mates. The Montevideans seem a little more obsessed with their mate than the Portenos, and their coastline is definitely prettier (although they don’t seem to take very good advantage of that), but overall I was not impressed. I was happy to leave Montevideo and head further east to sit on the beach.

A friend had recommended La Paloma – a tiny town on the coast a little further east than the more famous, glitzier Punta del Este which from what I have heard sounds like the Miami of the Uruguayan coast. I relaxed in the soft sand, made friends with a local seal inhabitant, and walked to the lighthouse (but not that lighthouse). The beach in La Paloma was very nice… but not anything special. I met my friend there as well, and we basically had the whole place to ourselves since it was the end of the season. This was both tranquil and a little boring, although I must say we did have some phenomenal food, but after two nights there I was also ready to leave.

Overall, I had higher expectations for Uruguay and it definitely fell short. To me, it is this underdog nation that is a little more off the tourist path, which I tend to like. It’s a football powerhouse. It’s a bastion of progressiveness in a sea of conservative countries – for those that don’t know Uruguay beat out Canada to be the first country in the world to legalize marijuana (in addition, abortion is legal, which is highly rare in Latin American). It’s a small little spot quietly hanging out and doing its own thing in the shadow of its bigger neighbors. I had hoped that I would like it more.

I would be willing to try it again, though. I could easily see myself going back to Colonia to take advantage of the many little museums that dot the town, as well as some of the activities put on by the cultural center there (which although small, looked pretty active). Perhaps if I stay in a different neighborhood in Montevideo, my impression of the city would be different. And along the eastern shore there is no shortage of cute coastal towns that I would love to see, including La Pedrera, Cabo Polonio, and Punta del Diablo. Until next time, Uruguay.

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