Montevideo is an odd mix of beautiful plazas and pedestrian zones abutting some seriously depressed neighbourhoods. These multifaceted neighbourhoods host corporate offices, government buildings and the derelict graffiti covered relics of colonial splendor. In Ciudad Viaje, the graffiti is an incoherent salute to the poor and a desperate cry for liberation from gentrification, a ubiquitous and seemingly unstoppable force; construction and restoration are everywhere.
Increasing numbers of foreign investors are descending on Uruguay because of its stable government, the ease of doing business there and the automatic qualification for passports and citizenship, which the current government offers. A BBC article published last year http://www.bbc.co.uk touted Uruguay as popular with foreign investors looking for beach homes and colonial buildings, both of which are plentiful. However, certain areas, including much of Ciudad Viaje, are still works in progress; though fine to walk around during the day, it is largely a no-go zone at night once the offices have emptied.
Although Montevideo is minute in comparison with some of the mega-cities in neighbouring Brazil and Argentina, it is a delightful place to visit and definitely deserves to be visited. The centre, especially within a few blocks of Plaza Independencia and large sections of Ciudad Viaje (with the exception of the bleak sea front) are also worth exploring during the day.
The street markets, churches and plazas the most beautiful of which is Zabala make wonderful places to while away an afternoon. It is also possible to visit the Mausoleo Artigas, the point of the Plaza Independencia, built in memory of José Artigas who repelled Spanish invaders from 1811 before he was exiled to Paraguay where he died in 1850. Although Artigas’ actions did not completely end foreign intervention in the affairs of Uruguay (the region came under the control of Brazil until a coalition of Orientales and Argentine troops finally liberated the region in 1828).
Two notable museums include the Casa Rivera, which houses a fantastic collection of 18th century art displayed in moody burgundy rooms as well as some indigenous artefacts and the Museo Rómantico which contains a treasure trove of furniture, paintings, chandeliers, silverwear and crockery, as well as the personal belongings of wealthy European settlers.
After all that exploration we had worked up a considerable appetite and were very pleased to find that Montevideo delivered on the culinary front. Lunchtime is the best time to check out the plato del dia (set menu) offered at almost every establishment in town, these offers allow you to eat three courses, wine beer or a soft drink and tea or coffee incredibly cheaply. Perfect!
“If only we hadn’t indulged in that buffet breakfast…”
That was us on the ferry half way from Buenos Aires to Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay. Murky, chocolate coloured Atlantic seawater was swilling around the ferry, forming waves that filled us with nausea. The breakfast, which had seemed like such a good idea earlier that morning, was threatening to come back to greet us, which was a concern as there was a distinct absence of sick bags on the vessel. Looking out the windows, as sky and sea rapidly exchanged places, made it difficult to do anything but grip the seat. The crew had put on a Shakira video which, presumably, was supposed to distract us during the choppy crossing. Our only comfort was the Schadenfreude of knowing that many other visitors would have opted for the better known ferry service operated by Buqebus, which takes 3 hours; triple the suffering of our express ferry.
Greeted by blustery weather when we docked at the small port in Colonia del Sacramento, we set about finding our lodgings for the night before exploring the beautiful cobbled streets and multi-coloured colonial buildings. It was easy to see why the town has become increasingly popular with Argentines wanting to escape the traffic and noise of Buenos Aires for the weekend, as well as Brazilians; on every street there was at least one colonial property for sale. This small town in Uruguay is the complete opposite of Buenos Aires with its calm pace and maté sipping residents it is a great place to get some sea air as you walk past the yachts in the harbour.
We were amazed at the Uruguayan (and to a lesser extent the Argentine and Paraguayan) love affair with yerba mate. Uruguayans sip this hot drink at every opportunity; it seems to be a national addiction. Many Uruguayans carry a thermos flask of hot water everywhere they go, so it is possible to top up the cup on a street corner, a park bench or while waiting for a bus. A kind of bitter green tea, it is brewed in small cups made of wood, or metal and often covered with leather and sipped through a silver ‘straw’ (aka bombilla). There are even specially made leather bags for transporting the paraphernalia and we frequently observed locals carrying two handbags: a mate bag and a normal handbag. That is what you call commitment to the habit, a habit which I could not imagine ever taking off in our throw away coffee cup, tin can and plastic bottle culture.
Ideal for exploring on foot, Colonia, as it is known by locals, is popular for its cafes and restaurants where it is possible to sample chivitos, the nation’s favorite snack. Thin steaks are piled on a bed of French fries and topped with eggs, salad or cooked vegetables and sometimes bread.
After two days of relaxation in Colonia, it was time to travel three hours across the lush green countryside to Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, to check out what delights it had to offer.
We had heard that Córdoba is a favourite among ‘culture vultures’ and from the moment we arrived in the city we were impressed with its colonial architectural beauty, sophistication, myriad museums and galleries, and the contagious laid-back pace of this stunningly beautiful university town.
