If Buenos Aires is an old, elegant lady who puts on her fancier clothes and applies bright-red lipstick when she steps out, Montevideo is the grungy little sister with messy hair, a slogan tee, ripped jeans and not a care in the world.
“Come as you are,” like Cobain was singing…
Let’s make the allegory clearer. Buenos Aires feels classy and it cultivates the image of a city that looks, feels and tastes European. Downtown Montevideo looks like the kind of city where bad guys are hiding behind dumpsters waiting for their next victim. Locals write on walls as if they were a convenient notepad and the last façade restoration must have been booked half a century ago—all buildings have layers and layers of torn posters, chipped paint and bars on windows.
But looks aren’t everything. Don’t spend too long wondering whether you should be walking down that dodgy street—it’s Avenida 18 de Julio, the main avenue, no worries.
The grungy girl is gonna be your friend.
Uruguayans are the Canadians of South America. They are among the nicest, kindest and friendliest people I have met. Argentinians are friendly too, but they tend to be stressed out, there’s a “fuck you, got mine” attitude that’s pretty understandable considering the state of the economy. Brazilians are cool, but sometimes, they are so busy “being Brazilian” that they can be a bit narrow-minded and they aren’t super curious about the rest of the world.
Uruguayans are stuck between these two strong personalities, yet the 3.5 million of them managed to retain their own identity. They welcome hordes of tourists with a friendly smile. Brasileiro? Attempts will be made to communicate in Portuguese. Argentino? Welcome, order the national dish, a chivito, a bit meaty sandwich like back home!
Montevideo is as chilled as the 1.3 million people who call the capital home.
This is a city where sitting around in a public square—there are a hell of a lot of benches and public squares…—and chatting with whoever decided to sit down for a while as well is a legit activity. This is the place where you’ll see locals absorbed in a book, sipping mate, engaged in a friendly game of chess or playing guitar for fun, not for spare change.
Maybe the fact that weed is legal helps.
It’s actually pretty funny to see people smoking pot just a couple of metres from police officers, who just nod approvingly walking by.
Alright, not everything is perfect in Uruguay. It’s a bit expensive, for a start. Not outrageously so, but definitely more than Argentina and not as good value for money as Brazil. For instance, food—often fries, sandwiches, hot dogs and pasta or a combination of all the above served on one plate—is too pricey for what it is.
Uruguay is a small country, so there’s less choice. If you need groceries, you shop at Ta-Ta or Devoto. Pastries and bread are the same everywhere, they’re all from Pagnifique. For some reason, locals seem to love a chain of restaurants called La Pasiva—I checked the menu, absolutely nothing special and fairly expensive.
Still, I spent four days in Montevideo and I enjoyed every minute of it. I explored ciudad vieja, I walked along the rambla—the longest continuous sidewalk in the world that goes all along the coastline—, I hang out in the upscale beach barrio of Pocitos and I walked Avenida 18 de Julio up and down several times a day since I was staying close to Tres Cruces, the bus terminal. I watched the Carnival parade, I bought a made-in-Uruguay cropped top, I ate delicious tortas from the bakeries…
… and I took a day trip to fancy Punta del Este. Coming up!