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During a visit to nearby Buenos Aires we decided to visit Montevideo. We took the Buquebus (pronounced "boo-key-boos") high speed ferry and it turned out to be an interesting journey.
We arrived at the ferry terminal in Puerto Madero in Buenos Aires around 10:30 in preparation for our 11:45am ferry ride to Montevideo.
They are very thorough when it comes to security. Your bags are placed through a machine that screens, presumably, for explosives. You must walk through a metal detector just as you would at any airport. And your luggage is handled just like an airline. At your destination you wait for your bags to appear on the carousel.
We've taken ferries all over the world and this one, The Atlantico III was the most luxurious we've ever encountered. We went first class and the seating was roomy and wonderful (see picture section below). They had a duty free store on the main deck that was as nice as any you'd ever see at a major international airport. I'd estimate the ferry probably seats 800 to 1,000 when it's full. It was not at all full during our trip.
The boat was a little late getting going but pretty smooth as we reached cruising speed. Everything went well for two thirds of the trip. Then, suddenly, the giant ferry slowed down big time. I looked out the back window and saw a huge puff of sinister looking black smoke. Upon more careful examination it was coming from the starboard engine at the water level.
The captain would speed up until more thick, dense, black smoke poured out and then he would slow down again. It was pretty scary and I had some fear that the engine might be on fire. After a few more trials of speeding up and slowing down with the same result--thick, dark, black smoke--the captain came on the P.A. with an announcement in Spanish.
I don't speak Spanish but asked a fellow passenger if he understood what the captain had said and he told me the message went something like this: "Due to a technical problem, the boat would be an hour late because the engines could not turn over at their normal RPM level." At the slower speed there was only minor black smoke, not the frightening thick smoke we had earlier. Turns out we we were two hours late but at least we got there!
On board The Atlantico III everything was fine. Exiting at the ferry building was a mess.
Exiting the ferry was a real pain in the butt. Every passenger had to put his bags through a metal detector and then physically file through a metal detector upon arrival. Why? We had been screened before boarding and had been in a secure area all the way. Plain and simply, this was a useless and stupid procedure unless I'm missing something. This process really held up the works. And then the final obstacle. Cabs were in short supply. We had to wait for about 30 minutes to get one to the Sheraton Hotel.
First impressions of Montevideo were a little on the rough side. It seemed rather small and kind of run down. Many buildings were drab and shabby. The city had a "seedy" feeling to it at least during our initial hour. Later while touring the city, we came to really appreciate it.
Like Buenos Aires, Montevideo sits right on the Rio de la Plata. But here the river is not brown and muddy but fairly blue with streaks of brown. It's near the Atlantic Ocean (you can see the Atlantic from high rise buildings) and when the wind blows from the east, the water is more blue and is saltwater. When the wind is out of the west, the river turns brown as fresh water is channeled downstream. Sometimes it is brackish.
The Sheraton Montevideo is a first class hotel. It doesn't come even close to the B.A. Hilton in Puerto Madero for luxury but it's still a fine place. A great benefit is the fact that the hotel is directly connected to what must be one of the best shopping malls in Montevideo. The mall is called Punta Carretas and judging from the clientele (lots of furs and bling bling) this must be one of the places to shop and be seen.
They've got everything from department stores to restaurants to an upscale, gourmet grocery store in this mall.
We checked with the hotel about arranging a sightseeing tour with an English speaking driver and air conditioned car and hooked up with a really nice man named Diego. He knows and loves the city of Montevideo and during our three hour tour, showed us all of the historic and important sights.
Diego was a great guy. A free spirit in his 50s with wavy gray hair and a man who really loves his town. Prior to becoming a guide he worked as a bank executive until they figured out that he earned too much money.
With Diego leading the way, we toured the old section of the city, visited monuments, parks, beaches and got a good feel for the place.
Diego drives a Remise (a car similar to a taxi but usually much nicer and a little bit bigger than the tin can cabs) and is well known in Montevideo. So if you'd like to have him show you around (and he's really great) ask your hotel's front desk to track him down.
One of the most interesting sights we saw during our entire trip was the Mercado del Puerto (Port Market). Inside is what looked like an old European train station were probably a dozen of little restaurants each with a nook and cranny for tables under the big dome. Each had a rip roaring wood fire where the meat was cooked. It was a stunning sight (see picture section at the bottom of the page). This is a must see place on any visit to Montevideo.
You see monuments and statues of Jose Gervasio Artigas all over the city. He's their version of George Washington in the U.S. You'll see his tomb in the picture pages below and a large horse mounted statue at Independence Plaza.
The beaches were jam packed and there are some pretty nice ones here. But the government of Uruguay strongly suggests that people stay away from the beaches until 5pm when the sun is not so intense. There's an ozone hole over this part of the world and skin cancer is on the increase.
The taxis here (black and yellow just like the cabs in B.A.) are the smallest we've ever encountered anywhere in the whole wide world. You actually have more room--considerably more room--while riding in a golf cart. At an altitude of 6'2" getting my legs packed in and getting out was a painful chore.
