We’d heard from fellow travelers that a stop in the laid back country of Uruguay was worth a diversion so we shortened our time in Buenos Aires to spend 4 nights in Montevideo, the capital. Starting in the 1600’s people arrived in Uruguay by boat, landing in the charming UNESCO protected port city of Colonia. So we did, too.
There was a crush of people at the ferry terminal in Buenos Aires and boarding our boat took a long time, so Michael had time to enjoy visiting with the people around us. That included a Uruguayan women behind us in line who, like us, had lived in Seattle on Queen Anne and has a son who lives in Hermosa Beach, California where our oldest son and his family live. She wasn’t surprised about our “small world” connections because she read our “aureus” and knew right away we were “her people”. Ohhhkay. Once on board it was festival seating so we scrambled for two spots near a window and settled in for the one-hour crossing of the silty brown waters of the Rio de la Plata.
Our first stop off the boat in Colonia was the bus station near the ferry landing to book our ride into Montevideo later in the day. We decided to store our bags at the station and then walked twenty minutes into the old city.
Colonia is a small, well preserved Spanish colonial city that everyone told us was a must see. It was a weekday, and summer was over so we enjoyed strolling the ancient cobblestone streets and explored the waterfront without many tourists. After lunch we headed back to the main port to catch the 6:00 bus to Montevideo. We had exchanged what little Argentinian cash we had for Uruguayan pesos, and after getting out luggage out of hock and paying the bathroom attendants we had just enough change for a bottle of water and a Kit Kat to split on the bus ride.
We decided not to get SIM cards in Uruguay since we would only be there for four days. Starting at the bus terminal we became dependent on WiFi, so we reached our Airbnb hosts to let them know we were on our way by using the station’s Wifi - but would not be able to update them on our exact arrival time. Without cellular service, we decided to skip Uber and take a regular taxi into town. I will tell you now that Michael really dislikes taking taxis. He has completely bought into the Uber/Lyft system where you know the exact fare before you even get in the car, so when we do take an old-school taxi he has Google Map’s app open on his phone so he can tell if we are being “taken for a ride”. It’s hard to relax and enjoy the scenery under those circumstances and we don’t have to deal with the “Sorry, I don’t have change” scam, or any other issues. Having said that, in six years we’ve only had a handful of challenging cab rides - and in fact in Jerusalem our driver actually didn’t have change since it was his first fare of the morning so we rendezvoused later in the day and paid him then. And then there was the cab driver in Saigon that held onto my phone I’d left on the back seat and returned it to us after his shift. So it pays to be vigilant, but not paranoid.
We were surprised to find the taxis in Montevideo kitted out like armored cars. We had to squeeze into a tight back seat area that was encroached on further by a thick wall of plexiglass with just a small opening for payment. Once inside you couldn’t communicate with the driver without shouting and, most troubling of all, it made us feel like we were in a dangerous city. Not a good first impression for tourists!
We arrived at our building and met our delightful hosts . They were about our age, and had driven an hour into the city to make sure we were greeted and made to feel at home. They left us with lots of local treats, and from the window on the 14th floor, Graciela pointed to all the closest amenities - including the small grocery store across the square which was about to close - so we said our goodbyes and rushed off to get some basics.
When we were outside looking up at the tower, I wasn’t sure where our apartment was, so I put a hot pink Post-It in the window so the next time we looked we could find our living room windows.
The next day was Sunday and that meant we could wander the city’s largest outdoor food and flea market. The Feria de Tristan Narvaja market stretches for seven blocks long and is three blocks wide! If you couldn’t find what you needed, you probably didn’t need it in the first place. And as for things you didn’t know you needed - well, there were hundreds of stalls to tempt you with dusty books, random car parts, used phones, new shoes, old clothes, toys, lamp shades, birds in cages, food of every kind, and of course, all things mate (ma-tey) the unique drink of the region.
The guide for the Free Walking tour the next morning was a no-show, so we wandered through the Old Town on our own. We found some lovely restaurants and shops along the way and as always, stopped in church to count our blessings, and then searched for ice cream.
One of the main attractions in the city is the Teatro Solis, opened in 1856 for the citizens to attend cultural events at affordable prices. That is still the case today, so on our second night we bought tickets for $10 USD to attend a concert. The performance featured students graduating from the music and drama program at the University along with guest performances from renowned local artists. The interior of the theater was elaborate without being overdone - as were the performances. There was a little bit of everything; music, dance, and drama. Michael was out of his seat with more “bravos” than if we’d been at The Met!
The next day we were able to take the walking tour and realized not only was our Airbnb in a great building, we were centrally located to visit all the main attractions of the city. We continued the tour of the city with a long walk along the Rambla, a long curved boulevard that followed the waterfront. And, after watching Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown: Uruguay, we returned to the Mercado del Puerto where he and his brother ate more meat than looked humanly possible at La Charca del Puerto grill. He wisely said Uruguay is not for vegetarians, and he was right. Most everywhere we went we could smell meat sizzling on a parilla - sometimes right on the pavement outside apartment buildings - and even if you’d just eaten it made you hungry all over again!
