Montevideo is starting to grow on me. Last week, my husband and I spent a day in the trendy, upscale Pocitos neighborhood. It was a bit like coming back to New York City. Depending where you walk, the area evokes images of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Greenwich Village, the Upper East Side or Brooklyn. Street vendors are everywhere, as well as every type of store, for anything you might need, or did not realize you need.
When the bus from Montevideo pulls into Atlantida, Villa Argentina is the first community you’ll see. Mostly residential, it often escapes the tourist’s eye, which is exactly why you should visit. Unlike other parts of Atlantida, where summer visitors occupy many of the homes, most of Villa Argentina’s residents live here all year round. This is the real Uruguay. Separated, but only a short distance from the commercialism of downtown Atlantida, Villa Argentina entices you to explore its charming homes, and its equally charming residents. Perhaps that’s what drew Syd Blackwell and his wife Gundy to Uruguay.
Punta del Este is Uruguay’s most glamorous, upscale beach resort town, but Uruguayans rarely go there. To get to Punta, most people fly from Miami to Montevideo, then drive for two or more hours. The “more” is a result of the road work currently taking place as you get closer to your destination. If the speed limit signs say 30 MPH, you’d better go 25, or risk getting ticketed by the overzealous traffic cops.Unfair? Maybe, but wealthy Punta patrons must have paved roads, and someone has to pay for them.
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Uruguay is often referred to as having an ambiance that evokes images of Eisenhower’s America. While in some ways, our little country is extremely progressive, in others, it is quaintly behind the times.
Case in point: While Uruguay has a policy that assures one laptop for every school child, certain important events are never announced online. Such is the case with the Atlantida carnival parade, which I discovered by accident a few weeks ago. But before I describe the parade, I need to tell you the back-story.
My brother is 12 years older than I am, and an avid film buff. When I was little, he sometimes took me to see films that I did not quite understand. Black Orpheus was one such film. Set in Brazil, it tells the story of Eurydice, who runs away to Rio to stay with her cousin during carnival season. She meets a trolley driver by the name of Orpheus, who falls madly in love with her. Eurydice is afraid that death, represented by a man in a black skeleton costume, was chasing after her.
If you know the Orpheus myth, she is correct. Sorry for the spoiler, but the girl dies, and Orpheus goes into “the underworld” to find her. Being much too young to understand the deep symbolism, I had nightmares for weeks after seeing that film. In fact, South American carnival music always evokes images of the dude in the skeleton costume.
Fast Forward to 2013
Somehow I end up living in South America. Atlantida, Uruguay, to be exact. One night, around midnight, I notice that my husband still has not walked Whistler, our big brindle greyhound. Mark said his shoulder was bothering him, so I begrudgingly became the midnight dog walker. Even though Atlantida is far safer than the big cities in which I have lived, I still maintain my city girl’s dislike of being outside and alone late at night. Adding to the problem, my night vision is not that great.
The Drum Beats Call to You
Normally, I would only walk Whistler down the block and back, but I heard the faint sound of drums and sensuous melodies in the near distance. Mesmerized, I followed the music, and walked for about a quarter of a mile. And suddenly, I found myself in the midst of the Atlantida carnival parade – but without the guy in the skeleton costume.
While the bigger carnival takes place in Montevideo,there’s something about being up close and personal to the parade in our quaint little town. I walked home, feeling that I had been privy to something inexplicably special.
Uruguay is a land of many paradoxes. While its government encourages a strong separation between church and state, certain pagan rituals are observed with religious fervor. Should you happen to be in Montevideo or Punta del Este on February 2, you might notice people dressed in white or light blue. Toward mid-afternoon, they meander toward the beaches. Some hold small, Styrofoam boats, filled with fruits and flowers.
As evening approaches, candles light the sand along the beach. Music plays. Some people perform ritual dances to the rhythm of the pulsating drums. Others bring their small boats to priestesses, who bless their offerings. Then, they carry their gifts into the water. The event continues till the wee hours of the morning. Welcome to the festival of Yemanjá, the Goddess of the Sea.
