Part 6: Uruguay…. More than just a stamp in your passport
When travelling for 6 months I suppose you don’t need an excuse to go anywhere/ do anything but Andy and I justified a 3-day jaunt over to Uruguay (which wasn’t included in our original travel plan):
- Because it was Valentine’s weekend (now you see just how far behind we are!), and
- Andy wanted the stamp in his passport.
I haven’t officially checked on a map but I’m sure that B.A. and Montevideo are South America’s two closest capital cities- separated only by the Rio de la Plata (‘River of Silver’, named due to the trading of silver along its tributaries before using this channel as transport back to Europe). Its name is certainly not after its colour; opaque and brown- never a good combination, which is due to the large amount of sediment accumulating at its mouth.
Courtesy of Google: Mouth of the Rio de la Plata, on the right- sprawling B.A., and on the left- white speck Colonia.
On a good day the journey between B.A. and Colonia de Sacramento (Uruguay’s nearest town to B.A.) takes less than an hour. It was not a good day when we crossed.
Our 360 capacity catamaran-bottomed boat (the Colonia Express) was tossed about in the chop for nearly 2 hours before we docked in Colonia… 2 hours I’d rather forget! For the first 10 minutes the ride is quite exciting, kind of like a rollercoaster, and we enjoyed the stomach lurch that came with every rock and sudden drop of what felt like several metres at times. As time went on though, my head started to sag and I descended into unrelenting nausea, which I battled for 1h 45mins as the boat swayed and swooped across the water. I then made the mistake of querying how close we were to the destination. Mum, Dad and Andy will tell you that this is a definite habit of mine: battling travel sickness and feeling crap for an entire journey, before giving up and throwing up almost within sight of a destination. [Poor old Muston, near Filey in Yorkshire, was victim to many-a-spew when we’d visit Grandma Evans!]. This ‘pregunta’ (question) to Andy was enough to tip me over the edge and I promptly vomited into the very necessary vomit bags provided in every seat pocket; less than 5 minutes before arriving in Uruguay. Unfortunately, while the bag’s volume was plenty big enough for me, the opening was somewhat on the small side. There was definite spillage. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t Andy’s first choice of Valentine at that particular moment.
We went straight to our hostel, Oriental Hostel, which turned out to be the worst hostel of our entire trip, not because of poor facilities or surroundings, purely because the owner barely lifted his eyes from his laptop for our entire stay and offered no help/ directions around the hostel or town. Breakfast was meagre and had flies on it and the only time he communicated with us was to tell us off for using too much force on the taps and microwave (which actually needed this amount of force to be operated).
Hungry from the events of the day we headed for a mid-afternoon meal in the form of a Uruguayan Asado (BBQ)- we opted for the one with beef ribs (big!), pork steak, blood sausage, sausage, kidney and some unidentified chewy tube (which I thought was a large, deep-fried blood vessel, but actually turned out to be a section of gut!). We sat next to the twinkly water in the late afternoon sun for a couple of hours as we gradually worked our way through the feast. It seems to me that South American countries are in direct competition for being the founders of the most angina-inducing plate of food; each country has their own strong contender- each as lardy as it is delicious. (This definitely fell into that category).
View from our sea-side restuarant
Colonia is a lovely town to just wander around, particularly at night. I’m not too hot on the history but essentially it was heavily contested between the Spanish and the Portuguese back in the day. The Portuguese actually founded the settlement (it a very useful strategic stop off for silver trade) and it was subsequently disputed over for a century. The Portuguese were eventually forced into a small section of town and penned themselves in with several metre-thick fort walls, which are still standing today, until the ever-conquering Spanish eventually defeated them.
Walking from the old Portugese part of town through the ‘fort’ wall entrance
We spent just one night in Colonia (two would have been nice for the town but not-so-nice in the unwelcoming hostel) before heading to Montevideo for 2 nights- capital city number 3! Contrastingly our Montevideo hostel was one of the very best that we’ve stayed at on the trip (Caballo Loco ‘Crazy Horse’- great setting, run by really helpful Felipe).
As with Buenos Aires, Montevideo has many impressive colonial old town houses and a smattering of more modern buildings too. By far the most impressive structures to us were:
1. The Mercado del Puerto- THE place to eat in Montevideo. Built in 1868 and resembling a dingy Victorian train station with a central old clock and large wrought iron arches, this spot now houses 20+ Asado restaurants. Each one displays their meaty wares on a huge grill angled steeply enough to the horizontal to allow customers to observe several kilogram of glistening grilling meat (and perhaps allows a gram or two of fat to run off too- not too much though!). It was not cheap but really delicious. My favourite was the unusual sounding ‘sweet’ blood sausage (or ‘Morcilla’)- think delicious, rich black pudding with a hint of honey and fennel. Mmmmm!
