Tag Archives: montevideo

Finding the Real Uruguay (Two of Uruguay’s best kept secrets)

3 Oct

I became known as the ‘funny man’ while I was in Uruguay. It was a name that I hadn’t been called since the weekly poker nights I had become a part of in Ecuador. My drunken attempts at trying to bluff every single hand, and yet somehow winning, had been the reason for the moniker then. Now, I was being called that for daring to step into the heart of Uruguay. When I told people that I was going to Uruguay and that I was after some recommendations, all I got was a long list of beaches. Now, I’m a fan of beaches, but I’d just been to Brazil and had my fair share. Plus, my journey from Brazil to Iguazu and then Buenos Aires had seen me firmly heading along the ‘gringo trail’ for some time. I was ready for something a little different. So after spending a couple of days in Colonia and Montevideo (both easily reached from Argentina) I looked at the map, decided that a town called ‘thirty three’ sounded rather interesting and set off for the bus station. It was as I left the hostel that I heard Martin, one of the workers, talking to another guest: “he is a very funny man, he is going to Treinta y Tres, nobody goes to Treinta y Tres.”

Treinta y Tres – The Sleepy City

Treinta y Tres is known as the sleepy city. This isn’t too far from the truth. Upon arriving I wondered if I’d stepped into the middle of a national holiday. The people were going about their business, but in the most casual of manners. There is no rush. I popped into a grocery store to get a few things for dinner and ended up waiting for 15 minutes as the people in front chattered away while slowly filling a plastic bag with vegetables. As I strolled around the town, taking in its patrimonial buildings and dusty streets, the rhythm of everyday life felt like a magician’s stick, slowly spinning me into a glorious trance, a million miles away from the hustle and bustle of busy city streets. It was suddenly possible to hear my heartbeat again – although it should be noted that I had just knocked back two espressos and my heart felt as if it was about to jump out of my chest at any moment.

As well as offering this laid-back way of life, Treinta y Tres is trying to push itself as something of a tourist hotspot, which it has every right to do. Quebrada do Los Cuervos is located 22kms from the city. This basically translates as ‘Valley of the Ravens’, and offers far different wildlife and vegetation than you will find in the rest of Uruguay, due to high humidity and the valley’s differing exposure to the sun. It is definitely worth a look, though at the moment this would need to be done through Expedicion Uruguay – expedicionuruguay.com.uy – as there is no public transport to the area. Charqueada is also a short distance from Treinta, around 30km, and IS reachable by public transport. This is a port town on Laguna Merín, with great history, which is shown in the architecture, and is perfect for viewing more of Uruguay’s rich flora.

A perfect time to visit Treinta y Tres is for ‘Festival del Rio Olimar.’ This happens every Spring. Check with the Uruguay Tourism Board for the exact dates. It takes place by the river, Rio Olimar, near to a camping site, and is a great place to hear traditional Uruguayan music as well as new bands that play on the huge stage they erect for the occasion.

Tacuarembó – The People’s Republic

Before arriving in Tacuarembó I had been told it was The People’s Republic. On telling this to the people in Tacuarembó they looked at me in disbelief. Surely Salto and Paysandu are bigger cities (these three towns make up the heart of Northern Uruguay), why would Tacuarembó be the Republic? It seems that Uruguayans want Tacuarembó to be known as the heart of the country, most likely due to its position as home of the Gaucho. This figure looms large over the city, with huge signs declaring it Gaucho Country, countless shops with names such as El Gaucho and the gauchos themselves frequenting the bars and cafés around the town. It is a far busier town than Treinta, with the majority of people moving around on their scooters and motorbikes. It feels like a hub of activity with express links to Montevideo and the surrounding towns, as well as to the border with Argentina. The ‘Fiesta de la Patria Gaucho’ is a festival that happens every March, and is a great opportunity to see some of the customs associated with these legendary figures.

