Life in the Most Unique of All Latin American Countries: Uruguay

Runner up for this blog’s title: Why Uruguay Should Top Everyone’s Travel List. Perhaps I should clarify that this article relates to my experience living in Montevideo; apart from one trip to Colonia and Valendse, I spent all of my 3 months living in the city (vs traveling throughout the country).img_4389

Why Montevideo? When deciding on where in Latin America to go after Costa Rica, apart from regaining fluency in Spanish, I had only one other primary goal/focus: getting fit again. For that, I needed two things: stability (time to unpack the suitcase, develop a routine, and cook for myself regularly), and a gym. Not just any gym. I didn’t want to waste my time; I wanted results. As luck would have it, there’s an F45 (this is the gym I became *obsessed* with while living in LA, and subsequently followed to Hawaii) in Montevideo, Uruguay; at the time I was looking at “where next,” it was the only one in all of Latin America. (It now appears F45s have opened up in Guatemala and Mexico City.) So my choice of where to live was clear: Montevideo. If you are reading this and thinking: you actually picked a city/country based on a gym?! Yup! And that decision led to not only a fitter and healthier Annise, but many friendships with the incredible group of trainers and regulars at the 5:30pm class I went to daily.

If I’m being really honest, beyond F45, I didn’t know what to expect from this tiny country in South America. Spoiler Alert: LOVED IT. There have only been 4 other places I’ve visited during my 14 months around the world that I seriously considered moving to. And by “seriously considered” I mean that I liked the vibe enough that the following places went on a short list (but I was never quite tempted enough to stop traveling to stay): the south of France (pretty much anywhere, but most likely Marseille or Aix en Provence); Honolulu, Hawaii; Auckland, New Zealand; or, Singapore. And though Montevideo is SUPER pricey for Latin America (loads of details below), it still more affordable than any of the other places on my short list. Plus, the time zone here (1 hour ahead of US EST) makes it far easier to stay in touch with friends and family in mainland US. In fact, the only downside to picking anything in South America during this time of year (that is, May through August): enduring winter. After 11.5 months of chasing summer around the globe, I decided I could suck it up and deal with wearing pants and coats again. Verdict on winter in Montevideo: apart from one fiercely cold week due to blistering southern winds, the winter was relatively moderate and manageable even for folks like me who hate cold weather (while lots of gray, there were enough sunny days, and even little heat waves where temps got up to 20C/70F!).

My original plan was to stay at least 1 month, knowing that I could easily extend for more time if I liked it. It took me very little time to decide that I wanted to live in Montevideo much longer than 1 month. And lucky for me, this is one of the few places in the world where you can do that, easily, and legally. As an American, I am still limited by the 90-day tourist visa, which means I have to make sure I leave the country before the 90 days is up. But unlike most countries in the world, where the expiration period of a tourist visa (be it 30 or 90 days) is a hard limit on the amount of time you can spend in a country within a 365-day period (setting aside the fact that, in many places, you can pay some type of administrative fee/fine to get a one-time extension), in Uruguay it just means 90 days at a time. So take a visa run (thus far, I’ve taken more than necessary, because Brazil and Argentina are both so close and affordable), and when you return, the clock starts over and you’ve got another 90 days. Uruguay is also one of the only other places in the world I’ve found (along with Costa Rica) where you can easily bring your furbaby, without worrying about bullshit breed restrictions or animal quarantine!! Plus, it’s one of the few places left in the world with open borders, where it’s relatively easy for anyone to get legal residency (or even citizenship).

Uruguay: the Cliff Notes version

Uruguay is a small, triangular(ish)-shaped country with the Atlantic Ocean on its east coast, the Rio de la Plata cutting inland and forming its southern boarder, and sharing land borders with Argentina to the west and Brazil to the north. Montevideo is a great jumping off point for travel to Rio de Janiero (~2 hours/direct flight), to Buenos Aires (30 minutes by air, or, 2-2.5 hours by direct ferry “Francisco”), or to some of the other super popular destinations in Uruguay, such as Colonia del Sacramento (162km/101miles) or the famous coastal city of Punta del Este (110km/68miles). For those unfamiliar, Punta del Este has been described as both the “Hamptons” and “South Beach” of Latin America- meaning, yes, it is a playground for the rich and famous in Latin America. You cannot talk about Uruguay without mentioning futbol (soccer), asado, or mate. Walk around anywhere and the majority of people you’ll see on the street will have a carrying case with a thermos, traditional cup packed with yerba mate, and metal straw. Much like this…MVD matte

