As I approached the Buquebus station, I stopped dead in my tracks. A cold shiver of dread slid through my veins, and I could feel my pulse quicken. Adam turned and offered a sympathetic look. “Don’t worry,” he said. “It will probably be better than last time.”Those of you who have followed our Road Unraveled journey over the last few years may remember the story I shared of my previous visit to Montevideo, which started in exactly the same way: a ferry ride from Buenos Aires to Montevideo on the Buquebus. For years, that trip was one of my favorite travel horror stories to tell because it had all of the elements of a nightmare: the boat almost capsized, I was involuntarily adopted by a couple of fellow tourists who escorted me around a mall for an entire afternoon, and the ferry was delayed by several hours before the return trip to BA. Despite how horrible the day was, I always thought about Montevideo with a sense of longing for an experience I wished I could have enjoyed. I didn’t have a great visit during my day trip, and I wondered if I would ever have a chance to make a redemption visit.
When we planned our trip to Antarctica and added in a week to explore Argentina, Montevideo’s second chance earned a spot on our itinerary. Our plan included a day of sipping Tannat on a wine tour, and we reserved a second day to see Montevideo. Geography makes it time consuming to drive from Buenos Aires to Montevideo, and flying is expensive, so we had only one clear transportation choice: the Buquebus. And that’s how I came to stand at the very doors that once opened to start a terrible journey, shivering as a flood of negative memories swirled in my mind. Above me, the sky was blue, and beyond me, the sea looked calm. I took a deep breath and wheeled my luggage into the terminal.
Montevideo: a Different Kind of Capital
It may be a capital city for a South American country, but Montevideo has a charm and vibe that feels far away from cities like Bogota, Santiago, and even neighboring Buenos Aires. It’s a young city whose history starts in the late 1600s, when the Portuguese began to build fortifications along Montevideo Bay. The Spanish forced the Portuguese to withdraw their hold on the city, and in the late 1700s they made it a major naval base due to its location and access to the South Atlantic Ocean and the Falkland Islands. The city itself got its start in 1724, and by the mid-1800s the now iconic landmarks and buildings were popping up along the streets of the ciudad vieja—the old city—as Uruguay established its independence and named Montevideo as its capital.If you take a few moments to observe, rather than experience, Montevideo, you notice right away that it feels a little more eclectic than its fellow capital cities. Sitting on a bench in Plaza Juan Pedro Fabini, we watched as dozens of locals walked by, always with a thermos of hot water and a leather-encased cup of mate in hand. Mate (pronounced mah-tay) is a caffeinated beverage upon which an entire culture has been constructed. It is often consumed in groups, sometimes involving a single container to be shared among friends, and sometimes with everyone contributing their own mate-brewing equipment to the mix (while it may seem more hygienic to provide your own mate, some locals assured us it’s because no one wants to wait for their turn to sip it). Mate is more than a drink. It is about friendship and hospitality, and it is about a respect for customs and traditions. It’s rare to travel and so clearly see a unifying characteristic of the people who call a place home, but you can do that in Montevideo.
Montevideo is an interesting study from a more global perspective as well. Uruguay is an open-minded, liberal country. Gay marriage is legal there, as is marijuana; in fact, Uruguay was the first country in the world to regulate the production, sale, and consumption of marijuana. Throughout Montevideo and Uruguay housing cooperatives are popping up as 40-50 families join forces to build homes for each other, forming makeshift families and they divide the labor and help each other construct houses. The country doesn’t have an indigenous population anymore, and the majority of its citizens are Spanish and Italian immigrants who welcome travelers. Community goes beyond the mate tradition here. It’s just a part of what it means to be Uruguayan, and it’s on full display in Montevideo.
Early Misadventures in Montevideo
Our trip across the Rio de la Plata was quiet, and we were enormously relieved to arrive unscathed. The Buquebus left on time, arrived on time, and our checked luggage appeared on the carousel as expected. We didn’t encounter our first road block until a few minutes later, as we stood outside in line for a taxi.
The Buquebus terminal has no ATMs, and so we had no local currency. An airport worker assisting passengers with taxis assured us that all cabs accept credit card, a fact further enforced by a posted sign expressing the same, so we loaded our luggage into the trunk of the next car that pulled up and were off to our hotel. When we arrived, our taxi driver refused my card. “No tarjetas,” he told me. I held up the only currency I had—a 10 USD bill—and he nodded and took it from me, returning a handful of Uruguayan pesos in exchange. Later, when I calculated the amount of change I received from him, I was pleased to find it was exactly the amount I was owed.