Just outside Tacuarembó is Ipora, a small tourist resort with huge artificial lakes. It is a great place to visit, with the lakes beautifully positioned in the middle of thick green woods and most of the land now populated by a huge amount of cattle and horses. It’s a hugely popular resort in the summer when Uruguayans and even Argentineans come to soak up the sun and fresh air. This is an interesting article about Ipora and the North of Uruguay – http://www.olauruguay.com/2010/03/20/ipora-relax-and-unwind-in-gaucho-land

The great thing about travelling around some of the lesser known places in Uruguay is that the people are so happy for you to be there, and for the opportunity to tell you a little about their lives. It is also very cheap to travel around with transport and food extremely reasonable, and the only problem sometimes being the finding a cheap hostel.

Treinta y Tres can be reached via Maldonado or Montevideo in the South and is also very close to the Brazilian border. Tacuarembó is a stone’s throw from Salto on the Uruguay border where there is a public bus to Concordia in Argentina. There are also regular buses from Montevideo.

See the Uruguay Tourism Board’s calendar for exact dates on all the festivals – turismo.gub.uy

The Curiosities of Uruguayan Life

2 Oct

On entering any country there are always a few things that just seem to spring out at you. Why are they doing that? How much does it cost? Are you being serious? In Uruguay these things may seem less severe than in other countries, such as Bolivia and Brazil in South America or further away in the Far or Middle East but it’s crazy how much of an impact they still manage to have on your life. These are some of my curiosities about Uruguay that I probably spend far too much time contemplating.

Milk in Bags
This is something I first experienced in Argentina but it’s one that I’ve always found intriguing. Why would anyone think of putting a liquid substance in a bag? As a result all fridges now have an extra piece of plastic on their door so that the milk can be slotted in and remain upright. But with yoghurt also coming in bags too where’s my second piece of plastic? What you then have to do of course is actually find one of the specially-made plastic containers which are able to house these bags perfectly as well as making them very easy to pour. Maybe the plastic factories and dairies made some kind of agreement, let’s walk into the unknown together or something like that. Milk is of course also available in a carton but it’s a lot more expensive. I now use it as a barometer for judging people. If they have milk in a carton I can be pretty sure they live something of a luxurious lifestyle.

The popularity of mate in Uruguay is undeniable. Every single person has a mate gourd (the vessel for their indulgence) in one hand and a thermos tucked under the other arm. This is most pronounced around 6pm/7pm when everyone has finished work and heads down to the promenades (in the beachside towns anyway) to catch the last bit of sun and sit around drinking mate with their family and friends. The social element is so interesting, I really think there’s no match. Coffee seems to be a very personal thing, when people buy it to take-out it tends to be something to down on their way to an important meeting and at the office it is something that is drank while doing other things. Even the Italians who seem to have the greatest love for it gulp down their expressos like no-man’s business, making it more of an aid to the conversation than a central item. Tea is more social, especially when a plate of shared biscuits is involved but it lacks mobility, one thing that could not be levelled at mate. One evening I tried to count how many thermos’s I could see on a walk down Montevideo’s rambla. Turns out I can’t count that high!

Uruguay has many similarities with Argentina due to its proximity over the River Plate, it’s North also shares a few traits with Brazil (including a strange dialect that seems to morph the too) and generally speaking a lot of the culture could be seen as European, no surprise being that many of the people are descendents from Italian and Spanish immigrants. I think this is the reason why candombe is so popular. It’s a style of drumming developed by the mixture of African slaves brought over in the late 19th century and that has since been passed down many generations, effortlessly moving into the hands of the colonialists on the way. It is quite quintessentially Uruguayan and something that they are obsessed by. With no prior knowledge of what it was I at first found it extremely curious. It’s closest cousin in popular terms would be samba but this is so much more powerful, more insistent. Drummers pound away for hour after hour as they parade round their neighbourhoods on a weekly basis. Apart from a small intro some of the groups don’t change their rhythm for the entire 2 or 3 hour parade. After a while though it draws you in, especially while watching the strangely stilted dance that accompanies it, and the sound of the drums begins to drift into the back of your mind, just leaving this immense feeling of passion as it eventually gets you.

