As I write, it’s our week break for Easter. Most other Hispanic countries take this week off also, and it is typically called Semana Santa. However in Uruguay it’s called ‘Semana de Turismo’ owing to the country being laic. Sounds weird, ‘Tourism Week’, right? I would have said the same but at this point, in my 9th month in Uruguay it don’t even think twice about it. It is one of many things slightly bizarre in Uruguay that make up a small part of the country’s charming character.
Almost none of the people I know had heard of, let alone been to Uruguay. I got asked when I was leaving for Uganda amongst others last summer and it was all mildly surreal because I myself had never given the country much thought and knew very little about it. I wanted to do my Year Abroad in South America and as Santiago in Chile and Buenos Aires in Argentina are very over-subscribed I ended up in lil ol’ Montevideo the capital of Uruguay.
So how does it measure up? Comparatively Montevideo is very safe, I think this is much to do with its size. The city is small and so there isn’t a dangerous area per-say but there are a couple of neighbourhoods that are slightly riskier than the rest and you just know to avoid them at night. A big con for the country, and there’s not many, is the cost of living – it’s hard to give concrete examples of prices but overall I am spending more than I would on the equivalent in England. That was a big shock! I thought it would be the opposite, disillusioned by the idea of the whole continent of South America being expensive to get to but cheap once you get there (I have since travelled to six countries on the continent and can assure you that’s far from the case, unfortunately). Uruguay has stupidly high import taxes and as a result something like a small pot of Nutella can cost around £8. I’ve learnt to shop local and eat Uruguayan, though had to rein in the dulce de leche consumption! I shop in my local ‘feria’ (food market) for fresh fruit and veg, cheese, hams, chicken and fish and only go to the supermarket when absolutely necessary for pasta, rice, tinned foods etc. I can’t not mention the STEAK! Steak is super cheap, ridiculously good, and available everywhere. Most cows in Uruguay are grain-fed so it is all really high quality meat, enough to convince a vegetarian friend here to convert to carnivorism. Another pro (this one more important to some people) is that alcohol is really rather cheap. Uruguay makes amazing wine, with their Tannat grape supposedly the healthiest in the world, so you can get bottles from £2 and very nice bottles from about £5/6, plus beer and spirits don’t break the bank nor taste awful. Buuuut in my opinion the nightlife is not much compared to Leeds. The music is not varied and the good places are usually crowded but probably still enough to get your fill. There are plenty of bars to go for a drink and a dance at, open until the same time as the clubs anyway. Overall, apart from steak dishes, Uruguay doesn’t really have a cuisine. They pride themselves on their pizza and pasta but it doesn’t come close to anything you can get in Europe. Every dessert comes in a dulce de leche option (and it also feels like so much in the supermarket has sugar added, from yoghurt to ground coffee to bread. This country has a sweet tooth) and other than that there remains the drink integral to Uruguay’s culture – ‘yerba mate’ (prounced mah-tay). It’s a bitter leaf ‘yerba’ that is carried around in a ‘mate’ cup with a thermos of hot water that they top it up with as they go, and it is drunk through a metal straw ‘bombilla’ which filters out the leaves. The flavour is pretty much green tea but it is drunk all year round, 24/7, any occasion, anywhere, and is very communal. Just like the British have tea I suppose.
Montevideo is quite often called a ‘sleepy’ city aptly, it is considered a national trait to be late to things, things start late in the day and go on late into the evening, people amble around the city, there is honestly no rushing any locals. That being said, the people are really so friendly and happy and are equally thrilled and bewildered as to why any tourists have come to their little country. They are one of, if not the, best things about this country and being so chatty and welcoming really helped me settle in. Yet the Uruguayan dialect and accent completely threw me at first. For example, where in Spain they would say ‘aquí/allí’ for ‘here/there’, in Uruguay it’s ‘acá/allá’ and the double ‘l’ becomes a ‘j’ sound instead of the ‘y’ I had learnt. These amongst others makes it all sound so different and I spent my first couple of weeks feeling as if I’d lost all my Spanish. I have since adjusted and now dread returning to Leeds and trying to go back and speak the way I originally learnt…
Like I said, Montevideo is not a huge city by any standards, much the same as Uruguay is not a huge country. The nation’s population is roughly three and a half million, half of which live in Montevideo. The rest of the country inland is ‘gaucho’ territory, with something like 4 cows to every 1 human and endless rolling countryside very reminiscent of Hampshire. It’s beautiful. And then there’s the long coast up to Brazil with white sandy beaches, good surf and sunshine and whale watching at some points of the year, also beautiful. Apart from glitzy Punta del Este, fuelled by wealthy Argentine holiday makers, the coast line is very hippy and easy-come-easy-go vibes. Lastly, up the ‘Rio de la Plata’, there is the colonial UNESCO heritage town of Colonia del Sacramento from where the ferries to Buenos Aires depart. This is also very beautiful! I’ve been able to see just about all of the different sides of the country now and every time I’ve been to a new place Uruguay has gone up in my estimations more.
It’s funny because in my first two months or so I was completely disenchanted by it all, I really was not enjoying myself. It takes about that amount of time for you to see the character of Uruguay, yet I find it difficult to explain. It was hard to be in a quiet, expensive, cold city (I arrived in the middle of the bitter winter) when I knew big, cosmopolitan, famous Buenos Aires was so nearby but turns out I just had to peel back the layers and now I’m over the moon I’m here instead of there. BA is such an international city you don’t have the same challenges of speaking Spanish (day-to-day Uruguayans just don’t have English, it’s uncommon); I wouldn’t have otherwise had the chance to know to Uruguay because it’s not a place you can just pass through on the gringo trail of South America and really get; Uruguayans are much kinder than Argentines I have found; and lastly because it’s smaller it’s much more of a community feeling. There are things going on all the time but you have to talk to people to find out, or walk everywhere to discover tucked away coffee shops and cute book stores. I only have three months left here and still feel like there’s so much I want to see. If you are considering studying abroad in South America, please don’t dismiss Uruguay. It’s a bit of a selective choice and yes it’s a down point about the money, but it has so much to offer and I’m really loving it. You’ll get a totally different experience here – just bring your own tea bags!
Written by Nathalie