Of the approximately 3 million Uruguayans, around half live in the capitol city of Montevideo (if you include the metro area, we’re up to 2 million- so 2/3 of the country’s population!). And that’s compared to the 9 million cows in this country- seriously, there’s a 3:1 ration of cows:humans. Uruguay was settled by Europeans in the early-to-mid 1700s, which explains why almost everyone here looks European- because, they are (ethnically). There are still areas that are heavily Swiss (and yes, are known for cheese production!). Between 1/3 and 1/2 of all Uruguayans are fully Italian, or descendants of Italians; along with the Spanish and Portugues, Italian immigration formed the largest part of settlement and creation of modern Uruguay. And all of those European influences are evident in the gorgeous, and well preserved buildings that adorn this city, as well as the culture. This city feels remarkably like someone picked up the best of Europe and just plopped it down in Latin America, which, in my opinion, is a total advantage because = Latinos! (Who are, without a doubt some, of the friendliest and warmest people in the world. Not to mention the most patient if you’re learning a new language!)

My closest friend in Montevideo and another fellow world traveler, German.

Apart from architecture, there are loads of customs that are emphatically European.MVD downtownMVD CV The Italian influence is strong, in not only the language, but the food. Sundays aren’t just for family dinners here, they are for eating ravioli. And the 29th of every month is gnocchi day. In other ways, the culture in Montevideo reminds me of Spain; this is a LATE NIGHT CITY! Dinner (on weeknights) is often 9-11pm, and if you want to go dancing on weekends, good luck finding a club that even starts before 2:30am.

Since 2005, Montevideo has ranked as the city offering the best quality of life in all of Latin America, and Uruguay more broadly is one of the few places in Latin America with a robust and stable economy, very good infrastructure, and a sizable middle class. By infrastructure, I mean: functional democracy; very good roads; potable/safe drinking water; super reliable and fast wifi (including, free wifi zones across the city); and, amazing public transportation (just to name a few). Anyone who has traveled much knows how rare it is to find all of those amenities in a 3rd world country! Though one thing Uruguayans definitely have in common with many other Latinos: being punctual is not exactly their forte, nor something they care about. (While that can at times be frustrating, it’s also something I love, because it equates to a more relaxed pace of life, and rarely will anyone be upset with you if you’re late.)

While many people give Argentina credit for inventing the tango, there’s actually debate among historians as to whether it was created in Argentina or Uruguay, as it came up in both cities (Buenos Aires and Montevideo) at the same time. And while Argentina has a global reputation for being meat-centric, “asado” is every bit as much a part of Uruguayan culture as in Argentina. (More on food below.)

One thing that immediately made this city feel like home to me: the Rambla. The Rambla is to Montevideo what The Strand is to the beach cities in Los Angeles. This amazing path follows the waterfront and beaches for miles, and on which you can always find crowds of people walking, running, riding bicycles, or walking their dogs. (This city genuinely offers so many of my favorite parts from the US, Europe, and Latin America. Still in awe that it took a gym of all things to motivate me to come here!)

Finally, futbol (soccer) isn’t just popular here. It is life. In many ways, Uruguay is futbol. So just embrace it. While people flock to stadiums to watch games, I also learned that crowding into bars for major tournaments (something I love in the US) is not a thing here. I was here during Copa America 2019 and tried my hardest to find a packed restaurant or bar, so that I could enjoy the energy of watching Uruguay play in a room filled with Uruguayans… nope. So if you want to know that energy, make some friends and get yourself invited (or, invite yourself) to a house viewing party.

Socially & Policy-Wise, Uruguay is Light-Years Ahead of Much of the World… 

While I can’t necessarily speak to the culture across all of Uruguay, and know that equality of the sexes is a problem here (just like in the US, issues with wage disparity, etc.), machismo is not readily apparent in Montevideo. (I’m not saying it doesn’t exist, but what I am saying is that to the degree it does, I have never noticed it. This is in stark contrast to how things are in many other Latin American countries, where sexism smacks you in the face the moment you arrive. Even in countries I love and enjoy spending time in.)

MVD human rights
Seen in Ciudad Vieja, roughly translated: When did you realize you were heterosexual?

