Each northern hemisphere winter, from November 2013 to April 2016, we spent five months in Montevideo. As a Uruguayan tourist visa only allows for a maximum stay of 90 days, we had two options; we could either request a once-only ‘prolongación‘ of a further 90 days at the immigration office (Dirección Nacional de Migración), or we could leave the country and return, same day if we wished, whereby we would be granted a new 90-day stay. We have done both.
The most convenient way of crossing the Uruguayan border was to take the ferry from Montevideo to Buenos Aires. In March 2014, we chose to travel with Buquebus, an Argentine company, which operates ferry services between Buenos Aires and both Montevideo and Colonia, and also has a fleet of coaches in both Argentina and Uruguay. Our ferry was the ‘Francisco‘, one of the fastest in the world, capable of travelling at up to 107 km/hr, with 1024 passengers and 150 cars. Compared with all the hassle of air travel and airports, international travel by ferry is both comfortable and relaxing.
I was very much looking forward to going to Buenos Aires. In late 1984, when my project with Bank of America in Lima was completed, my next assignment involved my moving to Argentina, where BofA had recently acquired a large retail bank. The BofA HR department handled all the paperwork for the application for my work permit. Unfortunately, in that era, I was travelling on a British passport and the Americans did not seem to realise that that might prove to be a problem; it was not long after the Falklands War and UK citizens were about as welcome in Argentina as pork chops would have been at a Jewish wedding. My application seemed to disappear into a black hole and we could get no feedback. After two months of waiting and marking time, I unexpectedly received an attractive offer for a senior management position with a computer services company in England. I accepted, but that is a story for another day.
When I finally got to Buenos Aires, I confess that I was rather disappointed. At the ferry terminal, locals warned us not to leave the terminal and to only take a certain type of taxi; apparently there were a lot of muggers in that area and many of the taxi drivers were less than honest. And later that afternoon, within ten minutes of leaving our hotel, in a bar in the square outside, a young tourist at the next table was robbed and a crowd set off after the thief. Compared to the relative security of Montevideo, Buenos Aires seem to have its problems.
We were staying beside the Plaza del Congreso, about 2 km from the Casa Rosada and the waterfront. For the next eight days, we walked all over the inner city. Although we found parts that were clean and well taken care of, with small parks, in general most of the city was grubby and had seen better days. The pavements were narrow with irregular surface, the streets full of traffic, and every doorway seemed to be replete with smokers; at times the pollution was very noticeable. And not a day passed without parades of protesters with their banners and chants, accompanied by heavily armed riot police. Buenos Aires seemed to be a city in stress.
In comparison, the waterfront area was a welcome contrast, with its wide walks, fresh air and interesting modern architecture, with several very large parks.
We returned to Uruguay as we came, by Buquebus, but this time by the relatively short crossing of 1:15, to Colonia del Sacramento. It was noticeable that the water was thick with silt and occasional tree trunks; it looked more like a ploughed field than a river.
Colonia was founded in 1680 by Portugal, to protect its southern border with Spain. But the Portuguese were repulsed by the Spanish later that same year. A treaty between Spain and Portugal, signed the next year, returned Colonia to Portugal. Colonia changed hands no less that nine more times until the founding of Uruguay in 1828.
Colonia is renowned for its historic quarter and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. One can find whole streets with Portuguese architecture and others with Spanish. And with streets and pavements of cobbled stones, just as one can see in the villages and small towns in Portugal.
From Colonia, with our new 90-day visas, we travelled back to Montevideo, once more by Buquebus, but this time on the highway. When we got back to our little apartment, it felt as if we were home again.