A Walking Tour of Old Town Montevideo

Our free walking tour with Rodrigo from Free Walking Tour MVD was great. We met him at the Plaza Independencia at 11am, and as is characteristically Uruguayan, he was holding his guampa piled high with maté leaves and a bombilla sticking out. He explained that Uruguayans take their maté very seriously, unlike the Argentinians who just like to drink it. There’s a specific process one should use to make sure the maté retains its flavor for the whole thermos full of water; otherwise, you are just drinking warm water.

Plaza Independencia

Rodrigo sat us down in the shade at Plaza Independencia to tell us about some of the history of Uruguay and the significance of the Plaza. Uruguay’s first constitution was adopted on the 18th of July, 1830, which is why the main street that runs through Montevideo is called the 18th of July. Independence from the Spanish empire came in three stages: In 1811, José Artigas, Uruguay’s national hero, led a successful revolution against Spain forming Banda Oriental. Between 1816 and 1820, the United Kingdom of Portugal and Brazil occupied the Banda Oriental and the Brazilian empire ultimately annexed it into Brazil. On August 25, 1825, 33 Orientals led by Juan Antonio Lavalleja came from present-day Argentina to reclaim what belonged to them and proclaim independence. The declaration of independence led to a 500-day war which culminated in the Treaty of Montevideo in 1928 between Argentina, Brazil and England, forming Uruguay as an independent state. Uruguay celebrates independence day on August 25th. The Plaza Independencia has 33 palm trees to symbolize these 33 men. (See our Montevideo: “Pretty Much a Success” post for the iconic painting of the Oath of the 33 Orientals by Juan Manuel Blanes.)

Montevideo was founded in 1724 largely to stop the Portuguese from getting to Buenos Aires. When South America was discovered, the Pope was asked how it should be divided between Spain and Portugal. Since the Pope at the time was Spanish, he gave everything to Spain except for a small part of Brazil. The Portuguese expanded their territory and founded a town called Colonia del Sacramento which is very close to Buenos Aires. The Spanish became concerned about the expansion of the Portuguese and built Montevideo.

There are two theories about the origins of the name Montevideo. One theory says it means “I saw a hill” – Monte vid eu – in Portuguese or Latin. Another theory says it is named for the sixth hill from East to West – Monte VI d(el) E(ste) (al) O(este) – using the Roman numeral for six.

In the middle of the Plaza Independencia is a statue of José Artigas. He is a funny sort of hero for Uruguay, however, as he never imagined forming Uruguay as a single country. The statue of Artigas has the right front leg of the horse raised which would typically mean he was injured in battle and later died of his wounds, but Artigas died of natural causes.

Uruguay has a population of approximately 3.3 million people, half of whom live in Montevideo. The population of people grows very slowly; it was 3 million 50 years ago. 90% of Uruguay’s population today is descended from Italy or Spain. Approximately 4% is of African descent largely due to Montevideo’s history as a slave port. According to Rodrigo, the people who escaped from slavery stayed in Uruguay; the rest went to Brazil. The first president of Uruguay killed almost all of the natives, so there is virtually no native population. There are, however, 12 million cows!

The Cathedral in Montevideo

Uruguay separated church and state very early in its history. Unlike the population of neighboring countries, only 44% of Uruguayans declare themselves Catholic, and the Jewish population is less than 1%. More than half of the country is atheist. This may have something to do with Uruguay’s recent legislative changes.

  1. Abortion: In 2012, Uruguay passed a law that any woman can have a voluntary abortion up to 12th week of pregnancy. Previously abortion was illegal. Middle and upper class women seeking abortion could get one in a clinic even if it was illegal, but for the majority of women, the only option was clandestine clinics in unhealthy conditions and many died.
  2. Marijuana: Uruguay was the first country to legalize marijuana. There are three ways for Uruguayans to access marijuana: each family may have up to six plants, marijuana produced by the state can be acquired at some pharmacies (you have to register and there are limits), and there are marijuana clubs. Uruguay doesn’t want to be the Amsterdam of Latin America, so the legalization only applies to Uruguayans and people who have been legal residents for two years. The advantages of the law are that Uruguay is making some progress in the war against narco-trafficking, and people who smoke know what they are smoking and don’t have to deal with black market criminals, although legalization has increased marijuana usage some.
  3. Gay marriage: Gay marriage was legalized in 2013. Uruguay was one of the first countries to allow people to get divorced and allow women to vote, so in that sense it has always been progressive. However, in Uruguay, the law sometimes precedes the feelings of the people. While gay marriage is legal, Uruguayans still don’t accept homosexuality so easily.

Rodrigo told us that Montevideo was the safest city in South America. Of course, in Buenos Aires we were told Montevideo was a lot more dangerous than Buenos Aires, so we don’t really know, but we can say Montevideo felt safe. The city installed video cameras a few years ago and now it seems every shop, museum and bus station asks you to remove your hat and sunglasses when you enter. From what we understand, the cameras have done a lot to reduce crime.

Check out our next posts to see how we spent the rest of our week in Montevideo.

Palacio Salvo

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