La República Oriental del Uruguay

I was a little disappointed with my Buenos Aires post, but after thinking it through I’m leaning towards the conclusion that it might’ve been because I was a little disappointed with Buenos Aires. It’s famed for being a mix between Madrid and a South American Paris, but having just spent 10 months in Madrid and almost a year and a half in Europe (with a couple long weekends in Paris) I don’t really see the connection.  

Disclaimer: I love Paris.

Maybe it’s the difference of having been a working resident of the European Union and a tourist in Buenos Aires, but if anything the dilapidated fleet of buses plying through the city’s crumbling streets and worn out buildings were more reminiscent of the former Yugoslav city of Podgorica than Paris. 

Which is not to say that I disliked Buenos Aires. To the contrary, I enjoyed its developing world feel. It’s just not European. In contrast, I found parts of Uruguay to be much more European. 

Map of the Eastern Republic of the Uruguay. Uruguay is an indigenous name, like Paraguay.

To escape the craziness and parties of Christmas in the big city, I bought passage on the 75 minute ferry across the estuary to Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay. Border control, done before boarding the passenger ferry, took about 60 seconds max. Definitely the easiest border checkpoint I’ve crossed. 

Quiet, leafy streets of Colonia.

A rural small town and popular weekend getaway from Buenos Aires and the Uruguayan capital Montevideo, Colonia doesn’t retain much evidence of its colonial roots from over 335 years ago. That being said, it was a terrific and tranquil place to spend Christmas Eve and Christmas and was a welcome respite from the big city. I’m not sure it’s worth a day trip unless you really want to add another country to your list and relax, but I loved it. 

Streets of the old town of Colonia.

The vast majority of visitors to Uruguay are from Brazil or Argentina, coming to enjoy the beaches (much better than those in Argentina, and cheaper than those in Brazil). That was definitely true of the hostel population in Colonia.

My Christmas card photo 2016.

After the festivities of Christmas (read: barbeques on the beach) I hopped on a four hour bus east to Montevideo, at 1.5 million home to half of the country’s population. 

The architecture and lifestyle in Montevideo was much more reminiscent of Madrid than Buenos Aires, with no restaurants opening before the ungodly early hour of 8pm. 

The sign instructs visitors to not swim in the empty fountain.

Like its neighbor to the south, and also former colonizer, the diet is heavy on meat. It’s also surprisingly progressive with gay marriage, recreational marijuana, and government funded abortions both legal and largely noncontroversial. The live and let live outlook, informal friendliness of the locals, and “don’t worry about it” attitude reminded me a lot of Spain. Though the latter may be because the Uruguayans seem to always be stoned. 

The hostel in Montevideo had a really great vibe, and a backyard that was very cool on the hot summer days (getting up to 90F/32C). One of the volunteers there said she left school to travel and wished women would be added to the draft in the hopes of her one day being able to burn a draft card, and I knew I was in for a nice 60s-style hippie retreat. 

The hostel owner cooking the most amazing barbecue I’d ever had.

During the days I roamed the streets of Montevideo, and at night we’d gather in the backyard and chat. Mentally, it was nice to vent with others about how annoying it is in the US to constantly hear:

  • How do you pay for these trips? Once you’ve got the airplane ticket, places like Ukraine, rural Ethiopia, and camping in Arctic Sweden while eating noodles can be quite affordable. 
  • When are you going to get a real job? Usually this is after the asker tells me about how he hates his job and life. 
  • The world is just so dangerous nowadays. Stop watching American cable news. 
  • Why would you go anyplace else if you can see anything you want here? No. 

And, as one of the other Americans noted, it’s nice for foreigners to get a view of the US that’s not blind nationalism, loud proclamations of being the greatest country in the world, and denial of atrocities we’ve committed. 

Camping out an a river island in rural Uruguay with a bunch of party hard alcoholic locals. This tent got me through the Pacific Crest Trail, two months in the Arctic, and has served me quite well.

To escape the New Year’s celebrations, I headed northwest to the swelteringly hot and humid rural town of Mercedes. Having visited largely because they had a campground and to see more of rural Uruguay, I kind of regretted my decision when campers drunkenly blasted reggaeton at ear destroying decibels from 7pm until 11am. But that’s what you get from a $3 a night campground. The elderly Uruguayan men laying in the park were quite friendly, and I joined them while we collectively tried to not die of heat exhaustion. 

Tits: an upscale women’s clothing store in Uruguay’s capital city.

Finally escaping Mercedes, I headed to Paysandú on the Uruguay River. A border town, I had heard it was an interesting cultural city to visit. That may be true, but the oppressive heat and rain kept me from exploring too much on my 11 hour wait for an overnight bus to Córdoba, Argentina. The bus terminal was very comfortable and air conditioned, and the chipper (and presumably unbearably bored) tourist office woman kept me company. 

I did get asked to not eat on the floor while I charged my phone in a corner outlet, but the security guard was chill about it. 

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