March 16, 2012

Uruguay…Why Not?

Buenos Aires is so close to Uruguay that it would have been a shame to miss it. There are ferries that run between the two countries every day, so we decided to take a 3-day side trip to check it out.

From Buenos Aires there’s a quick 1-hour ferry, but we opted for the slower and cheaper 3-hour boat ride across the mouth of the Rio de la Plata. The river is so vast that it gives the illusion you’re in the middle of a brown ocean. The boat was a miniature version of a cruise ship, and it was a no-hassle hop, skip, and a jump into Uruguay.

Our first stop was Colonia del Sacramento, a 17th century Portuguese colony, which is the oldest town in Uruguay. We enjoyed walking around the old section called Barrio Historico. We strolled along the waterfront promenade, saw the original city wall and drawbridge, walked amongst the ruins of a monastery, and climbed up into the lighthouse. From the top of the lighthouse, we got a good feel for how small the original town must have been. We could also just barely make out the cityscape of Buenos Aires from across the river. Beyond spending an afternoon in Barrio Historico, there is not a ton to do or see in Colonia del Sacramento. It’s a city to simply enjoy on foot as you meander the tree-lined cobblestone streets.

 The next day we took a 3-hour bus ride to Uruguay’s capital, Montevideo. We started off walking around their historic center (Ciudad Vieja) and many plazas. We saw a lot of their important national buildings such as the Supreme Court, Office of the President, Statue of Liberty and the original city gate. On two occasions, we were walking by the Stock Exchange when a horse-drawn wagon trotted by. We could also hear the clip-clop of horses from inside our hostel at night. Given all of the construction that we saw, we got the impression that this is a city (and country) trying to put one foot towards the future with one foot still in the past.

On our last day we hopped across town to a neighborhood called Pocitos to go to the beach. This turned out to be a nice residential community where we ate lunch and shopped the fruit stands. We discovered that children in Uruguay also wear white lab coats to school, but they've added a piece of flare in the form of a massive navy blue neck bow…even the boys.

One of the highlights of Uruguay was the food. We had our best empanadas to date…made to order from a little restaurant in Montivideo’s Ciudad Vieja called El Rincon. We also discovered three brand new foods.

Milanesa is a very thin patty typically made of beef or chicken. It’s soaked in egg and then breaded and fried. It can either be served on its own or as a sandwich.

Chivito is the Uruguayan version of a hamburger…but even better. It was stuffed with meat, lettuce, tomato, ham, egg and cheese.

Finally, in our effort to taste test ice cream flavors from around the world, we sampled Sambayon. It’s a bright yellow ice cream made of vanilla, wine and raw eggs. The taste was unique, but not yummy enough to bring back to the US.

We also felt compelled to drink Uruguayan wine. We can tell you that there’s a reason Uruguay isn’t known for wine making. Neither of our bottles was very good, but we did get to try a new varietal called Tannat.

And a recap of Uruguay would not be complete without mentioning Mate. Yerba mate is a loose herbal leaf, reminiscent of tea, but served in a squash gourd called a mate. After the leaves are placed in the gourd, hot water is added and the drink is taken via a metal straw called a brombilla that has a filtration system on the end. While mate is very popular in Argentina, it is an obsession in Uruguay. Everyone is ubiquitously carrying around their gourd, brombilla, and thermos full of hot water. It’s amusing to see grown men coveting their mate gourds in the same way that a baby needs its bottle.

The weather forecast for our 3-day Uruguayan escapade was calling for 100% heavy rain showers. We had even considered calling the trip off, but we’re so glad that we didn’t. It didn’t rain a single drop the entire time, and in return for our steadfastness, Uruguay blessed us with sunsets like this.

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