The University – Universidad National de Córdoba
Entering the site of the Jesuit school and university in the centre of the Old Town, we were transported back several hundred years during a brief tour, conducted by a current university student (the primary and secondary schools share the same site as the university).
This proud institution has been educating boys for 400 years (girls were only admitted recently) and still has classrooms equipped with antique desks and black boards, as well as a teacher’s room with a huge fireplace which you could literally walk into. The museum exhibited telescopes, globes and microscopes which were several hundred years old, it was very Hogwartseque.
Museo de la Memoria
The area surrounding the school was so lovely that it was almost inconceivable that one of the neighbouring buildings played a now infamous role in Argentina’s recent history. In the pedestrian zone photos of some of Argentina’s ‘disappeared’ strung up on cord between the buildings, flutter in the wind. The term ‘disappeared’ refers to the 30,000 people arrested by the military dictatorship which took control in the mid-1970s.
These ‘disappeared’ were targeted because they were suspected of being dissidents, having communist ties or having the misfortune to have known someone who came under the regime’s suspicion. We later found out that it was common to target all those people who were named or whose addresses or phone numbers appeared in the diaries and correspondence of those arrested. It was chilling to imagine living under such a government today – Imagine if every ‘friend’ you have on Facebook was targeted for disappearance? What would it be like if every person in your mobile phone book or Hotmail/ Gmail/ Yahoo! accounts could be tracked down and was arrested, tortured and killed for their perceived guilt by association?
Many of these people have not been seen since their arrests; their whereabouts continues to be a difficult theme in Argentinean politics, with the Madres de Mayo faithfully protesting outside the Casa Rosada in Buenos Aires every Thursday at 3:30 pm appealing for information on their children, whose bodies have yet to be found.
At the Museo de La Memoria, which is housed in one of the former detention centres used for torturing and interrogating suspects, we were able to learn about the methods used by the military regime to repress opposition, as well as the underground attempts to circulate banned material, including communist publications and magazines which criticised the regime. The museum is small, and does not have any English explanations, but it is clear that a lot of thought has gone into creating this tribute to the ‘disappeared’ and is an important piece of the jigsaw which makes up modern Argentina.
Art and Architecture – Celebrating the Bicentenary of Cordóba
Córdoba is pleasant to walk around and has numerous plazas where you can relax either in the shadow of bicentennial commemorative hoops, fountains or statues of conquistadors. The city is brimming with beautifully maintained public spaces making it one of the pleasantest places we visited in Argentina.
It is also a great place to fuel up on excellent food which is reasonably priced (after all it is a university town) and good wine before heading on to the next museum, which for us was the Palacio Ferrerya and the Museo Provincial de Bellas Artes Emilio Caraffa.
Set in a lovely colonial house, which is itself a work of art, it is filled with the sculptures and paintings by Argentine artists. A small modern art installation, accessed by a staircase covered in metres of cow hide, is open on the top floor and is worth a peak, too.
Our only regret regarding Córdoba is that we did not have more time there. It literally oozes sophistication and with so much art and culture, we could easily have spent a week there. If we had to decide between Mendoza and Córdoba, the latter would win the contest every time!
Consistently recommended by travellers we have met, Mendoza was high on our ‘must see’ list for Argentina. The Lonely Planet describes its reconstruction following the earthquake which devastated it in 1861 by stating that:
‘This was a tragedy for mendocinos (people from Mendoza), but rebuilding efforts created some of the cities [city’s] most-loved aspects: the authorities anticipated (somewhat pessimistically) the next earthquake by rebuilding the city with wide avenues (for the rubble to fall into) and spacious plazas (to use as evacuation points). The result is one of Argentina’s most seductive cities – a joy to walk around and stunningly picturesque.’
So you can imagine our disappointment when we instead found it was more 1970s dilapidated concrete prefab jungle than colonial architecture and spacious piazzas. Perhaps it was the autumnal weather, choking diesel fumes, the neglected pavements, or the forlorn fountain in Plaza Independencia; I am not really sure, but it was everything but picturesque. There were some nice vinotecas and restaurants, but McDonald’s and Carrefour were not seducing us.
Almost at the point of giving up on Mendoza, we decided to head out to the countryside to see what actually put Mendoza on the map for foreigners: its vineyards. Half an hour out of town by bus, the vineyards, olive groves and orchards surrounding Mendoza proved to be the perfect antidote.
Disembarking at the one street town of Maipú, we walked past barking dogs, shuttered houses and along sun baked dusty streets, where jalopies lazily rusting away. We were en route to our appointment for a wine tasting at the bodega La Rural when we got sidetracked by a sign advertising homemade chocolate and stumbled into a building owned by …. Who specialise in homemade chocolate, olive oil and preserves.
We spent the next half an hour (it would have been more but for the appointment) knocking back shots of their ‘Russian Death’ and Rose Schnaps; munching on olives as we learned about the different grades of olive oil; eating sundried tomatoes and indulging in teaspoonfuls of Dulce de Leche followed by homemade chocolate. Everything was delicious!
