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Preview: A Year in Uruguay

A Year in Uruguay

Updated: 2017-03-18T21:31:57.547-03:00


Murga on NPR


National Public Radio ran a short story this evening on Uruguay's carnaval, "Carnaval In Uruguay: Choir Competitions In The Streets"

The story focuses on murga which was my favorite part of carnaval.
"The tradition came to Uruguay via Cadíz, Spain, more than 100 years ago, where there is a similar choral music called chirigota. Today, a murga choir is made up of 13 voices singing complex harmonies, accompanied by three percussionists plus a choral director.

The performers wear elaborate, circus-like costumes and makeup, and compete every Carnaval. Now some choirs even have sponsors and CDs. But they still parody the talk of the town that year — be it corrupt politicians, a spike in violence or that annoying recording you get when you call for a taxi."

"Murga doesn't represent the masses; they are the masses."

You can listen to the whole story at:

The Invisible Mountain



The Invisible Mountain
Carolina de Robertis

"There were strange things about this city. Amethysts used as doorstops, leather used for everything, a stone wall between Old City and New. An obsession with the president, a man called Batlle y Ordóñez, who had promised schools, and workers' rights, and hospitals (secular ones, scandalously so, with crucifixes banned from the walls). All the laborers Ignazio worked with-- even the immigrants, of which there were many-- spoke of Batlle the way Italians spoke of the pope. These men were also obsessed with mate: a brew of shredded leaves and hot water, concocted in a hollow gourd, then drunk through a metal straw called a bombilla. They drank it as if their lives depended on it, and maybe their lives did, sucking at the bombillas on their high steel beams, pouring water while awaiting the next crate, passing the gourd from hand to calloused hand. The first time he was offered mate, Ignazio was shocked by the assumption that he should share a cup. He was eighteen, after all, a grown man. He thought of refusing, but he didn't want the others to think him afraid of tea. The gourd felt warm against his palm. The wet green mass inside it gleamed. The drink flooded his mouth, bright and green and bitter, the taste, he thought, of Uruguay."

I would have missed this book, except a blog reader recommended it to me. The Invisible Mountain is a novel about a Uruguayan family. Crossing four generations, the story personalizes many aspects of Uruguay's history: immigration, the growth of Montevideo, economic boom & bust, the dictatorship. At times, it's harsh-- not suitable for kids-- and in places it's strange, but overall it added a dimension to my understanding of the country.

I read a library copy, but it's also available from booksellers like Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

Thanks to Michael for the recommendation.

More Uruguay resources


Many of the Uruguay blogs I'd been reading have ended as expats moved from the country.

Recently, I've been following Ola Uruguay Real Estate-- not so much for the real estate propaganda, but for the posts on living in Uruguay by Suki and Syd.

Another informative website is Uruguay Now, an up-to-date guide to the country, with an emphasis on Montevideo.

Gaucho music


Here's a video from an evening of música folclórica in homage to a gaucho poet. The performance was held in the Cabildo de Montevideo.

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Parque Rodó



(object) (embed) Here's a belated video from my last trip to Uruguay.

My earlier videos from the park are here and here. To me, the improvement in YouTube's definition is striking.

Uruguay in the news


Bon Appétit has a travel feature on Punta del Este in their August issue. It features short reviews of several restaurants and as well as some nice pictures in a pdf file. Perhaps a nice romantic getaway for Governor Sanford?

update: The New York Times had a nice article on visiting Montevideo

Uruguayan jazz vocalist on public radio


Our friend Maria Noel Taranto will be featured on the "Jazz Inspired" radio show on public radio stations across the US and Canada during the first week of May. (A list of stations and times is here.)

If you're interested, you can listen to several of Maria Noel's songs on her La Taranto MySpace page.

There are also short clips from her performances in some of my earlier posts.

Carnaval exhibit in Kalamazoo


(image) I have an exhibit of photos from Montevideo's carnaval at my college's art gallery for the last two weeks in February. If you're in the area, please stop by.

We'll be having a reception on Saturday February 21 from 4-7.

Light Fine Arts Building
Kalamazoo College
Kalamazoo, MI
corner of Academy Street and Thompson Street
campus map
gallery hours Monday-Friday 9-5

Uruguayan microbrew


(image) One thing I missed when I lived in Montevideo was the complex flavor of craft beers. I didn't have any complaints about Pilsen or Patricia but there wasn't much variety. After I returned to the US, a new microbrewery opened in Montevideo and when I visited this August I was able to taste their product.

