The Washington Post
April 9, 2000, Sunday
SECTION: TRAVEL; Pg. E01

The Full Montevideo

Tourists haven't discovered Uruguay's quirky capital--yet.

In a continent best known for Juan Valdez, they're obsessed with tea. So obsessed that many of them carry tea-drinking paraphernalia--thermos, gourd, metal straw--everywhere they go, every day. Too proud to buy affordable new cars from a neighboring country, too broke to import them from overseas, they've turned their roads into a living museum of ancient Fords and early-model Chevys. Surrounded by devoutly Catholic countries, they're devoutly secular--Christmas is called "Family Day," divorce was legalized nearly a century ago. While the rest of their continent flirts with privatization, they remain enamored with a cradle-to-grave social welfare system.

They are the 3.2 million people of Uruguay, South America's smallest Spanish-speaking country, and I was so smitten with their contrarian ways that I had to see their capital city, Montevideo.

But after hearing Montevideo described alternately as a "dump," "the Newark of Buenos Aires" and the "Cleveland of South America"; after reading a Lonely Planet passage that described the city's architecture as "worn-out" and "not out of place in Eastern Europe"; and after having my travel judgment questioned by a Buenos Aires hotel clerk, my father and I had some reservations as we left Buenos Aires aboard a Montevideo-bound boat. Was our quirky trip to Montevideo a big waste of time?

Fast forward to the end of the trip. In a unanimous decision . . . The category: favorite S. American capital. The vote: Montevideo. Yes, that's right. Montevideo, that little spit of a capital city of a land where cows outnumber humans three to one and sheep outnumber cows two to one, was the urban highlight of our South American tour.

To be sure, the 13 million-plus megalopolis Buenos Aires, famed city of Evita, tango and soccer-sensation Maradona, is one of the world's great cities, a must see. If you have limited time in South America, by all means, B.A.'s the place to go. And if you're solely in pursuit of the best restaurants, the biggest monuments, the grandest boulevards and the chicest people, then the "Paris of the South" is your spot.

But if you have extra time while in and around Buenos Aires; if you're an enthusiast of quirky, cheap, authentic, un-self-conscious places that haven't been deflowered by mobs of tourists; if your South American dream sequence--eating thick slabs of beef, drinking red wine, then watching sultry Latinas wailing in smoky tango bars--must conclude with a small bill; and if your fantasy includes an affordable room in a nearly elegant, European-style hotel surrounded by tree-lined, monument-laden plazas, within easy walking distance to the country's greatest sculptures and art museums, theaters and white-sand beaches . . . well, then, you could be interested in Montevideo.

Only 45,000 Americans visit the Oriental Republic of Uruguay (its official name) each year, and most of these travelers head directly to the swanky beach resort of Punta del Este, leaving Montevideo a virtual Tourism Free Zone. Below are seven reasons why you should weather the disapproval of the B.A. smart set and take the 2 1/2-hour, $ 40 ferry ride across the Rio de la Plata to Montevideo.

1. B.A. without the L.A. The unfortunate problem with the "Paris of the South" is that it's also the sprawling, traffic-clogged "L.A. of the South." For congestion-haters, there's Montevideo. As with Buenos Aires, European immigrants flooded Montevideo in the 19th and early 20th centuries and created a virtual shrine to their native countries. Like Buenos Aires, Montevideo is loaded with European-influenced architectural styles (neoclassical, Italianate, Beaux Arts, French revival), elegant museums housing the works of European and European-trained artists, garish classical monuments and grand cathedrals in the European taste. But the extra beauty of Montevideo is that virtually all of its most interesting attractions are accessible by foot. Arriving at the ferry dock, climb 10 minutes up the narrow, hilly peninsula that overlooks the Rio de la Plata and you're smack in the middle of the historic Ciudad Vieja, or Old City. From the elegant, palm tree-lined Plaza Independencia, home of a monstrous 30-ton monument to national hero Jose Artigas, it's a five-minute stroll to the Plaza Constitucion, another elegant, tree-lined plaza and site of the 200-year-old grand cathedral, Iglesia Matriz. Walk five more minutes and you're at the Plaza Zabala, home of the Decorative Arts Museum, a mini palace built at the turn of the century in the style of 18th-century France. You get the idea. All told, the colonial core packs five Italian-style plazas, more than 10 museums, a vibrant theater district and one of the world's greatest opera houses, Teatro Solis. Though Montevideo lacks the chic frenzy of Buenos Aires, it's no snooze. Montevideo's main drag (Ave. 18 de Julio) is loaded with cafes, restaurants, bookstores, bars and pizzerias that jump until the wee hours.

2. Tango's Second City. With two All Tango radio stations, more than 20 tanguerias (dance halls) and seven tango schools, Montevideo is more tango-mad than even Buenos Aires. B.A., it turns out, never monopolized tango--the art grew up simultaneously in the working-class neighborhoods of both cities in the late-1880s. And proud Uruguayans will inevitably tell you that tango's most famous song, "La Cumparsita," and the genre's most famous performer, Carlos Gardel, are products of Uruguay. The city is undergoing a tango renaissance, with new clubs opening and a new generation of performers learning the art. A tango show (dinner and drinks) at one of the tourist-friendly Buenos Aires spots costs around $ 50; a show in Montevideo will cost half that. Stop by Montevideo's visitor center (Lavalleja 1409) and pick up a map of the city's tanguerias, many an easy walk from the Old City. Check out the famous two-hour "History of Tango" show at the club Tangueria del Cuarento.

