Although one purpose of my Latin America journey was to visit friends, I didn’t know anyone in Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay. I’d booked a hotel there for one night because:

  1. All the flights to Buenos Aires, Argentina seemed to have layovers of eight hours or more, often in more than one city.
  2. My Argentine friend Carlos told me Montevideo is charming and recommended a day there.
  3. Montevideo and Buenos Aires are both on the Rio de la Plata, and taking a ferry boat down the widest river in the world sounded like fun!

Diagram of author's plane journey from Panama City to Montevideo - A day in Montevideo

On the flight from Panama City, I had the extraordinary privilege of meeting a family in the act of fleeing Venezuela, their troubled native country, to live with relatives in Uruguay. Claudia and her two grown daughters, Stephanie and Figuera, occupied the row just in front of me.

At the Montevideo airport’s baggage carousel, I embraced all three ladies and wished them well. The last thing Stephanie (who speaks some English) said to me was, “It’s winter here. It’s cold!” I’d forgotten, and quickly dipped into my duffel bag! After putting on my lined jacket, ski-hat and scarf, I was ready.

A slightly rough beginning

Orpheo Express hotel - A day in Montevideo

The Orpheo Express, a consummate boutique hotel in Montevideo’s Old City.

As with Mexico City a few days before, I had a little trouble finding the there there in Montevideo, at first. It was hard to even get downtown, for one thing.

Taxis were $56 U.S., way beyond my budget, and the bus drivers seemed to have no empathy for a fellow fumbling to express himself in halting Spanish! Five or six of them folded their doors and drove off, as if offended.

The hotel I’d booked was in the Ciudad Vieja, the Old City. Finally, my simple query, “Cidudad Vieja?” yielded a driver’s beckoning finger, and I trundled my bundle and myself into a front row.

The bus passed some fields, followed by miles of nondescript suburb. It could’ve been the American Midwest, except for a few palm trees and the signs being in Spanish. Where was the charming city my friend had mentioned?

Finally, when I was one of two people still on the bus, I began to see more interesting buildings. “Ciudad Vieja!” the driver said as he pulled over to the curb.

A square in Ciudad Vejas (old city) - A day in Montevideo

One of the picturesque vistas, the cathedral in a square along a Rambla in Ciudad Viejas, Montevideo.

I got out onto a semi-slum corner that was a tunnel for cold, brisk wind. Google Maps wasn’t cooperating, so I tried to flag passing taxis. After 10 minutes, one stopped.

A mere five minutes later, the driver let me off in front of a tall, modern building. Orpheo Express appeared in big letters on its side. The desk clerk took my information and stored my bag for me. She said the official check-in time was 2 p.m., but if I came back at 11:30 a.m., my room would probably be ready.

Travellers and desk clerk at Orpheo Express - A day in Montevideo

Left: Part of the international crowd at the hotel restaurant. Right: Paulo, a helpful desk clerk.

The hotel restaurant, adjacent to the lobby,  had its breakfast buffet going on. The proprietress invited me to help myself. I filled a plate with slices of ham and cheese and a croissant. Carrying a cup of coffee in my other hand, I walked to a table and sat down to plan the day. Things were going my way again!

Ramblas rambles

After breakfast, I took a walk in the direction I believed led to the riverfront. Having reserved and paid for the next morning’s ferry ticket a month earlier, I still felt it was a good idea to scope out the terminal.

Soon I was in the central square of Montevideo. Like the main plazas of other Latin American cities, it was surrounded by picturesque Victorian or pre-Victorian buildings.

Independence Plaza and Artigas statue - A day in Montevideo

Left: Independence Plaza, the central square in Montevideo. Right: Artigas, a national hero of Uruguay, appears to be galloping out of a modern office building along the plaza.

Continuing to wander, I found myself on a Rambla, a pedestrian walkway, and followed it as far as my legs would comfortably go. There were picturesque squares with lovely old churches; all sorts of shops; a farmer’s market; and, especially as the real estate began to get less spiffy—lots of interesting street art.

Four pictures of street art - A day in Montevideo

Some of the street art along the Rambla that runs a block up from the river in Ciudad Vieja.

I walked to the river and along it a bit, looking for the ferry terminal. Finally, I asked a fisherman. He pointed to the right and said it was only a 15-minute walk away. My legs were getting tired. I decided to trust him on that, and turned around.

Fisherman on Rio de la Plata - A day in Montevideo

“Of time and the river.” A fisherman on the Rio de la Plata in Montevideo, Uruguay.

I succeeded in checking in early at the hotel, which, by the way, was wonderful. Mid-sized boutique hotels in all the large cities seemed to have things down to a science! I found myself stationed in a little heaven.

After a nap

Being in my room after a long night of flying led to a grateful 1/2 hour in the bathtub, followed by an hour’s nap. Then I went back out on a Rambla leading in the opposite direction of my morning walk.

This one, the Rambla of Montevideo, followed the seashore. Supposedly, it’s the longest continuous sidewalk in the world. I intended to take this walkway for several miles, then leave and go a little ways inland to visit the Nacional Museo de Artes Visuales.

I walked for an hour or so. A wide boulevard ran along the seafront, next to the sidewalk. A low seawall with bench-features continued to my right, with few interruptions, for several miles.

Mural on the wall of a school - A day in Montevideo

A striking mural on the wall of a school situated adjacent to the Rambla that followed the seashore.

Across the freeway-like boulevard was a seemingly endless series of clusters of reddish-brown 10-storey apartment buildings. It was a lovely day, with a blue, cloudless sky and a temperature of around 70 degrees Fahrenheit (about 21 degrees Celsius).