Cervecería Artesanal del Uruguay brands its beer Mastra and they brew three varieties: dorada [gold], roja [red], and negra [black]. I enjoyed them. The negra is a thick, hearty traditional stout, as opposed to a dark-colored but relatively light-tasting beer like Pilsen Stout. The roja has a great malty taste; I could see it becoming my favorite. (I didn't have time to try the dorada.)

Is Uruguay ready for craft beers? No problem on the supply side-- these are high quality microbrews. On the demand side, it's questionable. Beer is certainly part of Uruguay's culture and I'm sure there are enough beer-drinkers with adventuresome tastes who would drink strongly flavored cervezas. The problem is the price. A small single-serving bottle (12 oz/355 ml) costs more than a liter of Patricia, which is going to make it hard to survive in the marketplace. It's tough to launch a super-premium product in an economically-stressed market. That said, Argentina has several microbreweries so it's possible this one could succeed in Uruguay by tapping into the tourist trade. I wish them luck.


Uruguay blog


I've been meaning to recommend A Small State of Mind for some time. It's written by Benjamin Gedan, a Fulbright scholar and journalist studying the Uruguayan media. I've been enjoying it for several months.

He writes on a broad array of Uruguayan topics from chivitos to supermodels to the dictatorship. He's also published articles about Uruguay in the New York Times

Monte de Ombúes


(image) After staying in Cabo Polonio this July, we visited the nearby Monte de Ombúes.

An ombú is a native tree closely associated with gaucho culture and Uruguay's history. My mental image of an ombú has been a large, solitary tree surrounded by grasslands. (Not that I'd ever seen that; my actual experience with ombu trees was mostly of one particular tree growing in the middle of Boulevard España in Montevideo and a few others growing in city parks.) Ombú trees can have peculiar shapes with multiple trunks, merging branches, and frequent hollows.

The Monte de Ombúes promised something rare-- a forest of these unusual trees. The woods are on the shore of the Laguna de Castillos and the only access is by boat. Regularly scheduled tours depart from the bridge where the highway crosses the arroyo Valizas. Since July is the middle of winter in Uruguay, we were able to have a private tour.

Our boat floated slowly past pastures dotted with butia palms while gulls and egrets flew overhead. It's a great trip for birdwatchers; our guide pointed out ibis, teru-teru, chajá, cormorants, ducks, herons, kingfishers, and even flamingos. After about an hour, we reached the woods-- two groves of ombúes.

The trees themselves were impressive. Since it was winter, they were nearly leafless, focusing our attention on the trunks. Some of the trees were over 30 feet around and many had openings big enough for a person, or even a whole family, to enter. It was almost surreal seeing two trunks emerge separately from the stump and then recombine 10 or 20 feet higher.

This strange growth pattern is part of the ombu controversy: "Is it a tree or a shrub?" Until this visit, I'd always taken the tree side. The shrub argument seemed like it must be based on some obscure botanical definition. (Similar to the argument: "Is a tomato a fruit or a vegetable?") Based on everything I'd seen earlier, the ombú was a tree-- tall, solid, long-lived, trunk & branches, with leaves that dropped seasonally. How could it not be a tree?

Now I'm less sure. In the forest, we saw fallen ombúes and they weren't like fallen trees. Instead of being made of wood, the inside of an ombú looks like a cross between particle board and paper mache. Definitely not tree-like. New sprouts from the broken stumps furthered my confusion since they looked identical to the pokeweed that grows in my backyard in Michigan. The shrub proponents do have a point.

In any case, it was an interesting place to see. It's definitely a low-key trip-- something for nature-lovers; it would appeal to those Florida vacationers who choose Ding Darling over Miami Beach.

Museo Nacional de Artes Visuales


(image) While I intended to visit Uruguay's National Museum of Art shortly after I went to the Museo Torres-García, I never made it during the entire year I lived in Montevideo.

Partly because I didn't notice it.

My mental image of an art museum is a grand classical building like the Art Institute of Chicago or the west wing of the National Gallery of Art or else I imagine something impressively modern like the National Gallery's east wing or the Guggenheim in Bilbao.

