Colonia, we made a point to visit Uruguay's capital city of Montevideo. We found accommodations in the beachfront neighborhood of Punta Carretas, a quiet, residential area at the city's southernmost tip. In fact, if you look at the photo above, the thin vertical line next to the palm trees on the horizon is a lighthouse. It lies at the end of a narrow peninsula where the city ends and the Atlantic begins.
Despite the number of these buildings along the coast, and the fact that many of them must be given over to vacation rental, Montevideo was the one destination on this trip where we ended up staying in a private room in a hostel rather than a rented apartment.
But as time has gone on, we've learned that for about the same price per night in a private room in a hostel, you can rent an apartment in most cities. This was an accidental discovery made during our trip to Bariloche the year before, but once we saw the benefit of the space and privacy of a temporary apartment rental, it's quickly become our preferred accommodation away from home.
With the exception of a young man from Córdoba, Argentina and an older woman from Buenos Aires, all our fellow guests were from Chile, despite the fact that Chile is much further away. Evidence perhaps of the direction the fleeting winds of economic prosperity have been blowing in recent years. Interestingly, none of the Chileans batted an eye at the higher prices to be found in Uruguay, while both of the Argentines were incredulous. Indeed, a visit to a restaurant or supermarket revealed most food to be about double the price of what we'd seen in Argentina.
In a place where even the top politicians intermingle with the public in the street with little fanfare, the Uruguayan people generally seem to ignore pretense and just get on with their daily business. That said, Uruguay has been in the news of late, with President José Mujica making headlines for his unassuming lifestyle, living on a flower farm with his wife rather than the Presidential Palace and driving his old VW Beetle. And more recently, Uruguay seems set to become the first country in South America to legalize the recreational use of marijuana.
Eduardo Galeano. As we roamed the streets of Montevideo during our short visit, I did a double take in the direction of every bald-headed man I saw, hoping I might have the luck to cross paths with the author of the first books in Spanish I managed to decipher.
While I never saw Mr. Galeano, I did plenty of double takes. Uruguay has a small population with a low rate of growth, meaning an aging populace, and lots of bald heads. That notwithstanding, here we see the next generation of Uruguayans casually soaking up some fine literary tradition during their summer break.
The man on horseback is José Artigas, a native to Montevideo turned gaucho (read: South American cowboy). He became something akin to the George Washington of Uruguay. He helped battle both the Spanish and the British as South America began to assert its political independence, and later was instrumental in carving out the Uruguayan identity as separate and independent from what would become Argentina.
As I reflect on our days in Montevideo, I can't help but think that we peeled back very little of the surface of this understated city. While it may never equal the excitement and energy of Buenos Aires or the tropical beauty of Rio de Janeiro, Montevideo is quietly waiting to be discovered. The patient traveler who spends the time to fully explore this well-organized and comfortable capital city of 1.8 million is bound to be rewarded for his effort. With some luck, another trip to this part of South America will be in our future.
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