Being the southernmost capital in the World, Montevideo is located in the country of Uruguay in South America. I had the pleasure of spending a day and a half there a while back. What a great city! So, great that when I decided to become an ex-pat, it was a city I investigated as a possible new home. It’s difficult to impress me, so considering it as a home is saying a lot! Read on for a brief overview of the cosmopolitan city of Montevideo and how I spent my time there.
The city was founded in 1724 and consisted of what is now called “Old Town”, originally known as Ciudad Vieja. What I find interesting about this is that usually, an area referred to as “Old Town” becomes known as “City Center” or “Centro”, but that’s not the case with Montevideo. By the mid-19th century when the city expanded eastward, the “City Center” was established in the newly developed area.
I always think it’s interesting to understand the meaning of a city’s name. The “Monte” portion of the name refers to the Cerro de Montevideo, the hill situated across the Bay of Montevideo. There are, of course, many theories, on the “Video” etymological origin of the name which lies in dispute to this day.
A BRIEF HISTORY:
As with many cities, the history is related to war and the conquest of what was considered strategical geography. In 1724, the Spanish forcefully removed the Portuguese occupants of the area and began to populate the area. First, six families were relocated from Buenos Aires, and immediately following, families were brought in as residents from the Canary Islands. Those who came from the Canary Islands were referred to as ” Guanches”. This is where the word “Gaucho” comes from which refers to “Cowboys”.
BATTLES OFTEN DEFINE THE DEVELOPMENT OF A CITY:
Several years after this initial development, Montevideo competed with Buenos Aires for maritime dominance. There were several conflicts between the two cities and several times when Montevideo was taken over by force. It wasn’t until 1865, after many battles, that Montevideo truly gained its independence.
THE MAY REVOLUTION OF 1810:
José Gervasio Artigas was a revolutionary from Uruguay who united with Buenos Aires against Spain leading the revolution that ultimately gave Montevideo its independence. During the 1920s, an equestrian statue was placed in Independence Plaza and today is the spot where his remains lay.
During the 20th century, the city grew with an influx of European immigrants and became a very cosmopolitan place. It is estimated that at that time, 30% of the residents were foreign-born. During the century, the area suffered many growing pains such as tram and port worker strikes. This is also the period when the Rambla (pedestrian walk and entertainment area) was constructed, electric trams were installed and a new port was built.
MORE MODERN HISTORY:
By the 1950s and 1960s, Montevideo’s economy has come to a halt due to political violence. From 1960 to 1985, several hundred people “disappeared” along with thousands in Argentina as a result of the Dirty War. These people are known as “The Disappeared”. In Buenos Aires, there is a wall with the names which has been built as a memorial to these lost people. (I’ll discuss this more in-depth in a coming article)
It wasn’t until the 21st century that Montevideo saw peace and real growth socially and economically. It is now known to have the highest quality of life in all of Latin America.
I LOVED MONTEVIDEO AND CARRY A PIECE OF ME EVERY DAY!:
I visited Montevideo in October. The temperature was perfect and the sky was blue and sunny! A spectacular weather day. After Ushuaia with its clouds, cold, and wind, the weather in Montevideo was greatly appreciated.
The first afternoon, we disembarked the cruise ship and tried to get a feel for the city. We easily found The Rambla and spent the rest of the afternoon and evening there. The 13.7-mile (22.2-kilometer) avenue runs the whole coast of the city making it the longest continuous sidewalk in the world. It’s one of the first things you should visit when you arrive.
Visiting Old Town and Centro is the perfect way to absorb the culture of Montevideo. Las Ramblas of Barcelona is famous worldwide for its humongous Sangrias and Paella and seems very touristy. In my humble opinion, The Rambla in Montevideo is more of a cultural hangout than a tourist trap and offers the real feel of the area. You’ll find the major sites, monuments, and museums there. The theaters and shops are all located on the Rambla. Old town stretches around Montevideo Bay and Centro lies just east. So, aside from the cultural experience, the scenery is fabulous! The aroma of the food and the local colors are almost overwhelming.
A TOUR OF THE CITY:
Sunny and perfectly warm the next day, a 10-mile bike ride was waiting for me. It could be said that I was born sans the gene for sporting activities. My bike tour was full of spectacular sites around the city but also full of crash-type events.
Riding through Independence Plaza, we made our way down to the Rambla where the tour guide approached a random stranger and asked if we could share the Mate (pronounced “MAH-tay”) which is found all over Uruguay. Drunk hot, it is made from the yerba herb, which translates to “any herb”. Mate is traditionally brewed in a gourd and then consumed directly from the gourd through a special silver straw that also filters out the herb bits. The Mate is usually drunk without sugar. Our guide told us that it is a sign of friendship and welcome to share the Mate with a stranger.
Mate contains a lot of caffeine. Probably not a good idea to drink it late in the day. However, you will see the locals constantly refilling their gourds and drinking the Mate into the evening.
Biking etiquette (or so I thought I had learned) tells us to observe bike lanes, ring the bell as you approach a pedestrian, and ride with the motor traffic. Right? Isn’t that what you thought? Well, I think I found the only person in Uruguay who apparently, wasn’t aware of those rules.
A man was riding towards me (on the wrong side) and ran me right into an enormous bush and didn’t even stop to help me up. I got myself and the bike untangled from the bush and found that the front wheel was slightly bent. Oh, I’m afraid this was just the beginning.
I tried to continue the tour with the bent-up bike, which was inoperable more than I had assessed. As we made a stop for all in the group to catch up and since my bike wouldn’t steer accurately, I ran into another guest on the tour broadside. Oh, this was not good. The poor woman had a small cut on her leg and just wanted to quit after this incident. By car, they took her back to the ship. The tour operator sent my bent bike back with the woman and gave me hers to continue the bike ride. This should have solved the issue, right?
Now the tour was going smoothly. After those two unfortunate incidents, I was having a great time and building some confidence. Then, it happened! We are riding on the narrow sidewalk. Ahead of me, I see a road sign. Time to make a decision….. if I go left of the sign, I have to avoid the stone wall. If I steer right of the sign, I have to go off the curb and onto the roadway where I would possibly encounter motor vehicle traffic.
Clearly, I made the wrong decision by going left! Barely missing the road sign, I found myself in the middle of the stone wall scraping my skin almost down to the bone on my left knee! I had a friend on the ship that was a doctor who took care of the wound. To this day, that scar remains. It was very embarrassing presenting my cruise ID card to get back on the ship, bloody and dirty. I pictured the crew bursting into laughter after I was out of earshot.
Although my bike tour was full of unexpected drama, I feel it’s one of the best ways to see the city; to absorb the feel, the aromas, and the views. The number of people walking and pedaling amazed me. Along the Rambla, you can also find outdoor exercise equipment and witness yoga classes. It seems the residents love the activity and contribute to the vibe of the city. Independence Plaza with its high-rise buildings alongside the historical sites exemplifies the path Montevideo has taken in its development. Honestly, before going, I read about Montevideo but somehow didn’t picture such a cosmopolitan city- it truly was impressive.
I hope you enjoyed reading about my adventures in Montevideo. Next up is my awesome 3-day adventure in Buenos Aires, Argentina. A working Gaucho Ranch is part of the story!
Until Next time, friends, remember: “To Travel is to Live!”