The Museo Nacional de Artes Visuales is located in Parque Rodó and I'd parked right next to it dozens of times without knowing it. The architecture reminded me of an elementary school. The courtyard was usually full of kids in their school tunicas which reinforced the impression. I didn't realize it was a museum.

During our vacation in Uruguay this year, I made up for my past omission by making the museum a priority.

The museum is small, about the size of my local art museum, and all the exhibits can be seen in about an hour. When we visited in July, they had a visiting exhibit of works by Spanish artist Joan Miró and a large exhibit by a Uruguayan artist in the style of Torres-García, in addition to works from their permanent collection.

Admission: free.
Tuesday-Sunday 12:00-6:00 pm

Museo del Carnaval


(image) I'd wanted to visit the Museo del Carnaval before we left Montevideo in mid-2007 but its opening date kept getting postponed, so I was happy when we were able to see it on this trip. It has a great location right next to the Mercado del Puerto, making it a very convenient stop for visitors.

Like many of Montevideo's museums, it's small and it doesn't take more than a few minutes to see all of the exhibits. While it certainly isn't the same as hearing a murga or candombe group live, it brought back great memories of carnival. The best part was the hall of colorful murga costumes.

The Museo del Carnaval blog is interesting (in Spanish with lots of photos) and on YouTube there's a comprehensive video showing the creation of the museum.

Open Tuesday-Sunday
Free admission

Cabo Polonio photos


I uploaded a few photos from our trip to Cabo Polonio. You can see them here.

Bourdain in Uruguay video


Tony Bourdain's show on Uruguay aired this week. Here's a Travel Channel video showing him eat carne with his brother in the Mercado del Puerto.
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Cabo Polonio


(image) We had a really nice time visiting Cabo Polonio, a beach settlement about 4 hours from Montevideo. In some ways, it´s similar to Punta del Diablo. Cabo Polonio is harder to reach since there´s no road access. You can reach it by 4-wheel drive truck or horseback from Ruta 10.

This is very much the off-season, so we needed reservations to ensure someone would open the hotel. We were the only tourists in the entire town. In the high season (January) every room in every building is filled with artists, hippies, and miscellaneous visitors. Most of the casitas are very small-- merely beach shacks. A few are more substantial. We stayed at La Perla del Cabo, the nicest place in town. (Although it was still very simple-- 2 hours of electricty daily, hot water some days but none while we were there, and for winter a propane heater in the hallway and extra blankets for the beds.)

The town itself was very quiet. All the little souvenir stands, shops and boliches were closed for the season. One almacen offered snacks, fruit, and staples like dulce de leche. The restaurant attached to the hotel opened for us. Their fresh fish was great.

We climbed the lighthouse, which gave great views of the coast. On the rocky point beneath the faro, hundreds of sea lions bathed in the winter sun. We saw a lone penguin, apparently off-course from its annual migration to Brazil from southern Argentina. It´s whale season, but we didn´t happen to see any.

update:A photo album from Cabo Polonio

Back in Uruguay


It´s been very comfortable returning to Montevideo and we´ve been busy visiting friends, watching soccer, going to shows, and eating great food. Too busy to write any blog posts, until now.

Not much has changed in the city. A few businesses have closed and a few new ones opened. Some of the same graffiti is still on the walls.

One noticeable change: the depreciation of the dollar makes everything more expensive. For example, I bought 2 tickets for the new Batman movie yesterday for 180 pesos, or $10 US. That´s the same price I paid for 2 tickets in Kalamazoo, earlier this month. In economic theory, purchasing power parity predicts this; in equilibrium, prices for traded goods should become equal. In this case, I´d guess it´s probably just coincidence.



We're returning to Uruguay this week for a short vacation. I'm looking forward to all the good food including: chivitos, parrilla (at La Otra and the Mercado del Puerto), empanadas, churros, masas finas, and a simple pizza and beer. I'm sure we won't get to do everything on the "official" list of visitors' activities but I hope we have a chance to do some of them. We just missed el clasico, but we watched it on TV yesterday. If Copa Airlines gets us to Montevideo on time, we'll see a show at the Teatro Solis. Most of all, I'm looking forward to seeing many of my friends in Uruguay.

