Friday, April 07, 2023


Argentine pesos


We are in Buenos Aires now, enjoying great food, interesting museums, and big city life.  At the moment, Argentina is much cheaper than Uruguay-- something almost every Uruguayan told us.  A small bag of potato chips cost over $5 US in Montevideo is about $1 here.  Our Uruguayan friends talked about shoes costing 1/5 the price on this side of the Río de la Plata, so loved coming her to shop.  Restaurants, groceries, taxicabs are all much, much cheaper.

It's not always this way, but the value of the Argentine peso is falling faster than prices inflate so nearly everything here is a bargain for anyone with foreign currency.  

Graphs like this are unusual in financial markets, since the future is too easy to predict... everyone expects the peso to continue falling in value, so no one wants to hold pesos.  The actual market value of the peso is much lower than this picture shows.  This is the official rate, currently $1 = 210 pesos, controlled by the Argentine government.  The black market rate (called the Blue market here) is nearly 400 pesos to the dollar.  Exchanging at the black market rate cuts the price of everything in half.

In Uruguay, everyone had their trusted exchange guy in Buenos Aires-- a taxi driver, a white-haired man operating next to a florist, a guy who would deliver pesos to your door-- and they were happy to share their contacts.  We have been changing money at the black market rate in an office on a big commercial street-- complete with two teller windows, marble floors, frosted glass dividers, velvet ropes between chromed stanchions, and bill-counting machines.  It's not secret-- there is a big lighted sign above the entrance and the name is etched on the glass double doors.  Apparently the black market is fairly grey.

The biggest bill in circulation is 1000 pesos-- only worth $2.50 US-- so paying for a hotel requires bundles of bills.  Even buying dinner means counting stacks of dozens of notes.  The smaller bills (10, 20 pesos) have so little value that they are often ignored at cash registers.  Western Union was running short of 1000 peso bills, so customers were stuffing thick wads of 100 peso and 500 peso notes into pockets, purses, and paper bags that held the croissants they ate while waiting in line.  An inch thick stack of 100 peso bills makes you feel rich, but its only worth about $25.

While Argentine products are super-cheap now, imports are really expensive here.  A bottle of maple syrup cost over $70 at the official exchange rate.  Ordinary salmon from Chile costs 4 times as much as prime Argentine streak.  My wife is particular about coffee and much of the South American coffee doesn't meet her standards (wrong beans, processed with sugar) so she looked for imported coffee in the supermarket but it was simply unavailable.  The same exchange rate that makes Argentina a bargain for us, makes imported good prohibitively costly.

Inflation is currently running over 100% annually.  Many restaurants cover the old prices with stickers rather than re-print the entire menu.  We ate a Don Julio, a famous steakhouse, and received menus with two different prices-- one was from last week and prices had already changed.  We took the Mitre train to Tigre (about an hour's ride)-- a comfortable modern train-- and it cost 25 pesos, about 6 cents.  Apparently government-set prices don't adjust as quickly as restaurants.


As a traveler, the huge difference between the black market and official exchange rates means you need to manage your cash carefully.  Withdrawing from an ATM is at the official rate-- doubling your costs.  Credit cards may exchange at the official rate or at a special tourist rate (close to the black market rate) but it's impossible to know at the time of a purchase.  There isn't much dollarization (it may be illegal) so cash transactions in pesos are the norm.  This means regular trips to a change dollars.  There is a strong preference for crisp, clean US $100 bills.  Worn currency or smaller bills may trade at a discount or be rejected entirely.

But, it's important not to exchange more than you will spend, since you can't change the pesos back into dollars.  (Everyone wants dollars and no one wants to hold pesos.)  The value of the peso is dropping quickly so they are likely to be worthless for travel in future years.  Pretty much use it or lose it.

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Sunday, March 12, 2023


Carnaval a de Pie


I enjoyed the carnaval show so much on Thursday night, that I went back on Saturday.  This time I bought my ticket at the Teatro de Verano just before show time.  Excellent seats were still available.

