Montevideo is the southernmost capital of South America, but that’s nothing to boast about, since the latitudinal distances between Montevideo, Buenos Aires and Santiago are all within 1.5° (100 miles). We only had two nights and one full day here, so we went on a tip-based walking tour to get a better understanding of the city and country with our limited time. Here are a few interesting things we were surprised to learn:
- José “Pepe” Mujica (their president until March) donates 90% of his salary to charity, drives a 25-year-old Volkswagen Beetle and headed a country that, in a single year, legalized marijuana, abortion and gay marriage. Some regard him as the most radical president in the world.
- The president serves for five years, which is renewable but not for consecutive terms. The incumbent president, Tabaré Vázquez, was president the term before Pepe. The two belong to the same party, so not many political changes are expected.
- Uruguay faced a banking crisis in 2002, when an estimated 33% run on banks by foreign depositors (a spillover effect of earlier financial crises in Brazil and Argentina) forced the government to freeze banking operations. Critics say this could have been averted if Uruguay had more stringent financial regulations.
- Numerous reforms over the past decade have helped Uruguay move beyond the crisis in what is heralded as a “success story in economic and social recovery.” Today, you will find long lines at national banks because there is still a general distrust in private banks (plus, they’re only open weekdays from 1-5pm).
- Uruguay’s cattle population outnumbers residents four to one: 12 million in a country of three million people. About a million Uruguayans are living outside of the country as a result of the banking crisis.
Just before coming to Montevideo, we read a travel article that it is one of the most underrated cities for tourists. This is understandable with how close Buenos Aires is. While we aren’t sure what else we would do with more time here, we quite enjoyed our experience. Most visitors to Uruguay go to beach resort city of Punta del Este, but when we discovered a hostel stay was more than $100/night, we decided next to head west to Colonia and then back to Argentina.