Because we arrived early in the morning our hotel room wasn’t available, so Adam and I decided to go for a walk to find an ATM and get some lunch while we waited. What should have been a series of easy tasks became a convoluted scavenger hunt that took us all over Plaza Independencia—Independence Square—as we tried and failed to find money and, by extension, food. We first attempted to buy a few bottles of water at a convenience store, where the owner told us we couldn’t pay by credit card but assured us we would find an ATM in the nearby casino. We found the ATM, and after spending far too much on bank fees to take out less than 100 USD we had a new problem: the ATM gave us much larger bills than we could comfortably use, so we had to make a stop at a currency conversion office where I attempted to communicate my request in sad, broken Spanish (¡Tengo billetas grande! ¡Necessito billetas muy pequeñas!). The lady behind the desk took pity on me, converted my money into smaller, more useful denominations, and Adam and I were on our way. By the time we had finally secured enough money to ensure we wouldn’t go hungry we had only enough time to return to the hotel, quickly get our luggage from storage and our key from the front desk, and deposit our luggage in our room before heading out for our tour, so we ended up going without lunch anyway. As we walked back to Plaza Independencia I reflected on the day’s misadventures and wondered if that’s just how Montevideo was going to be for me: a series of challenges and wrong turns that would never reveal its true personality.
The Montevideo Free Tour That Changed the Trip
We joined a small but enthusiastic group of fellow travelers for a free walking tour of Montevideo. We absolutely love the free tour model that has popped up in cities around the world: educated, passionate tour guides escort visitors around a city, often for 2-3 hours at a time, working only for tips. The guides are motivated to give a great tour so they can secure higher tips, and visitors get their money’s worth since they only pay what they think the tour is worth. We took a similar tour in Krakow in 2017 and had a great time, so we were excited to see our guide (mate cup in hand!) in the Plaza Independencia as we approached.
Plaza Independencia is like Buenos Aires’s Plaza de Mayo in that it’s a huge, historical central square surrounded by dozens of important buildings, and each of the buildings had a great story to tell. Estévez Palace once served as a presidential office building but has since been converted into a great presidential museum that houses an eclectic collection of artifacts and mementos from many former presidents, including an embalmed dog that once belong to a president and was considered lucky. We visited after our free tour on our guide’s recommendation, and in addition to being a great value (it’s free!) it was full of interesting artifacts and a great way to spend some time.The president works across the street from the presidential museum in the Executive Tower, a building watched by a single guard who appeared both bored and possibly unarmed. “Do you know who our president is?” our guide asked us, and all of us shrugged, feeling a bit guilty for not doing enough homework on Uruguayan current events before planning our trip. “See?” our guide laughed, “when no one knows who you are, you only need one guard!” Our guide continued by telling us that a couple of times each week, often on Tuesdays and Thursdays between 4:30 and 5:00 PM, the president himself will walk out the front doors of the Executive Tower, and he will gladly say hello and take photos with anyone who recognizes him. I had to smile at the novelty of a country’s leader casually stopping for selfies on his way home; it’s the kind of thing you could only experience in a country like Uruguay.
Montevideo was once surrounded by a large gate that protected it from invasions; today, the only significant piece of that wall stands at the edge of Plaza Independencia, where you can pass through Puerta de la Ciudadela—the Gateway of the Citadel—as you walk between the plaza and the old town. It’s an interesting, almost out-of-place look into the days when such defense was important.
On the other side of Plaza Independencia is the stunning Palacio Salvo, a building intended to be a hotel but instead houses offices and apartments. Not all of the apartments are desirable; apartments on the first three floors do not have private, in-unit bathrooms, which means anyone renting or owning those spaces have to share a bathroom with others on their floor. Although the location is terrific, I had to admit I would rather live further outside of the city center than share a bathroom with neighbors. Palacio Salvo is also rumored to be haunted; we heard an interesting story about a man who was so determined to end his life that he poisoned himself, jumped from the building, and slit his throat as he fell. The Palacio Salvo isn’t really designed for tourists to visit (it is a residence for many people, after all), and after hearing that tale I didn’t mind missing the opportunity to encounter that particular ghost!
