Terrible. Awful. Horrendous. The worst place I’ve ever been to. A pointless globule of pigeon turd spoiling what would otherwise be a fine continent.
None of the above describe Montevideo, city of some one and a half million people and capital of the bovine powerhouse that is Uruguay. It’s actually a really nice place to be. It has the same sort of endearing quality as your favourite grandparent who used to take you on all sorts of exciting trips but is now senile, incontinent and can’t remember who you are or why you’re hugging them. Montevideo is akin to a faded Spanish seaside resort: all the ingredients are there for litoral perfection, but they lack polish and care.
You see, Montevideo is on the surface very well run and maintained, with seemingly little poverty and few negatives. Then you start noticing more and more little things that detract from the whole; large chunks of pavement missing, tramps hidden cunningly behind signs and bins so they aren’t moved on by the police and the fact that most of the public buses seem to be older than than Uruguay itself.
Despite all of these shortcomings, Montevideo is without doubt one of the friendliest places to which I have ever been. The tramps mentioned above greet everyone with a cheery ‘hola’ and people will try and start conversations with you wherever you are and even though they might as well be trying to communicate through interpretive dance for all the Spanish I know. One excellent example of this willingness to not let anything get in the way of a good natter was when I was on a bus one day. We were stopped at some traffic lights and another bus pulled up beside us. The two bus drivers then proceeded to discuss seemingly everything that’s ever happened in the world ever, not even hinting at moving. This continued even though the lights had long since changed to green. It was only after one more cycle of traffic lights that they decided the time was right to continue with their jobs. The strangest thing about this whole episode was that noone in the cars behind honked their horn. I don’t even think they noticed, such is the chilled-out vibe of the place. People in the UK may complain about infrequent rubbish collections, but in Montevideo the pace of life means they use a horse and cart to collect people’s rubbish. It’s utterly bizarre and confusing.
The friendliness aspect of the residents of Montevideo can once again be illustrated by buses. Each bus has 2 types of horn: one normal horn to make pedestrians move off the road when necessary, and a second, quieter horn which emits a whistling noise. They use this second horn to ‘whistle’ at other bus drivers, nothing more.
As mentioned above, the Uruguayans are really quite keen on their meat. Their two national dishes involve meat as much as they can. There are acados, which are basically huge barbecues with as many different types of beef thrown on top as possible, and there are chivitos. A chivito makes a burger from a US branch of McDonald’s look like a snack. For a mouse. Who’s just eaten a large roast dinner. In short, they are enormous burgers, with all sorts of unhealthy and hilarious extra ingredients. Initially, it looks like a regular burger, just a lot larger. Then comes the shovelling on of extras: ham, cheese, eggs, artichoke hearts, chicken, more beef, more cheese, pickled onions, pickled carrots (seriously), more cheese and about a gallon of generic pink chivito sauce. These things could keep even the most stereotypical of Americans full, for a few hours at least.
Then there’s Maté, a drink similar to tea to which Uruguayans seem to be addicted. You will often see people out for a stroll, Maté mug in one hand and a Thermos flask in the other to top up the hot water (see image below). Maté is made of bitter herbs brewed in hot water. It is then drunk through a special straw with an inbuilt strainer.
This fantastic friendliness and feeling of welcome is only one of Montevideo’s fine attributes. The women there were generally extremely attractive, a feature enhanced by their seeming self-deprecation. If these women were in the UK, they would be eternally dressed in bikinis and trousers so tight you’d think their backsides were doing their best impression of Vanessa Feltz taking part in a lasagne eating contest. This, and the pleasantly warm weather make it really not hard to see why so many Nazi war criminals chose to come here.
Montevideo effortlessly exudes bonhomie and never feels like a city with 1.5 million residents. This quietness is further emphasised on Sundays, when the entire city centre is eerily empty, and again on week nights, when most bars seem to shut at half past 8 in the evening. Nightlife during the week in Montevideo is a lot like the clitoris: it may take hours of searching and several moments of doubting its existence, but when you do find it, it will bring hours of enjoyment.
More about Chris Gough’s Latin American travels here.
Copyright © 2011 Chris Gough