I arrived in Montevideo on 14 March 2019. It was the first stop in what I hoped would be the start of a motorcycle trip around South America. Montevideo, Uruguay, was apparently one of the best places to ship a vehicle in South America. Corruption is low, and others who have shipped vehicles here have generally had positive experiences. My vehicle was still aboard a cargo ship so I had a few weeks to explore, bike free.
I rented an AirBnB in Parque Rodo. It was a great area. There’s an interesting mix of people, mostly young due to the Architecture University being just two blocks away. The entire area is bustling with university students, workers, school kids, and a variety of people zipping around on scooters, motorbikes, bicycles, skateboards, even roller blades. I thought the roller blade fad died about 20 years ago, but live and learn.
The whole area has a very hipster vibe and a few things became immediately obvious about Montevideo
- People love dogs. The entire city is very pooch friendly and well behaved, very happy dogs are the norm
- Nobody cleans up after their dogs. There’s dog crap everywhere. Walking the street at night is like navigating a mine field. As a general rule, never lean against a tree or light pole, ever.
- The entire area is covered in graffiti, mostly not the good kind. That gives the outward impression of a run down neighbourhood, but that’s far from the truth. I initially thought it very ugly, but soon started seeing it as part of the neighbourhood’s, and later the city’s personality
Montevideo is the most equal city I’ve ever lived in. I’m assuming this extends to the rest of Uruguay as well.
The country provides free health care to all citizens, along with free education at public institutions, including university. As a South African, this was amazing.
There are a number of interesting differences however that make Montevideo unique. Some examples:
- In general, people don’t have fancy things. Sure some people have luxury cars and nicer clothes, but big name brands aren’t popular here. Most cars are “middle class” cars, in South African terms. Nobody wears fancy jewelry. My neighbour Susan, who has considerable experience dealing with fine jewelry, pointed out one day that she didn’t see a single decent jewelry shop in all the time she visited. Nobody wears ridiculously priced clothing.
- Shopping malls are few and far between, and they aren’t on the same scale as the malls you find in first world countries
- It’s not always easy distinguishing the wealthy from middle class or poor people. That’s an effect of equality. I made a friend who’s a very successful radiologist. She doesn’t have a car of her own and borrows her mother’s when necessary. My AirBnB host is an architect but doesn’t wear a smart suit like you would expect of that profession in South Africa; he dresses like a day labourer. Despite having his own vehicle, he uses a bus when traveling across the country.
- Everyone appears to be well educated. In South Africa, you can often tell the well educated from the poorly educated. Not so here.
- Material possessions seem to be less important. People don’t seem overly eager to get into unnecessary debt
- In general, people appear to be happier with their quality of life. They have less than people in other, better(?) developed countries, but they have enough, and they seem to appreciate the simple things in life. They also take their relaxation VERY seriously. Easter, for instance, is celebrated for an entire week.
But more generally, here’s some everyday tips on Montevideo
Safety – I found it funny that everywhere I went, people insisted that other parts of the city were very dangerous. In Ciudad Vieja they insist Parque Rodo is terrible, especially at night. In Parque Rodo, they warn you about Ciudad Vieja. That’s where all the robbers live. Personally, I found it safe everywhere I went. People always lock their motorbikes and bicycles, but I never noticed a single person fearful of violent crime. I was out walking passed midnight on several occasions and passed people walking alone on the street. At no time did I feel even slightly unsafe.
Transport – Buses, taxis, Uber, electric scooters, and bicycles are the preferred ways of getting around. There is no rail or subway system used in the city. Buses are everywhere and a single trip costs a little under 40 pesos. I never took a taxi, nor did I rent a bicycle. Uber is available, but the quality of the service varies a lot. In popular areas Ubers are plentiful, but the wait time varies from 2 to 15 minutes. Once you get out of town, for instance to the fort at Cerro, Uber becomes a problem. Drivers don’t typically service that area so you’re only likely to get an Uber if someone from town is being dropped off. Electric scooters are everywhere. I used the Grin scooters. Simply download the app, scan a barcode, and away you go. Transport is definitely not a problem. This is helped by the fact that Montevideo is really small. If you have your own vehicle, the fuel price is extremely high; around 57 pesos per litre (around R28 per litre)
Food – This was tricky for me. I’m Muslim and Uruguay doesn’t do halal food, so I was limited to vegetarian and vegan food, and fish. There are a number of places to visit, but finding them aren’t always easy. I suggest getting the Happy Cow app, which shows restaurants in the area with vegetarian and vegan offerings. However if you’re a meat eater, Uruguay apparently does the best steaks. Sadly, I haven’t tried one. Food is expensive. By South African standards, food costs twice as much as I would pay at home. And it’s relatively healthy, but largely tasteless. Or perhaps saying it’s an acquired taste is more forgiving. They never seem to use any spices. Regardless, the cost makes going out regularly prohibitive, and most people cook at home. The positive here is most people I’ve met are pretty good cooks. For reference, a vegetarian pizza typically costs around 320 to 400 pesos (around R160 to R200). A 2.5L bottle of soda/cool drink is around 110 pesos (R55). A sit down meal at a moderately priced restaurant (one main course and a cool drink, no starters or dessert) will easily set you back 500 pesos (R250); halve that for a tuna mini sub and drink at Subway. Sushi is ridiculously priced, typically around 320 pesos (R160) per plate though oddly, sashimi was really cheap relatively speaking.