Just down the street from the Plaza Independencia is the Teatro Solis, yet another impressive example of Montevideo’s architecture. Built in 1856, the theater was renovated from 1998-2004, when it was reopened to the public. The theater is recognized globally for its phenomenal acoustics, making us wish we had a chance to see a show or even just take a dedicated tour. Teatro Solis is a great testament to Uruguay’s cultural heritage and dedication to preserving the arts.As we walked further into the Ciudad Vieja—the old city—we found ourselves wandering along what appeared to be Montevideo’s Walk of Fame, and sure enough that’s exactly what it turned out to be. The Walk of Fame primarily features famous Uruguayan citizens with two notable additions: the Rolling Stones and Nelson Mandela each have “suns” along the path.
Montevideo has a significant amount of green space by way of parks, all of which are very popular with the locals. Of the parks we walked through, the one that garnered the most interest—and the most laughs—was a small area completely fenced in by a… um, phallic design. Our guide told us that one account for why the park is surrounded by somewhat obscene art is the result of a labor dispute; when the architect contracted to design the park wasn’t paid as expected, he took it upon himself to alter the design plans as retribution. It just goes to show you: paying your bills is very important!
Our free tour took us by several other impressive landmarks like the Republic Bank, built more than 100 years ago, and the San Francisco De Asis Church, which has been in various stages of reconstruction for years. Every street we walked down uncovered more interesting architecture, more colorful street art, and more evidence that the city truly marches to the beat of its own drum. Our tour concluded as we arrived at the Port Market, where we were surrounded by Uruguayan barbeque restaurants—a welcome sight as we remembered that we had completely missed lunch! We paused long enough to take a fun picture with another couple from our tour (and yes, I got to hold the mate like a true Uruguayan local!). From there it was on to try Tannat, the beginning of our Montevideo wine education, and a local dinner of Chivito, the national dish of Uruguay. Chivito is a sandwich made of thin sliced beef steak, mozzarella, egg, olives, mayonnaise, ham, tomatoes, and bacon. Adam tried it and said the Chivito was one of his new favorite foods.
A Few More Places to Consider in Montevideo
► Cafe Brasilero
Cafe Brasilero is the oldest cafe in Montevideo, dating back to 1877. It has been declared a place of cultural interest by the city for its role as the center of Montevideo’s bohemian culture. The cafe was a favorite of many artists, musicians, and writers, including famous names like Tango master and singer Carlos Gardel, author Juan Carlos Onetti, and writer Eduardo Galeano. We stopped by for a cappuccino, espresso, and a couple sandwiches, and it felt like the kind of coffee shop we would frequent if we lived in the city: lots of friendly people, great staff, historic setting, and a quiet respite from the busy city streets.
More Information: Facebook.com/CafeBrasilerouy
Although we didn’t have a chance to visit them, there were two other stops we were hoping to visit that will be on our itinerary next time.
► Museo Andes 1972
Dedicated to telling the story of the tragic 1972 Andres plane crash, Museo Andes honors those who perished and celebrates those who beat the odds and survived for 72 days at high altitudes in severe weather conditions before being rescued. The 1993 movie “Alive” starring Ethan Hawke was based on this tragic event. One couple who was on our free tour left a bit early to be sure they could visit, and although we are glad we didn’t skip the second half of the tour we do wish we had more time to explore the museum.
More Information: Mandes.uy
► Montevideo SignOne of the popular tourist attractions in Montevideo is the classic sign on La Rambla, which is a lengthy waterfront path that extends along the city. We didn’t make it there because it was not close enough to our home base, but it’s a perfect spot for selfies or people watching.
We’ve been to a few cities that have tourist signs like this, with Panama City being one of our favorites, so we often seek them out for photos when possible. If you’re looking for the location of the Montevideo sign, it’s right next to the Naval Museum of Montevideo.
Ready to book a room for your own Montevideo vacation? Here are some hotel deals to consider:
Our free tour of Montevideo, Uruguay was exactly what I needed to erase my previous experience with the city from my mind—or at least let those memories give way to happier ones. The few hours we spent were informative, entertaining, and relaxing, three adjectives that I’ll now use to describe the fun South American capital city I’m glad to have visited again.
My first trip to Montevideo taught me that trips do not always start well… or get better… or end well. This trip to Montevideo was nothing like the first; it was an immersive exploration of a fantastic culture. In fact, for me, it all comes back to what we learned from the culture of mate:
Visiting Montevideo? Here are a few more posts to help you make the most of your time in Uruguay and beyond!
* From time to time, our travels are directly impacted by a service or company. In this case, we booked a wine tour with Free Walking Tour Montevideo, and this post includes our candid review of our experience. We selected Free Walking Tour Montevideo independently and based on our own research and travel needs. We were not offered and did not receive compensation of any kind from them or any other party in exchange for our review.