The coffee shop in the theatre is one of the only places you can try the ubiquitous mate, a hot drink made by steeping a handful of crushed leaves in hot but not boiling water in a cup made from a hollowed out gourd. The bitter brew is drunk through a special metal straw called a bombilla that has a fine sieve on the end that filters out the debris. There is lot of etiquette around the brewing and serving of Mate. Simply put, one person is in charge of brewing and then passing the cup for sipping to their guests (all using the same bombilla) The cup is repeatedly passed back to the server who keeps it topped up because there is a low liquid-to-leaf ratio. Unique to Uruguay, it seemed most everyone on the street had a thermos tucked under their arm and a gourd in their hand so they would never be without their beloved beverage. I noticed most couples had one designated to hold the mate gear so the other person had their hands free to get on with life.
The Airbnb PR team continued to find opportunities for us to tell our story and we had a very enjoyable interview with Fabian Muro an editor at El Pais, the most popular newspaper in Uruguay and part of El Pais worldwide. Here is a link to the article. We were able to ask as many questions of him as he did of us. Specifically, Michael wanted to learn more about Uruguay’s former president from 2010-2015. Jose Mujica was known as the “World’s Poorest President” who refused to live in the presidential residence and drove his 1987 VW Beetle to and from work every day. He was a man of the people who continued to live in his modest home (and still does) and focused his work on helping raise the quality of life for ordinary Uruguayans.
Our stop over in Uruguay was interesting. But to short to say I know much more about the country than when we landed. But we could definitely see that it was worthy of further exploration - especially the beautiful beaches. But alas, the glitz of Rio de Janeiro beckoned. Michael did a nice job of finding an inexpensive flight that left at a very civilized 3:00 pm. We thought we’d have some time for one last wander in the morning but we were told by our hosts and others (including staff at a hotel desk nearby) that we should be at the airport three hours early. Really? One of my few peeves with the Chief Travel Planner is he bakes too much “cushion” into our airport arrival times, so often we are stuck for two hours in a marginal airport after we’ve cleared security. But even he balked at this advice. How big can the Uruguay airport be? It turned out we needed every minute, but more on that later.
Meanwhile we definitely wanted to take an Uber to the airport because it was cheaper than a taxi, and for all the reasons I mentioned earlier. We packed and tidied up the apartment before slipping the key under the door as we left. Once we were on the street we realized we didn’t have cell service (duh) so how could we possibly order an Uber? Feeling a little stupid, Michael came up with this plan. He would head back to the 14th floor, stand outside the door to our apartment where he suspected he could pick-up the wifi, order an Uber and then meet me on the street. The car was nearby so the plan worked except for one big flaw. Since we were standing on the street but didn’t have cell service the driver would not be able to see us on his app and of course we couldn’t see how near the driver was to picking us up. Oops! Nothing we could do but look for the car make and license plate number like we all do. Michael noted that oddly, there wasn't a car make, just that it was silver with a license number that started with BYD.
We saw plenty of silver cars, but none with that license, in fact the plates were all numbers. Ten minutes had passed and we were getting concerned so Michael did a lap of the square on foot in front. By the grace of God, somehow he found our driver because he was driving slowly while peering at people on the sidewalk. It turned out the car make was BYD, a Chinese brand we had never heard of. Yet again, another learning experience :) especially since Michael prides himself on knowing just about every car brand there is. Even with that delay we arrived at the airport almost exactly three hours ahead of time.
When you check into a flight three hours early, there is no line and the staff are not frazzled. That works in your favor if your bags are a touch overweight…no one really cares at that point, right? So we were all set until the nice women told us that our tickets did not include checked bags at all - no matter what they weighed! And in fact, it would cost $60 for the privilege of taking our luggage with us to Rio. Michael was quite certain that our tickets included one free checked bag. Again, since there wasn’t anyone behind us, he pulled out his laptop and call up the Expedia confirmation that showed we or two bags were included. The Azul Airlines computer begged to differ. This was eventually confirmed by the woman’s supervisor. And her supervisor. Ultimately, they could not help us and we would have to contact Expedia ourselves. So…we left our bags behind the counter while we moved to a table at McDonald’s where Michael began the painful process of dealing with Expedia via Skype. After an hour on the phone and after another wave of supervisors (this time at Expedia) got involved, we were told if we paid the $60 and sent Expedia a copy of the receipt we would be reimbursed. Michael was not willing to hang up just yet, so he ran over to the counter, paid the fee and ran back to the phone. While he still had the nice representative on the line he sent an email with a photo of the receipt to be sure they got it. After a delay in the Expedia email system that seemed way to long, his email arrived and they assured us the money would appear within 15 business days. It did.
That took over an hour and a half of our three hours and we hadn’t gone through security and passport control yet. When it was all said and done, we arrived at the gate just in time to board the plane. Whew! See you in Rio…
Thanks for following along,
Debbie and Michael Campbell
The Senior Nomad