About The Goddess
Yemanjá is one of seven deities of an African religion. Her worship became popular in Brazil, as a result of the African slave trade. The tradition eventually migrated to Uruguay. As a version of Voodoo, the cult was persecuted, so the African slaves disguised their goddesses by giving them Christian names.
This explains why images of Yemanjá bear close resemblance to the Virgin Mary. Worshiped by sailors and fishermen and symbolized by conchs and sea stars, she is considered the Goddess of the Sea. The gifts are given in exchange for her protection throughout the year. Some people present their offerings and make a wish for health and prosperity in the coming year. After they place their boats in the water, they retreat, always walking backwards, because one must never turn his back on the Goddess of the Sea.
Some people use an alarm clock to wake them up in the morning. I don’t need one. At about 7:00 each morning, the monkey across the street begins to sing. His howling takes on the cadence of a high-pitched Santa Claus saying “Yo Ho Ho!” He continues for about an hour, until he’s sure that all the working people of our Atlantida, Uruguay neighborhood have caught their bus to their jobs in Montevideo. Living across the street from the zoo is so much fun.
The other day, I found myself writing about seasonal affective disorder. Appropriately known as SAD, this condition is characterized by depression resulting from the dark days of winter. Of course, given that I was writing for a snow sport website, I recommended skiing and snowboarding as an antidote for SAD.
On the other hand, if the idea of spending a whole lot of money to slide down slippery slopes on skinny boards in freezing cold weather does not put a smile on your face, I understand. I will suggest a trip to the Southern Hemisphere, where we are currently enjoying the sunny days of summer. In fact, if you book your flight soon, you will arrive in time for the world’s longest carnival: The Carnival of Montevideo!
A series of small beach towns form the coastal necklace known as Costa de Oro. As residents of Atlantida, Uruguay, we live in the heart of this coast of gold. Just a short walk from our little casita, the sycamores and pines grow along the edges of the rolling sand dunes, which cascade their way down to the beaches.
It might seem odd that as a former New Yorker, Bostonian and Seattle area girl, I rarely post about Montevideo, the metropolitan area in my chosen country. Truthfully, after spending most of my life in the big cities, I have evolved into a mountain and seaside kind of girl. In fact, when I first visited Montevideo, I absolutely hated it.
That said, Montevideo is growing on me lately! My husband and I are in the process of obtaining our cedula, the document you need for obtaining permanent residence in Uruguay. It’s a long process, which requires multiple trips into the big city. The 90-minute bus ride is tedious, but occasionally musicians come on the bus and entertain us, evoking memories of the New York City Subway system.
Imagine that you are a contestant on Jeopardy, and you chose Beach Towns in Uruguay for $500. Alex Trebek reads the text: “This upscale resort town is sometimes called the Southampton of South America.” You reply: “What is Punta del Este?”
The bell rings. You are correct!
The Hamptons description suits Punta, with its high-rise, high-end hotels. Here, A-List celebrities hang out with multi-millionaires and high-fashion models, and a good, albeit dramatic time is had by all who can afford the price.
To be fair, I tend to joke about Punta, because the first time my husband and I drove through it, my immediate reaction was to gape at the skyscraper-like condos and wonder why anyone would fly eight hours from Miami to view the same type of scenery?
Locals would argue that there’s much to see and do in Punta del Este. Note that by locals I mean Aussies, Brits, Canadian and US expats. Aside from business owners, very few native Uruguayans actually live in Punta throughout the entire year. Nonetheless, if you drive through, be sure to check out the famous hand sculpture called Los Dedos de la Playa Brava.
While many people swear by Punta del Este, there’s a lot more to coastal Uruguay. Many of these towns cater to the young backpacker set, but if you’re looking for sophisticated coastal locations that keep their South American soul, check out these two destinations.