General information ‘Uruguay & Montevideo’

Uruguay used to be South America’s best-kept secret, with a handful of Argentines, Brazilians, Chileans and non–South Americans in the know popping in to enjoy the pristine beaches, the atmospheric cities, the huge steaks and the happening nightlife. Then the peso crashed, the place became a whole lot more affordable and people got curious. They came, loved it and went back home to tell their friends.

This is not to suggest that the place is being overrun. The main draw cards, like Colonia del Sacramento, Punta del Este and Montevideo, have been set up for tourists, and are dealing with their newfound popularity well. Other destinations, such as Punta del Diablo and Maldonado, retain their charm but are no longer the undiscovered gems they once were. Elsewhere, in the interior (gaucho central Tacuarembó, for example) and the river towns, and particularly in the non-summer months, there’s still a pretty good chance that you’ll be the only foreigner in town.

Montevideo is the largest city, the capital, and the chief port of Uruguay. The city has a population of 1.3 million, and Uruguay has a total population of about 3.4 million. According to statistics from 2007, Montevideo provides the highest quality of life in Latin America.

Montevideo is situated in the south of the country, on the bank of the Río de la Plata.  18 de Julio is the city’s main avenue and extends from the Plaza Independencia to the boundary between the neighborhoods of Cordón and Parque Batlle.  Plaza Independencia marks the edge of Ciudad Vieja, the historical quarter, and at the centre of the square a statue of Uruguay’s independence hero General Artigas crowns his tomb.

In the Ciudad Vieja you will find most of the city’s historical buildings, museums and art galleries, several of which are free to visit.  Among the best are the Cabildo, the Cathedral, and the Torres García gallery.  A pleasant pedestrian street runs through the historic part of town towards the docks area, where you will find the Carnival museum, and the old Port Market or Mercado del Puerto, which is now filled with lively barbecue restaurants.

The Rambla is a broad pedestrian promenade which runs from Ciudad Vieja all along the south side of Montevideo.  It passes Barrio Sur and Palermo, the neighbourhoods which make up the heart of Afro-Uruguayan culture and come alive to the sound of Candombe drumming during Carnival.  The next neighbourhood east is Parque Rodó, named after the large park which sits between the residential area and the Rambla, and features outdoor art exhibitions, small lakes and a weekly market.  The park overlooks Ramirez beach, the city funfair and one of the city’s two big casinos.

Continuing along the Rambla you pass the central golf course, fishing club and rugby club, and pass close by the Punta Carretas Shopping, a modern shopping mall which was once a high-security prison.  You then arrive at Pocitos beach which forms the heart of the city’s beach sports in summer.  Pocitos is a popular and fashionable neighborhood with a lot of nice bars and restaurants, and you will spot the locals walking their pedigree dogs along the Rambla.

The neighborhoods further east along the Rambla tend to be wealthy and well-kept, such as Punta Gorda and Carrasco.  One of them, Buceo, is home to the city’s prestigious yacht club, and in the same area you will find a large modern shopping mall, Montevideo Shopping, and a collection of elegant bars and restaurants which tend to attract a more mature crowd than the bars and clubs in the city centre.

Another nice neighborhood to visit is the Prado, just north of the city centre, where the dominating feature is a large park, including botanical gardens, a Japanese garden, a rose garden and a famous memorial statue of the last of Uruguay’s indigenous people, the Charrúa.  Within walking distance of the park you can find the President’s official residence and the recommendable Juan Manual Blanes art gallery.

The national football stadium, Estadio Centenario, is located in a large park close to the main bus terminal and just a few blocks from the end of 18 de Julio street, and it is well worth going to see a match, even if it’s only to see the passionate reaction of the Uruguayan fans.  About 6 blocks away you can visit the city’s zoo and planetarium.

Finally one of Montevideo’s biggest advantages is its location on the coast.  Just a short bus or car journey will take you to many of Uruguay’s nicest places to visit such as Colonia in the west (1.5 hours), hill town Minas in the north (1.5 hours), or any number of beach towns along the coast to the east (e.g. Atlántida, 40 minutes.



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