Incredibly unique to Latin America is that Uruguay is a secular state; I honestly didn’t know there was any country in Latin America that wasn’t officially Catholic. But Uruguay has officially had separation of church and state since the early 1900s! This may also help explain why it’s one of the more liberal countries in Latin America: recreational cannabis use has been legal since the mid-1970s, and in 2013/2014, Uruguay became the first country in the world to fully legalize pot and roll out the first, country-wide recreational cannabis marketplace (important note: it’s legal for citizens and residents only, NOT for tourists- so don’t plan on Montevideo turning into Amsterdam anytime soon); abortion is legal (was the 2nd country in all of Latin America to legalize abortion, just behind Cuba); it is one of the most LGBTQ friendly places in the world! Uruguay decriminalized homosexuality in 1934, enacted broad anti-discrimination laws in 2003, legalized adoption by same-sex parents in 2009, and legalized same-sex marriage in 2013 (for those keeping track, that’s 2 years before the US!!). As a secular state, it also means that Sundays are not ghost towns! Sure, there are still far more businesses (museums, etc.) and restaurants closed on Sunday than you might find in the US, but as compared to many countries around the world, there’s plenty of things to do on Sunday.

Except When It Comes to Environmental Issues.

It’s not that people don’t care, they just don’t take environmental issues into consideration. Uruguay doesn’t have much in the way of natural resources (no oil, no diamonds, a mining sector that is responsible for only 0.1% of GDP), it’s very small with a small population, so the air is rather clean. Perhaps due to the lack of serious issues to date (that is setting aside the fact that the otherwise gorgeous beaches lining the city are COVERED WITH TRASH AND PLASTIC), Uruguayans are seriously behind the curve when it comes to environmental consciousness. Apart from India, I don’t think I’ve ever been to a place where people litter so heavily. Adults throw trash on the street like it’s nothing. A seriously large % of dog owners do NOT clean up after their dogs on the sidewalks OR EVEN THE BEACHES. Tip: when walking in Montevideo, look at your feet/where you’re walking rather than keeping your head up or you WILL step in dog poop. It’s a sad and disgusting issue.

The city sign above was created with used plastic from the city, and the sign (on the right) were erected for World Environment Day, June 5, 2019. There are 1,800 used plastic bottles that spell MONTEVIDEO and the sign notes that Montevideo generates approximately 1,200 tons daily of household trash. It also tells residents that, with their help, 30% of this could be recycled. A start and better than nothing for sure, but aspiring to 30% seems like a pretty low bar for a country so advanced in so many other ways. Still looking for that perfect country 😉

Cash (“efectivo”) vs. Cards (“tarjetas”)

Leave your cash at home [if you want], because you won’t need it! As someone who loves collecting points (and prefers to avoid losing my $$ at currency exchanges or with ATM fees), I absolutely love when I can rely on my credit cards to get by in foreign countries. (Note: this is because I have a credit card that charges NO foreign transaction fees, and converts the local currency into USD at whatever market rate is.) In Montevideo, it’s super easy to get by with only a card. The only things I’ve needed cash for in nearly 3 months in the city are bus (until I got a card) and if you want to take advantage of the street fruit/vegetable markets. There are some places where cash will get you a cheaper price (for example, certain salons have different price lists for payment in cash vs. credit card). Apart from that, feel free to use your card for the $1 candy bar, there are no minimum purchase requirements (that I’ve seen) and every place accepts cards. Also, anytime I refer to “cash” in this blog, I am talking about pesos; USD are not accepted as a method of payment in Montevideo. 

Living in Montevideo

Before I get too far into this section, a couple key pieces of information many of us Westerners need to know before arriving: 0 = number of vaccinations you need to get before arriving to Montevideo; and, the water is clean and sanitary straight out of the tap. However, most restaurants don’t serve tap water; I hate being “forced” to buy bottled water when there aren’t health concerns with drinking the tap water, so truly don’t understand the reasoning behind this.

MY HEART IN MONTEVIDEO

Throughout my travels, anytime I’ve had any period of time in a place to get involved with the community I’ve volunteered. And Montevideo was no exception. I was privileged enough to spend nearly 2 months teaching English to kids living in the “La Teja” neighborhood, at a fantastic afterschool organization. I spent 2 days a week with these darlings, and feel blessed that the incredible volunteers running this organization and parents of these children, trusted me to spend hours every week with these kids, who have so much potential. Can’t say I’d recommend taking a trip to La Teja as a tourist (I never felt unsafe during the day, but there’s no reason to venture to that part of the city unless you have somewhere specific to go), but if anyone reading this is planning on spending extended time in Montevideo and is looking for a volunteer opportunity, Los Tejanitos is an exemplary organization!

MVD Tejanitos class
Last day with one of my groups of kids. They wrote lots of sweet messages on the whiteboard, including TE AMAMOS (We Love You).
MVD Tejanitos group
Most of the “older” (ages 10-12) kids I taught. Unfortunately, I forgot to get photos with my younger (ages 6-8) kids. All super adorable, promise.