A lot is often made of an official statistic that Uruguay is 98% literate. Personally, I feel this is slightly incorrect as there is without doubt some problems with homelessness and I very much doubt these have been included in the poll. Nonetheless, these people are obsessed with books. There are bookshops on every corner and Montevideo in particular has one street, Tristan Narvaja, which has around 30 different bookstores. Attached to this love of books though is a sense that literature is something that should not be cheap. Hence, second hand books can cost as much as a new mp3 player or a brand new pair of a shoes. Even a newspaper can end up being the most expensive item in your shopping basket, I was personally shocked when I saw that it cost more than my 3 litre bottle of Coca-Cola.

Dinner Time
Uruguayans eat late, really late, somewhere between 10pm-midnight. The amount of times I would meet people around 10pm for a drink only to find that they hadn’t eaten and that they were actually more interested in eating than drinking has been numerous, and each time, for a Brit like me has been hard to fathom. The normal English ritual of going out for a quiet drink, which is normally somewhere between 3 to 5 pints, would make you the token drunk in Uruguay. I have generally adjusted to eating really late, especially spending time in North Argentina where the siesta puts you back a few hours anyway, but still the idea of going out to eat all the time is hard for me. I never do it in England due to the cost, and would also struggle to do all the time in Uruguay for the same reasons. My ‘going out’ allowance will always simply translate as Beer allowance, it’s one cultural trait that I will always find hard to change.

Uruguay’s African Roots

11 Nov

One of the fascinating aspects of Uruguayan culture is the fact that through colonisation it managed to keep intact customs passed on from the slaves. Candombe is a style of drumming, which also incorporates dance and costumes, that was brought over by African slaves in the early 19th century. It has strong links with drumming practices in the Bantu regions of Africa, countries now known as Nigeria, Congo and Zimbabwe. Whereas in most instances of colonisations the activities of the slaves were marginalised in Montevideo they were eventually adopted by the middle and upper classes (although there is history of some defiance) in the 1860s and 1870s. The people were so enamoured with the style that they went so far as blacking up their faces and wearing the same basic clothing as the slaves.

Now, candombe is completely integrated with the whites of Uruguay, and is one of their proudest customs. Montevideo is continually thriving with the sound of drums. Every neighbourhood within the city has their own group who will parade the streets once or twice a week, with one performance normally on the weekend. In addition, the Wise Men’s Parade just after Christmas and Montevideo carnival allow the groups to compete to be the best group in the city.

The heritage of Uruguay is something I find infinitely interesting, but has always been quite hard to find information about, as aside from my time in Montevideo when I would very slowly read about it in Spanish, it is hard to get information. Which is why I was very excited to find out that a book has now been published. It’s called Blackness in the White Nation: A History of Afro-Uruguay and has been written by George Reid Andrews. You can check out the book HERE. And below, is an extract with some more, very interesting information about Uruguay’s Afro-origins.

Though its roots are African, candombe was created in Uruguay and exists nowhere else, my friends told me. Upon learning that I had joined a comparsa and paraded in that year’s Llamadas, a city cultural official whom I met toward the end of my stay smiled delightedly and said that I could not possibly have had a more profoundly Uruguayan experience–which I think is probably true. But as they embrace candombe as a core component of national identity, no one ever mentions feeling under siege by internationalization. The drummers seem to come to candombe not from feelings of defensiveness but for purely positive reasons, and for love of the music itself.

As we have seen, Uruguayans love candombe, and for good reason. Like samba, salsa, merengue, jazz, funk, hip-hop, and all the other African-based “national rhythms,” it is a musical form that, in the words of one informant, “won’t let you sit still.” And over the last hundred years, the comparsas have developed methods of playing it that enable them to take people with limited musical experience and turn them into juggernauts of rhythm. The music is played on three types of drums–chico, repique, and piano–each of which has a different voice–alto, tenor, and bass, respectively–and plays a different rhythmic figure. The piano hits heavy downbeats on one and four, with intervening syncopated eighth and sixteenth notes; the chico leaps in immediately following each beat with a sequence of three sixteenth notes. Both drums pound out the same stuttering phrases over and over again, in a deep aesthetic of monotony; the repique players have more freedom to improvise, and drive the group forward with their counterrhythms.

