Uruguay… to most people, it is little more than a name jumbled somewhere between Suriname, Paraguay and Guyana (isn’t that in Africa?!) on the list of obscure South American countries. If anything particular comes to mind, it’s probably football.
I arrived in the capital of Uruguay, Montevideo, after 24 hours of buses and with zero preconceptions or expectations. I was proud of myself for recently straightening out the geographical location of the two “guay” countries in my head, and knew nothing about the place except for the fact that I didn’t want to miss it. Call me naive, or call me the Average Joe. This time, I’m pretty sure I’m the latter.
For me, eight days is not nearly enough time to see a country, but I was on a tight schedule, hurrying to meet up with a friend in Buenos Aires at the end of April. So eight days would have to suffice.
Uruguay is small; there’s no denying that. The country has just over three million citizens, almost half of whom live in the capital. Yet what it lacks in size and population, it makes up in character. I’ve heard that Buenos Aires is a Casanova. If that’s the case, Montevideo is a gentleman: charming, romantic, and inviting, and with enough grit and mystery to keep you intrigued for a long-term fling.
The question of the gentleman’s identity is a bit trickier to pin down. Copious amounts of pizza and pasta (the influence of a 19th century wave of immigrants) would imply that he be Italian, but the wrought-iron balconies of the Ciudad Vieja bring Paris to mind. Montevideo could be North American — the boulevards are lined with enormous trees, and shopping malls are popping up like weeds — but throngs of people stroll down the streets with maté and thermoses in hand instead of Starbucks. With almost nine out of ten citizens being Caucasian, it’s hard to call the city cosmopolitan. In the end, Montevideo appears to be distinctly Uruguayan.
Like a true gentleman, Montevideo is a subtle but considerate courter. I was charmed by the colonial and neoclassical architecture of La Ciudad Vieja, romanced by the green waters of Parque Rodó and the rose-entwined arbour of the Rosedal, and seduced by the energy of the beach and joggers along the Rambla. When I reached Colonia del Sacramento, I lost myself among cobblestone streets, bougainvilleas, paint-palette buildings and antique cars. Then, when I boarded the ferry to Argentina, I felt the tug of La Cultura Uruguaya, asking me to stay a little longer.
The culture here binds its people in a way I’ve never seen before. Into the late 1980s, Uruguay was suffocated by a a military dictatorship which censored the citizens and strangled their freedoms. Countless people fled the country in fear of their safety, but when order and security returned, so did the people. Despite vivid memories of suffering and distrust, citizens sing their praises for “La Cultura Uruguaya.” Gauchos, maté, chivitos (a filet mignon sandwich), and football — all symbols of a culture barely known from the outside, but adored by the Uruguayan people.
I am still an outsider. Eight days may not have been sufficient time to understand the country, but it was certainly enough to peak my curiousity. La Cultura Uruguaya has taken a tight hold on me, and I promise to return.