Not many people know much about Uruguay. I was among those who didn’t know anything. I’ve seen some people describe it as a ‘gem’ in South America and everyone I know who’s actually been there simply says ‘you only need 3 days’. After some research online we pretty much decided that we would only spend three and a half days there. Seems crazy since we spent a whopping 11 weeks in Brazil, but the place just seemed SO pricey. We couldn’t even find accommodation for anywhere else in Uruguay for less than £40/£50 a night which just isn’t doable on a backpackers, even a flashpackers budget.
So we boarded the EGA bus drunk from Jack’s birthday celebrations in Pelotas, Brazil at 1am. The EGA buses are great: they even have a hostess who brings you blankets and cushions and wakes you up at 7am with hot coffee. What could be better? We’d booked the bus in advance online using Busbud.com back in the UK and it cost us $73 US dollars each. We arrived at the central bus terminal in Uruguay at about 9am. It was pretty hot and the bus station looked promising. They even had McDonald’s breakfast… We stumbled outside and found the taxi stand. There was a long queue but it went quickly. It was all so confusing – to fall asleep in a drunken haze in Brazil speaking Portuguese and waking up in Uruguay speaking Spanish. Not to mention the quick change of currency. The taxi took us quickly to our new hostel; Montevideo Chic Hostel $880 Pesos/£22 a night. It cost about $170 Pesos/£4.25 for a 15 mins journey.
We were so hesitant arriving in Montevideo. We had been told it was extortionately expensive & we were shitting ourselves that we wouldn’t be able to afford a meal on budget.
After we’d dropped our bags at our new place we headed out to explore. We’d already got the impression that Montevideo was small – due to the fact it didn’t take us long to get from the bus station to the hostel. As we first wandered the streets we quickly realised this place was so European, it almost felt like wandering around in Prague or Warsaw. The colonial buildings and the cafe culture were everywhere. Expensive shops line the extremely clean streets and each square is centred with a fountain and has carefully manicured grass and flowers.
After more research I discovered that Montevideo was founded in 1726 by Bruno Mauricio de Zabala, governor of Buenos Aires, to counteract the Portuguese advance into the area from Brazil. Montevideo was mostly a Spanish garrison town. Trade expanded towards the end of the colonial period, & Montevideo’s merchants played an important part in securing Uruguayan independence in 1830. From 1807 – 1830 it was actually occupied by British, Spanish, Argentine, Portuguese, & Brazilian forces.
In 2017 this city was rated as having the best quality of life in all Latin America. We could definitely see why! The people are friendly, there appears to be plenty of industry and jobs, the food is good and the sun always shines.
The very first day we arrived we just wandered around the pristine streets and shops. Looking at the map we knew there was no way we could wander too far as the city was so small! We stumbled across the main meat market which is full of delicious BBQ restaurants. The food is much like the typical Brazilian BBQ, but the style of cooking appears to be different and honestly has your mouth watering the second you step in. That day happened also to be our second year anniversary so we decided to treat ourselves to a steak meal. The offer of the day was to choose one meat and get a side, bread and ice cream free. We chose the rump steak and also an extra chorizo sausage. After all our very handy experience in Brazil ordering huge portions we knew that one portion between the two of us would be enough! When it arrived it was TWO actual huge rump steaks – we couldn’t believe this would actually be for just one person. It was delicious and the setting onlooking the market was beautiful. We also ordered a Paulista beer which came as a 960ml volume which we later discovered is the standard beer size in Uruguay. The total bill came to $980 pesos/£24 – a lot more expensive than Brazil but equally very cheap for such a good cut of steak.
The following day we ventured out to check out the museum scene. We’re avid lovers of museum and had of course done our research on trip advisor before our arrival. One of the top rated was the ‘Museo Andes 1972’. I’d never actually heard of what is described as a ‘Uruguayan tragedy and miracle’ before. On Friday, October 13, 1972, a Uruguayan Fairchild 227 airplane en route to Chile carrying a rugby team of young men on board crashed in the Andes. This was the beginning of one of the most overwhelming stories of survival in human history. Initially, 32 people survived the crash against one of the world’s highest mountain ranges. Many of the team were killed on impact but 32 were completely abandoned and left to fend for themselves for over 70 days in sub zero temperatures. The team resorted to eating the other dead bodies and a few miraculously survived after a hunter discovered them in the distance making their way towards what they thought was inhabited land. The remaining men returned to Uruguay as heroes and still to this day are remembered so fondly by all. The museum cost $500/£5 each for entry but honestly it was well worth it.