Other expenses – Pretty much everything in Uruguay is expensive since most items are imported with something like a 70% import duty. Very few items, such as fabrics, are manufactured locally and are available at reasonable prices. But in general, expect to pay a lot for almost everything. Again, this is from a South African’s perspective. Susan, my neighbour/buddy was from San Francisco and generally didn’t mind prices all that much. It is also worth noting that she was on holiday while I am traveling; the difference being she has a lot more money to spend on whatever she wants, while I still tried to remain within my monthly budget.
The Simple Life
I always thought I was cut out for the simple life. Not right now of course, but I always saw myself as someone who would be content with living in a small town some day.
Montevideo changed all that. Holy crap was I bored. Which really says more about me than the city, but I very quickly ran out of things to do. There are numerous tourist attractions that you can easily find on Google, so I won’t rehash that information here, but they mostly fall into the categories of art, food, and sightseeing.
Make no mistake, I loved being in Montevideo. But two weeks is sufficient to see everything you’d like as a tourist. If you’re in a hurry, you could squeeze everything into a week; Montevideo really isn’t very big. My problem, which has nothing to do with the city whatsoever, is that I was there as a tourist for seven weeks. It was supposed to be four weeks, and if all went according to plan I would have had my bike for two of those weeks, but that’s not how things worked out.
Life in Montevideo, apart from your vocation, consists of
- Visiting the park or beach
- Hanging out at the Rambla (the very long road along the beach)
- Visiting Ciudad Vieja
The parks and beaches are great. Everything is well maintained, there are often little events taking place like free classical music concerts, and it’s all very scenic. Sculptures and statues are common. Every evening friends and families gather and just hang out, sometimes playing games, often just sitting and chatting.
The Rambla is a long road that runs along the beach and is one of the prime activity spots in Montevideo. People go for walks, runs, and cycle for kilometers on end.
There are little exercise parks every few hundred metres that are always busy. Open areas like roller skate rinks are common. Soccer is huge, beach volleyball less so. You often find people fishing, even at night. There’s no shortage of people young and old trying to stay fit, going for a walk, enjoying the sunset, or just hanging out on the Rambla. Things become very busy on public holidays.
Ciudad Vieja, which translates to the Old City, is the touristy part of Montevideo. And very obviously so. It feels similar to every tourist trap you’ll find in every tourist city.
The single biggest attraction is Plaza Independencia which showcases a massive statue of General Artigas, the hero of Uruguay. The tourist trap starts immediately behind the statue, with street vendors and fancy stores selling a wide variety of generic stuff you probably don’t need. It’s definitely worth visiting, but the novelty wears off fast. Once you get off the main road, especially towards the end, the city has a distinctly old and rustic feel, and you’ll understand why Ciudad Vieja is a fitting name.
A little gem in the middle of Ciudad Vieja is the 11:11 cafe. Susan and I discovered it accidentally. There was just a little board on the street, but the actual restaurant was about three floors up a narrow stair case that would make a perfect ambush spot for organ thieves. Still, the climb was worth the risk. The food was great. You could sit at a table or lie on the couch, or relax on the floor and play with the cat. And there were an odd assortment of miscellaneous items for sale ranging from board games to possibly second hand clothes. The pot brownies were pretty good. The lemonade is extreme. They don’t use sugar, but what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger …
Visit Montevideo, but don’t stay too long. Appreciate all it has to offer. Enjoy the simple life while being part of a big city. If possible, avoid fancy hotels and restaurants and live with the locals. Experience a different version of modern life. It’s not less or worse than life in other countries, just different.