48 premium hours in Montevideo

Selfie seekers repent

The capitol and only major city of Uruguay doesn’t get the acclaim of some neighbors, notably Buenos Aires and Punta del Este, but it’s a vibrant and fascinating place, and if time is short, it’s good to have a plan. Since most international flights arrive early in the morning, let’s map out the best use of that two days and nights.

The Sarandi pedestrian walkway in the old city

After that early arrival, getting down to the city center and the old ciudad vieja is on the docket. The old barrio has some rough edges, but three splendid plazas, all totally different, and close enough to walk. Plaza Independencia is more open and less shady than the others, and affords a grand view of the classic Salvo Tower, looking like an Atlas rocket ready for launch. When it was  built it was the tallest skyscraper in South America. The plaza is at the portal into the old city, and the pedestrian walkway Sarandi is loaded with  street vendors, shops, and food options galore. 

Ready for takeoff

Two blocks away is lovely Plaza Matriz, with big leafy trees and  the majestic Metropolitan Cathedral, built here in 1790 and the site of many big weddings and such. An easy three blocks west of matriz, also know as constitucion, lies my favorite, Plaza Zabala. Inaugurated in 1890, this square was designed by Parisian Eduardo Andre, and it definitely has a French flair. Covered with a collection of trees including Magnolias, Zabala is an easy place to spend lots of relaxing time. Directly across the street is the stately Taranco Palace, a national historical site and art gallery also worth some precious time.

Leafy Plaza Matriz

Turning north onto Perez Castellano, this pedestrian street leads to the quirky and bustling Puerto Mercado, where a dozen or so restaurants offer meat on the grill with all the trimmings. After wandering a bit, get on the Montevideo  hop on, hop off double decker tourist bus which hits 10 notable sites, including Estadio Centenario, where Uruguay won the inaugural World Cup.

Montevideo is a city loaded with fine trees

An hour and a half after boarding, hop off at Punta Carretas to check out one of the  finest hoods and a hot bed of food, drink, and retail shops with the latest and coolest. And I know that real travelers never want to get on an actual tourist bus, but this is a pretty efficient use of 2 hours.

A Candombe troupe getting ready to march and wail

Perhaps a break is in order after this campaign, and for the evening shift, we head to Palermo for dinner and drinks, and if we’re lucky, live Candombe on the streets. This particular variation of music was born here centuries ago, and features an avalanche of drums and accompanying dancers and followers. The troupe, sometimes numbering triple digits, shuffle through the streets at a very casual pace and are easy to catch up with anytime. They can be heard a kilometer away, at least, and if your timing is right, these energetic musical displays can be downright invigorating.

Live music at the Mingus

Whether Candombe is happening or not, a worthy stop on the road to utopia is El Mingus, a restobar at the corner of San Salvador and Jackson. Food, drinks, music and clientele are all first rate, and this leisurely stop will fill the tank for the rest. Which is live music in the classic basement of Emigrantes, another luminary in the local music scene. The bands play late, the crowds congregate and everybody goes home, or hotel, happy.

The street scene is always lively at night

Day two begins with renting a bike and covering some beauteous ground, as the plan is to ride as much of the sublime Montevideo rambla as possible. The rambla is a wide sidewalk that parallels the mighty Rio de la Plata for over ten miles, starting in the old city and ending in the swank suburb of Carrasco. The vast majority of coastline in Uruguay is open to the public, a huge difference from many other developed countries. So there’s a ton to see and it’s not very demanding as the path stays flat with just two small hills. There are dozens of places to stop for some sustenance, especially in the neighborhood surrounding the elegant Carrasco Hotel and Casino.

Chillin’on the rambla at Pocitos beach

Passing through the fetching beach communities of Malvin and Punta Gorda, the quantity of architectural marvels is stunning, and there’s a lot to see besides beach and buildings. The rambla offers a birds eye view of a range of development from decades past to yesterday and is the best method to learning the lay of the city.

Malvin is kite surfing central

Upon arriving in Carrasco, wander the streets immediately surrounding the casino and behold some very unique dwellings. Arocena Avenue is the main business artery here and home to dozens of refreshment selections. The most celebrated is the venerable Bar Arocena, open 24/7 and boasting one of the finest chivitos in the land. This is the national icon, a variation of the gringo steak sandwich, and if the stomach needs fuel, fill it up here. Afterwards, an easy return back into the city center or home base will be the perfect lead in to a siesta.

Everybody is up for a live concert anytime

Tonight we experience the prized culinary tradition of the barbeque, known as asado in these parts. The venue is La Pulperia, a hallowed spot worshipped by carnivores for its’ merit and nothing fancy setting and service. The go to dish on the menu is the Ojo de Bife, a Rib eye steak, but they whip up all the cuts of meat and several side dishes, along with the finest local red wines. It’s a neon meat dream that will be relished for moons and recalled eternally.