The result, when played at maximum volume and with maximum force and authority, is irresistibly powerful and compelling. Here we might recall Tomás Olivera’s memories of the 1956 Llamadas: “The cheering and applause were like an earthquake; and . . . with the thundering of the drums, the shouts of the spectators, the bombs and rockets shooting up into the sky, one had the sense that the buildings on each side of the street were about to explode into thousands of pieces.” This is an accurate and not at all exaggerated description of what it feels like to march and drum with a comparsa. The waves of rhythm put out by our drums did indeed feel strong enough to demolish the buildings around us. As we marched along on our weekly practices, we set off every car and building alarm en route; yet the whooping alarms could barely be heard as tiny yawps above the thunderous din.

Several of the drummers I talked to described the feeling of being “transported” while marching; and as we marched and drummed, digging deeper and deeper into the groove, I did feel simultaneously rooted and floating. The force of gravity and the steady reassurance of the ground had never seemed so necessary, to keep us from levitating off down the street on the cresting waves of rhythm. Yet the ground provided no rest, and was itself charged with surging electrical forces that flowed through us in a steady pulsing voltage. Everything was suffused with rhythm: the air, the ground, the universe, our bodies, our organs, and of course our drums. We were simultaneously the source, the conduit, and the recipient of that rhythm, I and fifty other drummers, hands rising and falling, legs stepping and marching, all together, all as one.

Yes, obviously the feeling is sexual–how could it not be, with these rich currents flowing through you? At the end we were exhausted, drenched with sweat, yet refreshed, relaxed, and glowing. Everyone felt good after drumming–unless, that is, we had suffered injury or exhaustion along the way, which are frequent parts of the enterprise. The marches “are a test of exceptional physical strength,” notes one analysis of the comparsas, “and psychic strength as well.” That is an exaggeration, I would say; anyone in reasonable physical condition can carry and play the drums. But there is no question that doing so while marching, listening to the rest of the group, and maintaining perfect rhythm (or trying to) for an hour or more is intensely demanding. And all drummers, even the most experienced, can tear skin off their hands as they pound the leather drumheads. Ever “the good warriors” invoked by Lobo Núñez, drummers are expected to ignore their wounds and play through the pain, heads held high and gazing coolly into the distance.

Bloodshed is just one part of the military character of the comparsas. The experience of preparing for the Llamadas is not unlike going through boot camp. There are clear lines of authority and command, based on the age, experience, and ability of the different members. Our instructor Miguel, his colleague Sergio, and their lieutenants, all work to instill a kind of martial discipline. Miguel and Sergio in particular adopt a classic good cop/bad cop approach. As we march, Sergio stalks up and down the ranks, bawling us out for our numerous shortcomings. Miguel looks on gloomily, leaving us to guess whether he is more saddened by Sergio’s ferocity or by our clumsy mediocrity.

As in any military unit, we pass long stretches of boredom and inactivity punctuated by brief bursts of intense action and excitement. Since comparsas field a lot of people, we routinely spend an hour or more waiting for everyone to show up, for drums to be tuned, for ranks to form, and so on. We pass the time smoking, joking, complaining about our “officers”; and then it is time to go over the top, into action.

These experiences produce their intended results, and gradually one becomes part of the unit, bonded to one’s fellow drummers.

From Blackness in the White Nation: A History of Afro-Uruguay, by George Reid Andrews. Copyright (c) 2010 The University of North Carolina Press.

Read more from Blackness in the White Nation: A History of Afro-Uruguay HERE

What I've learnt from Montevideo

16 Feb

Stepping in dog shit is really fucking annoying. It’s not like I’ve been in any place which outlaws pavement poopery for the last 12 months, more just because the dogs in Montevideo are right dirty bastards. Before Montevideo I had not had one stepping in dog business occasion, now I’ve racked up so many promotions I have become a major stakeholder. Someone needs to teach these dogs some manners. The lack of people on the street must also have some effect, so many fewer people more foolish than me walking the streets and treading that muck right out of existence. Suddenly I have to be responsible for my own footsteps.

