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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