Next we checked out the Gaucho museum – I had high hopes for this place! (Anyone from London will know Gaucho is a very famous chain of steak restaurants) Of course a Gaucho is a skilled horseman, reputed to be brave and unruly. The gaucho is a national symbol in Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay so I expected this museum to be full of excitement. The Gaucho Museum and the Museo de la Moneda –the Mint Museum (small museum on money)- share an ornate building on Montevideo’s central avenue. The extravagant French & Italian-style building built in 1896 is reason alone (maybe the only reason) to visit. The exhibitions are unfortunately really drab – very dated and surprisingly small for the size of the place. Free entry though and there is a small English leaflet on entry you can use to guide you. The staff were very sweet and the security guard even let us onto the roof which was pretty cool. It wasn’t a big panoramic or anything though. See some pics below!
Buying food was really pricey in the supermarkets and cafés in Montevideo. Minus the one steak meal we ate out we ate at the hostel every other night. We found pasta in some of the supermarkets for about $30/£0.70 which did the job. Make sure you go and find ‘Planeta’ supermarket if you ever stay there – it’s the cheapest by far. It’s located close to Plaza Independencia. Local beer is served in litre bottles in the restaurants and shops. The most popular beers are Pilsen, Zillertal, Patricia and Nortena. Expect to pay about $90/£2.25 in the smaller shops and about $120/£3 in the restaurants. Red wine is on mass here too. You can pick up a bottle for $80/£2 and it’s honestly surprisingly good (or maybe that’s just my cheap taste!)
Plaza Independencia truly is a beautiful spot in Montevideo. The Plaza Independencia is Montevideo’s most important plaza. It separates Ciudad Vieja from downtown Montevideo, with the Gateway of The Citadel on one side and the beginning of 18 de Julio avenue on the other. You’ll recognise the main building here – it’s the one that always features on postcards and in books! The Palacio Salvo was built in 1925 and has these super interesting little turrets. The actual square is extremely clean and lined with perfect palm trees and little archways, giving it a Mediterranean feel.
The beach… well if you can call it a beach… Montevideo is actually surrounded by a river NOT the sea … so some days the water looks like the sea (blue), other days it looks like a brown river & some days you can even see literally stripes of green sea water and browner river water. The water can change in a matter of hours. we we visited the river was in fact completely brown meaning it’s really not the prettiest of places! There’s no sand as such just rocks but a pleasant walkway along the front which seems to be used frequently by dog walkers and joggers. I’ve heard there’s pretty decent beaches along other parts of the coast though… Punta Del Este (known as footballers hangout Miami style) is famous for it’s expensive beach life. This is also the spot where the famous hand statute is (that peeks out of the sand). We saw it from the bus window on the way through … it’s much more impressive in photos…
On our wanders about the city we actually discovered The old General Artigas Central Railways Station. This station is unfortunately abandoned but it truly is a beautiful example of Victorian architecture. It is located near the port area between the streets Paraguay, and Rio Negro in the barrio of Aguada. after more research I discovered it opened back in 1897 and was in fact built by the Brits. The railways were nationalised in 1949 and eventually they were too costly to run and served little purpose in such a small country. There is nearly 2,900km of railways tracks in Uruguay in disuse. The station in Montevideo is truly beautiful adorned with statues and details – it’s always so sad to see this type of building abandoned! Someone should puchase it and make a shopping centre, an events space or something!
Don’t forget weed is actually legal in Uruguay. the cultivation of cannabis was made legal in May 2017 & in July it became legal to sell it (the first country in the world) across the entire territory. As you wander around Montevideo you can spot quite a few cafés. We did not see (or smell) anyone on the streets though, but I have heard differently about this in Colonia and other areas.
Other landmarks in walking distance of the city are The Solis theatre, Constitution Square, Museo Torres García, National Museum of Visual Arts, Museo de Historia del Arte and Museu of Tango.
All in all this literally was just a dip into Uruguay. We have heard many good things about some of the beachside towns en route from Brazil but we have also heard from many travellers that they are all extremely expensive.
We checked out of our hostel at 11am on our last day. Please bare in mind all check outs are REALLY early in much of South America. It drives me absolutely mad – customer service really is quite non existent… anyways nothing could prepare us for what happened next… as we checked out of Montevideo Chic we were told we had to pay $100/£2.50 PER HOUR PER PERSON to sit in this hostel until we were ready to leave. I was horrified! Couldn’t believe they wanted to charge us to sit there and wait for our taxi… we left on a sour note. Makes no sense to charge guests unfairly right before they leave!
To sum it up… Montevideo is VERY pretty. It’s also very clean & has a nice feel about it. The food is great and the alcohol is cheap. But it’s pretty boring – don’t spend more than 3 days there. If you enjoy smoking weed it might be a different story…