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Mooching in Montevideo!

Updated: Feb 23, 2020

Silvana, one my wonderful Argentinian hosts, had assured me that the Uruguayans are lovely people and I experienced this as soon as I landed in the city and had to negotiate my way across town. I wasn’t sure whether I had to get a transport card and load it with cash as in Argentina or whether I could pay in cash on the bus. I managed to find the right bus and quiz several people as to whether I could pay in cash. I concluded I could but as all the answers were in Spanish, I wasn’t 100% certain that I wouldn’t be turned away until I actually boarded the bus. I could indeed pay in cash and I tracked my route to Lucrecia’s flat using google maps. An elderly lady saw I was trying to follow a map to know where to get off and she spoke some English so she helped by looking at the map and indicating how long it would be before I had to get off. She works for foreign affairs so has had to use English in her job.

Once on Lucrecia’s street, a man stopped his car to check I was ok and helped me find her number on her very long road. I found 418 Buenos Aires street and sent Lucrecia a WhatsApp message. She was soon greeting me at the entrance to her block and we made our way to her very pleasant one bed flat with a view of the Rio de la Plata and natural harbour on which Montevideo is situated.

Lucrecia is a 29 year old lawyer who works for the government. I was impressed to hear she works with government ministers on transport and infrastructure, advising on legal matters. Uruguay is one of the least corrupt and most democratic countries in the world, according to the United Nations Democracy Table. It is only one place below The United Kingdom and above many Western European Countries and The United States. She is, therefore, part of an independent judiciary.

Uruguay is in a transition period as it had a change of government in December but the system is more akin to that of the USA where it takes several months for the new government to take charge. She sounded frustrated because the outgoing left wing government was trying to push through legislation in its final few weeks before a right wing administration takes over.

Lucrecia is well travelled and we had much to talk about over supper. She quite unusual because many South Americans are unable to travel outside their own continent because of the cost of airfares which are priced in US dollars. She kindly insisted I have her bedroom as she had to get up early for work. I ended up staying with her for 9 nights when I had only planned 4 and got to know Ignacio, her partner who is a music teacher in four different schools in Montevideo because schools are relatively small so can’t justify a single music teacher.

It was dark when I arrived so the next day when I emerged from Lucrecia’s flat, I was surprised to see the iconic 1920s sky scrapper was visible at the end of the street. There is a very pleasant pedestrianised street lined by palm trees that leads straight to it on Plaza Independenencia. After Buenos Aires, which is much bigger, it was good to be able to cover most of the city on foot. It felt more like a large town than a capital city. I continued on down Avenida 18 Julio to see fine examples of Art Nouveau and Art Deco architecture.

The next day I headed down to the port where my guide book said I could show my ID and get in to see the anchor of the Admiral Graf Spee Pocket Battleship and a range finder (early radar). I have to admit that I knew nothing about this ship before I did the research for my trip but my Second World War Expert, aka Richard, my husband, was able to fill me in with the full story, the salient points being that this ship was involved in the first sea battle of the Second World War. It was attacking Atlantic convoys very effectively and was being hunted down by British ships. When they found and attacked it, it escaped to neutral Uruguay and spent a short time in Montevideo before being asked to leave by the Uruguayan authorities. Knowing that the British were laying in wait, the captain scuttled the ship to avoid its advanced technology being ceased by the British. There has been talk of raising the ship but this has never happened, however, parts of it have been recovered, including what is on display at the port.

I went to the first gate I saw which cruise passengers were using to leave the port but the man on the gate who spoke no English wouldn’t let me in. Luckily there was a Tourist Office right next door so I went there and a pleasant young man said I could get in to the port if I said I needed to book a bus. I asked him to give me a note is Spanish to explain this and it worked a treat!

Once inside the port, I just had to deviate slightly from the route to the bus terminal and mix with the cruise passengers and I was there, touching pieces of history and taking photographs. I was surprised to see that not a single cruise passenger, and there were hundreds, took any notice of the Graf Spee artefacts. They queued to have their photos taken by the ‘Welcome to Montevideo’ sign with their huge floating hotel as a back drop but were clearly oblivious to the anchor and range finder, only a few feet away. There were usually two enormous cruise ships docked for the day and from the old town where I was staying, it looked as if they were parked at the end of the street! Now far be it from me to deride cruise passengers, I may be one myself one day when my knees give in, and I have good friends who have wonderfully rich experiences on cruises but surely, at least one or two would have done their homework and know that they were only a few feet from an interesting piece of the past. Do none of these people travel with a guidebook or use Wikipedia? Most seemed to be South American so perhaps the Second World War is not, quite literally, on their radar!