I’ve also been living in one of the better neighbourhoods in Montevideo, a neighbourhood where it is deemed okay for every woman to walk the streets with a colourful shrink-wrapped animal with the face of a demented monkey dangling on a rope. Not only is this not seen as ridiculous, it is downright applauded. I almost hold them fully accountable for my dirt-riddled shoes, made all the worse by the fact that I’m now exclusively wearing white alpargatas, which are like cheap pumps but cheaper and less well-made, and not immune to dog dirt.

Leaving Montevideo

14 Feb

I can’t believe it, Montevideo finally went nuts! It’s been the picture of tranquility for six weeks; all empty streets and minimal traffic, parties that go on late but never ever really seem to get messy, kind of like if you put a city in one of those paperweights where you shake it up and the snow flies about for a bit before settling and restoring the calm.

It’s Friday (or at least it was when I actually wrote this in my notebook!) and every single person is at the bus station. The crowd is mightier than at the carnival and people are pushing each other all over the place, normal politeness has gone out of the window. I join the queue to buy a ticket for Punta del Este. It took me about an hour to find the end of the queue, it was somewhere over by the guy selling sweets in the corner, a good 100m away from the actual ticket booth. I don’t think I have ever seen anything like this in my whole trip. I can’t think of joining one queue that has had over five people, this one is easily over 100. There are six buses leaving at 19:00 hours and I believe everyone is trying to get onto them. The reason: well it’s quite sunny and everyone wants to get to the beach, that’s why they’re no longer so polite, they need to get to the beach goddammit! Trying to jump the queues, pushing past you without so much as an excuse me, stepping on your toes without an apology, this is all allowed when you need to get to the beach, that’s how it seems anyway. Everyone is off to the beach, as am I, and I hate crowds, and tourists, and packed buses. What a bunch of shits!


Reaping the Rewards

11 Feb

I finally got to enjoy some of the perks of writing, that is if I’m not counting that CD I received a couple of weeks ago which I played once, got all Irish folk-ed out and swiftly moved on with my life, when I got to eat out at some fancy restaurant which won UruguayNow’s award for Best Restaurant. It also became apparent that I was completely out of my depth as I refused a starter when I temporarily forgot that I was not having to shelve the bill and then went for the imported German beer when a list of some of Uruguay’s finest wines was put in front of me. “Just a beer thanks” I believe were my words. And then I didn’t even choose the most expensive thing on the menu. I went for the lamb risotto (based on the fact that my current boss said that I had to try it) and it didn’t disappoint. It was incredible in fact, like someone had managed to combine a good roast lamb dinner and mediterranean cuisine and stuck it right there on the plate. Chocolate fondant and maracuya (passionfruit) ice cream followed which shouldn’t really need a description, and if it did, it would only involve the word ‘sensual’ repeated over and over again.

How odd it was after knocking back a limoncello, having a quick wipe on the chin and then shuffling over to the door with an arm in the air and a few obligatory ‘hasta luego’s’ to not even think about having to pay the bill. It would have come to something around what I normally spend in a week. Maybe the first of many, who knows? It is certain I need to get some practice in though, I need to learn the words ‘vintage’ and ‘lobster’ as soon as possible!

Montevideo Carnival – Winners Announced

9 Feb


Yambo Kenia were the victorious comparsa from the two days of llamadas, or in other words they were the best drumming group from two days worth of parades. I think they have won it 3 times in 4 years now, so they are obviously doing something right.


The winner of Best Gramillero (Herb Man) was not this man, but probably someone who looks a lot like him.

Candombe during Carnival

La Melaza, the group I interviewed and who I think are a really great group came 22nd. That’s somewhere around the halfway mark. This video is quite good though because it was recorded off the television and probably shows the dancing clearer than most camcorder footage. There’s a real strange swagger to the way they pop their arms out and do a little two-step forward, one-step back canter. Many people actually watch the whole thing on their tv sets, saving their ears for later life I imagine.

Anyway, I gotta go, we are very close to the end of the UruguayNow website, just a few finishing touches.

