We arrived in Montevideo from Mendoza Argentina on February 13th, the 22nd day of our South American adventure. The first 21 days were with the Viking Ocean Cruise and Mendoza post-cruise extension, now we were “free-styling”, on our own for another week.
Why Montevideo? Back in the 1980’s Rick made many business trips to Uruguay and enjoyed the visits to Montevideo. The city had an interesting charm and culture and it’s fun to go back after all these years to see what changed and what stayed the same.
On our brief stop in Montevideo with the Viking Jupiter (our South America Cruise – Part 5 blog), we had a scheduled winery tour, so had very little free time to spend in Montevideo. Now we were on our own with several days to explore the city.
Then and Now
Montevideo has retained its charm and character. We stayed in the old town district, Ciudad Vieja, with its older colonial buildings as well as art deco architecture. This neighborhood, adjacent to the port, has several pedestrian-only streets that lead up to Plaza Independencia, the main square.
Most of the old town area hasn’t changed much since the last visit in the early 1980’s, but elsewhere there has certainly been big changes in Montevideo and Uruguay. Across the city, modern buildings can be seen and along the Rambla, a 13 mile long avenue that runs along the shoreline of the Rio e la Plate, high-rise apartments evoke a South Florida look.
Back in the 1980’s Uruguay was ruled by a military dictatorship. Anyone who spoke out against the government risked imprisonment or worse. Today Uruguay is a thriving democracy and Latin America’s most progressive country. Crime is very low, the standard of living is one of the best in South America. Uruguay has the highest literacy rate in Latin America, school is mandatory up to high school and the state run universities are free. Uruguay legalized the production, sale and consumption of cannabis.
Our hotel, the Don Boutique Hotel, located across the street from Mercado del Puerto or Port Market in the old town. This location was perfect as it was adjacent to one of the main pedestrian streets. We were able to walk to most old town attractions, restaurants and shops.
Our room was a front room on the second floor with a small balcony overlooking the street. Across the street was a small open air arena that was part of the Carnival Museum. Since this was in the middle of Carnival season (Mardi Gras), we had free (and loud) entertainment every night, so no early bedtime!
Apart from the late night entertainment, the Don Boutique Hotel was a nice place. The building is art-deco style, looks like it could be in South Beach. The roof-top bar was a great spot to enjoy a bottle of local Tannat wine while watching the sunset cast its golden glow over the city.
Sights & Sounds of Montevideo
Montevideo boasts the longest running Carnival celebrations which start in late January and goes on for 40 days. Local neighborhood dance and drum groups participate in various parades and events and we were fortunate that a couple of groups performed at the nearby Mercado del Puerto. The groups perform Candombe, a style of music and dance that immigrated to Uruguay with African slaves.
On Sunday February 16th, after a fun 3 days in Montevideo it was time to leave. Our next stop, Colonia del Sacramento, one of Uruguay’s oldest towns. We would stay in the cobble-stoned Barrio Histórico (historic quarter), a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We got the last two seats (next to the toilet) on the 9:00AM bus to Colonia for the 2.5 hour ride. In our next post we will share the experiences in that historic town.
After leaving Puerto Madryn Argentina, we had nearly two full days at sea before docking in Montevideo Uruguay. This would be our last several days of the cruise portion of our trip, where we will end and disembark in Buenos Aires.
One of the sea days on the way to Montevideo was pretty rough, with gale force winds that even peaked to hurricane force. The ride was a bit rough, but the ship’s stabilizing systems helped make it tolerable. The winds were so strong that all outside deck areas were closed.
We arrived in Montevideo on the morning of Feb 8, 2020. The dock is right in the old town section making it convenient for walking to town. We had a winery tour scheduled for the afternoon, so our morning was free which gave us a chance to walk around and explore.
For me this was a bit nostalgic since I spent quite a bit of time in Montevideo and Uruguay back in the 1980’s. At that time I was working for Raytheon and was the lead Project Engineer for a vessel traffic monitoring radar system we installed for the Uruguay Navy. I had spent many months in country and made many trips there back in the day.
Where we docked was adjacent to the main Navy headquarters building with its large glass dome cupola that still has a harbor surveillance radar spinning on top (not the one we installed years ago). I recall working on the very top of that cupola with its amazing view of the harbor and city.
Alongside the dock near our ship was a beautiful tall ship that was visiting Montevideo. The Russian tall ship Sedov is a 4-masted barque operated by Murmansk University and is a training ship.
