Uruguay is a Land of Contrasts

Speaker's Corner: As Brian Kevin observes, visitors can expect to see flashy import sedans right alongside donkey-drawn rickshaws. !Muy contrastado!

10.29.13 | 10:49 AM ET

Photo by Alongi via Flickr, (Creative Commons)

Like a boutique condominium at the edge of a rank and squalid trailer park, tiny Uruguay is South America’s bastion of comfort and stability. Yes, from its folksy cowtowns in the Cuchilla de Haedo ranchlands to its faded colonial ports along the broad Rio de Plata, this postage-stamp nation is as warm and welcoming as the grinning Sol de Mayo on its flag.

But cuidado!  While “the Switzerland of South America” may seem placid, it is anything but uniform.  In fact, Uruguay is a land of startling contrasts. Visitors to the suave, urbane capital of Montevideo can expect to see flashy import sedans pulled up right alongside donkey-drawn rickshaws, their splintering carts overflowing with straw or melons or something. Smartly dressed epicures flock to high-end restaurants run by celebrity chefs, while just down the block, toothless old women who don’t wash their hands sell Dixie cups full of what looks like raw corn kernels floating in fish emulsion. Muy contrastado!

Outside the cities, it’s not uncommon to see traditional gaucho cowboys in their wide-brimmed hats and woolen ponchos, riding atop old-timey steeds, but chatting on the very modern-est of smartphones. The contrasts don’t stop there, however, because some of these gauchos are rather on the tall side, while others are almost freakishly short, more like jockeys than cowboys, really, their tiny legs dangling off to either side of their caballos’ rippling flanks. It’s a size differential as vast as the wide, green Pampas on which these proud men run their herds. And while both the tall and short gauchos use their trendy smartphones to update Facebook, they have dramatically different data plans.

Not contrast-y enough for you? Imagine wandering the cobblestone streets of seaside Colonia del Sacramento, one of the first Portuguese colonies in the New World, surrounded by centuries-old tile-and-stucco houses of fading pastel. History whispers to you from every darkened doorway, and although it is speaking Portuguese and therefore difficult to understand, it is clearly whispering something very, very old. And then, right there in the middle of the plaza, next to a twin-steepled basilica where a cracked bronze bell still summons the faithful, there is a goddamn Dunkin Donuts, with a couple of fatties just loitering outside, sipping their Coolattas and leaning up against a moss-covered cannon. Bam! Contrasts!

Indeed, Uruguay’s contrasts are as bountiful as the slick black feathers of the tero tero bird, which struts on spindly legs through the flooded palm savannas of the Littoral region. At the idyllic, beachside resorts of Punta del Este, wrinkled sunbathers in their 70s lie corpse-like beneath festive umbrellas, while on the very same beach, children no older than 10 build sandcastles and splash in the gentle waters of Maldonado Bay. Some of these children, moreover, are breathtakingly ugly, while others are downright cherubic, the kind of waifish and copper-toned niños that grin up at you from the brochures.

Of course, it goes without saying that for every stretch of golden-sand shoreline there is a rocky and litter-strewn beach nearby, where homeless Uruguayan prostitutes fight bloody battles over the dregs of liquor bottles, and where each crashing whitecap deposits a new wave of broken glass and hypodermic needles.

As night falls along the coast, the ocean breezes carry flecks of seawater and the sad, syncopated strains of milonga music, with its delicate string arpeggios and traditional lyrics of lost love. Or anyway, the breezes would carry these strains, if it weren’t for the punishing thunder of black metal emitting from Uruguay’s popular deathcore bars, unfailingly located across the street from the milonga cafés. I hope you’re beginning to understand the utterly relentless nature of Uruguayan contrasts here, which come at you as mercilessly as the primal screaming of Infierno Muerto frontman (and Latin-Grammy winner) Ignacio Garcia.

Booking a room can be difficult in any season, since even Uruguay’s finest hotels are run by simple goatherds who can’t begin to comprehend their own state-of-the-art computerized reservation systems. Transportation is another issue, as the country’s road infrastructure alternates every five kilometers between paved, four-lane highways and muddy ditches filled with leeches. Such hardships won’t slow down intrepid travelers, though, for whom Uruguay’s crushingly inescapable contrasts will feel as natural and refreshing as a morning sip of its famed yerba mate tea. For everyone else, there’s always Paraguay.

Brian Kevin is the author of "The Footloose American: Following the Hunter S. Thompson Trail Across South America." He's associate editor at Down East magazine in Maine and an occasional contributor to publications like Outside, Sierra, Audubon, and Travel + Leisure. Find him on the web at briankevin.com or follow him on Twitter @BrianMT.