Kids with bikes on a pier - A day in Montevideo

“Kids and Bikes.” Noticed while walking past a pier that juts out from the seawall.

The views back towards the downtown buildings and monuments were interesting. Going forward, however, the unchanging pattern of sea, seawall and apartment buildings made the walk somewhat monotonous, in spite of the oceanfront features.

Strip of highway and apartment buildings on somewhat monotonous walk - A day in Montevideo

The repeating patterns of the seawall and the identical clumps of apartment buildings led to a certain monotony, even in such a spectacular setting.

I left the Rambla after an hour and walked up a street curving inland up a hill. Though once more in a neighbourhood that held my full attention, I soon became lost and hailed a passing taxi. Five minutes later, I was at my destination, the museum.

Museo Nacional de Artes Visuales

Outdoor cafe at museum - A day in Montevideo

The outdoor café of the Museo Nacional de Artes Visuales, which actually resembled some of the paintings inside.

The museum’s permanent collection was precisely the kind of art I most enjoy: a simply curated representative gallery of the most beautiful and expressive Uruguayan paintings and sculptures of the past century or so. The colours and rhythms refreshed me! Modernism had done well in Uruguay. Before its inception, so had picturesque realism.

Four paintings in the Museo Nacional de Artes Visuales - A day in Montevideo

Top left: “Candombe” by Pedro Figari; Top right: “Play” by Petrona Viera; Bottom left: “The Moon in the Square” by Amalia Nieto; Bottom right: “All in Order” by Silveira y Abbondanza

Shortly after I entered the main gallery area, I noticed a tall, thin man in a beret and sweater, probably a local bohemian. I glanced, in passing, at the painting he was standing near. As I did, he reverently murmured to me, “Muy hermosa.” 

This caused me to look more closely at the painting. It turned out to be a battlefield scene in which many people lay dead or maimed. I looked at the man and exclaimed, with a wrinkled brow and a smile, “Muy muerto!” and we both broke up laughing.

The Buquebus “adventure”

Buquebus ferry boat - A day in Montevideo

One of the enormous Buquebus ferries.

After breakfast the next morning, I checked out of the hotel. Paulo, the desk clerk, phoned a taxi to take me to the Buquebus ferry terminal. As we approached, I could see the boat at the dock, huge and gleaming in the morning sun.

I quickly paid the driver, rolled my bag into the terminal, and presented my passport at the counter. The agent found everything to be in order and gave me a printout of my prepaid ticket.

Next, I had to go through a quick customs check, since I was sailing to another country. While waiting in line, I snapped a photo of the process, simply as part of my record of the journey. I was surprised to see one of the customs agents scowling at me and calling me over. She made me delete that picture from my phone while she watched.

Soon after boarding the luxurious ferry, I noticed that it was impossible to go outside from the Economy section, where I was. Nor could I get Wi-Fi! I walked to the onboard ticket desk and upgraded myself to Tourist class.

That section was up a flight of stairs. There, I learned that I had to pay still more for Wi-Fi, and the basic rate only put you online for half an hour! Because I wanted to send photos out as I took them, I paid.

Then I asked a steward, “Which way to the open deck?”

Nadie sale afuers, el barco va demasiado rapido!” [“No one is allowed outside, the boat goes too fast!”] she responded, a bit sharply.

A safety issue, apparently. I’d once lived on Staten Island in New York City, and had loved taking the ferry every day to my art school in Manhattan. I’d never heard of a ferry with no outside deck!

The author wearing required booties on Buquebus ferry - A day in Montevideo

Booties required on the Buquebus ferry.

Glumly, as the boat started backing out of its mooring, I sat in one of the upscale leather window seats in the theatre-like passenger area. The window was rather dirty.

The Rio de la Plata was brown, and after we pulled away from Montevideo, there was no shore to see, only the brown expanse. There were screens at the front of the seating area, which began to play Home Shopping Network videos, and later on, travel videos.

Seats and tv screens on Buquebus ferry - A day in Montevideo

The theatre-like seating area and the screens that played the home shopping channel and travel videos.

It wasn’t what I’d hoped, this ferry trip! But at least it was getting me to Buenos Aires. Two hours later, the city began to come into view, and an impressive city it was!

Docking in Buenos Aires

Docking in Buenos Aires - A day in Montevideo

Docking at Buenos Aires, seen through the ferry window.

I exited the terminal. Just beyond its entrance stood my friend Carlos. He’d come by bus all the way from La Plata, 50 miles (about 80 kilometres) away. Carlos had vowed to help me find my hotel and “Get us some great pizza in one of the restaurants near the Obelisk!” [The central monument of Buenos Aires.]

I rolled my big bag across the bumpy asphalt and a muddy ditch, towards a traffic light. A moment later, the light  turned green, and we entered the great city.

The author and friend Carlos after eating pizza - A day in Montevideo

Carlos and the author in Buenos Aires, after devouring their lunch at a restaurant called—somewhat comically, for an American used to seeing that state’s name associated with fried chicken—Kentucky Pizza. 

To go on to the next installment in this series, visit AN AMERICAN IN BUENOS AIRES: Travels in Latin America [Part 5]

To read about the previous leg of the author’s journey, visit FURTHER ADVENTURES IN MEXICO CITY: Travels in Latin America [Part 3]»

To start at the beginning of the series, visit THE WONDERS OF OAXACA: Travels in Latin America [Part 1]

5th image from bottom: Wikimedia Commons; all other images: Max Reif