Uruguay: Montevideo and Jose Ignacio

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Steak at La Otra

We’ve spent most of the day at Rocio’s place, again. Which, y’know. We’re doing plenty while we’re down here and we don’t want to get back to New York just as exhausted as we left. And between the patio, the stereo, the warm air, and the cat — there are definitely worse places in the world to spend the day. Rocio arrived home a few hours earlier and the three of us chatted while she cleaned up the patio. There may or may not be an evening dinner plan.

So. Uruguay.

Before planning this trip, I must admit that I hadn’t ever put a whole lot of thought into Uruguay. I knew the capitol: Montevideo — although I guess I thought they pronounced it “Monte Video” (like, a video store run by someone named Monte) instead of the proper “Montevi-DAY-o” (like Harry Belafonte). That was about it. And, y’know, since I wasn’t able to fully participate in the planning side of this excursion I was still a bit in the dark as to what to expect when we arrived.

So Monday afternoon last week we got a ticket on the ferry — the Buquebus — from Buenos Aires to Montevi-DAY-o and made the trip. The ferry ride was enjoyable. About three hours long. Maybe 3 1/2. The main area felt like the cabin of a very wide jetliner. We sat in airplane seats with tray tables at the lot, arranged about twenty across. Except instead of facing a cockpit, we faced a wide cafeteria that served mediocre sandwiches and junk food items. The back side of the ferry offered a duty free shop (and, let me say: it’s difficult to shop on a boat that’s rocking about in in the ocean). First class (or whatever they call it) was upstairs. Surprisingly there was no place on the ferry to stand outside and get a bit of fresh air. I’d been expecting something a bit more like the Staten Island Ferry with a bit more access to windows or railings where one could watch the seascape passing by. Not really the case, though. So I mostly just stuck in my seat and finished reading my book (The 25th Hour by Michael Benioff — not as good as City of Thieves, but a good read). And played games on my iPhone.

In Montevideo we stayed at Ermitage Hotel, a nice spot just a few blocks from the beach. The whole town is spread along the beach, just to note. It has a great coastline and they really seem to put it to good use — a wide boardwalk/corniche runs for miles along the sand. Buenos Aires waterfront seems to be mostly industrial — that’s not at all the case in Montevideo. Which Christin loved. The whole town had a much mellower vibe than BA, as well, which I enjoyed. Walking around that first evening in the neighborhood of the hotel, it honestly just reminded me of some of the neighborhoods in downtown Austin, specifically that zone kind of to the northeast of where Lamar and 6th Street intersect. Tree-lined streets. A wide mixture of building styles, much more English and German-style architecture than we found in BA. With smatterings of chill little businesses, bars, and restaurants. And we did find a very nice restaurant in which we finally had our first fully-awesome meal of the trip (that first weekend we were just having bad luck in BA). More on that in a moment.

First, let me get this out of the way: The UN or the OAS or someone needs to step in and take control of the one issue that harmed our experience more than anything in Uruguay. Maybe there’s an opening for some entrepreneur to come in and work with the government to fix this. It messed us up in Montevideo, in our drive through the wine country, and in Jose Ignacio. Street signs. Or, rather, the lack thereof. Imagine having this conversation about eighty times a day: “What street is this?” “I don’t know. There’s no sign.” Especially when you’re trying to drive on the highway… @$#%@#.

Anyway. The restaurant. La Otra, which is a parrilla (grill) right around the corner from Ermitage. A really comfortable spot. The decor is kind of rustic adobe — cream colored walls and heavy wooden furniture. We actually went twice — the first time getting a table upstairs and the second time (the next night) eating downstairs. So the first night I ordered a ribeye and Christin the ribs and for appetizers we got some chorizo and a gigantic candied yam and something else I forget what. I’m sure Christin took pictures (she’s been photo-documenting most of our meals, looking for some culinary inspiration for 2011). At any rate: Food’s fairly cheap around here, so we don’t have the usual pocketbook constraint against ordering way more food that we can handle. Everything tasted great, but we wound up with food for four people and I, honestly, could barely walk the few blocks back home. If you know me, you are probably aware that it takes a significant amount of food to really make me full. That second night we kept things a bit more under control. I ordered another steak and we didn’t do much in the way of sides. Still wound up a bit over-full. But worth it. La Otra’s a pretty damned good place.

