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March 4, 2005

Soaking up the sun and history of Uruguay


MONTEVIDEO, URUGUAY--As I mentioned recently, I finally got some midwinter sun visiting family in Montevideo, Uruguay for the last two weeks.  Uruguay has a fascinating history, going back to the early 1700s when the Spanish and Portuguese and later the British tried to settle there.  The country has about 3.2 million people and is nestled below Brazil to the north and Argentina to the west, on the eastern side of the world’s widest river, the Rio de la Plata, across from Buenos Aires.  Half of the Uruguayan population lives in Montevideo, the capital city.  


Dancers at art show opening at Port Market.-Doug Mackey photo


When the Portuguese began to show an interest in the Spanish settlement in the area, Bruno de Zabala was directed to create a citadel wall around the early community on the edge of the beautiful natural harbour.  The only major attack on the settlement was later on by the British in 1802 and was repulsed.  Uruguay received its independence on July 18, 1830.


The small early community prospered and developed an outstanding mercantile and financial district, near the beautiful old harbour.  The city has greatly expanded and the wall has been removed, but the harbour and financial district remain.  Uruguay is now the administrative centre of a Common Market created among Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, and has an important role in economics and policy.   The old city is now being restored and is alive with many tourists from cruise ships that count on Montevideo as one of their regular ports of call 


The old city has numerous historical sites, some of which I have visited, including museums looking at the early history. There are some artifacts relating to the original aboriginal population which is now extinct.  Mixed in with all of the historical buildings are restaurants, bars, stores, art galleries and various markets.  The entrance to the old citadel has been kept intact as a dividing point between the old and new city, and stands next to the huge Independence Square where there is a monstrous statue of the national hero of Uruguay, General Jose Gervasio Artigas, astride his horse. 




With two million visitors per year, mostly from neighboring Argentina and Brazil, Uruguay is geared toward providing excellent service with an airport, buses, hundreds of taxis and very inexpensive hotel rates.  The Montevideo shoreline expressway, known as the Rambla, provides easy access throughout and into Montevideo and all along the city’s many beautiful beaches.  I have a week’s trip beyond Montevideo planned and will report on this later. 


One of my favorite places is the Port Market, where I visited an art show opening and have done a lot of shopping and eating.  My son-in-law’s brother is a painter and sells his works in the market and in nearby galleries.  The art opening was for a family friend, who paints images of the uniquely Uruguayan music called Candombe. 


Port Market in Montevideo with authors Son-in-law and his brother selling paintings.-Doug Mackey photo


For a whole month, each section of the city celebrates carnival, with drumming and dancing. Included under the banner of carnival is the candombe music, whose drumming is featured during one of these parades called the llamadas (the callings).  The llamadas is a celebration based on an old tradition in one particular neighborhood in Montevideo, where on their only day off, black slaves would borrow clothes from their masters and organize a celebration where each drum beat would be calling back to their homeland in Africa.  Besides the drums, there are usually two people representing an honored old black couple dressed up in ill-fitting clothes. 


Another event that I attended draws thousands to the beaches of the city, to carry out extensive Afro-Christian (originally from Brazil) rituals of cleansing and renewal, including the sending out of boats of various sizes into the river, laden with wishes, food and money, to honour the goddess of the sea (and of life) called Imanja. 


City in Transition


Montevideo is a city in transition, as thousands of people have left in the last four years during a period of extreme economic crisis, especially middle-class professionals.  There is a lot of poverty, and many people live from day to day in poor housing, eating whatever they can scrounge.  On the other hand, one of the shopping malls we visited —built on the site of a famous prison, with some of the vestiges of the prison left intact for effect—would rival the opulence of any mall in any North American city.  We took the grandchildren to one of the many McDonald’s in Montevideo, so what more could you want?   


A street in Montevideo looking toward the Rio de Plata River.--Doug Mackey photo.



The big transformation will be political, when a new socialist government, elected in November, takes power on March 1st.  Many of the men and eleven women elected have spent years in prison for their political activities under the military dictatorship from the mid-1970s.  The people anticipate a progressive socialist agenda, and big changes, when President Tabare Vasquez and his team take control.


For more information on Uruguay logon to www.visit-uruguay.com/montevideo.htm.


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