EATING

Surviving (and Thriving!) as a Non-Meat Eater

In addition to futbol, if there’s one other thing that clearly defines Uruguayan culture: asado. This (“carne asado”) is, literally, grilled meat, cooked at an outdoor kitchen, which most homes have, and over special type of wood (I’ve never seen it over charcoal or gas fires). But it’s much more than just grilling and eating meat; the process of cooking the asado is an embedded part of the culture and a very social activity. (And one of the few examples I noticed where sexism/stereotypical gender roles is evident; when visiting people’s homes or watching the local news featuring chefs grilling asado, it’s only men who cook. Not dissimilar from the sexism surrounding BBQs in the US.) Because it’s such an important part of the culture, if you get a chance to enjoy one, definitely go! People were always willing to grill veggies for me, so just make a trip to the grocery store before you arrive.

MVD dulce dL
God I love Latin America! Entire aisles stocked full of dulce de leche.

While meat is massively popular, I was pleasantly surprised how incredibly easy it was to find plant based options across this city. Every restaurant I went to had at least one plant-based option (usually a vegetarian dish, but often that could be made vegan easily). One warning: it’s damn near impossible to find anything other than cow’s milk in cafes. So if you’re strictly vegan and like lattes or cappuccinos, your options will be limited. Learn to love black coffee, opt for tea, or head to one of the few places that offer alternatives. (As luck would have it, my favorite cafe in all of MVD, The Lab, does have alternative milk options, though you’ll pay a lot for them. Or, Starbucks has free soy milk, or a small charge, ~$0.60, for almond milk.) While there are lots of vegetarian and vegan restaurants, plant-based eating is still in its infancy here, so many of the restaurants I initially discovered (especially in Ciudad Vieja) offer dishes that are perfectly fine for vegans or vegetarians, but your meat-eating friend(s) will probably be less than thrilled if you try and drag them along. That said, after 3 months, I did come across some really awesome places I recommend without hesitation. So without further delay…

My Favorite Restaurants & Cafes

I ate out less in 3 months in Montevideo, than I did in any given week pretty much anywhere else in the world. This is not an indictment of the food, rather, I was super focused on my health, which meant cooking for myself and eating at home was necessary. That said, I definitely got out a bit, and have a few places I absolutely loved. Some of these are plant-based restaurants, while others have meat but at least one great veg option. One important note about dining out in Montevideo: while “siesta” isn’t part of the culture here like it is in Spain, the overwhelming majority of restaurants here do follow that model. Meaning, they’re open for lunch (beginning at 11am or 12pm, and closing by around 3pm), and then closed again until dinner (due to late dinnertime here, most places do not reopen until at least 7-8pm). There are some places that stay open throughout the day, but check in advance before arriving; you can’t assume that will be the case. And unlike Spain, because the city/country on the whole doesn’t observe siesta, there are always plenty of cafes/coffee shops open (and almost all of these also serve food).

Tip (for non-Spanish speakers): one option you will almost always find on any menu (as well as in any grocery store that has prepared foods) is a “tarta.” If you plug this into your translation dictionary it shows “cake.” Except, that’s not correct. Cake, of the dessert type, is a type of “postre”. A tarta is a savory dish, more similar to a quiche (though not necessarily an egg-based dish) or savory pie.

About tipping in Montevideo: tips are not automatically included in the bill, but this is a service-oriented place so tips are “expected” and definitely appreciated. 10% is customary and you can leave cash, or, at time of payment with a card, just ask the server to add the tip onto the card (here, they use the word/term “servicio” instead of “propina”); they will automatically add the 10% and make it super quick and easy for you.