Montevideo is an architectural hotbed

Once again tonight we seek a sotano, a basement with live music, so the next stop is just a five minute walk away. Bar Tabare has it’s own highly regarded kitchen, but we’re here for drinks and music, and both are delivered with gusto. Much like the culture of cooking on a fire here, many establishments sport a basement bar where live music is the draw, and Tabare, like Emigrantes, has a beauty. Sit and savor the sounds of a culture in full bloom, and raise a glass to your good fortune in getting to such a metro gem.

The Orcas at Valdez

Few creatures have been as celebrated, mythologized and ultimately  enslaved as the misnamed Killer Whale, actually the largest, and most intriguing of the entire dolphin family. I was raised, like many, on a TV diet of Flipper and Sea Hunt, and later entertained by the aquatic circus at Sea World. The reality of what I was watching never hit me until much later, after the documentary Blackfish revealed the ghastly truth behind the scenes. Orcas and other wild animals are best served and appreciated wild, and just seeing them where they belong is astounding.


Just rollin’ through

There is an isolated beach on the Atlantic coast of Argentina where the southern Orcas gather, and it’s the only place in the world where they actually beach themselves to hunt sea lions. This has been made famous in videos, but just like a virtuoso concert, nothing beats live.

The venue is a peninsula called the Valdez, one of Argentina’s outstanding national parks, situated about a thousand miles south of Buenos Aires. The portal entry is Puerto Madryn, an attractive city that is the wintertime retreat of avid watchers of the Southern Right Whale, which converge here by the score from June until December. Excursion boats full of enthusiasts leave here to get a close look at the mighty earthlings, and when that season fades, the Orcas begin to show.

It seems the gulls are safe

Their happy place is out on the far northeast point of this remarkable cape, at an isolated beach called Punta Norte. Halfway there lies the only real town on the peninsula, Puerto Piramides, where a couple of hundred folks live here year round, swelling to several times that in peak season from January through March. The setting is a marvelous bay surrounded by sandy bluffs where the wildlife far outnumbers the humans, my kind of place. The dive and kayak shops fill up with customers in the make hay days, and there are dozens of lodging options available, including camping, right behind the town beach.

Punta Norte is 75 wide open, uninhabited kilometers away, a virtually treeless stretch with head high bushes and dozens of long necked Guanacos munching on them. The ranger station at Punta Norte is a well equipped outpost with facilities to handle a large amount of people, including bathrooms and a cafe. A long boardwalk overlooking the beach provides the viewing platform, and this is as close to the action as visitors are allowed.  An 8 iron down the beach is a large group of sea lions that occupy a stretch of beach, and this is where your attention is drawn. A number of them are always in the water adjacent to the group, and this is where the action is. 

Seal side seats

The killers tend to show up in a six hour window surrounding high tide, when the water level provides closest proximity to the beach. Spectators arrive early in this cycle and begin setting up their vantage points for the expected arrival of the big black and whites. A majority of the visitors sport serious cameras, many with two foot lens, and the waiting begins. I was wandering around the station for less than an hour when the word came out that a pod had been spotted approaching from the south. The rangers here, and there are many, keep a constant watch out for the Orcas with binoculars, and they communicate that to the station. So everybody takes their place along the wooden rail, and soon enough clouds of vapor appear are visible a quarter mile down the coast.

This is young Ajuela, with the giant geometric fin

In a couple of minutes the big black dorsal fins are visible, including one jumbo triangle, straight as an isosceles, two meters in height. This is a male known as Ajuela, and I had the sensation of viewing a cruising u boat. All the Orcas are positively identified by their dorsal fins and individual white markings, and all have been named. The Punta Norte Orca Research organization has catalogued 15 of the most frequent visitors, including Lea, Jasmine, and Mel, another big male who was thought to be 49 years old a few years ago. He hasn’t been seen in a few years now, and likely is deceased as the average life expectancy for males is 50 years, 30 less than the females, a giant gap between the sexes.

To see an Orca self beached is……uh, forget it, beyond my ability

Most of the Orcas are consistent visitors, so many have been observed for years, although they are never touched or contacted with in any manner. So, 14 year old Pao is known the son of Ishtar, and another teenager, Mela, is the offspring of Jasmine.  As of now, no more than ten of these animals are known to practice the rare technique of hunting by intentional beaching, and this is the only place in the world where it’s been witnessed by humans. And the orcas do practice the move, in preparation for the real thing, and sometimes the lions elude the end.

It’s a team game

I didn’t get to see an attack, but had a close look at the pod of 11 as it swam by northbound, and returning about half an hour later. The principal impression was how relaxed and unhurried the killers are, casually passing by the mass of lobos, like they were just out for a relaxed family swim. Some of the veterans demonstrate the move for the greenhorns, and they always help the youngsters get back into the water if needed with a bump or a shove. Dry runs like these are common and seem to help the hunters get some reps even if they don’t result in a full seal meal.

Little help?

Straight up it’s an invigorating display of nature at its’ wildest, and induces lots of visitors to come back over and over to see it again. I got lucky, going one for one, but guarantee my return next season for, so far, the best show ever.

Vital Information:

http://www.puertopiramides.gov.ar/index.html

www.orca-puntanorte.com