As you leave the gated port facilities there is a monument with one of the anchors and a range-finder from the German pocket Battleship Graf Spee, which was scuttled off Montevideo in 1939. This was one of the first naval battles of World War 2 when Royal Navy warships damaged the Graf Spee in what would be called the Battle of the River Plate. The German Captain sought refuge in neutral Uruguay to do repairs and transfer his wounded for medical care. Under neutrality rules, the Graf Spee could only stay in Uruguay’s neutral waters for 72 hours. The Captain decided to scuttle the ship rather than steam out into the British ambush. Thousands lined the shores of Montevideo to watch the battleship blow up. Many artifacts were recovered over the years and many displayed at the Uruguay Naval museum.
The old town section of Montevideo (Ciudad Vieja) is a maze of narrow streets and old buildings. There are several pedestrian streets with plenty of souvenir shops and restaurants and it takes about 20 minutes to walk up to the main plaza, Plaza Independencia. Along the way are several smaller plazas, the main Cathedral and plenty of people drinking Mate.
Not far from the port entrance is the famous Mercado del Puerto (Port Market), with many Parrilla grills serving up steaks, sausages and other meat delights.
We spent about 2-hours wandering around before returning to the ship for our afternoon winery tour.
Juanico Vineyards & Winery
Our afternoon tour to the Juanico Winery was about a 40 minute coach ride outside Montevideo. We were with a group of about 30 other guests from our ship and a local tour guide (don’t remember his name). Our guide was great, he was very funny, but informative. Told us all about the current situation in Uruguay, the history and talked a lot about the local wines.
We learned that Uruguay is the most progressive country in South America with free education for all, a good healthcare system, very stable and safe society. Oh, and the only country in South America to legalize medicinal and recreational marijuana.
When we arrived at the vineyard a young woman from the vineyard took over the tour and we stopped first out in the vineyard to walk among the vines. Since it’s late summer in the Southern Hemisphere, harvest time is very soon, so the grapes were full and almost ready to pick. The predominant grape variety here is the Tannat grape. This is a very deep blue grape and the Tannat wines we would taste later were amazing.
After walking around the vineyard we were brought to the winery and cellars for a tour and then tasting. The grounds of this winery were very picturesque and the wines we tasted were top notch. We are now Tannat lovers! We still have our Mendoza Argentina cruise extension coming up in several days, so the Malbec is waiting!
We left Montevideo early evening for the overnight trip across the Rio de la Plata to Buenos Aires where we would spend our last two days on Viking Jupiter. As we left Montevideo Harbor we passed many derelict boats, not sure what the story is there.
We will return to Montevideo in several days.
We docked in Buenos Aires on Sunday morning, February 9th at a main commercial port facility. We would stay on the ship overnight before disembarking to end the cruise portion of our trip.
Where we docked was in the middle of a big container terminal, so we had to use shuttle buses to get from the ship to the cruise terminal building. We had a full day excursion tour booked for Sunday which was a boat tour of the Paraná River Delta. It was about a 1 hour coach ride to the suburb called Tigre where we would board the excursion boat.
The Paraná River is the second longest river in South America (of course the Amazon is the longest) at about 3,000 miles long with its source in southern Brazil. The delta is a vast wetland area with endless channels and waterways, looking similar to the Mississippi delta in Louisiana.
The boat tour, about 1.5 hours, took us through several canals where there were large numbers of weekend cabins, cottages and even some substantial mansions, all built up on stilts because of the annual floods. It seems that every home had their own dock and many of these places can only be accessed by water, so lots of small boats.
On the return trip to the ship, we stopped at the city of San Isidro and visited the Cathedral there, a beautiful late 19th Century neogothic style building. Our tour guide walked us through the cathedral, but we stopped briefly inside because Mass was about to begin. The Plaza de San Isidro in front of the church hosts a long standing artisan market and there were many stalls with hand made apparel and jewelry.
Cruise Ends ☹
We had a nice dinner on our last night on board. Said good bye to our favorite service staff members, put the luggage out by 10pm, then went to bed for the last time in our comfy stateroom.
Overnight, another larger MSC cruise ship docked nearby and when it was our group’s turn to disembark in the morning, the cruise terminal was chaotic with a couple of thousand passengers trying to get their luggage through the security x-ray scanners.
Since we booked a cruise extension for three days in Mendoza, Viking arranged to fly us to Mendoza. Up until now, we didn’t know how many others would be on this excursion. We met up with the others who were going to Mendoza and there were two other couples for a total of six. Very small group! We were met outside the cruise terminal by our guide who took us to the local airport for our flight. Our guide Ailin (Eileen) would stay with us for the whole Mendoza trip and we would be joined by a second guide in Mendoza, Estefan. We will have a separate blog post about our Mendoza excursion which turned out to be one of the best post cruise excursions we have ever taken with several pleasant surprises.