Restaurant Guide

Jacinto (Ciudad Vieja, Sarandi 349) modern, inventive cuisine, with a small and ever-changing menu based on seasonal ingredients, with loads of veg options. in my opinion, hands-down one of the best restaurants in the entire city! Had an absolutely delicious meal at Bruta (between Pocitos and Punta Carretas, Luis de la Torre 818), which has an entire menu designed for sharing, with plenty of options for vegetarians and meat eaters alike, not to mention a great bar, staff, service, and wine menu (I recommend El Enemigo, a superb malbec from Argentina). Baidewey (Pocitos, Av. General Rivera 3244) is a 100% vegetarian/vegan take-away restaurant with incredibly delicious (and super affordable! a rarity here!) bowls, soups, wraps, and tartas- and don’t miss out on the homemade cakes, they are TO DIE FOR. Vegan Wraps (Pocitos, Lorenzo J Perez 3010) is 100% plant-based and offers the BEST sandwiches I had my entire time in Montevideo. Plus, it gives you an opportunity to have a plant-based version of Uruguay’s most classic and well known sandwich, the chivito, which is typically made with meat. Super elevated plant-based food that will satisfy your meat-eating friends too! Out of this world delicious! Burlesque (Pocitos, Av. Dr. Luis Alberto de Herrera 1136) is a bar/restaurant that people here just love. Seriously. During my first few weeks in MVD, I had 3 different guys bring me here for a first date. I’m not convinced the place is all that great, and wouldn’t say this is a must-visit, but if you find yourself here, the vegetarian tacos are surprisingly delicious (and just about your only veg option, unless you want fries). La Rotiseria (Palermo, Salto 942) is a cafe featuring inventive, creative, and delicious prepared foods and salads. This is the perfect spot for a casual lunch. Sinergia Design (Tres Cruces, Colonia 2235) is a modern coworking space that is full of restaurants, botiques, and bars (including a lovely wine bar and a separate and huge craft beer bar). Another open, shared concept space (but 100% full of restaurants and bars) is Mercado Ferrando, which features tons of options for food and drinks, with seating at some bartops or communal tables. There’s a massive selection of food, with plenty of choices for plant-based eaters, and a great ambiance. Absolutely loved this place! The place I visited most often was Petite Pastisserie de Flor (Pocitos, José Martí 3340), a completely charming French cafe with mouth-watering food. This was my favorite lunch spot, and I always opted for the same dish (because it was soooooo good): caramelized onion and brie tarta with a salad so good I’d order it by itself (cost = around 320 pesos/$10USD and is enough for 2 meals unless you’re starving).

I rarely mention places I didn’t like, but given the abundance of restaurants (and plant based options) in this city, I am going to advise against one place: Namaste Veggie Resto & ChillOut Bar. Pros: this is a purely vegetarian and vegan restaurant; the girls who work there are nice; the menu has lots of delicious sounding options. Cons: super expensive; and, more importantly, the veggie gnocchi was most disgusting dish I ate the entire time I was in Montevideo. I will fully admit that I could have just made a bad choice (though, my choice was ultimately based on a recommendation from my server who told me it was one of the best things they have on the menu), and while I considered going back to give it a second chance, the prices stopped me. For example, at Vegan Wraps I can get a delicious, vegan chivito for 320 pesos. The version at Namaste will set you back 420-450 pesos.

Cafes

For excellent coffee every time: The Lab Coffee Roasters (various across the city) serves up consistently really, really great espresso-based drinks, and has a massive menu featuring all types of teas, pour-over coffees, and a rather extensive selection of food. La Farmacia Cafe is quite literally an old pharmacy turned into a cafe. In addition to a unique design, it’s home to the best latte I had in MVD! (It was a seasonal special, so likely to be gone when you arrive, but based on quality I’d try any seasonal coffee or espresso-based drink they’re offering)!

MVD farmacia
Farmacia Cafe

For historical significance and/or ambiance: Escaramuza is a grand, old residence that has been converted into a bookstore (in the front) and cafe (in the back of the house, including an outdoor courtyard). My capuccino was decent, not great, but ambiance makes this charming place well worth a visit. Cafe Brasilero (Ciudad Vieja) is perhaps the most classic cafe in all of MVD. It was founded in 1877 and feels like walking into the past, with its antique bar and dark wood, giving you a glimpse into the Uruguay that once was.

SLEEPING: A GUIDE TO NEIGHBORHOODS (“BARRIOS”)

I read a lot of blogs and articles recommending various neighborhoods before I arrived, but it didn’t take long to realize most of the advice was total crap. Whether you’re coming as a tourist for a short-term stay or to move here, highly recommend living in either Pocitos or Punta Carretas. (Third choice would be near Parque Rodo.) Why? Because that’s where almost everything you’ll want to see or do is located, and, both areas are super safe. If you are moving here with kids and want to be in a slightly more residential neighborhood and don’t mind being a bit away from the action, check out: Malvin, Punta Gorda, or Carrasco.

Pocitos/Punta Carretera

MVD art deco
A bit of art deco dotted across the city. Not quite as much as in an Jose, Costa Rica, but still present.

