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Montevideo: South America's best-kept secret

August 5, 2019

When it comes to travel in Latin America, Uruguay is often overlooked among international visitors. But with a rich culture and youthful vibe, its capital Montevideo might just be one of the most exciting destinations.

Waterfront main road with city-scape in the background - Montevideo
Montevideo's rambla seafront stretches out as far as the eye can seeImage: DW/S. Sanderson

The long shadow of Buenos Aires stretches over the Rio de la Plata all the way to Montevideo. The Uruguayan capital is often compared to its Argentinian rival sister especially by locals who habitually straddle their busy lives on both sides of the world's widest river estuary. However, from an outsider's point of view, the two could not be any more different.

While Buenos Aires is a metropolis that is steeped in tradition, and which defines itself by its illustrious past, Montevideo is a city that simply oozes youth from every pore — from its pulsating street art scene to the countless bars and cafés to its outdoorsy lifestyle, best displayed along its 27-kilometer-long (17-miles-long) rambla — the city's seafront esplanade. 

But above all, you can feel this fresh energy in the little squares like Plaza de la Constitutión in Montevideo's Cuidad Vieja - or Old Town - where the younger generations enjoy free WiFi access and hire out e-scooters by the minute, as they go about their digital days.

Rentable e-scooters parked in a row in Montevideo
With WiFi available in public places and e-scooters filling the city, Montevideo is leading Latin America's digital revolutionImage: DW/S. Sanderson

Time to take time

Even the most famous cafe in town, Café Brasilero, which dates back to 1877, is run by students rather than stiff fuddy-duddies — as is often the case in established "must-go" coffeehouses around the globe. 

Lit by brass chandeliers and surrounded by ancient wood-paneled walls, Café Basilero's baristas and waitresses believe in their own brand of the slow food movement here, taking their pretty time while even brewing up the simplest of espressos, as portraits of Montevideo's forefathers watch over them from modestly framed pictures and documents, which — in some cases — date well over a century back.

Motorbikes old and new parked outside a cafe in Montevideo
Old and new: Montevideo is full of contrastsImage: DW/S. Sanderson

Outside the little cafe, a colorful row of motorbikes and scooters clashes rather delightfully with the mental image that traditional addresses like Café Brasilero usually conjure up, which are typically more along the lines of horse-drawn carriages and vintage cars rather than Vespas and Kawasakis.

Latin America's most modern city

None of this young and hip energy should come as a surprise though; Uruguay is ranked first in Latin America when it comes to issues like e-government and democratic participation by the US State Department, and contributes the most troops per capita to the Unites Nations' peacekeeping missions.  

Despite a below-average birth rate, a quarter of the country's population are below the age of 15, adding even further to the youthful and progressive feel of its capital city. Most people here are in their 20s to 50s. Only about 15% of the population are above 60, which explains why about half of the candidates running for public office in the upcoming 2019 elections look like they are millennials, as can be seen in election posters across the city.

Harbor building behind barbed-wire fencing in Montevideo
Montevideo's port (pictured here) provides some stiff competition to the Argentine capital Buenos Aires and its harborImage: DW/S. Sanderson

Tradition and progress

That is not to say that Montevideo doesn't celebrate its customs. In fact, it is difficult to escape the city's vibrant culture — for example with young couples dancing tango in little street corners or at bars just a couple of blocks behind the central Plaza Independencia square, such as the popular Baar Fun Fun. 

An old rusty pick-up truck parked on a modern road in Montevideo
In Montevideo, the old exists alongside the new, adding to the Uruguayan capital's charmImage: DW/S. Sanderson

This elegant watering hole is the kind of establishment where the tango actually resembles tender foreplay rather than a choreographed set of steps — and where you could get into serious trouble for even implying that this sensual dance is of Argentine origin.

After all, one of the most famous tango singers in history, Julio Sosa, was born in Uruguay.

Should you wish to learn more about it but are too afraid to try your own foot at the tango, you can explore its origins and evolution in great detail at a nearby museum dedicated solely to the subject, where the receptionist makes a point about stressing that its dedicated to the Uruguayan tango and not its Argentine counterpart.

