South America

Visiting Uruguay

Uruguay – A Place Called Home

By    Tamela Spicer

EW Emma’s Writings

Tucked beneath Brazil on the South American continent, Uruguay is a country filled with vast ranches, hundreds of miles of beautiful beaches, amazing boutique vineyards, and a large metropolitan city that offers all the culture you might find in New York City, but with the warmth of a Midwestern community. I visited Uruguay for the first time in 1980, living in the capital of Montevideo for one month and in the northern city of Salto for three months. It would be years before another visit in 2008.

My connection to Uruguay began during my junior year of high school when my family hosted an exchange student, Adriana. After high school I spent four months living in Uruguay with Adriana’s family and it has been a second home ever since. Today, technology makes it easy to stay in touch, but there is nothing like going home for a visit, especially for a special occasion. It was the wedding of Adriana’s son that prompted my most recent trip to Uruguay, in December 2014. While wedding festivities provided plenty of time to catch up with family and friends, I was also struck by the changes in the country since my first visit nearly 35 years ago.

South American, Uruguay
Wedding in Montevideo, Uruguay

Most Americans have never heard of Uruguay, and if they have it may seem like a third world country. When I made my first visit  in 1980, it felt a bit third world. I remember the milk man leaving the old-fashioned jars on the front stoop and while there was television, it was still black-and-white and it only broadcast a few hours each day. It was a simple life that seemed unspoiled, but then 35 years ago everything seemed simpler.

Today Uruguay is a sophisticated and stable country that offers every modern convenience needed. The cell coverage in Uruguay is some of the best in South America. Comcast or Dish Network digital service is easily accessible and you can find Internet in any major hotel and several restaurants. Yet, even in the cosmopolitan capital, Montevideo, there is a peaceful pace of life and a sense that family is deeply cherished.

Montevideo is home to just over half the total population in this small country. The city sits along the beautiful shore of the Atlantic Ocean with the Rio de la Plata spilling in. Summer days are often spent at the beach and nightlife abounds along the Rambla, the coastal walkway with beautiful views, exercise stations and wide walkways. Uruguayan nightlife usually doesn’t start until around 10 pm and often lasts well into the wee hours of the morning. There are plenty of night clubs, casinos and restaurants of choice in the city, including tango dinner clubs and seafood by the sea.

Boutique vineyards
Los Caminos del Vino or vineyards in Uruguay

On my recent trip I had the pleasure of indulging in many of Montevideo’s finest pleasures, including a stunning Opera at Teatro Solis and a world class ballet led by the infamous Julio Bocca from Buenos Aires. I also discovered something new, the wine road. Created in 2005, Los Caminos del Vino features a variety of small boutique vineyards along the southern region of Uruguay, many of them within 30 minutes of Montevideo. Wine making has been part of Uruguay for several decades, but  the wines have gained international attention only in recent years.

For me there is something magical about vineyards. Of course, I enjoy the wine, but more than that, I love the peacefulness of miles of vines growing in the countryside. In Uruguay it doesn’t take long to find that countryside. More than 80 percent of the land in Uruguay is agricultural. The small number of cities populate the edges of the country, with large ranches filling the interior. In that space between the city and the vast ranches of the interior lie beautiful, peaceful vineyards.

Uruguay is gaining international attention primarily for Tannat wines. The iconic grape was brought from southern France in the 19th century and the rich soil with the ocean air provides for excellent growth in Uruguay. Most of the vineyards are small, family owned facilities, but the flavors are rich and bold. After an unplanned stop at the wine school where they provided an impromptu tour, we visited Bodega Artisana along Los Caminos del Vino. Artisana is actually owned by an American who visited Uruguay years ago and fell in love with the area. While the owner still lives in the United States part of the year, locals operate and manage the vineyards. They treated us to a private tour and tasting. It was a wonderful way to spend an afternoon and of course, I brought home a few bottles.

Those few bottles that make the home don’t last, so the challenge becomes finding someone who sells your new favorite wine so you can restock. There are a variety of laws that govern distributors in the United States, and each state has their own rules. The other challenge is that not all vineyards produce enough wine to export. When I’m visiting a vineyard out of the country I always ask if they have a distributor in the states. Often times you can contact the distributor and they will be able to tell you if the wine is available in your area. Local wine shops are sometimes able to find a particular vintage, and of course the Internet is very helpful in tracking down a favorite bottle. Availability depends largely on geography. For example, due to the local wine industry, Michigan has strict laws on wine imports, particularly from foreign vineyards. The key in finding that favorite wine is just ask; or if all else fails, perhaps you need another vacation to return to that special vineyard.

Vineyards, beaches and the arts made for a wonderful, relaxing vacation. But it was the time spent with family and friends that made this trip to Uruguay special. Being able to enjoy Martin’s two weddings was a joy.  In Uruguay only magistrates can legally conduct a wedding. So if a couple wants to marry in a church they must first must have a civil ceremony performed by a magistrate. The first wedding was a small affair held at Adriana’s home on a Wednesday evening. Just under 100 guests were present as the bride and groom, along with several witnesses, signed the official marriage ledger and the magistrate announced them as husband and wife. The ceremony began about 7:30 pm and the party lasted well into the night until it the police showed up around 2 am due to a noise complaint.

However, the couple  exchanged the rings on Saturday  at the church wedding. Over 400 guests came to witness the ceremony that began around 9:30 pm. Unlike here in the states, in Uruguay there are no large bridal parties, only the parents stand up in witness of the church ceremony. Friends and siblings enjoyed the honor of signing the registry during the civil ceremony so at the church wedding they simply sat back and enjoyed. And of course, the party.

The reception was fairly typical of what we might enjoy in the states. Held at a local country club, there were beautiful floral arrangements, a wonderful meal and plenty of champagne. Unlike in the U.S, there were no bridal party photos or cutting of the cake, but there was a special waltz for the bride and groom and the party lasted well into the night. Well, actually, all night. We had breakfast around 5 am and we finally left the country club just after the sunrise around 5:30 am.

Even if you don’t have a wedding that would take you to Uruguay,  you should go none the less. It is a beautiful country filled with warm, welcoming people. Whether it’s wine, beaches or ranches, Uruguay has a lot to offer. As for me, well I plan to return again soon. I’m currently working on plans to that will allow me to spend three or four months a year in Uruguay, a nice way to escape our Michigan winters. Maybe you’ll join me one day soon and I’ll give you a tour of my favorite vineyards.

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