Montevideo: Expert travel guides

I spent nearly six weeks in Uruguay’s capital, Montevideo, so you could say I’m something of an expert on the city. I have written a series of guides to the city for Stanfords’ travel blog – Montevideo: A cultural guideMontevideo cafe guide and 11 quirky things to do in Montevideo.

Montevideo's old city gate

Montevideo’s old city gate

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A change

They say a change is as good as a holiday, don’t they? Well, after four weeks in Montevideo, I dusted the cobwebs off my backpack and headed up the coast to Buenos Aires – no, not The Buenos Aires, but a beach village with the same name, a few kilometres outside of Punta del Este on Uruguay’s coast.

Punte del Este is the celebrity hang out of this part of South America at this time of year – Brazilian and Argentinean stars and travellers alike flock to this Miami-esque city by the sea to pose and parade by the beach. Not for me. But luckily, Carlos had some friends who are working in the much more undeveloped and rugged Buenos Aires, and offered for us to stay with them in their beach-side house for a couple of days.

Buenos Aires village, Uruguay. Photo © Rachel Ricks

Buenos Aires village, Uruguay. Photo © Rachel Ricks

After an emotional few weeks, I was still feeling low and fragile and questioning this whole travel lark, but figured a change of scenery and some beach time should do the trick. After arriving at their house, however, I endured several hours of Spanish conversations and jokes, with me able to pick up only a few words, and too embarrassed or frozen or whatever to attempt any contribution, so I only descended into a deeper state of misery.

Buenos Aires beach, Uruguay. Photo © Rachel Ricks

Buenos Aires rugged beach, Uruguay

However – it would all be worth it and I’d soon be cheered up, as swimming in the sea and sunbathing on a beach are among my favourite things to do in the world. When we finally headed to the beach, I sat down and looked at the massive waves ripping and curling into the shore; I’ve only recently learnt to swim and have never encountered waves as powerful as these before, so effectively, I realised, the sea was inaccessible to me. As I watched everyone around me frolicking and enjoying the beach, I suddenly felt a bit isolated – I was not enjoying it, and felt guilty for thinking this way.

But suddenly something changed – Carlos, who grew up playing in the surf of Lima’s Pacific beaches, got me down to the water’s edge and slowly but surely led me in, teaching me how to read the waves.

The lagoon-like waters of Malaysia’s Perhentian Islands it was not – it was way more exciting. I spent the rest of the afternoon screaming and laughing as I dived into waves and let them crash me into the shore.

And suddenly from those small steps, everything was better.

From now on, I know that big waves don’t necessarily mean danger, but a whole lot of fun.  When we got back to the house, I even managed a few words in Spanish and understood a sentence or two.

And best of all, I’m excited about travel again.

Yep, all those philosophers are right; to really get the most out of life, we have to face our fears – just like I leapt head-on into those oh-so intimidating waves.

Walking on through the storm

I have been in Montevideo for pretty much four weeks now and it’s unexpectedly become a rocky ride. At first I was hanging out here by choice – I found the city a great place to spend some time, and flung out emails left, right and centre for teaching work and apartment rentals, while planning to head to the beach for the Christmas holiday.

However, as Christmas approached, things suddenly didn’t look so rosy.

A couple of months ago, on my last night in Peru while waiting for the bus, my wallet had been stolen out of my rucksack. Unfortunately my bank card was inside, and for the coming weeks I planned to be on the move almost every day so there was no chance of getting sent a new one without staying put for a good while. Buenos Aires’ post offices refused to do poste restante for me, but thankfully when I arrived in Montevideo they offered the service – and for free.

By then it wasn’t long before my cash supply ran down to zero and my bank card would take 10 days to arrive, so the Christmas and New Year period I spent sat in my cheap hotel room, with supermarket food bought on my credit card.

After New Year, my bank card finally arrived, but I also received devastating news from home that my beloved cat Molly had been run over and died.

By this point I began to wonder why on earth I had given up what was really quite a wonderful life back in England, where I was surrounded by lovely people whom I love very much, had a great home with my cat and my five housemates, had a decent job with a good salary that allowed me to do anything I wanted. Why, why, why did I give up all of that? Was I ungrateful? Greedy? Always wanting more? Never satisfied?

These have been dark days, but slowly I’m coming out to the other side where the sun is breaking through – I know there are good times ahead and that my loved ones will support me all the way. There are mountains I will climb, waterfalls I’ll stand beneath and new four-legged friends whose fur I’ll run my hand through.

No matter what hurdles I must face and sadness I will feel along the way, I had to do this – even long before I stepped on to the plane, it was already part of my life.

The unexpected city

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll have seen I’ve been moving quite rapidly lately – through four different countries in as many weeks. And many of the places I’ve stopped, I’ve not particularly enjoyed – not only was the strain of budget travel taking its toll, but I just wasn’t seeing anything I liked. As you know, I didn’t warm to La Paz, and the cities of Argentina were loud, brash, scruffy and incredibly hot and sticky. Then I arrived in Uruguay and it was literally a breath of fresh air.

In fact, I like it so much, I think I’ve found the next place where I’m going to settle for a while. The capital, Montevideo, is one of the most pleasant cities I’ve been to.

My days here so far I have spent walking every inch of the city, and the more I see the more I like. For starters, its position on the coast is ideal – the old town and port area are on a promontory so when wandering the city streets, you regularly catch a glimpse of the ocean, or receive a fresh sea breeze as it whistles up the street.

One Sunday evening, I walked along the seafront Ramblas for about five miles, enjoying the sun lowering over the Atlantic, along with local families, couples and groups of teenagers civilly sipping their maté.

In the city centre, I keep discovering excellent-quality cafés maintaining their ‘60s décor and waiting staff, serving delicious pizzas, pastas (many Italians settled in Uruguay), chavitos (massive sandwiches filled with steak, ham and egg) and more, all coming in portions fit for four (which suits me – as anyone who knows me knows, I can eat).

People are cosmopolitan yet very amiable, and the streets, even in the centre, are spacious and crowd-free, while the traffic is light and – more importantly – polite.

There are plenty of museums I’m still waiting to investigate; I’m looking forward to dinner in one of the grills in the smart port market; and there are lots of bookshops in the University area begging to be rummaged through.

Best of all, Uruguay imports some of my favourite chocolate from England, along with its finest teas. Yep, I’m happy to stick around for a while.

Rachel Ricks in Montevideo's Plaza Independencia

Me in Montevideo’s Plaza Independencia

Bar-Grill in Montevideo, Uruguay

My favourite caff

Bookshop in Montevideo

Libreria Puro Verso, Old Town

Bookshop in University area of Montevideo

Bookshop in University area

Rachel Ricks in front of the 17th-century city gate in Montevideo

Me in front of the 18th-century city gate in Montevideo

Montevideo is the 2013 Ibero-American Capital of Culture – see what’s happening on their culture and arts website.

See my trio of guides to Montevideo.