We're leaving a North American summer for a South American winter but the forecast shows the low temperatures in Montevideo will be the same as the low temperatures in Kalamazoo. I can't complain about that.

And I'll have some fresh material to add to this blog, as well.



(image) In February, 2007 at the height of the southern summer, we flew a few thousand kilometers south from Montevideo to visit Ushuaia, "el fin del mundo" [The End of the World]. This Argentine city is further south than any other in South America. The end of the continent isn't abrupt; instead, the Beagle Channel runs through a series of mountainous islands. (There's a Chilean naval base on one that can claim the continent's southernmost habitation.) Whether in Chile or Argentina, the region is known as Tierra del Fuego.

It's a very interesting place and I'd like to go back again. Unfortunately, our summer is their winter and it must be pretty desolate then.

Between other destinations in Patagonia and carnaval events back in Montevideo, I never posted more than a few photos. I finally had a chance to put together a video slideshow from that trip.

You can see it here:
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Here are a few Uruguay blogs I've been following:

elretobao posts interesting photos of Montevideo with short captions in Spanish, frequently accompanied by Uruguayan music.

The next two links are new addresses for authors I posted about earlier:

Cool Uruguay has regular posts and a new forum in English and Spanish.

The Campbell Family blog has interesting but infrequent posts about life with a family in Montevideo.

And finally, a non-Uruguay blog for my friends who are interested in what's going on in Kalamazoo, I have a new blog, Kalamazoo Seasons, looking at nature's cycles in and around Kalmazoo, MI

Buenos Aires


(image) Although Montevideo isn't far from Buenos Aires, we didn't make the trip across the Rio as often as I expected. We did visit the bigger city a couple of times (and flew in and out a few more.) It's an interesting place.

Here's a video slideshow of some of my photos from Buenos Aires:
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Uruguay viejo


(image) Living in Uruguay, it was easy to see traces of its past: architecture from previous centuries, colonial fortresses, and antique cars still in use. Some are a bit worn, others in states of decay, and others fully renovated. In any state, they were interesting reminders of Uruguay's history.

I made a video slideshow of photos of artifacts from Uruguay's past. You can see it here:
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Bourdain without translation (updated)


In an earlier post, I mentioned chef Anthony Bourdain's visit to Uruguay. Since then, I've heard a few bits and pieces about his trip, including a mishap with an armadillo that I don't fully understand. (I guess I'll need to wait and watch the show.)

In my post I included quotes from Bourdain that had been translated twice (into Spanish by Busqueda and back into English by me) losing, no doubt, accuracy each time. To make up for that, here's a quote from a Miami Herald article about Bourdain:

``I was just in Uruguay. It was one of those great discoveries. Montevideo is outrageously cool. I ate meat for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I don't think I saw a single vegetable for 10 days. Everything is cooked over roaring heaps of wood. They are burning down the whole world to feed themselves. I had armadillo. Hadn't had that yet. And some emu/ostrich varietal. But the big surprise was how good the blood sausage was. Maybe the best morcilla I ever had.''

But how good was the steak?

``It was better than I had in Argentina. People say the beef in Argentina is great. I prefer American beef to Argentine beef. But everything I had in Uruguay was unexpectedly great.''

And here's a direct quote from Tony Bourdain's blog without any intermediation:

URUGUAY: The Bourdain brothers journey to Montevideo, Punta del Este and the surrounding countryside in search of traces of their mysterious, Uruguayan great, great grandfather. Conclusions? Among other things--that Uruguay makes Argentina look like a vegan suburb of Berkeley. That they like to cook stuff over flame. LOTS of flame. That Montevideo is probably the Next Big Thing--or should be. And that the "civito" is the Greatest Sandwich in the History of Civilization.

More scenes from Montevideo


(image) I made another video slideshow of everyday scenes from the streets of Montevideo.

You can see it here:
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Semana Criolla


This week other Latin American countries celebrate Semana Santa and Uruguay enjoys its Semana de Turismo with events throughout the country. In Montevideo, gauchos compete on horseback during Semana Criolla. Riders, called jinetes, ride wild horses. They are amazingly good.

I put together a video slideshow from last year's Semana Criolla competitions. You can watch it here:
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Earlier, I posted short videos of Semana Criolla at Parque Prado and at Parque Roosevelt.