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Residents of Montevideo travel to nearby Buenos Aires or Sao Paulo when they crave big-city excitement, which may suggest that there's not much going on in the Uruguayan capital of 1.4 million. But don't dismiss it yet! Montevideo, at the confluence of the Atlantic Ocean and the Rio de la Plata, is an intriguing mix of old and new.
The 18th-century buildings in Montevideo's historical "Ciudad Vieja" (Old Town) are just steps away from Plaza Independencia (Independence Square), the bustling, modern main square -- and even that was once a citadel. (One gate's stone base has been left standing to mark the division between the old and new parts of the city.) Montevideo was founded in the 18th century by the Spanish, and over the years its citizens fought against the British, Spanish and Portuguese for independence, as well as neighboring Argentineans and Brazilians. Today, politically and economically stable, the city serves as Uruguay's major commercial center, though colonial customs -- long siestas, afternoon tea -- still exist.
Montevideo is the perfect "kick back and relax" respite from glitzier ports on South America itineraries. It may be sleepier and less cosmopolitan than metropolises in Argentina and Brazil, but Montevideo offers a broad range of possibilities for the day-tripper: monuments, restaurants, gorgeous urban plazas, beaches and a burgeoning arts and culture movement.
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Other South America & Antarctica Cruise Ports:
Buenos Aires • Lima • Manaus • Montevideo • Puerto Montt • Punta Arenas • Rio de Janeiro • Santiago (Valparaiso) • Santos (Sao Paulo) • Stanley • Ushuaia
Montevideo is a mecca for leather-lovers; you'll find great values on excellent quality jackets, skirts, pants, coats, wallets and belts in calf, antelope, suede and sheepskin.
Interested in artisan crafts? Check out Mercado de los Artesanos (San Jose 1312). On the ground floor of this 1909-built building is a fairly sizeable boutique of handmade items, from framed drawings to gorgeous wooden trinket boxes. You can even buy handmade leather footwear. Upstairs is a fabulous market, consisting of a series of restaurants that serve local specialties.
Spanish is the official language of Uruguay. The citizens of Montevideo share the same accent as their neighbors in Buenos Aires, Argentina. They speak Rioplatenese Spanish, the dialect common around the Rio de la Plata basin. Most Uruguayans don't speak English, but those working in the tourism business speak enough to get by.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The Uruguayan Peso is the official currency. For current conversion figures, visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com. There's an exchange bureau inside the port between Piers 1 and 2 and additional exchange bureaus and ATM's just outside the port entrance. ATM's are everywhere in Montevideo. You will find numerous exchange shops along Av. 18 de Julio and around Independence Square. U.S. dollars are accepted nearly everywhere, including in taxis. Credit cards are accepted in most restaurants and stores in the capital.
Where You're Docked
Montevideo's port is actually in a terrific location, just next to the historic center of the Ciudad Vieja at the southern tip of the city. The port is small enough that you can walk right from your ship into the heart of the old town in just a few minutes.
Just across the street from the port is the Mercado del Puerto, a beautiful iron and glass port building from 1868 that has been restored with 14 restaurants and stalls and several stores selling local handicrafts. This is a terrific place to taste Uruguay's delicious grilled meats. On afternoons and weekends, there are also outdoor tables with more local arts and crafts. From the market, you can keep walking into the Old City, but motorized transportation (cabs or ship-organized shuttles) is recommended; some of the streets surrounding the market and port are not heavy on tourist traffic.
Just next to the Mercado del Puerto is the Carnaval Museum (Rambla 25 de Agosto) documenting Montevideo's 40-day celebration prior to Lent. The exhibits show the elaborate processions that fill the street. Costumes and paper mache characters are on display, and, if you're lucky, you might even catch some being constructed in the workshop next door. A guided tour is included with admission.
If you like to walk, you can get from the port to the center of Montevideo at Independence Square in about 25 minutes. Most cruise lines run shuttles from the port to the square, and taxis are plentiful at the port. You can take them to the square or even as far as the resort town of Punta del Este, about two hours away. Taxis have meters, but it is more common to decide on a fixed price first; they are listed at the taxi stand.
Representatives of the plentiful leather factories in Montevideo send free shuttles to the port to bring travelers back to their showrooms.
Watch Out For
Mosquitoes: They can be annoying and unwanted travel companions. Be sure to bring along some bug spray to put on before you venture off the ship.
Sundays: Many attractions and shopping stops (such as Mercado de los Artesanos) are closed, and the Congressional building does not run tours on Sundays.
Pickpocketing: Although it is not rampant, it does occur.
The main square in the new part of the city, Plaza Independencia, is anchored by a monument of national hero Jose Gervasio Artigas. (His ashes are contained in a mausoleum under the equestrian statue.) Artigas led the battle for independence against Spain and was the first statesman of the Rio de la Plata Revolution. Look for Citadel's Gate, which was part of an elaborate defense system in old Montevideo; this reproduction was built in 1959, on top of the original gate's stone base. Palacio Salvo, once the tallest building in South America, overlooks the square.
From Plaza Indepencia, you can access Avenida 18 de Julio, one of the city's main thoroughfares and a street lined with stores and cafes. Along this street at number 998, you'll find Museo del Gaucho y de la Moneda, which features exhibits of gaucho (cowboy) clothing and artifacts, and a collection of currency used throughout the country's history. Admission is free. Antiques shops selling textiles, furniture, knickknacks and jewelry abound on the nearby street of Tristan Narvaja.
In the Ciudad Viejo area, the main square is Plaza Constitucion, home to a weekly (Saturday) flea market -- though enterprising locals will set it up on an off-day if cruisers are in town. Visit El Cabildo, the old town hall that also served as the city's jailhouse in the 19th century. It's on the corner of the Plaza Constitucion and Sarandi Street, a pedestrian street with outdoor sculptures. It's now a museum housing the city's historic archives, as well as maps, photos, antiques, costumes and artwork.