One interesting thing you will see in Montevideo are the recycling vehicles---a horse and buggy with driver collecting recyclable items. I felt sorry for the poor horses in the 92 degree heat. The horses did not look happy.
While Montevideo is said to be one of the safest cities in South America it had kind of a strange undercurrent. I'm probably nuts but after seeing a private security guard with what appeared to be a 9 millimeter Glock prominently protruding from his belt outside a great seafood restaurant, we had to wonder. He nervously crossed the street, then came back and kept repeating that process seemingly keeping an eagle eye out for possible trouble. We did not get this kind of feeling in Buenos Aires except for a small "twinge" in La Bocha.
One thing we learned from Diego is that there is extremely bad blood between Uruguay and Argentina over two and possibly more paper plants proposed near the river on the Uruguayan side. Like Argentina, Uruguay suffers from about 14% unemployment. Uruguayans need the several thousand jobs that these plants would provide. So why the rub with Argentina? Argentina contends that the plants would pollute the river. Some, say, however that Argentina could be doing a much better job policing its existing plants for pollution. No matter which side you take on this, it was a huge sore spot between the two nations during our visit. In fact during our stay a boat operated by an Argentinean was fired upon while sailing along the coast with Uruguay. I hope they work everything out without somebody getting killed. It's that heated!
While we didn't have the time, many folks from Argentina flock to the beach resort of Punta del Este. We talked with a number of people who had visited the resort and they gave it rave reviews.
Our trip to Montevideo ended not with another ferry ride but a short, 40 minute Aerolineas Argentinas 737-200 flight to the close in Aeroparque Airport in Buenos Aires. It always amazes me of how good the service is in the front cabin of a small, international airline. Beats the heck out of the way we're treated on a similar short hop in the U.S.
MONTEVIDEO RESTAURANT REVIEWS
Like in Buenos Aires, folks in Montevideo dine late. Most head out for dinner no earlier than 10pm although some restaurants open at 8. Check to make sure the restaurant of your choice is open early.
Francis came highly recommended by our hotel concierge when we asked for suggestions on a good seafood spot. He spoke with great passion about the place so we made a reservation. Immediately upon being seated bread was delivered to the table along with two interesting spreads. One appeared to be like a creamy liver sausage spread although it had a seafood taste to it. The second spread was a cheesy taste delight. Both were great I started out with an order of fresh mussels and they were incredible. Extremely fresh. A few failed to open but that's what you get with mussels anywhere. The size was huge and the wine, butter, garlic broth was fabulous. For my main course I ordered something called Abadejo, said to taste similar to red snapper. It was fabulous and I ordered it with a sauce called marriscos. The sauce was kind of like a lobster bisque. Very, very good. My wife ordered the toothfish, whatever that was, and it was great. We couldn't help but notice that a man next to us was carving into a huge filet mignon that must have weighed 20 ounces and it was cooked very rare, just the way we like it. Dinner ended with a couple of shots of Limenjelo on the house---an ice cold lemon liqueur like we had enjoyed in Sorrento, Italy. In fact, I'm sure that's where it came from. This was an outstanding dinner and we'd HIGHLY recommend Francis to you when you're in Montevideo. It's an easy walk from the Sheraton Hotel. This is the finest seafood we've ever had in a Spanish speaking country!!!
Parrilla El Fogon was an unusual find for us for lunch but a great place. It's a large sit down restaurant located inside the Punta Carretas Shopping Mall which is directly linked with the Sheraton Hotel. They have a roaring fire inside the place where the meat is cooked. This place specialized in cow innards but also offered regular cuts. We chose rack of lamb and a large salad for two. The salad was huge and loaded with hearts of palm, hard boiled eggs, tomatoes, onions and lettuce. They brought extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar to the table for dressing. The rack of lamb (we each got one) was served on a sizzling hot platter with some sort of fire under the surface to keep it hot. This lamb was some of the best we've ever had in the world and it was surprisingly cooked medium rare. An amazing find for a shopping center restaurant and highly recommended to you.
El Viejoy Y El Mar came recommended to us by a second concierge at the Sheraton when we asked about seafood restaurants. But we were suspicious about this one because he recommended it with absolutely no passion whatsoever. We should have known! While it wasn't a bad place, it wasn't even on the same planet with Francis where we had gotten such a wonderful seafood meal. We started out with an order of mussels but they weren't fresh. They were steamed in the half shell. For my main course I got a fried seafood platter. It had fairly decent tasting shrimp (a few of them), some small bits of fried fish, some squid rings (rather tough) and fried artificial krab which wasn't good at all. All of mine was frozen. No doubt about it. My wife had a filet steak and fries and her dinner was okay. Many international travel guide books rate this establishment highly. The atmosphere was nice as the place was nearly right on the water but for fresh seafood, go elsewhere. Go to Francis!
SNAPSHOTS FROM URUGUAY
Mercado del Puerto (Port Market)
You'll need a passport but not a visa to enter Uruguay. Driving is on the right, same as in the U.S. Currency is the peso which at the time of our visit each U.S. dollar was worth about 25 pesos.