As we had arrived at the port in Montevideo late the afternoon before, we were able to disembark the ship at our leisure. We enjoyed a hearty breakfast in the Oceanview Cafe and then walked off the ship onto the terminal pier just before 9:00am. Kim had booked a private city tour of Montevideo, and our driver, Herman, was waiting for us at the entrance to the pier.
I have to say that one of the most enjoyable things for me about travel is discovering the unexpected. Prior to our trip, the two of us had our own special things that we were looking forward to seeing in South America. For me they were (ranked in order) Iguazu Falls, the penguin colony in Puerto Madryn, the Patagonia (and passage around Cape Horn), Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro. Montevideo was not on that list. In fact, I knew nothing about Montevideo prior to our trip, and only read some cursory information in the ship’s daily update on our last sea day. To say I was pleasantly surprised is an understatement.
Montevideo is the capital of Uruguay and boasts a population of 1.5 million, about 1/3 of the country’s total population. It is a sea port that is located in the southern part of Uruguay, on the Atlantic Coast. Interestingly, it is the southernmost capital in all the Americas. Like most South American cities, Montevideo’s Spanish roots go back to the early 18th century. Since then, it has grown in economic stature and has been rated first by the Mercer report as having the best quality of life of any city in Latin America. This became evident to us as we began our tour of Montevideo.
Our first impression of the city was how European it looked - an eclectic mixture of neo-classical and art-deco, with countless markets and Spanish style squares. Modern buildings fit in seamlessly with the historical architecture and what is particularly noticeable is that there are no towering skyscrapers (unlike most other capitals) that would otherwise obscure the views across the cityscape and horizon.
After a quick driving tour along the main boulevard (more about this later), we headed towards the downtown area where Herman found a parking spot next to a hotel close to a pedestrian street lined with shops where he dropped us off. This gave Kim and I a chance to meander down the bustling street, lined with tall palm trees, and browse the tiny shops on our way to one of the markets where we would meet back up with Herman. The shops on both sides of this street were small but modern and clean.
Since the national stone of Uruguay is Amethyst, there were quite a few jewelry stores along the route. Kim was struck by a particular piece in a storefront window, and we walked into this shop to have a look. The pieces of jewelry that had been crafted from the amethyst were exquisite and after much deliberation, Kim eventually landed on the necklace that she had admired in the storefront.
One of the unique features of this store is the small, but impressive Amethyst Museum that was cordoned off and tucked away in a tiny, elevated alcove to the side of the store. To be honest, I hadn’t noticed it at first, because the alcove was dimly lit. The owner pointed out the museum after we had made our purchase, and invited us into the alcove to view the magnificent giant, jagged, raw Amethyst stones that stood like statues on the carpeted floor. He turned up the lights so we could see the dazzling colour of the rocks. They were huge! When we finished gazing at the stones and were leaving the alcove, I tripped on the carpet as I was descending the slight step to the main floor. At the same time, I knocked over one of the monstrous pieces that stood guard to the alcove and tried to stop it from crashing to the floor. I was successful in saving the piece as I was falling, but it landed on my lower arm and gashed my hand. The proprietor and his staff immediately came to my aid and seemed overly concerned that I might be hurt. While nothing seemed to be broken, my wrist and hand were bruised and numb (as was my ego), my biggest concern was that the piece was not damaged as I couldn’t imagine how much that would have cost us. I did suffer some soreness and swelling over the next few days but nothing that impacted our trip.
After our minor drama in the jewelry store, we continued our walk down the street and through a small market where we eventually met back up with Herman who guided us to Plaza Independencia, Montevideo’s most important plaza.
This is a large rectangular plaza with rounded corners that is circumvented by the beginning of the 18 de Julio Avenue, the most important avenue in Montevideo as it commemorates the date of the first Constitution of Uruguay in 1830. The plaza is dominated at its centre by the Artigas Mausoleum which is identified by a monument that sits on top of the mausoleum beneath. The mausoleum contains the remains of the Uruguayan hero and father of the nationhood, Jose Artigas. We descended the steps into the sombre and dimly lit mausoleum that was respectfully quiet and advanced to an elevated glass case that contained the urn with the remains of Artegas. A pair of Uruguayan guards stood motionless and at attention on either side of the enclosed sanctuary.
Leaving the mausoleum we walked through the square and crossed over to the Solis Theatre, Uruguay’s most renowned and prestigious theatre that was opened in 1856. From here, we drove about 10 minutes to the impressive Palacio Legislavtivo del Uruguay, the austere Greco-Roman style Parliament building. The building’s construction began in 1908 and spanned 3 decades. We had missed the morning visiting hours, so we were not able to go inside, but Herman told us that the interior walls are covered in marble from different parts of Uruguay.
We left the area around the palace and drove a short distance to Mercado de la Abundancia. On the way, we passed by an interesting piece of Montevideo architecture, the telecommunications company, whose building is shaped like the bow of a ship rising up from the earth.
Reaching the market, Herman parked the car and Kim and I went inside the sprawling indoor facility. We wandered through the many aisles, stopping for juice and coffee at one of the food booths. We managed to pick up a few amethyst necklaces to take home as gifts.
We left the market and began the final leg of our city tour, passing by the Holocaust Memorial, dedicated the victims of the Jewish genocide. Our drive took us along the Ramblas de Montevideo, the main avenue of the city that goes all along the coastline of Montevideo. It is also famous for having the longest continuous sidewalk in the world with a length of 22. 2 kilometers! What was most notable about this part of the drive was the amount of green space with large, treed parks on either sides of the boulevard. We passed through quiet, upscale neighbourhoods, dotted with beautiful homes. Closer to the coast we passed along the endless beaches that separated the Ocean from the modern, but understated condos and hotels.
Arriving at the port, Herman told us that we could recover the taxes that we paid on all of the purchases we made, provided that we kept the receipts. He pointed to a building in an industrial part of the pier that we were able to walk to before going back to the ship. We took his advice and managed to receive 18% off of our purchases.
Boarding the ship, we changed for dinner and went to the main dining room where enjoyed one of our most anticipated meals on any cruise - the famous lobster dinner. I topped that off with the feature dessert, which tonight was baked Alaska. Following dinner we were entertained in the theatre by a talented group of Motown musicians called the Horizons.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this blog, I knew very little about Montevideo before we arrived here. It turns out this is one of those secret little gems that is well worth the visit.
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Sharing Our Travel Dreams
Sharing our personal experiences onboard and on the road, along with tips and insight for creating memorable vacations.