While most of the U.S. and Europe are being pummeled by winter weather, I've been wearing flip-flops and shorts, and eating my way through Montevideo, Uruguay. It is summer here in the southern hemisphere, which is exactly why I'm here and not there. Most people get the idea of heading south for the winter, but many people I shared my plans with asked "Why Uruguay?" That's a fine question and honestly Uruguay wasn't on my radar at all (I was originally planning on either Puerto Rico or Buenos Aires). I ended up here because my girlfriend wanted to check it out. She'd been over much of South and Central America, but hadn't gotten the chance to see Uruguay yet. I was game, we did some research, and it sounded great. So here I am. And man, what a great decision it was. I love it here. The next question most people have is "Um, so where is it exactly?" Uruguay is not a name that people place easily, unless perhaps they are avid soccer (football) fans. Even then, if people can point it out on a map, they often still don't know anything about this little gem of a country. So I'm gonna edumacate yous on La República Oriental del Uruguay.
It is a small country, with a smaller population (3.5 million). The main city, and capital, is Montevideo, where about half of the total population lives (1.8 million in the metro area, a little over a million in the city proper). It is tucked around a bay and looks out where the mouth of the Rio de la Plata river meets the Atlantic Ocean. Argentina lies across the river, Buenos Aires being about a two-hour boat ride up-river. You can read all kinds of wonderful details on Wikipedia, so I'm not going to bore you to death with all that.
Anyone who knows me well knows that I love small cities. Small enough to be easy to navigate, but large enough to have interesting things going on. This normally means in the 500,000 to 1 million population range. We live in Centro and that gives us access to everything we need within a few blocks at most (groceries, banks, restaurants, etc.). But we can also easily stroll to Ciudad Vieja, which is the old city with its pedestrian areas and the great eatery of Mercado del Puerto. More great restaurants (in Parque Rodo and Punta Carretas) and beaches are not far away either. This is very easy city to navigate, with a very good, cheap, bus system, and the taxis are cheap and easy to find. Walking works just as well for us most of the time though, as it is a safe city that is very walkable, especially because it is summer and, boy howdy, the weather is awesome.
We are constantly telling each other how perfect the weather is every day. Even the occasional storms that blow in are wonderful because they tend to be strong and belligerent, beating rain sideways into the buildings, and putting on quite a show. Then they storm on their merry way and the day clears back to lovely sunshine, drying the ground quickly. We've been here one month and had four days with rain. The temperature tends to average around 27C (80F) during the day, cooling to a lovely 20C (68F) in the evening. There is normally a great breeze off the water to keep the sun feeling good even in the heat of the day, though sometimes the winds can be quite strong, especially following a storm. The locals tell us this is a cool summer for them, which I'm plenty thankful for. It is absolutely perfect right where it is.
I'll definitely be writing another post (or more) about the food here, but you really should know that Uruguay is the country that holds the title for most meat consumed per capita in the world. That's a lot of meat. Beef is the main meat, though pork and chicken are to be found everywhere as well. I've been eating so much (good) steak that it doesn't even feel like a "special" thing anymore like it does back home. It is just another night out here. We cook a lot at home and allow ourselves to gorge mostly on the weekends. There are hambergueserias everywhere. They are the classic hamburger/hotdog street food, with their own Uruguayan twist. The restaurants pretty much all provide the same selection of chivitos (we call them heart attacks on a bun/plate: steak, ham, bacon, cheese, fried egg) and an assortment of pasta dishes. The parillas serve the wide array of grilled meats that Uruguay is known for, in addition to the regular fare. You can find ice cream all over the place as well with yummy, yummy flavors, including the omnipresent dulche de leche. Anything that is sweet in Uruguay most likely has dulche de leche involved somewhere. Crepes are filled with it, cakes are made with it, it is even sandwiched between cookies for the popular alfajor treats. You can find vegetables, but mostly they are ones that are easy to grill on the parillas with the meat (like a sweet pepper) or they are served next to your meat as an afterthought (cold, lifeless peas). This is not veggie country, though I do hear tell of a vegetarian restaurant here in Montevideo, which I mean to try out before we leave. The food they make here is great. You should just not be averse to a good amount of meat and/or pasta in your diet. Stepping much outside of that doesn't go very far here. There is also an Asian/Indian restaurant in town we need to try as well. One. So, we are totally gorging ourselves on delicious food, but I do look forward to finding some Vietnamese pho or some TexMex once we move on. The last gustatory note that can't be missed is mate. It is a popular drink in South America, but it is everywhere here. It is common for people to simply carry their gourd and a thermos with hot water everywhere they go. It is also a communal drink so often people will sit in the park and share with friends while enjoying the day. Definitely a classic, delicious, ubiquitous symbol of Uruguay for me.
Aside from the ease of living in the city, the weather, and the food, the last big point for me is the people. For being in the hustle and bustle of the "big city" most people are pretty chilled out, patient with tourists, helpful and pleasant. I'm also pleasantly surprised at the lack of machismo here. Generally I've found men to be respectful and even regularly display "old school" manners, such as allowing women to exit first. Uruguay was also the first Latin American country to legalize same-sex partnerships, in 2007, and it is considered the least corrupt. All in all it is just a wonderfully relaxed atmosphere of live and let live that makes the entire experience here something special.