We decided we liked Uruguay so much we didn’t want to simply spend a few days in the capital and head straight to Argentina, so instead after a few days in Montevideo, we headed north west through rolling grassland and forests, to the small village of Dayman, just before Salto on the border with Argentina.
Montevideo is a sleepy kind of capital city, with plenty of parking even in the centre and everything in easy walking distance. The main street is a bustle of shops and regular buses, but one street back and its quiet and calm. The main square hasn’t been overly developed and there are still many inhabited buildings right on the square. There doesn’t seem to have been much push for development in the centre, and I’m guessing property prices remain low, as you have 4-star hotels rubbing shoulders with shops selling buttons, and beautifully renovated old houses next to discount supermarkets.
The ‘old town’ has a shabby kind of charm, and the ‘rambla’ promenade along the river is pleasant. There doesn’t seem to be much of a café culture, possibly because everyone seems to take their mate from home with them – mate is a kind of caffeinated bitter drink that everyone seems to drink constantly.
One day we hired bikes and cycled about 10km along the rambla (and back! My backside still hurts…) to the upmarket neighbourhood of Pocitos, which is organized around a pleasant beach. The rambla was full of families with kids on bikes/roller skates, old men with their flasks of mate passing the time of day, guys fishing, teenagers posing, lots of other cyclists and some serious runners. We saw a number of football matches going on, some clearly being taken more seriously than others.
Another day we went for a walk along a couple of the pedestrianized streets around the port – the only part of the city that seems to cater at all to tourists due to being close to the port where cruise ships often dock for less than 24 hours and the ferry arrives from Buenos Aires.
But Montevideo seems to be the sort of place worth getting to know for longer than a day trip – there may not be any major tourist ‘sights’, and Uruguay itself seems to suffer from being stuck between its two enormous neighbours, but it’s a lovely place to simply hang out. Yes, it’s very expensive – the government has instituted a law that reimburses the tax on all restaurant meals to tourists using a foreign credit card, but a simple lunch (main course of omelette or salad or the schnitzel-like milaneza, water, no dessert or coffee) was regularly setting us back over 25 usd – but its good value, in the sense that you get large portions and good quality. In fact, I got the impression that everything they do, they do seriously and well. I’ve never seen such an organized queue for a bus before its even arrived as we did at the bus terminal…
They clearly want to develop tourism, but I am not sure how I feel about this sign that exhorts Uruguayans to see tourists as friends – its a nice concept, but on the other hand, if people have to been convinced by a sign….
I also noted that there seemed to be pride in the country – signs such as “Uruguay: a country with potable water” in the (free, clean) public bathrooms. Also, respect for people – there were few ‘prohibition’ signs and when they were there, they explained why something was prohibited (e.g. “please don’t drink mate on the bus because the straw could hurt you if the bus stops suddenly, or the hot water could injure another passenger” – I liked that). People are organized – they queue for buses even before they arrive – and give coherent, logical directions.
Another example of the quality of things was the bus journey from Montevideo to Salto, where we are currently. It wasn’t cheap – about 70 dollars for us both for a 6-and-a-half-hour journey – but the bus was on time, airconditioned, had extremely large comfortable seats like those in business class on a plane, and had a reasonably clean toilet. There was a guy on the bus who was in charge of the passengers, and he spoke some English and kept us informed when we were slightly delayed by some kind of protest blocking the road. People also were generally quiet and respectful of other people’s space on the bus – in great contrast to some other countries I could mention.
We are currently based in Dayman, a small village just outside Salto, mainly for the massive waterslide park acuamania that Lauren will update you all on. Its set in lush green farmland and today we went for a walk before the intense heat that builds during the day and barely seems to dissipate at night. We saw a dead armadillo which was sad and interesting at the same time, it had clearly been run over on the road. We also saw a huge black bird (sorry, I’m not good on birds – it was massive and had a long neck) sitting on a rock in the river, which was teeming with some very big fish who would regularly jump half out of the water, presumably to catch some bugs.
Tomorrow we head for Argentina, and another long bus journey, this time overnight up to Iguazu to see the mighty Iguazu falls.