Between these two evenings gorging on meat, during the day on Tuesday, we rented a car and attempted to go tour the wine country north of Montevideo. The actual car rental process was a small adventure (which I won’t say too much about except we would up talking to a very nice older couple from Alberta) — and getting out of the city was stressful (see above: very few street signs). But we did get out and found the highway (#5) that went through the area. We didn’t have much in the way of maps — just a map of the entire country that we grabbed at the rental car place and some notes Christin took about how to find the vineyards. There are also little signs periodically along the highway (signs?!) pointing out nearby vineyards, but in good Uruguay fashion hey kind of indicated that a vineyard was near but not always exactly where said vineyard may be. So we engaged in a fair amount of driving around on dusty side roads through quiet little villages going no where in particular. I did really enjoy the landscape. That part of Uruguay is hilly, but not mountainous. It’s got trees, but not too many. And they’re mixed in with a good amount of drier, scruffier vegetation. A dry Mediterranean climate, not terribly different than central Texas. About as far south as Dallas is north, it turns out. The little clusters of civilization ranged from clumps of very poor-looking cinderblock homes with corrugated steel roofs to actually fairly upscale-looking ranch homes. There is, for sure, a good amount of poverty in Uruguay. But, it turns out, the country is actually quite liberal and doing very well economically. Wikipedia notes that they are the first country to provide a laptop to every child. They are fairly progressive about drugs and gay rights. And they have lower income inequality than the Estados Unidos. And didn’t experience a recession between 2007 and 2009. How about this: Instead of paraphrasing the entire damned article on Uruguay, I’ll just leave this here for you.

Anyway, we did get two three vineyards. The first: Closed. Although not closed off: We were able to park and roam around a bit. Christin picked and ate a grape. I took photos of everything. The second vineyard: Also closed (and it kind of started to rain a bit). But also not closed off. We, again, moseyed around the property a bit and looked around. But at this one a little older Uruguayan man wearing jeans and a dirty t-shirt eventually came out. He spoke almost no English. And, as noted, our Spanish sucks. But we did get along and he opened up the building and gave us a little tour. We saw the laboratory where, I guess, the oenologists work with the actual wine. We saw the main dining room and tasting areas. The place was great — very old and rustic. And the man was extremely nice. And very talkative — a huge shame we couldn’t have understood him better. After a half-hour of that we hopped back in our little sedan-pickup truck combo rental car (like a 2000’s take on an El Camino, really) and headed on our way.

The third place was open. And amazing. Christin had actually set up a reservation before we left New York at a vineyard called Bouza to get a tour at 4pm that day. We had our notes about how to drive there but, again, the signage on he highway was horrible and we kept taking wrong turns and getting lost and things kept just simply not making sense until — somehow — we actually got on the right road and arrived at this place at 4pm on the nose. Just minutes before they gathered together a little group to tour the facilities. (“Bouza” is pronounced “Bowza,” by the way. Like a Bostonian would say “Bowser.” Not as Christin was saying it at first: “Booza.” Like a Bostonian would call someone who drinks too much.)

Bouza Bodega

Bouza Bodega is gorgeous. It’s a handful of buildings on a wide piece of land with a little ranch with some chickens and livestock hanging out. The main visitor center (with a restaurant and gift shop) is very classy and modern. We poked around and then got a nice tour of the actual winemaking process and a bit of history about the place. We also got a tour of the collection of old automobiles they have at the vineyard. I guess one of the Bouza clan collects cars and a few years ago they decided to build a museum showing them off on the property. So wine and old cars. Good combo. We then got the tasting. They sat us at a high table in their very airy and sleek restaurant (Christin and I got the table — other groups got other tables). We had four glasses and they gave us a white, a rose, and a couple of reds (in that order — spaced out over time) along with some cheeses, sliced meats, crackers, breads, and such. The wines were good. The only one I distinctly remember, though, is actually the one I didn’t care for — a tannat. I had never (that I know) had a tannat wine. A tannat, it turns out, is a super dark red. Very heavy on the tannens and at least the couple that I’ve tried here seem to have very little other flavor. Not really my favorite. The one Christin picked up for the house, here, eventually I just had to stop drinking. Just too intense and bitter and chalky.