11 Comments for Uruguay is a Land of Contrasts

Hope 10.30.13 | 11:35 AM ET

Beautiful descriptions, Brian. The only thing that sort of made me cringe was comparing the rest of South America to a “rank and squalid trailer park.” Ouch. There is no shortage of personality in this piece (DD “fatties” LOL) so I understand why it was included, but referring to developing SA countries as a giant filthy trailer park is a big jump, and an unfair one to make. Unless I interpreted it differently than you intended?

raffy 10.31.13 | 2:51 PM ET

Very good relato of what you found about Uruguay while - I asume- mind traveling there, i grew up in both regions, mostly in Montevideo and I can not figure out a few bad things you actually mentioned in your article, things that as an Uruguayan, bothers me and as a world traveler, puts the image of “copper looking kids” in my head when I know for a fact that 96% of the population is white, since everybody is from European descent. Also, I am now intrigued by whatever product that old lady without teeth was selling cause again, even though I grew up there, I have no idea of what are you talking about, specially since you me tioned that is something made out of something related to fish, in that case, as an Uruguayan, I need to inform you that we dont really care for fish and I invite you to watch the Anthony Bourdain video of Uruguay to give you an idea AND a more easy to undertand view of what we cater to. Another thing: Donkin Donuts? In Uruguay?? Really?? With “fatties outside” and everything?? Whoever you are, i encorage you to actually visit Uruguay before you write about it. And the “short and tall” gauchos: again, even the gauchos came from Europe and seeing a “short one” is very strange… and i really dont think they wear their ponchos when its hot… thats just common sense. You did mentioned some other things that i believe are truthful, but not uncommon in any other country that I have visited cause I have even seen Cholitas pull out their iphones out… (just in case: Cholitas are the most pure bloded indigenous of Bolivia)
Good article, but as a world traveler, especially south american traveler and as an Uruguayan, i need to stand up and do the type of review I just gave you and I invite you to contact me in case you actually decide to go, i can arrange free acommodations for you at either a fancy hotel, my parents home, in a rancho with a tall gaucho, wherever you may want to experience the real Uruguay.

Corn Seller 11.01.13 | 8:10 PM ET

While I may not have had the same access to dental care as you did, and my street food may not appeal to your palate, at least I loved all 10 of my children before they were 13 years of age.  Thank you.

Lucky 11.03.13 | 11:31 AM ET

I find it hard to accept that goat herders are running the Uraguain luxury hotels and resorts.  Most international chains have rigorous training for ALL their staff especially the managers

Brian Kevin 11.03.13 | 4:56 PM ET

Well, there’s nothing less funny than having to explain a joke, but here goes: This is most definitely satire, friends. Just me having some fun with the warmed-over travel cliche that this or that destination is a “land of contrasts” and with the purple prose that tends to accompany it.  Ho ho ho.  The “land of contrasts” label is a chestnut of bad travel writing, and a quick check of Google shows it applied pretty indiscriminately to at least 300 countries and other spots around the globe, including Namibia, Iceland, North Carolina, all seven continents, and the Howard Beach neighborhood of Queens.

The joke, such as it is, is a two-fer.  Like a sloth eating carrots (http://goo.gl/D9QbIv), it is funny because it is lazy.  What would someplace look like that was not a land of contrasts?  Where was the last place you’ve been that didn’t have some old things clunking around next to new things?  Or some trappings of poverty alongside trappings of wealth?  Staring down a looming guidebook deadline?  Find something made of stone next to something made of plastic, a nice car parked anywhere near livestock, or a tall gaucho hanging out with a short one, and voila!  You’ve got yourself a land of contrasts.

The other aspect of this that deserves some fun-poking, though, is the fact that “land of contrasts” is often deployed in marketing copy and bad travel writing as a means of taking something that is ugly or tragic or uncomfortable about a place and spinning it as a kind of amenity.  It is easier and less icky to acknowledge brittle-haired children begging in the streets, for example, if you can focus instead on the bewitching contrast between the crippling poverty that keeps them there and the lifestyle of conspicuous consumption that plays out around them.

To be clear, then: the luxury hotels of Uruguay are not actually run by illiterate goatherds. The children are uniformly adorable, and there is not, in fact, a one-to-one ratio of vacation beaches and dystopian seaboards overrun with drug needles and feral hookers. I have no particular insight into the cellular data plans of either tall or short gauchos, nor do I suspect that black metal is any more popular or less awful in Uruguay than it is anyplace else.

I will vigorously defend, however, my assertion that history in Colonia del Sacramento whispers to people in Portuguese. I have heard history whispering in Spanish on several occasions, and this didn’t sound anything like that.

Kristy of Visa USA 11.04.13 | 10:05 PM ET

One thing is for sure, Uruguay is a beautiful country and should must visit.

Hannah 11.05.13 | 4:57 AM ET

Awesome read. Glad i stumble on this and would definitely love to go to Uruguay!

John Haynes 11.10.13 | 2:50 AM ET

Insightful blog! I would love to see real cowboys too or get a chance to wear their costumes!

Agencija za zaposljavanje 11.13.13 | 1:51 PM ET

I love the way this article was written. Gives you an insight of what to expect when visiting the country without revealing the little hidden secrets we must explore on our own. Looking forward to visiting Montevideo next year, although only will stay for overnight will try to grasp as much as possible. Keep up the good work!

Hope 11.13.13 | 1:59 PM ET

Thanks Brian! Good God, I guess it’s telling that I’ve read so much marketing crap about exotic places and vibrant cultures…I’m jaded when it comes to knowing who is self-aware and who is completely serious about “discovering” ahem, hidden gems.

Robert Sutardi 11.18.13 | 11:41 AM ET

Great! Love this kind of posts because you end up knowing more people and find out great inspiration!

Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.