I brought a bigger camera to this show and made several videos. 

 Doña Bastarda

La Gran Muñeca

Carnaval a de Pie Saturday




Carnaval 2023

Carnaval is one of my favorite parts of Uruguay.  The costumes, the music, the drumming, and the dancing are almost overwhelming.   When we lived here, many of my February nights were devoted to visiting the tablados.

This year, when we were making our travel arrangements for our trip, I was afraid we would miss carnaval since we wouldn't leave the US until after Ash Wednesday (the end of carnival season in most countries.)  I knew that Uruguay's carnaval continued, but it was difficult to find information about its actual end.  When we arrived in early March, the competition part of carnaval was over and the winners announced, but there was still a week of performances scheduled in the Teatro de Verano.


Tickets weren't available at Abitab until the evening before the show, but we were able to get front row seats.  Six different groups performed including two murgas.  I made a short video with clips from the show.

It was a really enjoyable night!


Thursday, March 02, 2023


Return to Montevideo

 It’s been nearly 15 years since I was in Uruguay and I am back for a short visit this month. Our flight connected through Panamá City and we took advantage of Copa Airlines’ program to stay for a couple of days at no extra charge. Panama was interesting enough that I wished we had visited it earlier. 

We landed in Montevideo early yesterday morning and we were surprised how easy entry into the country was. We were able to use their automated system, which scanned our passport, took a photo, and then we were done with immigration. Customs was just a quick baggage scan and disposal of a cheese from the US. 

Uruguay felt very familiar. There has been a lot of new construction along the waterfront. The old Carrasco casino renovation was completed. The sidewalks in Pocitos were markedly cleaner (although still broken in places.) The grocery store has a wider variety of products— more gluten free foods, more imported items.  But lots of the same businesses are still operating in the same locations. 

While carnival in most of the world ends with Ash Wednesday, in Uruguay carnaval continues. The winners in the individual categories were announced last weekend but post-competition performances are scheduled every day this week.  We were able to buy tickets from our neighborhood Abitab for tonight’s performance at the Teatro de Verano. 

Tuesday, February 28, 2012


Murga on NPR

National Public Radio ran a short story this evening on Uruguay's carnaval, "Carnaval In Uruguay: Choir Competitions In The Streets"

The story focuses on murga which was my favorite part of carnaval.
"The tradition came to Uruguay via Cadíz, Spain, more than 100 years ago, where there is a similar choral music called chirigota. Today, a murga choir is made up of 13 voices singing complex harmonies, accompanied by three percussionists plus a choral director.

The performers wear elaborate, circus-like costumes and makeup, and compete every Carnaval. Now some choirs even have sponsors and CDs. But they still parody the talk of the town that year — be it corrupt politicians, a spike in violence or that annoying recording you get when you call for a taxi."

"Murga doesn't represent the masses; they are the masses."

You can listen to the whole story at:

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Saturday, April 17, 2010


The Invisible Mountain

The Invisible Mountain
Carolina de Robertis

"There were strange things about this city. Amethysts used as doorstops, leather used for everything, a stone wall between Old City and New. An obsession with the president, a man called Batlle y Ordóñez, who had promised schools, and workers' rights, and hospitals (secular ones, scandalously so, with crucifixes banned from the walls). All the laborers Ignazio worked with-- even the immigrants, of which there were many-- spoke of Batlle the way Italians spoke of the pope. These men were also obsessed with mate: a brew of shredded leaves and hot water, concocted in a hollow gourd, then drunk through a metal straw called a bombilla. They drank it as if their lives depended on it, and maybe their lives did, sucking at the bombillas on their high steel beams, pouring water while awaiting the next crate, passing the gourd from hand to calloused hand. The first time he was offered mate, Ignazio was shocked by the assumption that he should share a cup. He was eighteen, after all, a grown man. He thought of refusing, but he didn't want the others to think him afraid of tea. The gourd felt warm against his palm. The wet green mass inside it gleamed. The drink flooded his mouth, bright and green and bitter, the taste, he thought, of Uruguay."

