Undiscovered Uruguay

The map may say South America but it sure looks, feels like Europe
August 19, 2020 Updated: August 19, 2020

Walking along a narrow cobblestone street in Ciudad Vieja, the old city historic quarters of Montevideo, I am beginning to appreciate why so many people are so fond of Uruguay’s capital city.

It is a warm, sunny Saturday afternoon in March and for no special reason—other than the fact that it’s Saturday—there is an almost festive atmosphere in the air.

Just up ahead is Plaza Matriz, a small, shady square. Montevideo seems to have many such mini-park squares. Plaza Matriz is overflowing with smiling people having a good time—parents playing with their children; friends and neighbors out for a walk and stopping to exchange a few words.

Bougainvillea tree in Colonia del Sacramento. (Don Mammoser/Shutterstock)

Along the square’s tree-draped sidewalks, vendors are selling all sorts of small goods—handicrafts, figurines, bronze and silver works, wooden toys, and antiques.

As I walk through Plaza Matriz, my attention is drawn to the fountain that lies at its center. It’s a splendid sculpture, with exquisitely detailed figures. For a moment, I feel as if I am revisiting Italy. Later, I learn that the fountain is the work of Italian sculptor Juan Ferrari.

Beyond the fountain, across the street from the square, I notice the elegant Cathedral of Montevideo, and for a moment, I feel as if I am revisiting Spain. Its twin bell towers remind me of so many splendid churches I’ve seen in Spain.

This is what most visitors find most surprising about Montevideo and Uruguay—the map may say South America, but it sure looks and feels like Europe.

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Harbor at Punta del Este. (Diego Zalduondo/Shutterstock)

Most Uruguayans are, in fact, of either Spanish or Italian descent. Nearly all those who aren’t are of other European stock. Montevideo, where nearly half of the country’s population of only 3 million lives, is a remarkably cosmopolitan, very European, city. Like all of Uruguay, it is a safe, pleasant, and friendly place—about as safe and friendly a large capital city as you are likely to find anywhere in the world.

With a population of 1.4 million—about one-third of Uruguay’s total population—Montevideo, thanks also to its strategic location at the confluence of the Atlantic Ocean and the Rio de la Plata, is the center of just about everything in the country—finance, education, government, etc. It also keeps being ranked as having the best quality of life of any Latin American city.

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Vintage car, Colonia del Sacramento. (Ksenia Ragozina/Shutterstock)

This isn’t, however, the place in South America to go looking for indigenous people. There aren’t any. The guidebook placed my hotel rooms explained that one of the “noticeable events” (yes, “noticeable,” not “notable”) of “the era of the Conquest” in Uruguay was “the peaceful conquest of the indigenous peoples.” What made the conquest so “noticeable,” I suppose, was that all the Indians disappeared.

What was “peaceful” about it isn’t quite clear: Uruguay’s Charrua Indians were systematically slaughtered—absolutely annihilated, except for the last half-dozen, who were shipped off to Paris where they were placed on display until they died.

Uruguayans have the highest per capita beef consumption in the world—220 pounds. (Copyright Fred J. Eckert)

Something very noticeable as I walk along the streets of Montevideo this fine day is that a number of the people passing by—and also a number of the people sitting on the park benches—have a thermos bottle in one of their hands. In their other hand, they are holding something that looks like a gourd.

This is a common sight in Montevideo and throughout Uruguay. It’s a national obsession. Uruguayans love their maté (mah-tay), an extremely high in caffeine tea made from the dried leaves and shoots of a South American holly tree. The dried-out gourds or gourd-like containers that they carry are filled with these leaves and stems. The thermos bottles hold hot water that they pour over the leaves to make their maté tea. A drinker of maté doesn’t drink it the way people usually drink tea or coffee. He draws the aromatic tea from his gourd container through a decorative straw made of silver called a bombilla.

In Uruguay cattle graze only on the grassy plains and are not fed any peculiar additives, which explains why Uruguayan beef is so tasty. (Copyright Fred J. Eckert)

Maté is more than just a drink. It has significance far beyond its flavor. When an Uruguayan offers you maté, it is a warm and friendly gesture. The beverage is an acquired taste, although despite having twice visited Uruguay, I haven’t been able to acquire a taste for it.

Great Steaks at Bargain Prices

Another Uruguayan obsession—one for which I long ago acquired a taste—comes to mind as I draw near Mercado del Puerto (Port Market). Floating in the gentle breeze that is blowing my way is the wonderful aroma of seasoned steaks being grilled over wood embers.

The Mercado del Puerto, a century-old, block-long metallic structure with a three-story skylight, once served as the city’s main market. Now it is Montevideo’s favorite gathering spot for another reason—it houses scores of restaurants and short-order grills known as parrilladas. On Saturdays, it’s particularly festive; craftsmen, artists, and street musicians are out in force.

It is not uncommon to see American cars from the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s cruising along the streets of Montevideo. (Copyright Fred J. Eckert)

Uruguayans love meat, especially beef. Per-capita beef consumption here is the highest in the world—about 220 pounds per year. Uruguay may be smaller than Kansas and have only 3 million people but it’s home to more than 10 million heads of cattle, and 65 percent of the country’s beef production is consumed domestically.

It must baffle vegetarians that Uruguayans enjoy the highest life expectancy in Latin America.

