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.