Warming Up in South America's Most Chill Capital

Salvo Palace and the Plaza da Independencia. (Photo: Thinkstock)

First, let’s clear up how you say it. There are various theories of how Uruguay’s largest city got its name. None posit that its founders foresaw a mountaintop video rental store. So let me tell you that you pronounce Montevideo, roughly, Mun-tay-bee-DAY-o. Let me also tell you that this port town is one of the underrated pleasures of South America.

Born of the same revolution, Uruguay has long been upstaged by its bigger, more flamboyant sibling, Argentina. The two countries have bickered for years about which invented tango and whose beef is la mas sabrosa. But, while no one’s crying for Argentina, it’s Uruguay that has become a destination for wily expats. That’s partly due to the ease of buying property there. (It takes only five years of residency to establish citizenship — three if you’re married.) Beyond its land values and hospitality, the country boasts one of the most progressive governments in the southern hemisphere.

In 2013, Uruguay became the first nation in the world to make it legal to grow, sell and use marijuana. The same year it sanctioned same sex marriage. (Photo: George Rush)

Montevideo has ranked for the past decade as Latin America’s most livable city — based on the Mercer Quality of Living Survey of health, education, security, and other factors. It feels more intimate than Buenos Aires, which is just two hours by ferry across the Rio de la Plata. Almost half of Uruguay’s population – around two million people – live in the 75-square-mile metropolis that sits on the country’s southern coast, where the Plata spills into the Atlantic.

The seasons are upside down here. When we arrived, on Christmas Day, people were rollerblading in swimsuits. Coming in from the airport, I glared at the financial district’s shimmering 30+-story office towers. This wasn’t the Montevideo I’d pictured. I’d imagined it frozen, like a daiquiri, in the 1930s – a place where Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers fox-trotted down the avenue while Harry James played “Montevideo.”

I told my wife and son we needed to head immediately to Ciudad Vieja, the oldest of the city’s 62 barrios, where I’d nabbed a suite in the historic quarter’s prime mid-range hotel — the Palacio. The slender Belle Epoque beauty was graced with marble, stained glass, and rococo iron-and-brass cage elevator. (The penthouse rooms, with private balconies, are a steal at $50 a night.)

After checking in, we strolled a block west to Plaza Matriz, the original heart of the city. Overlooking the tree-canopied square were such venerable bastions as the Cabildo (1801), where the last viceroy held court, Club Uruguay (1888), where the Prince of Wales once waltzed, and the baroque Metropolitan Cathedral (1790-1804), where we received the unexpected gift of a Christmas mass celebrated by Cardinal Daniel Sturla, in full miter.

Even though many of the shops were closed, I was in heaven wandering around the near-empty calles and avenidas. They reminded me of Habana Vieja in Cuba. Here too was a once elegant arrondissement that had been mugged by decades of economic hardship, but which was getting back on its feet. The neighborhood was a parade of Beaux Arts, Art Nouveau, and Art Deco. Some boarded-up mansions had saplings growing from the pediments. But hoteliers and restaurateurs were breathing life into other gorgeous corpses. And, for now, there still seemed to be room for the poor – for the old cobbler and the young leather boutique owner.

We migrated to Plaza Independencia, the city’s most prominent square, commanded by a towering equestrian statue of José Gervasio Artigas, the “father of Uruguayan nationhood.” On the southeast corner of the plaza was my favorite building in Montevideo – Palacio Salvo. Erected between 1922 and 1928, the 330-foot-high Moderne landmark was for decades the tallest building in South America. Architect Mario Palanti had hoped to crown the hotel with a rotating beacon that would wink at his Palacio Barolo in Buenos Aires. The distance proved too great. The turreted Moderne alcazar does bear a testament to the two cities’ musical communication: a plaque marking this as the spot where the most famous tango, “La Cumparsita,” was first performed in 1916. Buenos Aires may fancy itself the world’s tango capital but, judging by the perspiration of dancers we saw practicing in a studio here, Uruguayans also embrace the dance fiercely. (You can take a tango lesson at Academia Azucar Para Ti, have a Vegas-style tango dinner at El Milongon, then finish with a glass of uvita at Baar Fun Fun, founded 1895, where tango god Carlos Gardel once sang.)

