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.

Keep your eyes on the hotizon and your nose to the wind

The Montevideo Rambla

Rambla is the equivalent of promenade, a walkway or pedestrian pathway that would be called the ‘strand’ if it was in Southern California. The Uruguayan version was created by popular vote back in the 1950’s, when the other choice on the ballot was building two battleships for the navy. Needless to say, the people made the right choice.

              The kite surfing at Malvin beach is full blast

This long stretch of coastline on the Rio Plata is an ecological treasure trove, with miles of undeveloped areas separating the dozens of beaches. Birds are the principal residents, and it’s a superb rarity to have so much wild terrain so close to a major city. In many other countries this coastline would be relentlessly developed and overrun with businesses, but in Uruguay, virtually every bit is open to the public. Many of the residents consider it the number one feature and attraction of Montevideo, and the entire length is bikeable in a day, an extraordinary activity.

   Just about every section of the rambla offers a stellar sunset view

For all practical purposes, the Rambla starts at the edge of the massive port of Montevideo in Ciudad Vieja. Sarandi is the heart of the old town, bustling with tourists, cafes and sidewalk vendors, and it’s western end extends out onto the kilometer long jetty that frames one side of the harbor.

Nice smooth surface on this stretch of the Rambla through Barrio Sur

This is kilometer zero as the Rambla stretches east and is just a few blocks from Puerto Mercado and the heart of the old town’s commercial center. Here the surface is grainy light brown granite slabs, smooth and durable, and this part of the slab is mostly empty except for fishermen and locals. there are many sites of interest, like the ‘the stack’, a tall brick chimney atop an ancient oven just above the waterline. This first landmark is just 300 meters from the point zero jetty. Another 400 meters on is a staircase down to a broad shelf of rocks and a popular sunbathing spot.

Rising up over a short slope here, the surface is more irregular and beat up, but passing the fort evens out again and is smooth enough to skate. This surface of large diagonal slabs lasts for miles now heading east. at 2800 is another large platform shelf below the Rambla on the river, affording easy access for swimmers and fishermen.

The Rambla wraps around Playa Ramirez in across from Parque Rodo

Across the road is a large grassy area with a statue of the liberator of South America, Simon Bolivar, astride his horse. 3300 is the site of another stone plaza platform beneath the Rambla, and at 3600 sits the ugliest embassy of all in Montevideo, that of the US. This imposing structure overlooks its own plaza, and is adjacent to Tinkal, renowned for tremendous chivitos, the national sandwich. Two more grassy plazas follow, the second of which is presided over by Yemanja, the celebrated Yoruba and Santeria goddess of mothers and the sea.

                                    This must be the place

At 4600 meters is a sensational viewpoint and famous statue on the left beneath the college of engineering. Teatro Verano, a sublime outdoor concert venue is situated at 4700 across from the other end of Ramirez beach.

Saw the Black Keys here at the Teatro Verano on a rainy night…excellent

4800 marks the entrance to the Paseo de los Pescaderos that can be ridden with special care and offers more fine views and benches, along with four different fishing clubs with their own restaurants. Just past this is a wall directly above the water and another prime fishing location. Across the road the far eastern edge of Parque Rodo is visible with a pretty lagoon, some cliffs and paths. this area borders the magnificent Golf Club of Uruguay, designed by the legendary Alistar McKenzie in 1928. Parts of the course are visible through the border vegetation along the fence. It’s a classic track.

Number 14 has the only water hazard on the course, Golf Club of Uruguay

6300 is where the Ancap gas station is situated, at the bottom of Avenida Artigas, one of the major thoroughfares in the city. Just beyond is the road that goes out to the lighthouse at Punta Carretas, with a huge parking area and a popular restaurant. The turnoff is overlooked by a statue of Juan Zorilla San Martin. Immediately past the road on the right sits a newer addition to the features, a striking huge stone and steel sculpture which is even more interesting from the water side. More grass fields follow, some used for rugby and soccer games. Across the street is the Zorrilla Museum tucked between the tall buildings and this neighborhood holds some of the best hotels and restaurants in the city. At the end of the fields a barely marked path leads out to an old concrete jetty that is very popular as a swim spot.

Pocitos beach is frequently very crowded and care should be taken passing along this stretch of the Rambla. At the far eastern end the sidewalk narrows to just a few feet wide, and this choke point can be a concern on busy days. At 8400 meters pretty Gomensoro Plaza sits just across the road, a serene oasis surrounded by tall buildings. 100 meters further is the major intersection where Boulevar Espana and Avenida Brasil converge at the beach, both super busy traffic arteries.

The wide Rambla at Pocitos Beach can get a lot fuller than this, believe me

A little east of here the Rambla veers to the right around a skatepark and follows the coast past a large parking area before meeting the jetty at this end of Buceo harbor. Here the path loops back to the main road, past the Montevideo yacht club and the complex of fish markets next to El Italiano restaurant, a Sunday tradition in these parts. Buceo harbor is full of boats, and though bikes aren’t allowed on the jetty, usually the security guard will keep an eye on them so you can walk out to the end and look around.

After a really big storm a few years ago, several boats were thrown out of the water

14300 is where a grassy point is marked by an old stone monument which divides this fine beach into two sections, and just beyond a rock and grassy area favored by surfcasters and secluded sun worshippers. This next rocky point separates Malvin Beach from it’s eastern neighbor Playa Honda, where, as the name implies, the drop off from the shore is more abrupt, which attracts those that enjoy deeper water close by.

Here a small cafe on the Rambla is the last place to get food or drinks for a while. Near 15000 the surface briefly switches back to the nice smooth red and white pebble finish for a short distance before reverting back to the concrete blocks all the way past Punta Gorda.

Slow down here at Playa Mulata to buy some fish or drink a cold beer

17000 marks the beginning of Playa Verde, a favorite of many, separated from the Rambla by taller coastal pines and grassy dunes. Soon the surface changes again to a small red tile effect, and the sidewalk gets tight as it passes two seafood markets and restaurants directly on the Rambla. These actually sit on Playa Mulata, bordering Playa Verde to the east, and just as pretty. Just beyond 18000 the surface once again changes to the best surface of all, a golden pebbletech that runs all the way past Carrasco Casino. Here is the Rambla at its’ best; very smooth, even, and wide as it parallels long Carrasco beach.

                                A major stop for selfies

19500 marks the magnificent Carrasco hotel and casino, the center point of downtown Carrasco, Across the road the Rambla runs by a nice paved plaza, again with exercise equipment and a meeting place for many. Shortly past here the surface reverts back to smaller concrete squares but is still smooth and easy rolling . Carrasco beach is big with both surfcasters and kite surfers, dog walkers, and beach people looking for a little more elbow room that those to the west. Once again the vegetation changes somewhat, with lots of Tamarisk trees, small, broadleaf bushes, and heaps of coastal pine trees. The dunes that separate the Rambla from the beach flower gloriously in the spring.

          Montevideans always gather to watch a good sunset

21000 is the site of the naval school across the road and along here Playa Carrasco becomes Playa Miramar with no visible difference between the two, just fewer people the further east one goes. Long needle short pines predominate here, and 22000 marks almost the absolute end of the Rambla as it crosses Carrasco River. This is the turn around point to head back west and enjoy it all from the other angle, and it seems different heading in the other direction. When the weather is good, the Rambla is calling.