This area is the place to be in Montevideo! Pocitos is the most densely populated neighborhood in all of Uruguay (but, for anyone who has lived or spent time in NYC, Paris, London, etc., “densely populated” here will give you a chuckle), and for good reason. I almost rented an apartment here to begin with, but instead opted to start in Ciudad Vieja (and for more on why that was a mistake, see below). If there’s one thing I’m learning it’s that F45 gyms are as reliable a predictor of hip neighborhoods as are Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s grocery stores in the US. Without fail, they seem to be located in amazing areas, and Montevideo is no exception. Apart from the solid restaurant scene in Ciudad Vieja, and nightlife in Parque Rodo, pretty much everything social you want to do (bars, restaurants, cafes, beaches, etc.) is located in these two neighborhoods. Plus, there’s an interesting mix of history in with the modern. For example, the upscale shopping center in Punta Carretera was formerly a prison! In addition to my amazing gym, I also had the privilege of calling Pocitos home for 2 months. And it really, truly, felt like home, largely thanks to the wonderful women who shared their home with me (Carla and Elisa), and the super snuggly animals who were always more than happy to cuddle (Lucy, Kitty, and Laura).

FYI: Punta Carretera is more expensive than Pocitos, which is why I opted for Pocitos over it. But the neighborhoods are next door to each other and otherwise equal in terms of charm, safety, and abundance of options. Highly, highly recommend staying with Elisa and Carla if you’re planning on a stay in MVD and only need a private room (with twin sized bed): https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/26601887?source_impression_id=p3_1567818690_KKhPhMTvVYR%2FIULe

Living with these wonderful women for 2 months was such a blessing!

Ciudad Vieja

When I first moved to Montevideo I lived in an apartment in Ciudad Vieja (literally “Old City”). Why? Because a fully furnished 1BR apartment with a complete kitchen (tip on short-term/Airbnb apartment hunting in Montevideo: many of the available rentals do not have a full kitchen- instead, they have a mini-fridge, a kettle (“jarra” to quick boil water), and a microwave; if you know you want to do cooking and will need a proper oven/stove, be sure to check details carefully before booking) cost me less than $700/month, and the photos and descriptions of this part of the city made it look like a beautiful place to start in Montevideo. It only took one week for me to realize that while it certainly is a beautiful part of the city, it’s not an ideal place to live. Every Uruguayan friend (or even acquaintance) I made literally had the exact same response when they found out I was living in Ciudad Vieja: “WHY?!” During the day it’s bustling; many offices and businesses are located in this area, and there are tons of pedestrian-only walking streets full of markets and street vendors who set up shop in front of the many restaurants (including vegetarian and vegan! which is awesome for a country that is obsessed with meat) and cafes (Starbucks did arrived to MVD in 2018, but there are only 3-4 across the entire city; in contrast, there are tons of really amazing, charming, and eclectic local coffee shops). However, beginning around 6:30-7pm, everything shuts down (with the exception of a few small corner markets, and a handful of restaurants and bars) and it becomes a ghost town. Except for the homeless residents in the area (who I’ve never had an issue with or felt remotely unsafe around). Nonetheless, I realized rather quickly that Ciudad Vieja is a place to explore during the daytime, because almost nobody lives here at night. That also means it’s not necessarily the best place to walk around or home to late at night (as a solo female). So definitely spend some time here while in Montevideo, but skip the overnight.

MVD gate
Gate into the Old City (Ciudad Vieja).
MVD Plaza Independencia
Plaza Independencia, marking the edge of Ciudad Vieja.

Other Neighborhoods Worth Exploring

There are so many free things to explore in this city! I spent quite a bit of time walking across the city (from Ciudad Vieja about 1.5 hours east to Pocitos), and the downtown area is lively, fun, and plenty safe for walking. One of the main corridors in the entire city runs through downtown, Avenida 18 de Julio, and is full of everything, including a fountain so completely piled with “love” padlocks (see below) I’m amazed the street below hasn’t swallowed the fountain yet.

MVD downtown fountain
Fuente de los Candados/ Fountain of Locks, downtown Montevideo.

