Saturday, August 12, 2017

Hola Uruguay, Hello Montevideo!

Buying figs at the Tristán Narvaja street market in Montevideo.

Original Post Date: February 19, 2017.

Hard to believe but we're finally in Montevideo! Excited to be in Uruguay but at the same time, it means that in in just a few days, our trip will have come to and end and we'll be making our way home. Until then, we're going to enjoy our short visit to this country.

We left Buenos Aires bright and early this morning.  We arrived into Montevideo via the 7:15a Buquebus "Francisco" high speed ferry.  It was an early morning start as I wanted to give ourselves as much time as possible in Montevideo.

Yesterday,  I messaged Luis, our Airbnb host, yesterday to tell him that we were leaving at 5:45a (originally 6a) today and asked him where to leave the apartment key - figuring he would not want to meet us that early in the morning. To my surprise, he indicated he would meet us at the apartment.  Considering he is a working DJ with late night gigs, I was surprised that he would be up so early!

I was surprised, yet again, when Luis showed up at the door exactly at 5:45a.  I had factored in a few minutes for him to arrive late but I have to admit, I was relieved to see him on time.  It was nice to finally meet him and I have to say, he is as friendly in person as he was in all the message exchanges I had had with him leading up to this moment.  He told us that the apartment actually belongs to his sister but she no longer lives in Buenos Aires and so the apartment is rented out as an Airbnb.  Like many hosts, he is facing some opposition from his neighbors.  Understandably, the don't feel comfortable having strangers traipsing in and out of their building all day long.

I was concerned about getting transportation to the Buquebus ferry terminal but Luis assured us that even at this early hour, on a Sunday morning, taxis would be plentiful.  He escorted us out front and then hailed a taxi for us, instructing the driver to take us to the terminal.  All in all,  Luis turned out to be a wonderful host and we enjoyed staying in the apartment.  For travelers like me, I hope he can continue to run it as an Airbnb.

As I had expected, there was no traffic on the roads and we arrived at the terminal in less than 15 minutes.  We had plenty of time to catch the ferry so I could take a breath and relax.

The Buquebus terminal is a a very modern steel and glass building on the outside and equally modern on the inside.  Bro and I made our way to the check in counter.  We checked in our luggage and got our boarding passes.  It is general seating so no need to worry about getting a good assigned seat.


We made our way to the upstairs departure lounge.  Along the way, we walked past a small cafe.  I offered to get breakfast for Bro but he wasn't interested.  I'm certain it was because he was carrying a bag of food in his backpack.  People say I'm a budget traveler....they've not met Bro :-)


It was barely 6:30a when we took our seats in the departure lounge.  As the minutes passed, the lounge began to fill up.  Then, the boarding announcement came and we made our way to the boarding ramp.  Part way down, ferry workers were handing out shoe covers.  Wow, I thought, this must be some fanciful ferry if we have to cover our shoes!


We followed the crowd on board the ferry and found ourselves a couple of nice seats.  I have to say this ferry is not only really nice though the carpeting didn't look all that pristine.


Hmmm.....in any case, everyone covered up their shoes so we both did the same.


This ferry is really nice!  Seats are comfy and we're not all crammed in.  The lighting is good.  The air conditioning was on and set to a comfortable temperature. 

The Francisco is also a huge ferry with a capacity of 1,000 passengers and 150 vehicles on 4 tiers!  While we waited for the ferry to fill up with passengers, I watched the cars drive in.  Quite a sight to see an endless stream of cars flowing into the bowels of the ferry.


I don't remember hearing the engines fire up.  I guess that's what is when you're on a boat this size.  But, in no time, we were on the open water and Buenos Aires was fading into the horizon.  The "panel" on the right side of the video is the car ramp.


Bro and I settled in for the 2 hour and 15 minute ride to Montevideo.  Can't complain, it was a very comfortable ride....compared to many of our other journeys.  Bro managed to get in a few winks.  I was too restless to sleep so I wandered about a bit.

Before we knew it, the port of Montevideo was coming into view.


Folks started to congregate around the windows, which were just a few rows of seats behind us.  Everyone was curious to watch this massive ferry dock.


Before the passengers disembarked, the cars rolled off.


We followed everyone else out, tossing our booties in the trash bins along the way.  The first thing we had to do was go through immigration.  There was both Argentinian and Uruguayan officials sitting pretty much side by side you once you exit Argentina, you step a few feet and enter Uruguay :-)

Next, we had to wait for our luggage to come out.

The ferry terminal in Montevideo was nowhere as new and spanking modern as the one in Buenos Aires.  It's a bit run down and things are a little more chaotic here.  As we exited the doors, we noticed a long line of buses, all with "Punta del Este", as the destination.  It seemed like many of the passengers that had been on the Francisco with us were now boarding the buses.  Punta del Este is a very popular beach destination and Buquebus offers a ferry/bus deal that will take you there.  In hindsight, I should've explored that option for us.

