We arrived in Montevideo from Mendoza Argentina on February 13th, the 22nd day of our South American adventure. The first 21 days were with the Viking Ocean Cruise and Mendoza post-cruise extension, now we were “free-styling”, on our own for another week.
Why Montevideo? Back in the 1980’s I made many business trips to Uruguay and enjoyed the visits to Montevideo. The city had an interesting charm and culture and it’s fun to go back after all these years to see what changed and what stayed the same.
On our brief stop in Montevideo with the Viking Jupiter (Our Previous Travel Reminiscing Blog), we had a scheduled winery tour, so had very little free time to spend in Montevideo. Now we were on our own with several days to explore the city.
Images from one of my 1982 Montevideo Trips
Images from our 2020 Trip
Montevideo has retained its charm and character. We stayed in the old town district, Ciudad Vieja, with its older colonial buildings as well as art deco architecture. This neighborhood, adjacent to the port, has several pedestrian-only streets that lead up to Plaza Independencia, the main square.
Most of the old town area hasn’t changed much since the last visit in the early 1980’s, but elsewhere there has certainly been big changes in Montevideo and Uruguay. Across the city, modern buildings can be seen and along the Rambla, a 13 mile long avenue that runs along the shoreline of the Rio e la Plate, high-rise apartments evoke a South Florida look.
Back in the 1980’s Uruguay was ruled by a military dictatorship. Anyone who spoke out against the government risked imprisonment or worse. Today Uruguay is a thriving democracy and Latin America’s most progressive country. Crime is very low, the standard of living is one of the best in South America. Uruguay has the highest literacy rate in Latin America, school is mandatory up to high school and the state run universities are free. Uruguay legalized the production, sale and consumption of cannabis.
Our hotel, the Don Boutique Hotel, located across the street from Mercado del Puerto or Port Market in the old town. This location was perfect as it was adjacent to one of the main pedestrian streets. We were able to walk to most old town attractions, restaurants and shops.
Our room was a front room on the second floor with a small balcony overlooking the street. Across the street was a small open air arena that was part of the Carnival Museum. Since this was in the middle of Carnival season (Mardi Gras), we had free (and loud) entertainment every night, so no early bedtime!
Apart from the late night entertainment, the Don Boutique Hotel was a nice place. The building is art-deco style, looks like it could be in South Beach. The roof-top bar was a great spot to enjoy a bottle of local Tannat wine while watching the sunset cast its golden glow over the city.
Don Boutique Hotel
Sightseeing in Montevideo
On our first day, February 14, 2020, we took the open top double-decker bus tour of the city. This gave us a chance to see the wider areas of Montevideo and allowed us to scope out places that we might want to explore later. Montevideo is a large city in area, and the bus tour was a good way to see quite a bit and we were able to get some photos of the architecture and street scenes from our open-air seating.
Our hotel was in Ciudad Vieja or Old City, the oldest part of Montevideo. It is around the port area and its colonial buildings and narrow streets give it plenty of charm. It is a very walkable area and we spent much of our two days just wandering the streets taking in all the sights and sounds. Right across from our hotel, the 'Mercado del Puerto' a popular venue for Uruguayan food and beverages, with many restaurants always busy with locals and tourists alike. The smell of the wood fired Parrilla's of the Mercado del Puerto lingers from blocks around.
Not far from our hotel is the beginning of Peatonal Sarandí, a pedestrian only street that runs through the old city all the way to Plaza Independencia. Along the street, vendors with tables or blankets spread out on the pavement, offer all sorts of handicrafts. One gentleman had a table with fancy Mate gourds with metal straws for sale. Cafés , restaurants, art galleries, antique shops, and souvenir shops line the street. About halfway to Plaza Independencia is Montevideo's Cathedral and the beautiful tree lined Plaza Constitución.
Architecture of Montevideo
Montevideo Street Art & Street Scenes
Sights & Sounds of Montevideo
Dining in Montevideo
If you are vegan or vegetarian, you should probably skip this section. Uruguay, like its neighbors Argentina and Brazil, are known for meat products, especially beef. Parrilla cooking is the predominate method, a grill using wood fires. Large grills, tilted at an angle on a stone or brick surface, with a roaring wood fire in the rear. An attendant constantly raking the hot embers under the grill to slow cook the meat and veggies.
The Mercado del Puerto has many Parrilla restaurants under its roof. You see these Parrilla grills loaded with steaks, chicken, sausages, peppers, onions, and the smells of everything cooking stimulates your appetite. We would have several meals in the mercado, trying things like the tender and delicious Entrecôte, and I would have a dish I first tried here in 1980, the Morcilla or blood sausage. Kathie would have none of that, so it was all mine! It is an acquired taste, some will find the texture a bit unappealing, but I find it a rare treat.
Another specialty I remembered enjoying on my 1980's trips, is Queso Parrillero. This is to die for, they cut a half inch thick slice of Provolone cheese, put it on the Parrilla grill until the outside is crispy and just burned. They drizzle it with olive oil and sprinkle fine chopped oregano. When you slice into it, the inside is melted and gooey, you get the crunchy, chewy outside layer and the creamy inside, OMG!
We would have Valentines Day lunch at a sidewalk cafe on Peatonal Sarandí, enjoying a Uruguayan specialty, the Chivito sandwich. I came the know the Chivito on my business trips back in the 80's. The Chivito is a sandwich made with grilled steak, sliced tomatoes, mozzarella, olives, fried egg, mayo, and bacon, you might say the works!
Our Valentine's dinner would be at a restaurant right across from our hotel in the mercado. This restaurant specialized in Empanadas, so we tried several types. We had a long day walking around, so we were tired. When it came time for the check, our server surprised us with a nice Valentine's Day dessert, on the house, a strawberry cake drizzled in chocolate. Happy Valentine's Day!
Montevideo boasts the longest running Carnival celebrations which start in late January and goes on for 40 days. Local neighborhood dance and drum groups participate in various parades and events and we were fortunate that a couple of groups performed at the nearby Mercado del Puerto. The groups perform Candombe, a style of music and dance that immigrated to Uruguay with African slaves.
Carnival Group at Mercardo del Puerto
Candombe Drummer Group Practicing at the Carnival Museum
On Sunday February 16th, after a fun 3 days in Montevideo it was time to leave. Our next stop, Colonia del Sacramento, one of Uruguay’s oldest towns. We would stay in the cobble-stoned Barrio Histórico (historic quarter), a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We got the last two seats (next to the toilet) on the 9:00AM bus to Colonia for the 2.5 hour ride.