Side-Trippin’ in Uruguay

A few weeks ago (and then again with my parents last weekend) three friends and I packed our things and boarded a boat that would carry us through the treacherous passage to the mystical and far-away land of Uruguay.

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Okay, Uruguay is actually only an hour ferry ride away from Buenos Aires, and seeing as I slept half the ride and was serenaded by a kick-ass gitano band the other half, I could hardly call it a treacherous passage. But it is mystical, and an absolutely gorgeous getaway.

We had two days, so the plan was to head to Montevideo on Saturday, spend the night there, and then on Sunday head to Colonia del Sacramento, the charmingly preserved Portuguese colonial town nestled on the Uruguayan coast (which, given my well-known obsession with colonial Williamsburg, I was definitely looking forward to).

(Fun fact: besides its tourist appeal, many Argentinians head to Colonia on weekends to withdraw dollars from the local banks since dollars are restricted in Argentina for various and complicated reasons.)

Montevideo

After a ferry and a bus ride, we arrived in Montevideo around noon and, famished, immediately dropped our bags off at our hostel and set out in search of food. Our first stop was the Mercado del Puerto, a huge indoor market with lots of places to sit down and eat (majority parrilla, or barbecued meat). It was definitely a sight to see, but a bit too touristy for our wallets. Blood sugar falling, we wandered around the historic section of Montevideo, looking for food and marveling at the antique architecture, awesome street art, and strange absence of activity on every street. In the end, we settled for a sub-par sandwich place where I somehow ended up with Chop Suey.

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Parrilla at Mercado del Puerto

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Wandering around Montevideo’s historical district

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Street Art in Montevideo

After lunch, we headed down to the water, slowly making our way over the rocks at the waters’ edge and enjoying the view and fresh ocean smell (while simultaneously attempting to manipulate our cameras to make the muddy brown of the ocean appear Caribbean-blue).

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The rest of the afternoon passed pretty much the same as earlier: wandering around and wondering where everyone was on this beautiful Saturday. We made our way downtown, assuming that there might be some more hustle and bustle outside of the quaint historic district. We were wrong. We had just about given up when we came across a giant mall and – a bit to my dismay – realized where all the action was. I’m not the biggest fan of malls, but when in Rome… So we picked up some wine in the grocery store and spent about a half our sitting in the food court watching middle-schoolers flirt with a mix of amusement and nostalgia.

For dinner, we headed to Montevideo’s most famous pizza place, Pizzeria Trouville, which quickly became the highlight of the city for me (also saying something about my overall impression of Montevideo, which I’ll get to). At Pizzeria Trouville, if you just order “pizza,” it doesn’t come with the cheese – you have to ask for the mozzarella. Since I don’t eat cheese, I was in heaven with my delicious cheese-less, sauce-laden olive pizza.

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Later that night, one of my friends and I rallied for a night on the town, heading to 21 Bar. I will say this: Uruguayans are super friendly and know how to have a good time, and the night was definitely a success.

Overall, I can’t say I was very impressed with Montevideo. To be honest, people had told me not to waste my time with Montevideo and that there wasn’t much to see. I scoffed at them, wondering how they could so easily dismiss an entire city. I won’t to do the same – I was only there for one day after all – but  I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it if you’re pressed for time.

(To be fair, much of my disappointment stemmed from the fact that I didn’t get to buy flowers from President Mujica as I had sincerely hoped. To summarize, Mujica is Uruguay’s awesome ex-guerrilla president who, called “the poorest president in the world,” refuses to live in the presidential mansion, donates 90% of his earnings to charity, and grows chrysanthemums for sale in local markets. His administration just legalized same-sex marriage and abortion and wants to legalize marijuana. Read more here and here.)

Colonia del Sacramento 

We rose early the next morning for our bus to Colonia (my friend and I in not-so-great condition from the night before given the Argentinean-Uruguayan tendency to party ‘till the sun comes up but troopers nonetheless) and after a solid two-hour bus ride / nap arrived in the sunny colonial port town.

Between the amazing 80-degree weather, the fresh ocean air, and the charming colonial architecture, I fell in love immediately. We wandered towards the heart of the barrio histórico, meandering over abandoned grass-covered train tracks, pausing to dangle our feet over the water on an Oceanside cliff, climbing over the ancient stone wall surrounding the tiny city, and finally to the cobblestone-clad Calle de los Suspiros. Meaning the “Street of Sighs,” la Calle de los Suspiros is a UNESCO world heritage site due to its preserved historical architecture, and there are many legends about the origin of its name.

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La Calle de los Suspiros

The street let us out in the tiny city’s main plaza, home to the faro, or lighthouse, the ruins of an old convent at its base. For a beautiful view of the colonial city and its beach-lined coast, I would definitely recommend paying the two dollar faro entrance fee.

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El faro y el Convento de San Francisco

After lunch, a restaurant with a great atmosphere, sunny seating and live music (video below) but shitty service and ridiculous prices (not untypical in our experience) we rented bikes and headed up the coast.

The ride was just what we needed, and the perfect way to see Colonia’s abundant beaches.

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A bit off the coast, we came across a crumbling Moorish bullring, a once-formidable arena hosting bullfights with up to 10,000 spectators now derelict and forgotten. It’s places like these that inspire my love for villages like Williamsburg and Colonia: how history rises up around you, transporting the imagination to another era. Biking around la Plaza de Toros Real de San Carlos, I could almost hear the cheers of the crowd inside.

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Plaza de Toros Real de San Carlos

When we reached the end of the coastal highway (or rather, were turned away at the gates of the Sheraton’s golf and spa resort – quite a change of pace from the ancient bull ring we had been admiring minutes before) we turned and headed back to the center of the city, returned our bikes, watched the sun set, and headed to our ferry for the treacherous trip back to Buenos Aires.

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Sunset in Colonia

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