Panorama in Mercado del Puerto, Montevideo
Impressive angled grills in the Mercado del Puerto
2. The first ever world cup final stadium (Estadio Centenario) from the 1930 competition, hosted and won by Uruguay. Interesting to note that the usual ‘last minute’ rush of preparation that any host country seems to battle through in order to be ready for such events definitely existed back then too. Wikipedia reliably tells me that the tournament ran from 13th-30th July but the stadium only opened on the 18th of July!
It’s an amazing bowl-shaped stadium; roofless, step-seated, with a moated (!) pitch with a single 100m pinnacle launching out of the back of one of the stands at the half-way line. The struggle and bribing necessary to get into a Boca Juniors game (in Buenos Aires) definitely wasn’t present in Uruguay, we simply walked into a lottery stall and bought tickets for the bargain price of $230 Uruguayan pesos (£5.95).
Single tower from outside the stadium
We watched two Montevideo-based teams in a league match. This wasn’t a rivalry akin to Liverpool vs Everton or City vs United, because more than half the league is Montevideo based, so fans are spread relatively thinly and unfortunately the 65,000 capacity stadium was ¾ empty (though the atmosphere was still pretty good!). Apparently the ground is packed out when the 2 top teams, Peñarol and Nacional, meet there. We watched Nacional play another team whose name escapes me (definitely wasn’t Peñarol or Liverpool though- the team that are perhaps 4th in the league!). We’d decided to support Nacional- our hostel owner’s team, since he’d given us hats, which, as previously mentioned, indicates die-hard fanhood. (We are now formally “Hinchas de Bolso”).
Rocking the ‘Bolso’ (Nacional) hats
Reception of our Awesome hostel- Caballo Loco
It was not a gripping match (0-0 at half time, before Nacional scored 3 goals in the slightly better 2nd half). The main entertainment for us was watching the fans. Unhindered by the rows of seats and railings of UK stadia, they were literally jumping laterally along tiers (as well as up and down between them) for over half the match, mostly without much cause due to the lack of on-pitch finesse. Flares and bangers were set off and voice was continuously fine, unfortunately not in our stand, although our location did mean we had a perfect view of the prancing Nacional crowd. I wouldn’t be surprised if each Nacional fan burned twice the calories of each player over the 90 minutes. (We did have a video of this, but sadly WordPress does not seem to like it)
After Andy’s disappointment of not going to a Boca Juniors match it was great to go to a South American club game, even despite the relatively low standard. I doubt it will be the case, but if the Uruguayan national team is made up of Suarez and a load of these guys in the World Cup we might actually be able to do OK in the group match in Sao Paulo (here’s hoping Suarez isn’t quite fully fit after his operation).
A Montevideo must is to schedule your visit to include a Sunday and visit the epic La Feria de Tristan Narvaja market. This sprawls as far as the eye can see over roughly a 10 x 10 block area with thousands of stalls for fruit, veg, clothes, flea-markets goods, antiques, “antiques”, books, cosmetics, food, pets and their paraphernalia and all other forms of tat! We stayed in the puppy section at the start of the market for the most time, I weighed up the virtues of Chow Chow vs baby Doberman vs Labrador and just couldn’t decide which to buy. So I bought them all. (In my head). Chow Chow (lion dog with blue tongue), an adorable ball of fur, was probably my favourite…
Puppies in a box!
“It’s so fluffy I’m gonna die!”
Chow Chow puppies (and baby doberman in the cage below)
We left the next day to catch our return ferry, filled with dread at the prospect of the boat of doom a second time around. Thank goodness our night time return to B.A. took only 45 minutes and had zero swing and sway- Win!
Uruguay is a sweet, friendly and quaint country with a picturesque coastline and lots of interesting history (watch the film ‘Battle of the River Plate’ to find out about an interesting role Montevideo played in the Second World War). The cheerful locals tend to speak very clear Spanish, which helped to improve our confidence over the short time we were there. Despite its proximity to lively and slightly chaotic Argentina it has a completely different feel; much more calm, stable and relaxing. It has more cows than people and I was fond of it already after just a long weekend!