While the grills throughout the Mercado del Puerto also abound with chicken, pork, and coiled sausages, for lunch, I opt for beef. It’s delicious and it’s a good feeling to realize that in Uruguay cattle graze only on the grassy plains and aren’t fed any peculiar additives. It is also a good feeling to realize that the price for the more than 16 ounces of top-quality beef is but a fraction of what I’d pay back home.

Eating well is a national pastime, not surprising in a country where the dominant influence is a mix of Spanish and Italian. Next to grilled beef, Uruguayans are keen on pasta and on seafood drawn from the country’s extensive coastal areas.

Tourists who visit a ranch such as Estancia La Rabida enjoy performances of traditional gaucho dances and songs. (Copyright Fred J. Eckert)

City of Roses

A city of wide tree-lined streets with well-planned business and residential sections that contain lots of green spaces, Montevideo is nicknamed “The City of Roses” because of its many flower-filled squares and beautiful public parks.

But what it may be best noted for—what locals seem to take the most pride in—is its chain of beaches along the Rio de la Plata that surround a good part of the city. Much of the city has the look and feel of a resort.

Tourists addicted to following a checklist of must-see attractions need concern themselves with but few. Best is the Gaucho Museum, dedicated to the legendary South American cowboys, usually of mixed Spanish and Indian blood, who worked on the vast estancias (cattle ranches). Skillful riders who spent most of their time on horseback, gauchos wore a costume characterized by a wide silver belt, baggy trousers, and a bright scarf.

Another important attraction is the Legislative Palace, seat of the national parliament.

A gaucho ranch hand at a Uruguayan estancia (cattle ranch). (Copyright Fred J. Eckert)

Some people feel that Montevideo’s most interesting museums are operating on its streets. Who knows why—whether it’s because people here are the world’s greatest auto mechanics or just don’t like to throw things away or cannot afford expensive foreign cars and are too proud and stubborn to buy the more affordably priced ones produced in neighboring Brazil—but to fanciers of old cars, Montevideo is a paradise.

It isn’t uncommon to see American cars of the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s cruising the streets of Montevideo. Even old Studebakers and Motel-T Fords rarely draw notice from locals who are so used to seeing them.

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Montevideo’s Independence Square is marked by the statue of Uruguay’s national hero, Jose Gervasio Artigas, whose remains lie in a mausoleum built under the monument. (Copyright Fred J. Eckert)

More to Uruguay Than Montevideo

Most tourists who visit Uruguay—and few do—see only Montevideo and maybe Punta del Este, 85 miles to the east, a ritzy Atlantic ocean resort with miles of fine white sand beaches.

Uruguay is blessed with long chains of first-rate beaches—281 miles of them along Rio de la Plata and 137 miles along the Atlantic.

Punta del Este is world-famous and very nice. It has long been the destination of choice for well-to-do Argentinians who lack good beaches at home and can get here quickly by plane or hydrofoil. There is little about it that is unusual or even different. It’s a lot like countless other luxury resort towns in the United States and throughout the world.

Far more interesting is Colonia del Sacramento, 110 miles from Montevideo in the opposite direction. Originally a Portuguese settlement, the Spanish and Portuguese fought over it for more than a century. This historic small town on the banks of the Rio de la Plata, directly across from Argentina’s capital city of Buenos Aires, features a well-preserved historic quarter with interesting blends of Spanish and Portuguese architecture.

Gourds used for maté. (de Dios Editores/Shutterstock)

Galloping With the Gauchos

Perhaps the most interesting thing to do in Uruguay is to visit an estancia (cattle ranch); a number of estancia owners have turned to tourism as an alternative source of revenue.

They are sort of dude ranches with a foreign flavor, where you can ride, watch cowboys, pitch in and experience ranch life or just relax and enjoy the feeling of stepping back in time to a whole different era.

I visited a different estancia on each of my two visits to Uruguay—Estancia La Calera, a 21,600-acre working ranch, which is a long way from Montevideo and which caters to guests who stay a while, and Estancia La Rabida, a sprawling 2,470-acre, family-owned, century-old ranch which is close enough to Montevideo to cater to one-day cruise line shore excursions.

Visiting an Uruguayan estancia is fun for all ages. In a scenic setting, you can revisit childhood dreams of what it’s like to be a cowboy or cowgirl. Watch demonstrations of horsemanship by working gauchos. Try your hand at some gaucho chore. Maybe ride a horse. Enjoy traditional gaucho dances and songs. And while all this has been going on, the open-flamed barbeque grills have been lined with beef, chicken, pork, and sausage. If you’re like me, you can’t wait to savor some of the estancia’s beef. It surprised me that being grass-fed and with no peculiar additives added, Uruguayan beef is so much more delicious than I would have expected.

Just as it surprises me that a travel destination as nice as Uruguay remains largely undiscovered.

The Legislative Palace is one of the most impressive buildings in Montevideo. (lvalin/Shutterstock)

If You Go

Information: You can find what you need to know about visiting Uruguay by visiting Turismo.gub.uy/index.php/en/
Safety: Uruguay is considered a safe travel destination.
Best time to visit: March-May (fall) and September-November (spring) usually feature lovely mild weather.
Guidebook: “Bradt Travel Guide Uruguay” is a good choice.

Fred J. Eckert is a retired U.S. ambassador and former member of Congress. His writings have appeared in many leading publications, including Reader’s Digest and The Wall Street Journal. He is also an award-winning photographer whose collection of images spans all seven continents. See his work at EckertGallery.com