I will fully admit that I didn’t take advantage of very many, but if you’re motivated, there is so much you can do and see. One of the few truly touristy days I had, shortly after my arrival to the city, was spent exploring Prado. While I don’t recommend staying here (simply because it’s far away from most things in the city where you’ll spend your time), it is definitely worth a visit. Some of the most classic architecture (and biggest/most affluent homes and home owners) in Montevideo is located in this part of the city. So, perhaps it’s not a surprise that this area is also home to beautiful parks and museums that make for a lovely way to spend a day. I found this blog: https://www.mimontevideo.com/una-tarde-en-el-prado/, which offers a great itinerary for a walking tour of the Prado part of the city. Here are a few photos from my walking tour that day…

Transportation

Getting around the city is easy! Yes, you can use uber (definitely the best option for trips to/from the airport; you’ll probably pay between 500-700 pesos/$15-$20USD, depending on what part of the city you’re going to). But for trips within the city, you’ll save SO much money by taking advantage of Montevideo’s great public transit. I’ve never had a problem getting anywhere I want to go with the buses. When you get onto the bus, either the driver or another employee sitting a few rows back in a stall (always on the right side of the bus- so, your left as you walk to the back), will collect the bus fare. They have plenty of change if you’re paying with cash, so exact change not needed. You need to tell them if you want 1 hour (“una hora”) or 2 hours (“dos horas”). A 1 hour fare lets you change/transfer buses once during that hour period, and costs 38 pesos/$1.11USD (if paying cash).  A 2 hour fare provides an unlimited number of transfers and costs 56 pesos/$1.60USD. (While uber here is cheaper than in the US, it still costs WAY more than the bus fare, and is often price surging regardless of the time of day or night. The cheapest fare I ever paid for an uber in MVD was 100 pesos/$3USD to go only 1.6km/1mile.) Tip: if you’re going to be in the city for more than 1-2 weeks and plan to use public transportation regularly, buy a bus card instead of paying cash for each fare. You will save money per ride (31 pesos for 1 hour/ 47 pesos for 2 hours), and if you buy the card at the CUTCSA you can pay with your credit card. Otherwise, buy at one of the many Abitabs in the city with cash or debit card; you can also refill the card at any Abitab (cash or debit card only), or at CUTCSA offices if you want to pay with a credit card.

Personal Care & Grooming in the City (& what to order when doing body waxing)

I had wonderful luck with salons of all sorts while in Montevideo. It’s not hard to find amazing places that can suit any style or need, though like everything else, prices aren’t nearly as cheap as elsewhere in the world. For example, when I finally acknowledged that my poor, color damaged hair (from the very first time I went blonde/pink) was still breaking off and falling out at record speed, and the best thing I could do was chop it off, I ended up paying $65 for the haircut and deep conditioning treatment. If you live in NYC, DC, LA, SF, etc., and go to a great salon, that seems like a bargain! But for most people reading this, even in the US, that’s a hefty price for a trip to the salon. However, (1) the price included tip, (2) the conditioning treatment was 50% of the price, and (3) I got a fabulous haircut from a woman who knew what she was doing. She understood I wanted to keep as much length as possible, but she didn’t bullshit me about the condition and how much had to be chopped for me to have healthy hair again. And considering the cut itself (at Amor Mio, one of city’s top salons, by Adriana, promoted on the salon’s website as its “expert in cuts”) only cost $30(ish), and despite my fear of chopping my hair I came out looking and feeling GREAT, I wouldn’t hesitate to go there again or recommend this salon (and Adriana) to anyone! Pixie cut July 2019

I got a Brazilian wax (FYI, waxing = “depilacion”) at Clinica Estetica, with Cecilia, and she did an amazing job. Fast, as painless as a Brazilian wax can be, and really clean; on par with the best I’ve gotten anywhere in the world! And compared to prices in the US and Western Europe, this was a steal! (I think I paid around $15-$20, maybe less, tip included!) Highly recommend! To contact, the business can be reached on WhatsApp +598 9873 9127; call or text in advance for an appointment. And for those who don’t speak Spanish and don’t know what to ask for, a bikini wax is “cavado.” When you arrive they’ll ask if you want “completo” (to remove all hair, aka, Brazilian); if you just want a bikini wax, just say no. And if you want a really complete waxing, ask for (or, if they ask you, which they usually do, say “yes” to) “tira del culo” (ladies, that’s the rear side strip).

Things to Know Before Booking Your Trip or Making a Move

All of the awesome amenities in this city come at a cost. Literally. Uruguay is a rather expensive country/city, especially as compared to most of Latin America. (Hell, a lot of things I find expensive even compared to prices in Washington, D.C., NYC, and Los Angeles!) Groceries, food at restaurants and bars, household goods, etc., will cost you the same as you’d pay in the US. Have a coffee habit? A simple, single-shot espresso is going to cost you at least $2-$2.50, and that latte or cappuccino will easily run over $4. Because it’s such a tiny country, not much is manufactured within, so almost all goods and products are imported, which means, heavy import taxes. If thinking of making a move, you are probably much better off paying a few extra hundred $$ to bring extra suitcases loaded with household goods, or ship a container with your goods and furniture, than purchasing new from here. (Also, while there are tons of FABULOUS second-hand clothing stores, I’ve yet to hear of anything like Craigslist here to purchase anything else second-hand. There also seems to be a stigma associated with buying things second-hand in general, but that didn’t phase me.)

