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Cruise Port Spotlight: Montevideo, Uruguay

By Georgina Cruz

Special Correspondent

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Often overshadowed by its big neighbor, Buenos Aires, across the Rio de la Plata River in Argentina, Montevideo, Uruguay is a stop on many South American cruise itineraries. Squeezed between the two giants of Brazil and Argentina, Montevideo is sometimes overlooked -- as is all of Uruguay, a country of rolling hills, approximately the size of Oklahoma, on the east coast of South America. But, alas, it should not be, as it makes for a rewarding stop, with well-educated, hospitable people and varied points of interest.

The capital of Uruguay, Montevideo is home to half of Uruguay's three-million-plus inhabitants, whose national pastimes include the tango, football (soccer) and yerba mate (an ubiquitous, tea-like, slightly bitter brew enjoyed at all hours of the day). Regarding the tango, by the way, Montevideo locals and tour guides often tell visitors that though many people attribute the tango solely to Argentina, it more correctly should be credited to the Rio de la Plata River basin region (on whose shores Montevideo sits, and the city of Montevideo does have a long-standing tango tradition). So dust off your dancing shoes when you visit.

A city of pleasant European-style coffeehouses and elegant boulevards, Montevideo also boasts a historic center, the "Ciudad Vieja" (Old City) with the cathedral, plazas and monuments, and a fine market, the Mercado del Puerto, on the Ciudad Vieja waterfront, housed in a 19th century wrought-iron building and featuring a variety of cafes and restaurants.

Popular excursions sold onboard cruise ships include walking tours of the Old City (and combination bus/walking tours of the historic center and city sights), as well as visits to wineries and "estancias" or ranches. At the latter, visitors get a glimpse of traditional "gaucho" life and horsemanship -- the "gauchos" are South American cowboys whose typical garb includes "bombachas" (loose fitting trousers), bandanas and felt hats.

Barrio Sur, Montevideo's African-Uruguayan quarter, is the place to go for "candombe," ceremonial-style music and dance that can be seen on weekends in the Barrio Sur's nightclubs.

Two excellent excursion options out of Montevideo are tours to "Colonia del Sacramento," Uruguay's oldest city, founded by the Portuguese in 1680 on the Rio de la Plata River, directly opposite Buenos Aires. Its whitewashed buildings, tree-lined squares and narrow cobblestone streets as well as a lighthouse and ruins of the 17th century Convent of San Francisco are among its charming points of interest. Another tour option is to the glitzy beach resort of Punta del Este (Punta del Este, incidentally, sometimes is a port of call itself on a number of South American itineraries) and it is another must-see, approximately 52 miles from Montevideo. This resort on the Atlantic Ocean is popular with Argentine and Brazilian tourists and in the "season" from December to February, also with Europeans. In addition to the pleasures of its beaches with their broad sands, Punta del Este has a vibrant nightlife with multiple nightspots and DJs flown in from Europe and the U.S. to entertain.

Yet other popular options farther afield, if time permits, include Las Termas, a geothermal region with hot springs in eastern Uruguay, and Aguas Dulces, a quiet beach area east of Punta del Este with good seafood restaurants (Aguas Dulces is a better option if your ship calls at Punta del Este as it is approximately 75 miles from Punta del Este or approximately 127 miles from Montevideo).

Local flavors not to be missed include the "parrilladas," excellent grilled meats featured in restaurants and ranches (some ships offer all-day tours to "estancias" that include lunch. The Mercado del Puerto is famous for its "parrilladas" where visitors can mix with locals, particularly on Saturday for lunch, a Montevideo tradition.

Good souvenirs of a visit to Montevideo include handicrafts, polished/mined minerals and stones, yerba mate accessories (gourd, straw) as well as leather and wood products.

Cruise lines that visit Montevideo include Azamara Club Cruises, Celebrity, Holland America, MSC, Oceania, Princess, Royal Caribbean, Seabourn and Silversea.

IF YOU GO -- For additional information on Montevideo and Uruguay, visit www.explore-uruguay.com.