Montevideo is one of my favorite cities in the entire world. There is something about it that makes it friendly and welcoming while retaining the urbane appeal of a major city. What this something is and why it got me is hard for me to say.
It may be that its sidewalks are bordered with trees and many of its streets are cobblestone, that its riverfront boasts a wide embarcadero-like pedestrian promenade much like my home city of San Francisco, that its buildings have preserved its 19th century architectural history, that parks and plazas are dotted throughout the city, that its weather is perfectly sunny and warm in December, that the people are open and interested but not so overwhelmingly that I felt embarrassingly on display as a foreigner, that its atmosphere is bustling but not in a stressful way, that its culture is the flamboyant, vibrant, vivaciousness of Latin America combined with the cultivated refinement of cityfolk.
Whatever it was, I absolutely fell in love with the city.
My journey to Montevideo from Punta del Este first took me further along the coast to La Pedrera, a tiny vacation town on a cliff overlooking the beaches of the Atlantic Ocean. The seascape of La Pedrera is a mesmeric stretch of surging whitecaps crashing onto gold blonde sand and jutting rocks made into interesting shapes by the waves.
The town looks like it could be very fun and lively, but I was just a few days too early. The holiday season wouldn’t begin for another week or so. Owners of the bars, restaurants, clubs, and hotels concentrated around “Principal,” the main street of town, were priming their establishments for the anticipated holidayers, but none of them were ready for customers yet.
In order to avoid the slightly spooky emptiness of the off-season, I contented myself with strolling along the sand of the Playa Desplayado, watching the swell and taper of the waves and enjoying the pleasantly warm sun with just a slight breeze. When the sunlight started to wane, I climbed the steep stairs in the side of the cliff up to town for a dinner of dulce de leche ice cream. (I HAD to, Popi Heladería, the town’s ice cream shop, was the only place open!)
The next morning I found a trail through some thick brush that I thought might lead to La Pedrera’s other beach, Playa del Barco. I walked and walked and walked, twisting through the tunnel of trees and having no idea where I would eventually emerge. Right when I was starting to think it was really bad idea to tramp through an isolated tangle of trees to who-knows-where, I heard the dim thunder of waves. Playa del Barco finally appeared in front of me. I spent the rest of the morning admiring the ridged boulders scattered all over the sand, a rusted shipwreck half buried in its sandy final resting place, and the curling surfer waves.
A four-hour bus ride west took me to Montevideo that afternoon. With a few hours to spare before the sun went down, I decided to wander around the city a bit.
As I was striding down the street in the direction of the river, a deep rumbling sound began reverberating off the buildings around me. Block after block, it got louder and louder. What is going on?! I anxiously asked myself. Is it a plane? A tsunami? A bomb? A burst water main? Frantically looking around for some sort of ordinary explanation, I spotted a crowd of people swarmed on the street a few blocks away. They appeared to be in some sort of celebration mode. Phew, it must not be a perilous disaster.
It was a parade!
The booming sound was dozens of drums being pounded by young flashily costumed guys. Young scantily clad girls in extravagant ruffly and feathered costumes were dancing to the beat as the parade inched its way down the street. Guys struggling to wave huge flags were interspersed between the groups of drummers and dancers.
The resounding beats of the drum permeated me to my core, and I was engrossed watching the talented girls swish their arms and hips to the beat. I truly felt like I was a part of the festivity even though I had no idea what is was for or why they were doing it.
When the parade died down, I continued my journey down to the river, where I encountered the Rambla, the riverfront avenue that wraps around the coastline of the city. I daydreamed along the promenade for a while, then I meandered in to the Cuidad Vieja, the “Old City.”
I could have walked for hours and hours along the tree-lined lanes of colonial buildings with iron-railed balconies, tall windows, domes, and arches. Along the way, I also wandered through several plazas. Though surrounded by the pulsating city life on all sides, the benches, trees, and monuments of the plazas provide a sanctuary from the boisterousness of the city.
The next day began with a run on the Rambla. I almost felt like I was running at home on San Francisco’s Embarcadero, although the brown water of the Río de la Plata doesn’t compare to the beauty of the Bay. I ran past beaches, plazas, fishing clubs, and a golf course to the Parque Rodó, where I tried to blend in with the locals leisurely passing their Sunday away, families paddle boating, young couples strolling on the shaded paths through the trees, and teenagers shopping at the street fair.
Then I continued my exploration of the historical parts of the city, walking down the main street, Avenida 18 de Julio, to Independence Plaza, the largest square in Montevideo that separates the more modern downtown from the Old City. At the edge of the plaza, I passed through the Puerta de la Ciudadela, the remaining part of the city wall that used to surround the Old City, onto a wide pedestrian street that cuts through the historical district.
When I had gotten my fill of the colonial architecture, I moved along to the coast and the Port of Montevideo to the Torre de Telecomunicaciones, one of the city’s only skyscrapers and the tallest in Uruguay at 37 floors high. Right next door to this modern structure is an old abandoned train station. Opened in 1897 and closed in 2003, it is now deserted and deteriorating, but it was still fun to imagine what it was like in its prime, when people bustled about running for their trains.
After a dinner of seafood pasta – the seafood in Montevideo is goooood – I headed back to my hostel to prepare for my bus and boat ride back to Buenos Aires tomorrow.