Uruguay Part 2 – Montevideo & the Coast

Saturday, 4 November 2023

After crossing the River Plate from Buenos Aires to Colonia I travelled north to Fray Bentos with its history of canned food. Most Brits don’t realise that familiar supermarket brand – Fray Bentos – comes from Uruguay. Next stop was the capital Montevideo from where I travelled east along the Uruguay beach strip before doing a U-turn, returning to Montevideo and continuing to my next South American stop – Paraguay.

◄ My COT bus for the 4-1/2 hour trip from Fray Bentos to Montevideo – What a contrast these buses are to when we travelled South America with our kids in the mid-80s, nearly 40 years ago.

Then they felt like death traps and we actually abandoned one in Ecuador mid-trip. Our kids were too young to die! Now the buses are comfortable and come with toilets and seat belts. Which people actually wear. The bus stations are equally surprising, clean, bright and well equipped.

▲ My 6th floor room and the wonderfully antique lift at the Hotel Palacio in Montevideo – Lonely Planet’s write-up of the hotel: ‘If you can snag one of the two 6th floor rooms at this ancient family-run hotel one block off Plaza Matriz. Both feature air-conditioning and balconies with superb views of Ciudad Vieja’s rooftops. The rest of the hotel also offers great value, with wood floors, antique furniture, a vintage elevator and old-school service reminiscent of a European pensión’ I didn’t ask for it, but they gave me one of the 6th floor rooms and the vintage elevator was superb, every trip up and down felt like an adventure. Plus the hotel is right in the centre, just a few steps from Plaza Independencia.

◄ Puerta de la Ciudadela, Plaza Independencia – The Gate of the Citadel is like an entry to Plaza Independencia, but otherwise there are just a few scattered fragments of city wall – the Baluarte de San Sebastian, a little bit at Plaza de la Contraescarpa and that’s about it. The very imposing Palacio Salvo is off one end of the Plaza Independencia. Afterwards I passed the Teatro Solis, which seems to be closed up for some sort of work. Then the Museo de Arte Precolombino & Indigena (MAPI) was mildly interesting, lots of dance masks.



In the Museo Historico Nacional I’m taken by the amount of stuff about dueling. Back in 1957 they were still dueling. In November of that year, ‘Batlle Berres, President and leader of the Colorado Party, then 61 years old, fought a saber duel with General Juan Pedro Ribas, 68, a former Defense Minister. The challenger was Mr Batlle Berres, who resented a charge by General Ribas that the former President had ordered him shadowed by the police. Mr. Batlle Berres was cut on the right arm and General Ribas on the right hand. When both men were wounded, a physician ordered the duel stopped.’ Wow.

I concluded my Montevideo explorations with visits to three smaller galleries each dedicated to a particular Uruguayan artists I had never heard of before. To know more about José Gurvich, Torres Garcia and Pedro Figari I resorted to Wikipedia.

Bar Tasende – only a few steps beyond Plaza Independencia this popular lunchtime hangout felt as old-fashioned as my hotel. For me dinner time in Montevideo was not a great success, dining out at night seemed to be like Spain on steroids, nothing opened until late, but then nobody turned up. On night two I had a drink in the Fun Fun Bar which opens at 1830, but I’m the first customer at 1930. People are dribbling in after 2000, when I finish my chopp (draught beer) and depart in search of food. Very close to the hotel at 2030 in Dueto I’m the first customer. They’ve got two course or three course menus for 1450 or 1650 UYU (US$36 or 42) and it’s really quite good, but at 2130 when I leave Customer No 2 has still not turned up. How does the economics of this work?

Al Palenque – lunchtime was much better, as in Argentina ‘eat more beef’ is the motto and sitting up at the bar with a cold beer in the Mercado del Puerto certainly works.

▲ Museum of the Andes – The Museo de Los Andes 1972 recounts the story of the Uruguayan rugby team whose aircraft crashed in the Chilean Andes en route to a game in Santiago. Of the 45 passengers on board 16 survived until they were rescued after 72 days, some died in the crash, some subsequently from their injuries and tragically some were killed by an avalanche that swept across the crash site.

Would there have been any survivors if two of them hadn’t made an amazing trek out of the mountains to summon help? This all featured in the book Alive and in numerous other accounts and films, but of course the cannibalism the survivors had to resort to in order to survive is a big part of the story.

◄ Monument to José Gervasio Artigas, Plaza Independencia – soldier, statesman, father of the nation and a national hero, it’s no wonder there are so many statues of Artigas in Uruguay, but also in many other nations in South America and beyond.

▲ The Antique Toys Museum (Museo el Juguetero) was much less tragic than the Andes Museum, I like these side-eyed antique teddy bears.

▲ Tony at La Mano, The Hand, Punta del Este – there’s a continuous parade of fine beaches to the east of Montevideo towards the border with Brazil. They’re popular with Uruguayans, but also for visitors from other countries in South America and even from Spain. Punta del Este is the big beach resort, lined with hotels and apartment buildings, a bit over two hours from the capital. Coming back from José Ignacio I changed buses in Punta del Este and had time to walk across the road from the bus station to the beach to check out La Mano – the hand – or ‘man emerging into life.’ It was created by Chilean artist Mario Irarrázabal for a competition in 1982, but proved so popular it’s been here ever since.

▲ My bicycle & signpost – it’s only another hour for the short trip between Punta del Este and José Ignacio, slowed down by lots of stops to drop people off and by what feels like non-stop speed bumps. Curiously there’s a lot of cactus along the road, which runs very close to the coast. A surprising number of cyclists, serious ones, as well. It’s a quieter, more stylish beach resort and recently scored a rave review in Conde Nast Traveler. I took one of my hotel’s bicycles and pedaled around the town and out to this signpost at the entrance to the town.

La Posada del Faro is a very nice place with a nice pool, close to the beach and I’m the only person there. José Ignacio is clearly a very seasonal resort and right now it’s out of season. It’s a good place for bird watching. Are there so many birds in Uruguay because of the scarcity of cats? I noted fat sparrows in the tree outside my room as soon as I arrived in Colonia and I could have sat on the room terrace here with a bird book identifying the visitors, including some typically noisy green parrots.

▲ beach, José Ignacio – I walked along the beach from my posada to the lighthouse (faro) it’s named after. Along the beach there are curious egg-shaped orbs, slightly soft feeling and sometimes full of liquid. They are – I look them up afterwards – the eggs of Adelomelon brasiliana, a species of sea snail, a marine gastropod mollusk in the family Volutidae. Between nine and 33 embryos grow in each egg and if they survive they’d eventually look like giant conchs. These have been washed up by a storm. There are also dead crabs, an eel and a penguin washed up along the beach.

▲ multi-coloured Casa Neptuna by Edgardo Giménez – there are some surprisingly flash houses around José Ignacio, often with their architect’s signboard out front if they’re being built or renovated. Near my posada is the James Turrell Skyspaces – ‘a room with a roof aperture that transforms the blue yonder into a natural canvas’. But not currently open. Plus this rainbow-coloured ‘toy house’ and a Greek blue-and-white place that somehow reminds me of a Mayan temple.