Tucked among the avenue’s stores was one with a shingle displaying a cannabis sativa plant. Foreigners can’t buy weed in Uruguay, but Uruguayans can share theirs with you, and you may smoke it in public outdoors. MVD High offers visitors chauffeured “sensorial” tours, on which you can learn about Montevideo and visit a growers’ cooperative, while sampling local buds. ($200 to $250; group discounts available.)

We stopped along the avenue at Plaza Fabini, where tango dancers meet up most nights.

People who weren’t twirling and lunging were sitting around, sucking something out of small gourds through silver tubes. At first, I thought they might be hitting their bongs. In fact, they were enjoying a much older pastime, sipping mate, a bitter tea made from the yerba mate shrub. I tried some. It tasted a bit like lawn clippings but it gave me a pleasant lift.

We also tried the fare at the plaza’s branch of La Pasiva, a half-century-old fast-food chain whose logo (a boy gobbling a giant wiener) could use rebranding. I ordered Montevideo’s signature snack – the chivito. A “simple” chivito has skirt steak, cheese, ham, olives, pickles, lettuce, tomato, an egg, and lots of mayo. I asked for a chivito canadaiense, just to see what it was. Turned out it came with bacon. I can’t say it wasn’t tasty. But I prayed I’d survive the Uruguayan-Canadian assault on my arteries. * *

Having lived through the night, I accompanied my wife to what, for her, is the main attraction of any vacation: the flea market.

Saturday’s mercado de pulgas at Plaza Martiz was attended a gold-painted human Atlas who held up the world. (Photo: George Rush)

We perused silver gaucho knives and stirrups, hand-tooled mate gourds, vintage photos and typewriters, mid-century telephones, and estate jewelry. My wife whispered, “They don’t know what they have here!” Among the military medals were several Nazi decorations, one bearing a swastika and eagle – a miniature version of the massive bronze ornament recovered in 2006 from the battleship Admiral Graf Spee, scuttled in 1939 off Uruguay’s coast. (Uruguay welcomed Jewish refugees as early as 1935; death camp monster Josef Mengele also found the country hospitable, wedding here in 1958.) If you miss the Saturday flea, head over to Calle Tristan Narvaja for Sunday’s larger outdoor market, where antiques fight for space with a Horse Badorties assemblage of records, books, clothes, gadgets, fruits, birds, cheese, and pets.

Gorgeous graffiti fills the streets. (Photo: George Rush)

After scoring a rusted Montevideo license plate and a 1940s crocodile purse, we hopped a bus to the Parque Prado, the largest of the city’s six main parks. Established in 1873, the 260-acre oasis includes the Museo Municipal de Bellas Artes, the fragrant Botanical Garden, and the residence of Uruguay’s president. Also dwelling in the urban forest are Los Ultimos Charruas, a bronze sculpture commemorating Uruguay’s last four indigenous people, who, in 1833, were “exhibited” in France, where they died. Montevideo is dotted with 35 or so museums. Nineteenth century painters and sculptors dominate the ones devoted to art, but there are some outposts of modernity, like the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo, and the recently developed Barrio de las Artes, a hamlet of galleries in the Centro neighborhood. Some of the most memorable art we saw was spray-painted on brick walls; Banksy would dig it here. The city seems to have a museum for every obsession: naval history, tiles, taxidermy, gauchos, teaching, alchemy, immigration, electricity, pharmaceuticals, engineering, as well as male preoccupations like cars, money, weapons, and soccer (Uruguay won the first World Cup). The Museo de Memoria bears witness to the hundreds of victims of the military dictatorship that ruled between 1973 and 1985, when hundreds of thousands of Uruguayans fled the country.

We decided to grab the sand at hand – a tiny beach near Ciudad Vieja’s Plaza Espana. It was easy to forget the water before us was a river – so wide we couldn’t see Argentina on the other side. Its chocolate tint was a little off-putting. But it wasn’t bothering the Montevideans. So we dove in.