So, anyway, that was our day driving around looking for vineyards. Trying to think if I’ve left anything out. Eh, probably.

Because I may not have too many more chances to write while we’re in South America, I’m going to push on and (even though this is already incredibly wordy) I’m going to talk about the second part of the Uruguay excurion: Jose Ignacio.

Jose Ignacio. It’s kind of the Montauk of Uruguay. That’s not a perfect comparison, but it’s fairly apt. It’s wealthy. Things are New York prices expensive. And it’s a cute town about ten by ten blocks out on a peninsula that juts into the Atlanic Ocean. The architecture of the homes and businesses there is amazing. All sorts of beautiful buildings. Lots of beaches, obviously. And a cute little lighthouse that seems to feature in all of the travel literature about the area. We got settled into our hotel (more of a motel — the Posada Paradiso, a rose-colored stucco place with a complex network of little art-and-ivy-covered patios and porches strung between a collection of smallish buildings, each with a few rooms for guests). We were in a small room at the top of a tower of about four stories — the only room at that height, with windows on all four sides. And possibly, I think, the highest sleeping space in all of Jose Ignacio. There aren’t any tall hotels or anything. The only thing significantly taller in the area is the lighthouse. A cool spot, for sure.

We kind of just bummed around. That first day we found a cafe on the main square and had some coffee and sandwiches. We then headed to the beach and checked out the water and read books in the sun. (I fell asleep and got a bit sunburned — and whenever we got uncomfortable due to the sun or heat a quick “y’know, it’s 30 degrees and snowy in New York” would get our spirits back up.) We climbed the lighthouse. Then, after a little nap at the hotel, drove out to a fancy restaurant in the forest back on the main part of the land and had a great dinner. Later that night we hung out at the hotel, drinking wine by the swimming pool outside. Quite nice.

The next day Christin headed out early to the beach and I followed a little while later, but managed to break my flip-flops en route and had to hobble back over rocky, half-paved, and insanely hot Jose Ignacio roads probably twenty minutes back to the hotel to grab my shoes. Not a good start to the day. We grabbed lunch at a trendy restaurant right on the beach, La Huella, and did a bit of people-watching. And then did all of our packing and bid Jose Ignacio our fond adieu and headed back to Montevideo to return the car and get our evening ferry back to Buenos Aires. On the drive back we took an hour and stopped at one of the beaches in Montevideo and hung out. I was in a little bit of an irritated mood — probably a combination of a bit of travel fatigue and my feet really hurting from the broken flip-flop fire-walking episode earlier in the day and just being sweaty and dirty in the heat. But we coped. The car got dropped off. We grabbed a beer at a little cafe near the ferry terminal and successfully disembarked back to Buenos Aires about 8pm.

This ferry was a bit nicer than the one coming over, but otherwise it was more-or-less the same experience. Except they had a Playstation 2 set up by the cafeteria area with a bunch of kids gathered around playing, like, FIFA Soccer 2003 or something. A funny little scene. I played more iPhone games and read more of Nabokov’s Pnin (which, honestly, I’m kind of just reading out of some odd urge to get through it at this point — it’s not the most gripping book I’ve ever cracked open). We got back to Rocio’s place around 11pm or midnight.

Okay. I might write more tomorrow. I worry that I’m going to be out of vacation mode and back into stressed work-mode upon my return to New York, so gotta squeeze out as much as I can, here…

Jose Ignacio