A man and a woman dancing a Tango on a street in Montevideo
Uruguayan Tango is officially classified as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCOImage: picture-alliance/dpa

And while the debate on the tango's cultural origins rages on, dozens of dynamic drummers in neighboring alleyways can be seen and heard banging the heavy beat of the Candombe for hours — Uruguay's unique style of percussive music, which has its roots in African rhythms brought to the city in the 19th century by slaves.

With its carnival-like performance, the Candombe draws spectators in like a magnet, particularly on weekends. If you felt insecure around Montevideo's talented tango dancers, you can certainly allow yourself to swing your hips and shake a leg to the Candombe - no prior experience necessary here.

Candombe band in colorful traditional costumes in Uruguay
Various sized drums are used as part of Montevideos Candombe processions Image: Comisión Patrimonio Cultural Uruguay/Rodrigo López

A feast for the taste buds

You have to double-down on your Uruguayan experience beyond song and dance by heading down to the Mercado del Puerto — the busy old port market where you can wander from stall to stall savoring the richest asados (broiled meats) as well as a selection of fresh fish from the brackish waters of the Rio de la Plata. The more adventurous travelers might dare to explore choto — a barbecued lamb tripe dish that is only found in Uruguay. This is a place where old and young, tradition and modernity seem to meet, as hipsters shake hands with butchers who - unlike their beef - look like they are way past their prime.

For more of a sit-down dinner experience, check out one of Montevideo's many steakhouses like La Otra or El Rincón, where you can chomp down some massive cuts of grilled beef that might smell inviting to even the staunchest of vegetarians, like myself.

Two glasses of red wine and the bottle on a restaurant table in Montevideo
If Candombe is Uruguay's rhythm, Tannat is certainly its unmistakable flavorImage: DW/S. Sanderson

The herbivores among us however can also find plenty of culinary alternatives to enjoy in Montevideo, such as torta frita, a pan-fried cake made from flour, yeast, and water. However, be aware that various forms of animal fat are also used a common ingredient across Latin America and make sure that yours is free of any such lardy substance — or "manteca" in Spanish. As a back-up, there is a rich assortment of Italian-inspired dishes available throughout the city, which were originally brought over from European immigrants in the 19th century.

These delicacies should be accompanied by a bottle of Tannat, a velvety red wine that is considered to be the national grape of Uruguay. But beware, the dark and rich wine can go to your head both because of its deceivingly fruity nature and its high alcohol content. If one thing does lead to another after perhaps one too many bottles of Tannat, you can explore Montevideo's pumping night life, with plenty of clubs catering to every interest from hard rock to the LGBTQ community.

Mate: Uruguay's unofficial religion

Don't worry too much about suffering a hangover the next morning; Uruguay has the best cure for that at the ready as well. Yerba mate is enjoyed throughout the region and is celebrated in almost mythical ways. This thick herbal infusion is drunk by young and old alike from a small, butternut-shaped cup without a handle and is consumed by sucking it through a special metal straw that filters out all impurities. It is to Montevideanos what coffee is to New Yorkers.

Buildings in Uruguay's Montevideo
Around half of Uruguay's population live in the busy capital Montevideo - with most of them addicted to mateImage: Imago/Xinhua

With its high caffeine content and antioxidant properties, you will see locals of all ages carry their favorite hot drink around in little kits designed exactly for the purpose of having it accessible at all times and places. This takes some serious dedication, as shlepping around a large thermos with hot water is part of the charming but elaborate mate cult. As opposed to their Argentine neighbors, however, people in Uruguay never add sugar to their mate, giving it a bitter taste - at least to the uninitiated. 

Mate is so ingrained in this culture that is also takes on the role of a ceremonial peace pipe. People feel perfectly comfortable passing it around even to strangers, with everyone sharing from the same straw, as if it were communal wine. It is a ritual that brings people across Montevideo together regardless of their age, gender, race, socio-economic status or class.

The mate cup also makes for the perfect souvenir to take back home - a gourd that is passed from one generation to the next as the proverbial glue that keeps everything together - in a way that only a fascinating city like Montevideo can.

Mate Tea
Without yerba mate, life in Uruguay would not be the sameImage: picture-alliance/Photononstop/A. Boureau
Sertan Sanderson Moderation
Sertan Sanderson DW journalist & human seeking to make sense of the world and understand what motivates other humansSertanSanderson