I would have missed this book, except a blog reader recommended it to me. The Invisible Mountain is a novel about a Uruguayan family. Crossing four generations, the story personalizes many aspects of Uruguay's history: immigration, the growth of Montevideo, economic boom & bust, the dictatorship. At times, it's harsh-- not suitable for kids-- and in places it's strange, but overall it added a dimension to my understanding of the country.

I read a library copy, but it's also available from booksellers like Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

Thanks to Michael for the recommendation.

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Saturday, April 03, 2010


More Uruguay resources

Many of the Uruguay blogs I'd been reading have ended as expats moved from the country.

Recently, I've been following Ola Uruguay Real Estate-- not so much for the real estate propaganda, but for the posts on living in Uruguay by Suki and Syd.

Another informative website is Uruguay Now, an up-to-date guide to the country, with an emphasis on Montevideo.

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Monday, December 28, 2009


Gaucho music

Here's a video from an evening of música folclórica in homage to a gaucho poet. The performance was held in the Cabildo de Montevideo.

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Monday, December 21, 2009


Parque Rodó

Here's a belated video from my last trip to Uruguay.

My earlier videos from the park are here and here. To me, the improvement in YouTube's definition is striking.

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Wednesday, July 01, 2009


Uruguay in the news

Bon Appétit has a travel feature on Punta del Este in their August issue. It features short reviews of several restaurants and as well as some nice pictures in a pdf file. Perhaps a nice romantic getaway for Governor Sanford?

update: The New York Times had a nice article on visiting Montevideo


Thursday, April 30, 2009


Uruguayan jazz vocalist on public radio

Our friend Maria Noel Taranto will be featured on the "Jazz Inspired" radio show on public radio stations across the US and Canada during the first week of May. (A list of stations and times is here.)

If you're interested, you can listen to several of Maria Noel's songs on her La Taranto MySpace page.

There are also short clips from her performances in some of my earlier posts.

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Wednesday, February 18, 2009


Carnaval exhibit in Kalamazoo

I have an exhibit of photos from Montevideo's carnaval at my college's art gallery for the last two weeks in February. If you're in the area, please stop by.

We'll be having a reception on Saturday February 21 from 4-7.

Light Fine Arts Building
Kalamazoo College
Kalamazoo, MI
corner of Academy Street and Thompson Street
campus map
gallery hours Monday-Friday 9-5

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Tuesday, October 28, 2008


Uruguayan microbrew

One thing I missed when I lived in Montevideo was the complex flavor of craft beers. I didn't have any complaints about Pilsen or Patricia but there wasn't much variety. After I returned to the US, a new microbrewery opened in Montevideo and when I visited this August I was able to taste their product.

Cervecería Artesanal del Uruguay brands its beer Mastra and they brew three varieties: dorada [gold], roja [red], and negra [black]. I enjoyed them. The negra is a thick, hearty traditional stout, as opposed to a dark-colored but relatively light-tasting beer like Pilsen Stout. The roja has a great malty taste; I could see it becoming my favorite. (I didn't have time to try the dorada.)

Is Uruguay ready for craft beers? No problem on the supply side-- these are high quality microbrews. On the demand side, it's questionable. Beer is certainly part of Uruguay's culture and I'm sure there are enough beer-drinkers with adventuresome tastes who would drink strongly flavored cervezas. The problem is the price. A small single-serving bottle (12 oz/355 ml) costs more than a liter of Patricia, which is going to make it hard to survive in the marketplace. It's tough to launch a super-premium product in an economically-stressed market. That said, Argentina has several microbreweries so it's possible this one could succeed in Uruguay by tapping into the tourist trade. I wish them luck.


