I’ll be the first one to admit that sitting in my living room in upstate New York, South America seemed very remote. And a place called Montevideo, while the name was familiar, gave me little curiosity. In fact, on our 14-day cruise around South America, Montevideo, Uruguay, our first port stop, didn’t even merit a shore excursion, as far as we were concerned. When it turned up raining cats and dogs the morning we docked, we were convinced that slogging through the wet streets would pretty much consume all our interest and energy. Besides, we could always return to the ship when we got bored.
To our surprise, even in the rain, we found Montevideo charming. Granted we did not venture too far from the main plaza, Plaza Independcia, where the remains of a Uruguayan hero are guarded day and night. The plaza sports various government buildings and brand name hotels, as well as a gateway to the Ciudad Vieja, or Old City. We decided the Old City was where we would set our sights. Other than a few other visitors from our ship, the old city was practically deserted. Of course, we blame the rain. We were rather disconcerted to find a McDonad’s and a Burger King near a smaller park in the old town, but heartened when we walked into the book store with sweeping staircases to the second floor and lots of browsing available.
The usual street vendors had not appeared in the park, so we were spared the usual souvenier trinkets. We had a nice lunch in a cafe that seemed to be frequented by businessmen, and I found an internet cafe with some antiquated computers that might have been as old as the city itself. I managed to send off a few quick emails after I found how to do the “at” sign on a Latin American keyboard. (I won’t tell you; don’t want to spoil your fun when you visit South America!) and we continued walking through the streets.
We were about to cash in and walk back to the ship, when tucked in a little corner of a sidestreet, we found a shoddy little music store. Music and instrument lovers, we were drawn in by all the concertinas, or squeeze boxes if you will, that we saw against one wall. The place was a mess, and the proprietor, an older gentleman, was busy wiping dust off a few things as if he had just reopened the place after a long hiatus.
This little shop was the beginning of our love for Montevideo. And it reminded us of the little joys that a find like this can bring to a traveler who is definitely not interested in yet another piece of souvenier junk with the name Montevideo, Buenos Aires, Puerto Madryn, Ushuaia, or whatever, written on it. The owner was gracious enough to allow us to look around and video tape what we saw. We even managed to get him to play one of the squeeze boxes after we found out by gestures and a few Spanish words that he himself had played professionally. Then we watched as he began tuning another squeeze box. This instrument has no reeds and is a cross between an accordian and a harmonica. It has a bellows and buttons typically on both ends of it.
After an enjoyable visit, we ventured back outdoors where lo and behold, the sun began to peek out. We walked to the port market, or Mercado del puerto and discovered that Montevideo was coming to life. The shop keepers and restauranteurs were putting their wares out and more visitors and local shoppers alike began milling about. We entered through the Mercado’s main doorway and found business people, dock workers and tourists all having lunch at any one of the various open pit restaurants. I saw half of a small pig cooking on one open fire, while various other cuts of meat were tended to by cooks. We couldn’t go away without sampling some steak and some of the delicious looking condiments and breads that came with your meal. The real plus was the atmosphere, elbow to elbow with fellow diners at a long counter, everyone talking, eating, and clattering their utensils, washing the meat and saladas down with Uruguayan wine, or draft beer.
We returned to the ship quite impressed with this capital city of Uruguay and vowed to revisit one day when we weren’t pressed for time by the ship’s cruise calendar. We were set to depart for the south by 4 pm that afternoon. I came away with two lovely purses from a “leather factory” in Montevideo, as well. Of course, the factory is not right there, but the goods are made outside of the city, thus genuine Uruguayan, and sold there in an upstairs shop just off the Plaza Indepencia. I thought I got a good price on the two purses: one of antelope leather and the other, with some leather work and beading, made of cow leather.
For more info: Want to visit South America? I’ll arrange a trip for you!