After our dip, we nipped into the nearby La Ronda, a bistro where classic rock vinyl not only revolves on turntable but hangs on the walls. It was a cool place for a first glass of wine. The Uruguyan Tannats hold their own against the Argentine Malbecs. (Bodega Bouza – 15 minutes outside the city – is one of the local vineyards offering tasting tours.) Montevideo has an assortment of rock clubs — La Trastienda is the main marquee for touring artists — and techno clubs – like Phonotheque — that throb till dawn. We moved onto Calle Mitre, Ciudad Vieja’s bar hub, and the Shannon Pub. None of its owners is actually Irish but they’ve obviously done their homework – as did their scorching deep-delta blues singer. We asked him where in the South he was from. “Sorry,” Santiago Cutinella apologized, “my English not so good.”

We set off on our final siege on Ciudad Vieja’s museums. I hadn’t known that Italian freedom fighter Giuseppe Girabaldi had, in between teaching math classes here, also helped liberate Uruguay. Alas, his former home was locked. I had to tug my wife into the Museo Historico Nacional, but she ended up loving its collection of mantillas, peinetas, Masonic aprons, and other tchotkes of the upper class. We finished with a whirl through the Museo de Arte Precolombino y Indigena, which collected the tools of Indians who died before Europeans could kill them, as well as folk art, modern photography, musical instruments, and a giant prehistoric armadillo called a glyptodon.

The mixed platter of artifacts was a perfect appetizer for our late lunch. I could be wrong but I believe it’s legally forbidden to leave Uruguay without experiencing the meatopia at the Mercado del Puerto.

My advice? Order what you really want to eat. (Photo: George Rush)

Once upon a time someone may have sold a vegetable in this cast-iron building, opened in 1868. But, today, it is given over to steakhouses. Each is powered by a parrilla, a slanted grill fueled with hardwood. Maybe you saw the episode of “No Reservations” where Anthony Bourdain and his brother, Chris, while exploring their Uruguayan roots, astonished Mercado grill-masters by ordering a second heap of cow flesh. My son and I could barely plow through one. Maybe you can live without the sweetbreads and intestines. I’d also skip the sinewy ribs. Spend a little more for better cut of beef. Don’t miss the morcilla (blood sausage). Which restaurant? Estancia del Puerto (the Bourdains’ choice) and Cabana Veronica are old stand-bys. El Palenque is more upscale and offers al fresco dining.

Outside the Mercado, we explored the Museo del Carnaval, a handsomely curated introduction to the city’s central ritual. Uruguay has been called the Switzerland of Latin America – partly because of its size and its banking business. “The Uruguayan people are less party-loving than their neighbors in Argentina and Brazil, but more reliable and genuine,” Tim Burford asserts in his indispensible Bradt Travel Guide to Uruguay. That said, during their 80-day Carnaval, “Uruguayans show they really can let their hair down.”

Uruguay’s Carnaval is a fusion of the Roman Catholic and African custom. (Photo: George Rush)

In 1808, nervous white masters banned slaves from gathering to play their drums. But, over time, drumming – called candombe – worked its way into Carnaval.

The spectacle was so enticing that rich white youths began blackening their faces and drumming. Today, even though only about 4% of the population is black, Uruguayans of all kinds join candombe troupes – comparsas. Even if Carnaval is not in swing, you can find comparsas most Saturdays in the late afternoon in the neighborhoods of Barrio Sur and Palermo. The group, La Facala, convenes at the intersection of Ejido and Cebollatí Streets.

We were still recovering from being water-boarded with flank-steak when we heard something like artillery in the distance. Following the thunder, we found a comparsa marching toward the setting sun. Men had drums of varying sizes strapped to their shoulders. Just ahead, dozens of dancers shook their culos. The winding procession was like an irresistible blood sausage. I had to take a bite. As I boogied on down the cobblestone, I realized this may not be the Montevideo I’d pictured but, if Fred and Ginger were here, I’m sure they’d be getting their groove on.

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