In any case, the ferry terminal is located a short walking distance from the old city and I had booked us into a hotel there.  According to Google Maps, the Puerto Mercado Hotel is located just about a 10 minute walk from the terminal.  So, I fired up the map and led the way.

It was blisteringly hot and humid day so I was thankful the walk would be a short one.  We quickly discovered that the terminal is located inside a military base.  We also had to go through as security check to exit the grounds of the base.  Then, we were pretty much in the old city.

My first impressions of the old city were not good.  The place was completely run down.  It felt more like a slum than pretty much every other Spanish colonial city I've ever been in.  The charming colonial Spanish buildings and cobble stone streets were there but everything was dilapidated - it all needed to be renovated, cleaned up, painted up and in general, fixed up.    It was so disheartening as I was expecting to enjoy basking in the charm of an old colonial city injected with touches of modern day Montevideo....read restaurants, cafes, boutiques, etc.  Instead, there were a few shops but nothing that I would expect would attract high end clientele.

I had expected a lot of people out and about enjoying the day as I had experienced in the old cities in Mexico.  Instead,  there were a LOT Of homeless people loitering around.  I think a good number were definitely either drunk, high or both.  It now began to make sense to me why the Argentinians just get off the ferry and directly make their way to Punta del Este instead of spending time here.


Sigh.  We moved on.  And we found our hotel, which is surprisingly a very modern place that is very well located within the old city.  It was too early for us to check so we left our luggage and headed out to explore the city.  I had spotted the Mercado del Puerto on our walk from the terminal to the hotel.  This is suppose to be the old central market.  Since we both love markets, I decided we should check this out first.  It's less than a 5 minute walk from the hotel.

It turned out to be the second disappointment of the day.  Mercado del Puerto WAS the old central market.  Today, it's just home to a bunch of restaurants.  The place was pretty much dark inside and none of the restaurants looked like they were open or even about to open.

So, we made our way to the Information Center which is located stone's throw from the Mercado.   We were the only visitors inside and there was just one man sitting behind a desk.  This place is not hopping with tourists!  We had some questions.  The man only spoke Spanish so Bro had to do all the asking.  First was where to get money.  Apparently, there are no ATMs around and I guess since this is a Sunday, the banks are all closed so the guy directed us to a nearby currency exchange place.  Next was to get suggestions on what to do.  The man suggested that we head out of the old city to the new city and vaguely described, though he did mark it on the map that he gave to us, a spot that we could enjoy some sort of a scenic view.  He kept saying, "mirador" which means "lookout or view" in Spanish.  We then asked about markets after proclaiming disappointment with the Mercado.  Since this was Sunday, there were plenty of weekend markets running and he it just so happened that we would be near one when we are at the mirador place.  Best part was that we could simply board a local city bus to get to both destinations and it just so happens that the nearest bus stop was located, literally, just across the street from the front door of our hotel!  I was beginning to feel better.  At least today would not be wasted.

From the Visitors Center, our next task was to find the currency exchange place.  We had to stop a few people to ask for help but we eventually made it to the place.  In fact, when I saw it, I realized we probably walked right by it on our way from the ferry terminal to the hotel :-)

I exchanged $100 USD and told Bro we have to be very careful spending our money; using credit cards whenever we can.  He's very good at managing a tight budget!

It was still too early to check in so our next stop was at a bench.  Lunch time!  Bro had pretty much packed up all the leftovers from our fridge in Buenos Aires and we just munched on a mish mash of things as we sat and watched the world go by. 


We had seen the outline of a very large cruise ship looming over the buildings of the military base.  As we ate, we noticed what were obviously passengers from the ship, wandering up and down the street and in and out of shops.  One lady, of Filipino descent, sat down next to us.  She told us that she and her American born husband are from Seattle and they are on a long cruise that started in Santiago, took them down to Tierra del Fuego and  by tomorrow, will end up in Buenos Aires.  Wow!  What a trip!  Apparently, they've had a great time except for a very boring stretch down the length of Chile.  It cost them a pretty penny to do the trip but I guess if that's the way you like to travel then what the heck.  Not my cup of tea though.

We made our way back to the hotel just before 2p and our room was ready so we checked in.  The room is small but very modern and perfectly comfortable.  We've gotten very spoiled with spacious Airbnb apartments.

Before we set out again, Bro wanted to double check the bus information with the receptionist.  Sure enough, the stop was right across the street and bus number 116 would take us to our destination though he had no idea what "mirador" we were asking about.  Hmmm... you have to wonder how popular a place is if no one knows about it!


Our tickets cost us 30 pesos each....that's about a dollar.


The bus rolled out of the old city streets.  We soon left Spanish colonial buildings and cobble stone streets behind and rumbled over asphalt roads flanked with buildings built of concrete, glass and steel.  The first stretch of the drive was along the water which I incorrectly assumed was the Atlantic Ocean but in fact, it's the Rio de la Plata.

New city Montevideo is not exactly charming.  It's not all that pretty a place either.  I think it's a city that functions.  Perhaps there is charm and modernity here but it was not evident from the other side of a local bus window.