3. Bang drums, drink wine, set bonfires. While Uruguayans and Argentines may debate who owns the tango, there's no disputing the ownership of the candombe. Montevideo--unlike Buenos Aires, which has virtually no black community--has been home to a black community for more than 200 years. African Uruguayans, mainly descendants of freed Brazilian slaves, cooked up candombe--a uniquely Uruguayan musical rhythm based on the Bantu-tribe dances they brought to the Americas. Known internationally through the works of Uruguayan jazz musicians (including Hugo Fattoruso and Ruben Rada), candombe is played on three different pitched drums called tambores and sounds like Brazil's samba. To experience candombe, check out one of the world's best weekend parties: the part booze fest, part drum circle, part religious experience candombe jam in the Barrio Sur neighborhood, the center of Montevideo's African Uruguayan community. Head to Barrio Sur's Carlos Gardel Street on Sunday nights. Hear the drum call, follow the hypnotic rhythm and prepare to sweat. Once as many as 100 drummers rumble, Barrio Sur's residents pour into the narrow streets--dancing, singing, drinking wine and lighting bonfires (used to tune the hides of the drums). For more information, visit the Afro-Uruguayan Cultural Center (Ciudadela 1229).

4. Ascend to Beef Heaven. The Argentine passion for beef is exceeded only by the Uruguayan passion for beef. Yes, the Uruguayans consume more beef per capita than any other people in the world. Not surprisingly, steak houses in Montevideo are plentiful and wonderfully cheap. To eat among the world's leading carnivores in their preferred habitat, visit Montevideo's San Jose Street. There, the parillas (barbecues) offer seductive window displays of massive slabs of meat roasting atop massive iron grills. Enter one of the parillas and a bow-tied waiter will try to translate Uruguayan beef-speak for you. If confused (lomo=filet mignon, mollejas=giblets), try El Fogon (San Jose 1080), a cozy, friendly parilla that offers an easy solution: the Meat Lover's Plate, a mountain of every conceivable cut of cow. Cost: $ 9. If you want to learn more about the source of such wonderful excess, get thee to the Gaucho Museum (Ave. 18 de Julio 1998).

5. Visit a Real Port Market. While cities all over the world have refitted their ports into safe, hygienic, TGI Friday's-themed shopping centers, Montevideo's Mercado del Puerto remains the real, living, stinking thing. The Mercado, just two blocks from the hydrofoil dock, is a key part of city life, functioning simultaneously as a wharf market and bohemian mecca. The market's wrought iron super-structure has, since 1868, sheltered a maze of noisy vendors who hawk fruits, vegetables, beef and freshly caught fish. During the week, everyone from rugged fishermen to princely Uruguayan naval officers converge on the Mercado to chow at the fish stalls and grungy barbecues. On the weekends, though, the Mercado goes boho: local artisans peddle their works, while street performers, musicians and, sometimes, candombe drummers entertain. For a Mercado nightcap, stop by the Cafe Roldos for a Uruguayan fave, medio y medio, a mixture of wine and champagne.

6. Develop an Obsession for Tea. Sure, they drink tea in South America, but it's only when you've entered the land of the Orientals that you've observed a true tea-drinking obsession. The hot stuff is an herbal tea called yerba mate (mah-tay), which looks like marijuana and tastes like a bittersweet Earl Grey. Uruguayans--young, old, male, female, black, white--absolutely love the stuff. Forget about a once-a-day traditional tea time; in Uruguay, all day is tea time. They're imbibing everywhere--toting thermoses down the street, cradling colored gourds on park benches, sucking strange silver straws. Street sellers hawk the mate leaf. Grocery stores sell mate thermoses and mate gourds. Leather stores sell custom-designed, mate-carrying bags. When in Montevideo, do as the relaxed-looking Montevideanos do. Try it. And if you get chummy with a Uruguayan, don't be surprised if he offers you a drink from his own straw and gourd. It's a sign of friendship.

7. A Day at the Beach. Ask someone in Buenos Aires for advice on where to go to the beach and they'll likely recommend that you travel hundreds of miles away to Mar del Plata or Punta del Este. Ask a Montevideano and they'll tell you to walk up the street. Boasting 12 miles of white-sand beaches and a congenial Mediterranean climate, Montevideo is a great beach town. Grab some swim trunks and slither down the streets of the Old City to one of the many beaches lining the Rio de la Plata. Idle your day swimming, sunning, beach-combing, beach-strolling or watching the Rambla, the beach-hugging highway where Uruguay's museum of old cars is at its finest. Spotting a living, breathing 1950s Chevy rolling down the highway is the car geek equivalent of spotting a bald eagle. Reason enough to make the trip.

United and Varig flights to Montevideo start at around $ 1,170. Or, fly to Buenos Aires for about $ 1,000 and take the ferry over. Uruguay Embassy, 202-331-1313 or www.embassy.org/uruguay

Josh Schonwald is a New York writer.