Words Tiffany Chan
*Featured in Crave’s Issue 90, December 2017
Best time to visit: February
Wedged between Argentina and Brazil, and somewhat overshadowed by its neighbours, Uruguay is nicknamed the Switzerland of South America. With a track record of political, economic and social liberalism, high quality life, low levels of corruption, an adult literacy rate of more than 98 per cent and legalised same-sex marriage, it is laid back, open – minded and nonchalant.
Its capital, Montevideo, is consistently ranked one of the most liveable cities in Latin America. Although it’s home to rambunctious streets. Instead, the roadster quiet, mostly empty and lined with photogenic 19th century townhouses. The European influence is palpable (much of the population is of Spanish or Italian descent) and everywhere there are immaculate plazas, elegant boulevards and cobblestoned streets.
One of the best ways to discover Montevideo is to stroll around Ciudad Vieja, the old city, with picturesque buildings such as the majestic Palacio Salvo, the elegant Solis Theatre and the Metropolitan cathedral. Downtown, fin-de-siècle neoclassical buildings sit comfortably between shiny high-rises in districts speckled with art galleries and museums. In gentrifying neighbourhoods, hipster cafes rub shoulders with majestic old theatres and tiny tango bars.
A radiant afternoon calls for a walk along La Rambla, a long promenade between the city and the sea. The sun-soaked boardwalk is great for people-watching, or better yet, mingling with locals. A two-hour bus ride east, legions of beautiful beach with revellers dance from dusk to dawn in Punta del Este, a summer playground dotted with upscale resorts and swanky nightclubs.
Music is big in Uruguay. As well as the Argentinian tango, they perform the candombe, a style of music and dance integral to Uruguayan culture. Rooted in African heritage candombe troupes parade and pound their drums on weekends and holidays.
The best time to visit Montevideo is the southern summer from December to March, when the skies are blue and the weather warm. In February, the Montevideo Carnival, the world’s largest and longest, shimmies into town and the city comes alive. The main streets become an effervescent mixture of dance, music and colour as Uruguay comes out to party.
How to Get There
From Hong Kong, fly to Montevideo via Miami or Dallas.
What to Do
Visit in February for the Montevideo Carnival, the world’s longest at 40 days and 40 nights. In 2018, it begins on January 25 and runs into early March, with dance parties and parades almost every night. Rehearsals start this month and are almost as entertaining. On warm afternoons, enjoy a relaxing walk along La Rambla and, in the evening, catch a live performance – music, opera or modern dance – at Solis Theatre, or for something more low-key, go to a tango bar. Not to be missed, the Mercado del Puerto is a massive steel – clad building filled with parrillas – grill houses loaded with enough meat to last a lifetime. On Sundays, go shopping at the outdoor flea market, Feria de Tristán Nirvana, a great place for souvenirs and other things you didn’t know you wanted.
Where to Stay
Alma Histórica Boutique Hotel
In a restored 1920s townhouse, this B&B is elegant and convenient. Gaze down on Montevideo’s old town from the rooftop hot tub while sipping a glass of tanned wine from the Garzón region.
Solis 1433, Plaza Zabala, Montevideo 11002
T +598 29147450
This Pocitos hotel has 40 spacious rooms, but its main claim to fame is its collection of local wines, which will have oenophiles lingering far longer than intended in the tasting room behind the lobby.
Juan Benito Blanco 674, Montevideo 11303
T +598 2712 3434
Conveniently located near Punta Carretas Shopping Centre, in the arts district, this luxury boutique hotel opened a year ago with generously proportioned, minimalist rooms and rain showers.
Fco. Garcia Cortina 2371, Montevideo 11300
T +598 2711 3333
Where to Eat and Drink
Uruguay is cattle country, evidenced by the mountains of meat and sausages dripping fat in the searing heat of the parrillas – the grill.
A pancho, or Uruguayan hot dog, has a sausage so large it sticks out both ends of the bun. But its real appeal are the toppings, various combinations of corn, melted cheese, relish and salsa.
The country’s unofficial national dish is a sandwich: a fluffy bun filled with a stack of pounded steak, bacon, fried ham, fried egg, mozzarella, lettuce, tomatoes, onion and too much mayonnaise.
Leaves from the matè bush are steeped in hot water to make tea, which is served in a hollow gourd and sipped through a bombilla, or silver straw.