Bro asked the driver about the mirador and the man had no clue.  Nor did any of the passengers around us.   I think we weren't asking the right questions.  In any case,  looking at the spot on the map that had been circled for us, Bro just took a shot and a stop and we got off.


We continued to walk in the same direction that the bus had been going, stopping pedestrians along the way to see if they knew about the mysterious mirador and well, we just got a lot of head shaking in return.  This was quickly turning into an exercise in futility and I was quickly beginning to lose my patience.  And then, it happened.  We saw the fish tanks.  Not just one fish tank but lots of fish tanks.  Then the household pets appeared.....




Then there were people selling clothes and housewares and well,  I excited told Bro I though we were near the market.  He wasn't convinced until he saw the cross street that had been blocked off to vehicular traffic and was now filled with street vendors.  Based on the location on the map, I just Googled and found out that we were at Tristán Narvaja (aka Feria de Tristán Narvaja in Spanish) street market which only operates on Sundays. 

Located in the middle of Cordón neighborhood, Tristán Narvaja street (which honors the 19th century lawmaker) stretches from 18 de Julio Avenue through La Paz street.  The street is home to several bookstores and antique shops but on Sundays, it's filled with street vendors.

I was now smiling as I know we both enjoy strolling through street markets.


We made our way down one of the streets, checking out what was for sale.  The produce vendors always catch Bro's attention....especially if they are selling fruit.  It's hard to excite Bro when it comes to fruit because in all honesty, it's hard to do better than the variety of fruits that he gets at home.  He lives in the perfect place for a fruit addict!


This place as absolutely packed with people!  After having seen the dilapidated condition of the old city, it's no wonder the locals don't go there.  Plus, the action is all here!






The smell of meat grilling over open flame tickled my nose.  So sorry that I had eaten mish mash leftovers from Buenos Aires instead of these skewers.  I have to talk to Bro about not carrying along leftovers.  Yes, it's not good to waste food but once in a while is okay.


The sight of the green figs stopped us in our tracks.  The first figs we've seen on this trip and they were perfectly ripe.  They are one of our favorite fruits.  We had to have some and the very friendly lady who was also picking from the bin insisted on helping Bro fill up his bag.  They were absolutely delicious figs and I know that Bro would've had bought a whole lot more if we had been staying in an apartment where we would've had a refrigerator to store them in.




I saw a lot of vendors selling mate cups but none as nice or unique as the cow hoof one I got in Punta Arenas.  I'm glad I got mine.


I was stunned to see all the marijuana paraphernalia for sale here.  I always thought of Uruguay as a conservative Christian nation but it's anything but.  According to what I've read on the web, marijuana will not be legalized until later this year.  In fact, Uruguay will be the first nation in the world to fully legalize the production and sale of marijuana for recreational use.

I guess some folks are already getting a head start on things.  Given how open the vendors were I'm guessing the police don't bother with fining or arresting any one.





We meandered up and down a few streets before declaring that we had had enough.  We made our way back to the main road and then looked for a bus stop to catch a ride back to the old city aka Ciudad Vieja.  I told Bro we could probably just hop on any bus that has Ciudad Vieja posted on the destination sign but over all these years of travel, I have come to learn that Bro does not like to take chances.  So, he asked several people standing nearby, which bus we should take.  One very friendly gentleman told us he was going to the old city and so we should just follow him onto a bus.  When the CA1 bus rolled up, he got on and so did we.

The bus made it's way back to the old city.  As we passed buildings that neither of us recognized, we wondered where we had to get off.  As we neared the main street that runs up from the direction of the ferry terminal, people on the bus began to wave us off.  They know we are tourists - we couldn't have been much more obvious!  As I got off the bus, I knew exactly how to get back to the hotel.  That main street is the only one that is pedestrian only, at least in this part of the old city, so it's a good landmark for navigating around.  Turns out that the our hotel is just the next, parallel street, over.  It's going to be very convenient getting around on local bus!

We rested a bit in our hotel room and then headed out to a nearby supermarket to get some bottled water.  First time we've had to buy any in a long time!  There, we spotted some prepared food and decided to just pick up a chicken pasta dish to snack on.  As it turned out, it was pretty big serving of chicken and pasta and after we ate it, we decided to pass up on dinner.  Bro had his figs to munch on and we still had some leftovers from Buenos Aires to finish up.  Tomorrow, we are done with leftovers!


Our plans have been very fluid so we have three more days here.  In addition to exploring more of Montevideo itself, I had come up with ideas for two day trips.  On the top of the list is Colonia del Sacramento which is located about a 90 minute drive from town.  We can take the bus to get there.   My vote is to head there tomorrow and Bro has no objections so Colonia here we come!  I did not buy the bus tickets ahead of time so we'll have to get ourselves to the central bus station tomorrow and get them!  Should be fun and I'm looking forward to leaving the old city.....never thought I would say that!

Goodnight from Ciudad Vieja, Montevideo!