Realising that we were expected at the bodega imminently, we purchased a couple of jars of our favourite things (we would have purchased crates of stuff if we were not on such a long trip!) and jogged down the road to La Rural.
On entering the main building, we were transported to a bygone era of wine making; our guide took us through the museum which exhibits over 5000 items used in European and Argentinean viticulture over the last 500 years. The collection is the most important in the Americas. We also saw some of the cellars and toured the modern production facilities.
At the end of the fascinating free tour which had galloped through several centuries of wine making in Argentina and given us some background on the Italian founder of La Rural, don Filipe Rutini who established it in 1885, we tasted Museo, a wine which can only be sampled at La Rural’s bodega in Mendoza.
Walking past the sundried vines as we returned to the main road for the bus back, it became clear why a visit to Mendoza is high on many visitors’ lists. There are approximately fifteen bodegas, olive oil producers and family-run establishments producing everything from fine wines to chocolate in Maipú, making it a genuine foodie paradise. It would easily be possible to fill several days exploring it at leisure, it is well worth leaving the city for.
After 20 hours on a semi-cama bus, two three course meals, wine and enough sweet black coffee to induce involuntary spasms, we were finally at the border post between Argentina and Chile (3000m above sea level). In the freezing Immigration and Customs building we chatted to a lone South Korean backpacker, who was wearing flip-flops and no socks. Hopping from one foot to the other for half an hour in the early morning chill (none more enthusiastically than the Korean woman who was doing a cross between a child’s must-go-to-the-loo dance and the highland fling), we were getting used to waiting Latin American style.
After all the passengers on the bus had been through Immigration, it was on to Customs and sniffer dogs searching for contraband: fruit, seeds, meat and fish as well as illegal substances which might be carried by ‘mules’. Everyone lined up with their luggage as police dogs and armed customs officers worked their way down the line. Suddenly, the dog was all over an American backpacker’s luggage. Her voice trembled as she tried to explain in Spanish that the bag, which the dog had taken a disconcerting interest in, was indeed hers. A short, but tense session of questioning ensued, followed by some rummaging in the bag and yet more questions. The other passengers were starting to get a little impatient; all eyes were on the young blonde. Was she going to get hauled away in handcuffs, never to be seen again? Once we heard Tienes miel en la mochilla? (Do you have honey in the backpack?), there was a collective sigh of relief: It would not be ‘snowing in the valley’ that morning, as they say in LA. Although she would have received a stiff fine if she had had honey in her baggage, we could all relax knowing that we did not have a smuggler in our midst. Finally, we re-boarded the bus and the American returned to her seat behind us. We never did find out what attracted the dog to her luggage.
Moments later we were meandering up and down serpentine roads, between spectacular mountains and past seemingly endless acres of autumnal vineyards beneath a perfectly cloudless sky. We basked in the perfect autumnal weather, unexpectedly breaking into a sweat as we shuffled between the subte and our hotel, bent double under the weight of our backpacks (Why are these bags almost back to their departure weight, even though we have given away several kilos of clothes since we left in January?). Little did we know, that the next morning we would awake to a light drizzle that was simultaneously manifesting itself as heavy snowfall in the mountains and would strand us in Santiago de Chile for almost five days.
The general consensus among backpackers is that the Santiago de Chile lacks the style of Buenos Aires. It is considered parochial in comparison; safe, but boring, rather like the Singapore of South American cities. While anecdotal evidence indicates hiking boots are de rigueur accessories for the Santiaguinos’ Winter 2011 wardrobe – something no self respecting porteño would be seen dead in – it is not all psychedelic Andean knitwear and sensible shoes.
There is nothing like being well and truly marooned in a city to give you the chance to see what it has to offer. Here are four quick tips for amusing yourself if you ever get stuck in Santiago:
Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino
In inclement weather head straight here and step back several centuries. This museum contains a wonderfully presented collection of artefacts from various pre-colonial Latin American civilisations. Unlike many museums in Latin America, there has been a concerted effort to post good quality explanations in English which is rare.
You might not have heard, but Santiago’s subte is a work of art in itself. Several stations have murals which tell the story of the heroes of the independence movement or which have become forums for exhibiting modern art. This was one of our favourite stations ‘Universitad de Chile’ the artist is Mario Toral.
If you want to get away from all the modern skyscrapers in the suburbs, head straight for the centre of town where you can see beautiful churches, the theatre and opera house. It is a lovely place to relax with a cortado and croissant.
Enjoy Andean scenery
Perhaps there are other ‘sky lounges’ which offer a good view of the Andes from the city, but it is hard to think of a more sophisticated setting than the Grand Hayatt Club Lounge from which to view the snow capped mountains which surround the city. While enjoying Chilean wines, smoked salmon and a variety of delicious snacks you can sit back in the warm glow of the softly lit lounge and watch the sun turn the mountains pink before the moon comes up to bathe them in its frosty beam.