Montevideo Carnival – Las Llamadas (Part Two)

7 Feb

The second day of candombe parades were postponed from Friday to Saturday because of a very bad weather forecast. Perhaps this was better as it gave everyone a chance to rest between days, although it did mean my Saturday night trip to the footy had to be put-off. Possibly the Saturday event was even better than Thursday’s. There was a ridiculous turn-out, with it taking at least 10 minutes just to get onto the street where it was being held (I’m gonna be really shocked when I eventually make it to Rio Carnival!)

The atmosphere is really hard to describe because there are a lot of people who are obviously completely wasted but it also feels like a family event. It’s held on a very narrow street in the neighbourhood of Barrio Sur. Everyone who lives in these houses are peering out their windows or on their balconies and rooftops dancing along. Constantly the dancers and drummers in the parade are coming over to the crowds to say hello to friends. Plus, many of the dancers are not what you would call the pick of the bunch, you could easily see a few of them at the local Weightwatchers meeting or working in a library, but this doesn’t stop them from plastering themselves with glitter and adorning a ridiculously slim amount of fancy wears. That in particular is something that I am sure must mark it out as different than Rio, although I obviously have no proof of this as yet.

It was also a ridiculously late affair. I left some time around 2.30am when my legs couldn’t take anymore. A 45 minute walk back to the flat and I turned on the TV to see that it was still going strong. This is just the start of the carnival here, there are something like 40 days left.


[I really need to get a decent camera!]

Montevideo Carnival – Las Llamadas (Part One)

6 Feb

It’s been almost over a week of carnival now. It feels like its been a slow start. The opening ceremony never really got going and since then there have mainly just been a few different theatre shows and not much else. Last night (Thursday) was the first day of the candombe parades, the day I have been looking forward to most.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/slaterino/4333155589/Mama Vieja

There were between twenty and thirty groups in total, all comprised of a set of drummers, a group of dancers and the obligatory historic characters. Among them are Mama Vieja, who looks after the whole thing, El Gramillero, otherwise known as the Herb Man who has got some seriously bad hips but despite this remains unbelievably chipper and a load of guys who are either there to entertain with a few fancy tricks or to hold the flags.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/slaterino/4333891902/The Flag Bearers

The Friday llamada has been postponed due to bad weather. The heavens suddenly decided to open up. This means we have to wait one more day for the rest of the candombe groups. In light of the hangover I am still serving I have to think this is for the best.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/slaterino/4333161057/Lovely Dancers

Montevideo – Iemanja

3 Feb

Playa Ramirez beach got a little bit surreal last night. About 50,000 people headed down there to worship Iemanja (sometimes spelt Yemaja) around sunset. Worshipping means either a) throwing a rose into the water, b) building a paper ship, sticking a candle in the middle, and sending it off to sea, c) digging a hole in the sand filling it with candles, or d) doing whatever the hell you want as long as it involves candles or something a bit feminine (which is why some shrines seemed to feature a lot of make-up products lying around).

There were hundreds of these holes dug, which coupled with the sunset, low tide which meant that many people were just walking around in the water, and various drumming going on, made it a little eerie.


There were supposedly 50,000 people on the beach (as the newspapers claim anyway) but there’s not even 50,000 Umbandans (the religion that worships Iemanja) in Uruguay. Many of the people were just like me, very curious, and just there to see exactly what was happening. Which is why this thing was so surreal. As people were doing their ritual involving preparing their boat to go to sea, saying prayers and so on, before then going out into the sea to send the boat away, they were constantly surrounded by people taking photos. They didn’t seem too fussed but it can’t really be the way they imagined it.

There was some really nice call-and-response music going on, accompanied by drums. I listened to that for a while, but then some sound system started up a few hundred metres away, so powerful it drowned out most of the music happening on the beach. I went over to where the sound system was and found tonnes of little stalls selling candles, pre-made boats, tiny figures of Iemanja, all kinds of merchandise. Most of it presumably being bought by Uruguayans who don’t believe in Umbanda but want to join the ritual for one night. It’s one of the joys of being a secular country I guess, you don’t have to worry about getting your God jealous by switching sides every now and again.

This is a watermelon that someone had sent out to sea, it didn’t get very far!