Uruguay, South America’s little hidden gem
Eventually, I spot a stool by the bar at La Maestranza, where weighty slabs of meat spit and click on the grill. The waitress scrawls my order – the tenderloin – in perfunctory fashion, but the cut, when it arrives, is cooked to perfection. I eat it slowly, listening to the Spanish chatter of my fellow diners.
The sole clue that I am in Montevideo is a faded poster on a nearby wall that shows the Uruguay football team lining up ahead of a game. Otherwise, this might be Buenos Aires, Rio, or another of the iconic cities of South America – busy, hungry, rather fond of beef.
Squished between the two power nations of the Latin world – Argentina to the south and west, across the epic flow of the River Plate; Brazil to the north – it is a country that has traditionally lacked profile.
This is partly due to size. Here is the second smallest country in South America (Surinam is smaller), a state of just 3.3million people, lost in the shadow of its famous neighbours.
And yet, gradually, Uruguay is gaining a reputation as an intriguing destination, not least for holidaymakers keen to explore a little off the beaten path on a fascinating continent – or doze on beaches that come alive during peak summer season (December to March).
Few would claim that the Uruguayan capital has the glamour factor of Buenos Aires, the ‘neighbour’ to which it is linked by three-hour ferry services across the Plate estuary. But when I amble to the urban sand of Playa Ramirez, I find the great river impersonating the ocean, and bronzed locals basking in the lunch-hour sunshine. Beyond, there is a cosmopolitan vibe to the city that extends to the affluent districts of Carrasco and Punta Carretas, with their pricey homes and upmarket eateries.
Then there is the Ciudad Vieja (Old Town), where stall-holders sell second-hand books and jewellery next to the cathedral on Plaza de la Constitucion, and cafes are opening on the gentrifying streets.
I halt for a green salad and a glass of Uruguayan red at Jacinto on Calle Sarandi, before wandering to MAPI (Museo de Arte Precolombino e Indigeno), the museum which has become a symbol of changing times in Montevideo. Here, shards of South American life from the centuries before Spanish conquest – Inca weapons, Mapuche pottery – are housed in a former Ministry of Defence building, its 1890s grandeur still visible in the marble staircase that sweeps up from the ground floor.