Port of Call: Montevideo, Uruguay

Plazas and promenades in a pleasant port town

By: Maryann Hammers

Montevideo may be in South America, but it has the look and feel of a European city, with its grassy plazas, fountains and sculptures; pedestrian-friendly promenades and cobblestone streets; historical buildings and museums.

As Uruguay’s capital with a population of more than 1.5 million, Montevideo’s atmosphere is lively, bustling and sophisticated. Travelers can easily stroll about or shop on their own. And there’s probably no need to obtain local currency, as credit cards and U.S. dollars are accepted virtually everywhere (but change is usually returned in pesos). The greenback stretches pretty far, too.

Mercado, Museum and Monuments
Mercado del Puerto (closed Sundays) is the obvious first stop for cruise-ship passengers. Almost directly across the street from the port, this quaint open-air market is part swap meet, part crafts fair, part art show, part bazaar. Cruise passengers will have no trouble finding the Mercado. They need simply follow the aroma of grilled beef over open flames, which comes wafting from outdoor cafes. This is a good place to sit down for a lunch of traditional empanadas, washed down with the popular local drink made of champagne and white wine. It’s called medio y medio, which translates to half and half.

From the Mercado, it’s a short stroll to Cuidad Vieja (Old Town), where history buffs will find museums, monuments and historical buildings galore. The 17th-century cathedral Iglesia Matriz presides over Plaza Constitucion (commonly known as Plaza Matriz). The Cabildo museum (Museo y Archivo Historico Municipal) just opposite the church was an old city hall, built in 1808 and the location for the signing of the Uruguayan Constitution in 1830. Today it exhibits paintings, furnishings and period costumes.

The national history museum (Museo Historico Nacional) is composed of four 18th- and 19th-century houses clustered near each other: Casa Garibaldi, Casa Rivera, Casa Lavalleja and Museo Romantico. Three of the structures were dwelling places of national heroes. Teatro Solis, Montevideo’s main theater and opera house, is an exact replica of Madrid’s Maria Guerrero Theater.

Strolling Old Town
For travelers who say, “But I can go to history museums in my own home town,” how’s this for an only-in-South America experience? The Museo del Gaucho is devoted to the Uruguayan cowboys and life on the ranch. It shares a building with a coin museum, the Museo de la Moneda.

Those who resisted purchasing a souvenir at the Mercado will have many more opportunities to do so on Calle Sarandi in Ciudad Vieja. Boutiques and outdoor cafes line this blocks-long walking and shopping promenade, where vendors set up stalls displaying their wares. Local specialties include chunky handcrafted jewelry and all manner of leather goods. Calle Sarandi reminded me of outdoor shopping promenades here in the states, but the setting is so much prettier, thanks to all the parks, plazas, fountains, monuments and historical buildings.

Sarandi Street ends at Plaza Independencia, which is dominated by a 30-ton statue of General Gervasio Artigas, the “father of Uruguay” who led the country’s movement toward independence. A tomb at the monument’s base contains his remains.

Venturing Downtown
Plaza Independencia marks the end of old town and beginning of downtown, with more stores, street performers and musicians, restaurants and several Internet cafes, where $1 buys more than an hour online (a relief for travelers who choke on the high onboard prices to send e-mail). For fine handcrafted jewelry, artworks and other local goods, look for the pink “Mercado de los Artesanos” sign in Plaza Cagancha, on Avenida 18 de Julio. More than 300 members of the Uruguayan Craftsmen display and sell their wares in this sprawling store-workshop, open Monday-Saturday.

Similar to the way folks in the United States walk around clutching a Starbucks cup, in Montevideo, it seems that just about every local is sipping from a silver straw in a round leather-lined gourd. It’s called a bombilla and is specifically designed for yerba mate, an herb used to make a tea-like hot drink that’s sipped through the silver straw with a strainer, like a tiny tea infuser, at its tip.

Sadly, mate is not available in restaurants. But for those who’d like to try it (or are seeking an authentic South American souvenir), bombillas are sold in stores and by street vendors, in several sizes and varieties for prices ranging from about $4 to $20. They can often be purchased completo (that is, including the ornamental straw). Any supermarket carries the mate itself a dollar or less will buy a good-sized box of the herb. It’s a fun, inexpensive souvenir.