Housing is more expensive than many other Latin American cities, but far cheaper than what you’d pay to live in a “major” city with a waterfront and beaches anywhere in the US. However, housing is more affordable (depending on neighborhoods, I’ve consistently been able to find 1BR apartments for $700-$1000/month on Airbnb, including all utilities and wifi, and if you’re willing to rent a room in a house, you can be in the most desireable neighborhoods for around $400-$450/month) and my gym membership costs only $70/month here, compared to the $150-$200/month I paid in LA and Honolulu! So there are definitely ways to save and live affordably here.

Warning about the Spanish here: it is tough! I am still certain that all of Latin America (hell, probably the entire Spanish-speaking world) agrees that Chileans speak the most incomprehensible and rapid Spanish. The South of Spain wins the award for 2nd fastest Spanish-speakers, though they are still fairly easy to communicate with because their Spanish is clear, well enunciated, and grammatically “perfect.” However, Latinos living in the Rio de la Plata area (includes Argentinians (aka, Portenos) in Buenos Aires, and those in southern Uruguay) definitely winner runner-up to Chile in terms of difficult to understand/speak Spanish, at least in my book. People here attribute it to the country’s settlement by so many Italian immigrants; thus, the Spanish sounds like some heavy-mix between Spanish and Italian. There are quite a few things unique to the Spanish and pronunciation here that take some getting used to, such as:

  • The use of “vos” and “sos”, which is atypical for even most native Spanish speakers. And even in other countries that use “vos” (Costa Rica, Medellin-area of Colombia) it is mostly used only between spouses, family, or very close friends; otherwise, the more well-known forms of you “tu” or “ud” is used. But in Montevideo and southern Uruguay, everyone uses “vos” and “sos” across the board, even if it’s someone you’ve just met on the street. (Oh, and along with “vos” comes different verb conjugations in certain tenses. But when you first arrive, just be prepared to recognize when someone uses “vos” they are talking to you. And a very common question you’ll hear is “De donde sos?” instead of “De donde eres?”)
  • The “sh” sound that is otherwise nonexistent throughout Latin America, is used for words with a “y” and “ll”. (Ok, it’s not exactly a “sh” sound. As my BFF Reinaldo said, it’s more like the sound you make when you say Zsa Zsa Gabor’s first names.) So for the Spanish-speakers reading this, phonetically: yo = show; apoyo = ah-po-show; llave = shaw-vey; callate = cai-shaw-te; etc.
  • Like Chileans, Uruguayans have a tendency to cut the “s” off the end of words. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone greet me in the morning with “buenos dias”; it’s always “buen dia.” Thankfully, the tend not to chop the majority of vocabulary, and other spoken/written abbreviations make sense, such as super (instead of supermercado) and el fin (instead of fin de semana).

That said, if you plan to travel here and you already speak some Spanish, you’ll adjust quickly enough. And if you don’t speak any Spanish, like most every other country in the world, many Uruguayans are bilingual and can speak English.

Dating Scene

For the last few years I was tempted to move back to Latin America, mostly because I was lamenting the loss of my Spanish-speaking (and comprehension, more generally) ability, and knew it would be much easier to learn in an immersive environment. But one thing that held me back was knowing that Latin America is much like the culture in the southern US when it comes to families and marriage: almost everyone gets married and starts a family very young. While I loved the freedom that came with being single (I mean, kind of hard to do a solo trip around the world for 14 months if you have a partner back home), and while I’d much rather be and remain single than be with the wrong person (being single is a gift and blessing, while being in a relationship just to not be alone can be torture), it’s not like I want(ed) to be single forever. Needless to say, I had a lot of concerns about moving to a part of the world where I feared the only single guys would be in their late teens to early 20s. Though my observations about marriage and family in Latin America still hold true (very much so), my concerns about a lack of age-appropriate single men to date were totally unfounded. Sadly, just like the US, divorce happens here too, which actually makes for a rather robust dating scene at this age. I had absolutely no problems meeting lots of really interesting and available men. Bonus: dating is a super fun way to practice my Spanish! For anyone planning to come here and wondering just how I met all the awesome guys I dated, some of it was natural (meeting when out) but lots of the dating scene here happens on Tinder, so don’t shy away from using that app while here.

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