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Monday, October 20, 2008


Uruguay blog

I've been meaning to recommend A Small State of Mind for some time. It's written by Benjamin Gedan, a Fulbright scholar and journalist studying the Uruguayan media. I've been enjoying it for several months.

He writes on a broad array of Uruguayan topics from chivitos to supermodels to the dictatorship. He's also published articles about Uruguay in the New York Times


Tuesday, September 30, 2008


Monte de Ombúes

After staying in Cabo Polonio this July, we visited the nearby Monte de Ombúes.

An ombú is a native tree closely associated with gaucho culture and Uruguay's history. My mental image of an ombú has been a large, solitary tree surrounded by grasslands. (Not that I'd ever seen that; my actual experience with ombu trees was mostly of one particular tree growing in the middle of Boulevard España in Montevideo and a few others growing in city parks.) Ombú trees can have peculiar shapes with multiple trunks, merging branches, and frequent hollows.

The Monte de Ombúes promised something rare-- a forest of these unusual trees. The woods are on the shore of the Laguna de Castillos and the only access is by boat. Regularly scheduled tours depart from the bridge where the highway crosses the arroyo Valizas. Since July is the middle of winter in Uruguay, we were able to have a private tour.

Our boat floated slowly past pastures dotted with butia palms while gulls and egrets flew overhead. It's a great trip for birdwatchers; our guide pointed out ibis, teru-teru, chajá, cormorants, ducks, herons, kingfishers, and even flamingos. After about an hour, we reached the woods-- two groves of ombúes.

The trees themselves were impressive. Since it was winter, they were nearly leafless, focusing our attention on the trunks. Some of the trees were over 30 feet around and many had openings big enough for a person, or even a whole family, to enter. It was almost surreal seeing two trunks emerge separately from the stump and then recombine 10 or 20 feet higher.

This strange growth pattern is part of the ombu controversy: "Is it a tree or a shrub?" Until this visit, I'd always taken the tree side. The shrub argument seemed like it must be based on some obscure botanical definition. (Similar to the argument: "Is a tomato a fruit or a vegetable?") Based on everything I'd seen earlier, the ombú was a tree-- tall, solid, long-lived, trunk & branches, with leaves that dropped seasonally. How could it not be a tree?

Now I'm less sure. In the forest, we saw fallen ombúes and they weren't like fallen trees. Instead of being made of wood, the inside of an ombú looks like a cross between particle board and paper mache. Definitely not tree-like. New sprouts from the broken stumps furthered my confusion since they looked identical to the pokeweed that grows in my backyard in Michigan. The shrub proponents do have a point.

In any case, it was an interesting place to see. It's definitely a low-key trip-- something for nature-lovers; it would appeal to those Florida vacationers who choose Ding Darling over Miami Beach.

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Thursday, September 25, 2008


Museo Nacional de Artes Visuales

While I intended to visit Uruguay's National Museum of Art shortly after I went to the Museo Torres-García, I never made it during the entire year I lived in Montevideo.

Partly because I didn't notice it.

My mental image of an art museum is a grand classical building like the Art Institute of Chicago or the west wing of the National Gallery of Art or else I imagine something impressively modern like the National Gallery's east wing or the Guggenheim in Bilbao.

The Museo Nacional de Artes Visuales is located in Parque Rodó and I'd parked right next to it dozens of times without knowing it. The architecture reminded me of an elementary school. The courtyard was usually full of kids in their school tunicas which reinforced the impression. I didn't realize it was a museum.

During our vacation in Uruguay this year, I made up for my past omission by making the museum a priority.

The museum is small, about the size of my local art museum, and all the exhibits can be seen in about an hour. When we visited in July, they had a visiting exhibit of works by Spanish artist Joan Miró and a large exhibit by a Uruguayan artist in the style of Torres-García, in addition to works from their permanent collection.

Admission: free.
Tuesday-Sunday 12:00-6:00 pm

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