Montevideo's Congress Building was constructed between 1908 and 1925 in colorful marble and ornate woodwork. (Closed on Sundays)
The Torres Garcia Museum has seven floors devoted to the works of Joaquin Torres Garcia (1874-1949), perhaps Uruguay's most famous artist and the founder of Constructive Universalism. Torres Garcia is known for his Cubist paintings and iconic portraits of historical figures. He encouraged other Latin American artists not to renounce their heritage. (In the Old City at Peatonal Sarandi 683)
Been There, Done That
If golf is your passion, hit the links right in Montevideo at the Club de Golf de Uruguay also known as the Punta Carretas Golf Club, after the fashionable neighborhood where it is located. The par-73, 18-hole course has great views of the Rio de la Plata. On Mondays, nonmembers can use the greens free of charge. (Boulevard Artigas 379)
Casino gambling is legal and big business in Montevideo; try the Radisson Hotel & Casino. On offer are French roulette tables, blackjack, Baccarat, slot machines and horse races. (Plaza Independencia 759; open daily 8 a.m. to 5 a.m.)
On the southern tip of Uruguay lies Punta del Este, a seaside resort for upscale vacationers from the country, the continent and across the globe. (Madonna and Leonardo DiCaprio are among them.) Consider it the Saint-Tropez of the Southern Hemisphere. There are white-sand beaches for swimming and water sports, hotels and restaurants, plus outdoor activities that include golfing, biking and horseback-riding. (It can take about two hours to reach the resort.)
While Montevideo isn't a beach destination unto itself, it's a city with some great beaches. So if sun and swimming are your things, check out one of these stretches of sand. Both have bathrooms and restaurants nearby.
Pocitos: This popular beach is the place for swimming or picking up a beach volleyball game. Take bus #104 from the port.
Ramirez: This beach is within walking distance of the port and Old City by heading west. It sits in front of the lovely city park, Parque Rodo.
In Montevideo, you'll find excellent seafood and steaks rivaling Argentina's. The signature local sandwich, the high-calorie chivito, is (depending where you order it) a steak sandwich topped with a fried egg and cheese, and any combination of bacon, ham, mayo, olives, lettuce and tomatoes. You might say it is Montevideo's version of the Philly cheesesteak; there's just as much back and forth throughout the city on proper preparation and where to get the best of the best.
For a Traditional Experience: Try a confiteria, where you can get everything from sandwiches and salads to incredibly decadent pastries and even wine, beer and liquor. These are scattered all over the city; we enjoyed La Catedral de los Sandwiches Confiteria. (Sarandi 502; open all day)
For a Chic Experience: Try La Corte, which has a fabulous atmosphere and specializes in regional cuisine with a nouvelle touch. (Peatonal Sarandi 586; open Monday to Friday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.)
For a Contemporary Experience: Estrecho is a contemporary take on the concept of a luncheonette. All seats are at the counter of this narrow establishment with sleek decor, and quiet jazz plays on the sound system. The local food, using fresh, seasonal ingredients, is delicious and simple; try the sarandi ensalada or spinach salad with bacon and the chicken curry baguette. They also feature Uruguayan wines. Note that they do not accept credit cards. (Peatonal Sarandi 460; open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday)
Staying in Touch
There's an Internet cafe (and a money exchange) between Piers 1 and 2 inside the port. The cost for access is $2 for 15 minutes. If you have your own laptop or device and want to pick up free Wi-Fi, walk over to the nearby ferry terminal. Most cafes in the center of the city also offer free Wi-Fi. The Millenium Internet Cafe at the corner of Avenida 18 de Julio and Rio Negro, just a few blocks up from Independence Square, is conveniently located if you need a computer to use.
Best for First-Timers: A half-day city tour of Montevideo is an easy way to see the highlights and still have time for shopping in the afternoon. The guide shares the history of the Uruguayan capital while passing by the Old City, Constitution Square, the cathedral, Colonial Town Hall and the Solis Theatre before a stop at Independence Square, the heart of Montevideo and home to the President's office. After another stop at the Congress Building, the tour route usually includes the Prado neighborhood with its parks and stunning sculptures, and a photo stop at the Plaza Virgilio with its fallen soldiers memorial and views over the city. A visit to the quirky Pittamiglio Castle (whose design is based on chemistry and alchemy) usually includes a tango demonstration.
Best for Wine-Lovers: Uruguay has a growing and celebrated wine industry. One of the country's best (and most beautiful) vineyards is Establiciemento Juanico, about 45 minutes from Montevideo. Several lines offer an afternoon excursion to Juanico for a cellar tour and extensive wine tasting (including delicious empanadas and local cheeses and meats). The buildings date back to the 1940's. Both French and Uruguayan "traditions" are employed for producing wines, which include Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Viognier.
Best Way to Experience Life on a Farm: Visit La Rabida Estancia, a 100-year-old estate on the Rio de la Plata. The owners greet guests on horseback and show them traditional Uruguayan farm life. Gauchos, or cowboys, prepare and serve a meal of local specialties, including beef from the estate's cattle. Young locals in black gaucho uniforms and red flowing dresses perform folk dances and songs, and guests are given the chance to try their hand at daily farm chores, such as milking cows and shearing sheep.
For More Information
Uruguay Tourist Office: 305-443-7431
Montevideo tourist information office: Rambla 25 de Agosto
On the Web: Uruguay Ministry of Tourism (only in Spanish) or WelcomeUruguay.com (tourist information in English)
Cruise Critic Message Boards: South America
IndependentTraveler.com: Central & South America Travel Guide
--Updated by Kathy McCabe, Cruise Critic contributor