South Americans often refer to Uruguay, that small country sandwiched between giants Argentina and Brazil, as the “first world of the third world”. I don’t share that opinion as you can plainly see there’s still far too many people living in extreme poverty in this country, but it is, de facto, the most stable democracy on this continent.
Just last week I made my way from Santa Fe, Argentina, to Montevideo, Uruguay’s capital and biggest city. I had visited Uruguay before, a few years earlier, but I had limited myself to Punta del Este, the country’s premier vacation destination, and Colonia, a well-preserved colonial city. Travelers often overlook Montevideo as it’s not a very touristic city, but it appears to be on the verge of a renaissance, finally recognizing the potential of its vast historic district, the “ciudad vieja”, in the port area. Countless old buildings are being renovated and new pedestrian malls are being created. Not too long in the future, this part of town could become as popular as Buenos Aires’ fabled San Telmo.
For now, Montevideo’s downtown is rather gritty, almost every building and monument suffering the indignity of ugly graffiti, and its streets are populated by a large number of beggars. The avenida 18 de Julio, the main commercial street, reminds me of avenida Santa Fe in Buenos Aires. Its sidewalks are bustling with activity during the day, but as soon as night falls, it transforms into a lifeless landscape. Locals warn you not to walk the streets at night, but that’s good advice anywhere in Latin America, not just here.
While Montevideo may at first appear as a kind of mini Buenos Aires, comparisons quickly end when you discover it has a large number of white sand beaches stretching eastward from just outside the port at Pocitos, as well as a coastal walkway that seems to go on forever. The salty water lapping the shore here is milky brown, as it’s still the river Plate (rio Plata) loaded with mud and sediment from sources deep inside the South America, but local authorities certify that its safe to bathe. With its long rows of apartment buildings facing the Rambla (the coastal road), some beaches are reminiscent of Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana, minus the mountains. Curiously, there’s virtually no shops or restaurants along the Rambla. You’ll find those usually a couple of blocks in.
One of the aspects of Montevideo, and Uruguay in general, that can be considered “first world” are its prices. Things are more expensive here when compared to other south American nations, and even more so if you rely on the US dollar, which has fallen from 24 Pesos per dollar to just over 19 in the last year. Wages, however, are only slightly higher than in other South American countries.
Language: Castilian Spanish, virtually identical to that of Argentina.
Electricity: 220 volts. 2 round peg sockets or 2 slanted plus 1 vertical (same as Argentina).
Meals: Expect to spend at least 200 pesos (10 USD) per person for an ordinary meal. Cuisine is almost identical to Argentina’s. The national dish is the “chivito”, which can be as simple as a piece of steak or as crazy as a huge stack of wildly different items inside a hamburger bun.
Taxis: taxi meters don’t display the fare, but rather a number that has to be looked-up in a table (“tabla de tarifas”) in order to determine the cost. Taxis must have the table displayed in the passenger compartment. If one doesn’t, you might want to wait for one that does. A typical medium distance fare, say from downtown to Pocitos, would be around 5 dollars (100 pesos). Fares are about 25% higher at night (different table).
Public Transportation: There’s no subway, just buses, which are modern and cheap: fare is 17 pesos.
Cheap hotels: There’s plenty of hostels, but if you want a room with private bath, it’s more economical to stay at a hotel downtown, for rates as low as 45 USD per night.
Getting there: Direct, long distance flights to Montevideo are a rarity. Most travelers prefer to combine a visit to Uruguay with Argentina, typically crossing the river Plate from Buenos Aires in Buquebus, the high speed ferry service (about 90 dollars per person) if you book early.
ATMs: More like Brazil, where few ATMs support foreign debit cards. If your provider’s logo doesn’t appear on the list (say Cirrus,Plus or Maestro), find another machine. ATMs typically dispense Uruguayan pesos and dollars.
Internet: Most restaurants have free wi-fi, and do most hotels and hostels.
International calls: There are a few calling centers, but be forewarned that long distance calls are very expensive, as are calls to local cell phones. You might want to use Internet telephony, say Skype, if the wi-fi bandwidth is good enough where you connect.
Apartment rentals: If you’re planning to live here, the best areas are along the Rambla, from Pocitos to Carrasco, the latter being far more expensive. Rents are higher than in many similar sized North American cities. A very ordinary one bedroom apartment would rent for 500 dollars, while a 2 bedroom would set you back about 700 USD a month. Rents are almost always quoted in dollars and sometimes even paid in that currency. Shared costs, such as heat and water and condo fees are typically charged separately. Unlike Argentina, you don’t require guarantors, just documents proving you have sufficient income (bank statements, letter from employer), but you have to post a monetary guarantee equal to five months’ rent. These funds are placed in a special bank account which both you and the owner must sign for to withdraw funds from at the end of the lease. Rentals usually include no appliances at all except a small water heater. A few furnished apartments can be had, but for more money.
Tipping: Most Uruguayans aren’t good tippers, but as a foreigner you should remember that people here earn only a fraction of what they would in the first world (the real one), and be more generous!
Tourist Traps: There really isn’t any, but prices do seem excessively high in the port market (mercado del puerto), since Anthony Bourdain featured its eateries on his TV show.
Entertainment: No specific entertainment area, although there’s a few discotheques in Pocitos and a handful of bar/restaurants that stay open at night on the Sarandi pedestrian mall. Best way to find live entertainment venues is via the local newspapers. Carnival period lasts virtually all of February. Movies are generally subtitled rather than dubbed. Matinees cost about 5 USD per ticket. There’s an opera near Independence Square, the Solis theater.