From Colonia, I travelled on to the capital Montevideo. I arrived at Tres Cruces terminal as the sun was setting. The buildings were bathed in golden light which gradually switched to the artificial lights in the growing dusk. Uruguay has been forging the path of liberalism in South America in the last decade and I immediately felt safe there. All the streets were signposted and I easily found the main road and my hostel.
The main road, Avenida 18 de Julio, is so called because that was the date the national constitution was signed. Other roads too are named after important historical dates; Rambla 25 de Agosto 1825, for example, was when Uruguay gained independence from Brazil. Uruguay has an interesting history of liberal revolution and this is commemorated throughout the city. In this way, it seems the opposite of Colonia; it plays down the European influence and recognises its fight for independence and liberalism.
Whilst in Uruguay, I explored the Sunday market (stalls selling everything from dulce de leche to tropical fish), the quirky old town (ALL the street art), the central plazas and rambled along the Rambla by the sea.
One evening, I joined a group from the hostel to go to a music event in a broken down warehouse. The smell of the river and draughty converted warehouses reminded me intensely of Liverpool. I had vaguely envisaged all South American events to be wild carnival-like hootenannies. Not so in Uruguay. The crowd refused to dance, instead preferring to calmly drink mate from their guampos. In England, we self-depricatingly mock ourselves for awkwardly dancing but we wouldn’t dream of hitting a music event with a flask of tea.
Uruguay also has a more recent streak of liberal reforms. One of these was the introduction of a state regulated market for cannabis. This almost certainly contributed to the relaxed air and may have accounted for the number of small children at the gig who seemed to be under the care of the crowd at large. I wondered whether it is common for residents to smoke or whether legalisation removed the rebellious appeal. My newfound friend, Alejandro, responded that ‘it’s 2016; everyone smokes a bit’. A girl that I met that night, Ro, informed me that some events were more lively and invited me to a tambola or drum parade the next night.
It was midnight and the street was still rammed with revellers. Bob Marley music pounded out of the speakers during the set intervals as the crowd swigged cheap wine from cartons. Ro and I had been dancing for several hours and I had been attempting to decipher the Spanish lyrics. When I asked whether most people worked early on Mondays, she informed me that people just weren’t too bothered about lack of sleep. Earlier in the night, we caught a dramatic show of capoeira, a performance of mock-fighting. Suddenly, the crowd seemed to deem it time for the drum parade and began to flow down the street. We pushed towards the head of the crowd and danced ahead of the drums. The atmosphere was electric.
Initially, I was anxious about attending the parade with a girl but Uruguay has also made significant progressive reforms on gay rights. In 2009, gay couples were granted equal rights for adoption and, in 2013, the government legalised same-sex marriage. Uruguay is the first country in South America to erect a monument to sexual diversity which proclaims respect and honour for all sexual orientations. I also noticed that Avenida 18 de Julio was decorated with hundreds of rainbow flags. ‘Los mismos derechos por todos in la ciudad’, they chanted: ‘the same rights for all in the city’. According to Ro, they were not a permanent feature but left over from the annual diversity march a few weeks earlier. In 2005, the gay pride activists merged with other campaign groups to broaden the focus of the march. It is now an intersectional event that celebrates transsexual rights as well as class and race issues.
Although I continued to fend off the standard ‘have you got a boyfriend?’ question, I appreciated the relaxed air in Montevideo. Overall, I found Uruguay to be an incredibly welcoming and laid-back country. Its colonial Spanish and Portuguese as well as modern western liberal influences certainly calmed my initial culture shock at this new continent. As another traveller, Casual Lifehacker, perceptively wrote, Uruguayan people are what makes this place special.