More than half the country’s population lives the historical capital city of Montevideo, which was founded by Spain in the late 1600’s after the Portuguese founded Colonia just a few hours southwest. A rough history for the next 150 years finally saw the official independence of Uruguay in 1828.
Evidence of the countries mixed influences are evident in the architecture and the many plazas that provide beautiful views of the surrounding area, and in some cases the Rio del Plata which across the vast expanse of water lies my home away from home, Buenos Aires.
Unlike Buenos Aires, Montevideo is quiet and much easier to navigate. Entering the historical section of town you pass under a centuries old arch and soon find cobbled stone streets and narrow pedestrian walkways. Walking toward the river I passed very aromatic fisherman, many of which not only towing the tools of their trade but their offspring too.
This historical section butts up against the financial center of what is the largest city in Uruguay. Massive bank buildings dating from the late 1800’s still sit proudly and reek the aura of their once flamboyant and powerful past. I wonder into history and art museums, pass through plazas centered by 100 year old fountains and wonder through a maze of residential housing.
At night this area quiets down except the few streets closest to the main plaza. A handful of fine restaurants, bars and pubs lend an hint to the touristy flair of this part of town. But it’s winter in Montevideo. The tourists that flock here and to the beaches east of Montevideo are long gone. I notice a film crew taking advantage of the minimal pedestrian traffic and the beauty of the colonial buildings in Plaza Constitucion.
I need to fill my pocket with some Uruguayan pesos and the first thing I notice, even in this tourist section, is that the ATM machines have no English option as they do all over Buenos Aires. I choose a no fills parilla, Al Abasto, that looks onto the Teatro Solís, built in 1856 and reportedly the oldest continual operating theatre in the Americas. Afterwards, I wonder the streets, shooting pictures and soon enough I’ve got a ten year old boy tailing me. Not shy he soon asks for money. Having noticed a string of panhandlers on my walk from my hotel through the Plazas Azucuenga, Independencia and Constitutuion, I had the server at my restaurant set me up with a doggy bag for my walk home. If my panhandlers were indeed hungry, I’d have the sure cure and therefore stave off alcohol and drug purchases, my strategy anyway.
“Tienes plata para comprar comida?” the dirty faced boy with a wool cap and gloves with the ends of the fingers cut off asks. He asks if I have money to give him for food. I ask him if he’s hungry. His little head with strands of hair like straw poking out from under the cap. I hand him the remains of my pork ribs. He peers into the bag and then rolls up the end. I continue to walk following the sound of live music.
“Tienes plata?” The boy zooms ahead of me and juts his palm in front of me. I have to stop. Now I’m a bit angry. And I launch into a subtle tirade about working for money and he needs to go to school. Then I remind him of the nice pork ribs he’s carrying in his other hand. He repeats the question. I do what I hate yet have to do and ignore him until I find the pub where a four piece rock group is belting out Latin rock/pop.
In many South American cities restaurants sometimes charge a fixed fee called a cubierto. It’s somewhat supposedly covering the cost of your table for the evening. In Europe I’ve been charged a fee per person for say bread and other treats that servers drop on your table. But what the cubierto actually covers is ambiguous in many places. In others, such as a pub or restaurant where live music is played this is an alternative to charging a “cover charge” at the door.
Two fine looking young ladies walk in, sit down next to me and begin to order a beer. It’s nearly 1am. When the waitress explains that there’s a 40 peso “cubierto”, (about $1.80 USD) they cancel their order and walk outside, the chilled air and minor breeze causing them to wrap scarves around their delicate necks.
Before I realize how much time had passed the band quit and the pub started thinning out. I bundled up what little I could and walked a mile back to my hotel