The highlight of my trip to Montevideo was an evening at the carnival. I was lucky enough to be there on one of the two nights that they have a parade through the streets known the Llamadas Parade. The carnival season goes on from the end of January to the start of March with many smaller events but the many groups come together for the famous Llamadas Carnival Parade.

I bought my ticket a few days before and walked along the seafront which reminds me a bit of Havana Seafront to the area where the carnival was to take place. It was still a healthy 28 degrees centigrade as the sun went down over the Rio de la Plata but being British, and someone who gets chilly easily, I had three extra layers in my bag for when it got cold after dark. Well I needn’t have worried! Even after midnight it was 24 degrees!

I watched various carnival groups warm up and had my photo taken with two ladies in attractive costume. I made sure I was in my seat for 7.45pm in anticipation of the carnival starting at 8pm. As 8pm approached there was still hardly anyone there. I started to feel disappointed that it was by no means a sell out. The carnival was no where to be seen at 8pm and within the first hour it was very intermittent with a carnival group coming past and then a big gap. Just as I was getting very frustrated by the slow pace of things, it hotted up and every seat suddenly had an occupant and the carnival was in full swing with a stream of groups coming past. I had obviously missed the message about pace yourself and don’t turn up for the start time on the ticket!

Each group started off with enormous flags the size of a caravan that waved and billowed, often being wafted over the crowd much to its delight; then came dancers followed by an older group of people who played special characters such as La Mama Vieja, El escobero and El Gramillero who include an old woman and an old man with a white beard who represent the Uruguayan slave period; and finally drummers. Carnival has its roots in both African slave and Spanish culture and this was very evident. The make up and costumes were spectacular. The lively crowd cheered and whistled.

Now I definitely turn in to a pumpkin at midnight so at this point I started to feel very tired but I didn’t want to give in and not see it to the end so I did what everyone else seemed to be doing and got up to dance on my seat! When it went past midnight I thought it must end at 12.30am but no. 1am? No. It had to end at 1.30pm. Did it heck as like? It went on until 2am and then the crowd, me included, of course, got behind the procession to dance along with the drums. The clean team was ready to go in as it finally ended about 2.15am!

I looked for a taxi to return to Lucrecia’s flat but there were none so I had to walk. I had been warned by locals on a regular basis that it is very unsafe but there were lots of people around and apart from feeling a little nervous when passing a man rummaging through bins, I never felt unsafe.

I was able to do two things in Montevideo that I couldn’t do in Buenos Aires. The first was to get a great 360 degree view of the city from the 22nd floor of the city hall and the second was to do a tour of the national parliament. As I entered parliament through a metal detector, it went off but there was no one there to check me so I just waltzed in right to the heart of the place. Can you imagine that in the U.K.? I bought a ticket for the 3pm tour in English which was led by a woman who works in the Public Relations Department. She was very knowledgable and spoke good English because of time spent living in America. She showed myself and the only other person on the tour the grand entrance hall where they keep the original copy of the constitution. It was guarded by the parliament’s ceremonial guards. They follow the American system so we went to see the Senate and House of Representatives. There is a law that says that 10% of politicians must be women and guess what! 10% are women! Unlike in Argentina, Uruguay has never had a woman president but in its defence, it does have a female Vice President.

Our guide talked about a seismic change in politics in the country from left to right. She said the new right wing government was promising to clamp down on rising crime. Sound familiar? She said there was a famous case in which a 14 year old boy broke in to a house and tied up and raped family members. When the father of the house got loose he killed the attacker and is now in prison. She seemed to think this was wrong. I commented that this is was what would happen in the U.K.

Montevideo is not big on museums. The Carnival Museum was good to give me some background to the complex ins and outs of carnival in Uruguay but others were rather dated, normally in 19th century houses. The Museum of Pre-Columbian and Indigenous Art was most interesting because it was in an old ministry. There were so few people that it felt as if the bored staff were following you round the museum. Sometimes, I was the only person in a museum and was outnumbered by staff on a 3:1 ratio!

The Museum of Torres Garcia features the art of a modern artist who is a contemporary of Picasso and Mondrian. He is Uruguayan so this museum is very fitting. He spent much time in Europe and America but also developed his distinct style in Montevideo.

As with Argentina, the highlight of my time in Montevideo was spending time with Lucrecia and her partner Ignacio. We went out for a meal in a local square and enjoyed traditional food. A man came round to tables to beg for uneaten food e.g. bread. He clearly had mental health problems and Lucrecia said he was a permanent fixture in the area. Like in Argentina, the social security is not an effective safety net unless you have children or are elderly so younger people who struggle to get secure work have to beg or do informal jobs such as car cleaning and juggling to entertain drivers at traffic lights.

As Lucrecia waved me off on the local bus to the bus station, I reflected on the warm affection I feel for Uruguay and its people. I was only in the country for 10 nights but I am already in planning my return!

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