Set on the southern coast of Uraguay, on the northeastern bank of the Río de la Plata, Montevideo is home to a third of this country's people. It has long been rated as having the highest quality of life of all Latin America cities. Considered a twin city to Buenos Aires in Argentina, over on the southwest bank of the river, the two share much in culture and history, but this smaller sister is a lot more relaxed. A small country, sometimes compared to Switzerland in Europe, the Uraguayan economy prospers and the cost of living is moderate, but people remain connected to the natural world, between empires of land and water in the South Atlantic region.
Established in 1724 by people of Buenos Aires, to defend the Spanish colonies against Portuguese expansion from Brazil, the city fell briefly under British control during the Napoleonic Wars. Seeds of rebellion sprouted among colonists on both sides of the river left to fight the invaders by themselves, with little help from Madrid, and Argentina became independent in 1816. The Spanish colonial government had moved to Montevideo in 1810, but soon had it's governor expelled in 1814, and Portuguese Brazil invaded to annex the area. Uraguay gained independence in 1828, with Montevideo as the capital, but the Guerra Grande, the civil war of 1838-1851, followed soon after.
A period of growth and expansion took place after years of war, with stage coach lines, street lights, telegraph lines and public sanitation constructed. In 1856 the Teatro Solís was inaugurated. Telephone and railway lines followed, and in 1897, the Central Railway Station opened. A wave of European immigration early in the 20th century, from Spain, Italy and Central Europe, resulted in a third of the 300,000 population being foreign-born by 1908, and new neighborhoods were created as the city grew. With demographic shifts came social and political changes, particularly in urban areas. Far ahead of legislation in most other countries, the right of divorce was established in 1907. Progressive policies led to the separation of church and state in 1917, and women gained the right to vote in 1932. In 1934 homosexuality was decriminalized and the age of consent set at 16 for all.
But economic and political institutions faltered in the 1950s and 60s. Social conflicts and guerrilla activities led to the Uruguayan Dictatorship of 1973, and the suppression of all political activity, including that of traditional parties. People were imprisoned, tortured or just disappeared, especially those on the left; writers were heavily censored, and many people left for safer countries if they could. Similar events took place in neighboring countries during the final years of the Cold War era. Democracy was restored in early 1985, and Jose Mujica, a former Tupamaros guerrilla who spent 13 years in prison, became president of the country, 2010-2015.
Since 2009 gays and lesbians have served openly in the military and could jointly adopt children. Same-sex couples have entered into civil unions since 2008 and have been able to marry since 2013. The relatively few gay-only bars here show how comfortable people are, especially those of younger generations, in mixing with mainstream society. Gay men and lesbian couples often hold hands as they stroll the Rambla, the long riverside promenade. Montevideo does have several men-only sex venues, but it's a more relaxed scene than in neighboring Buenos Aires, Rio or Sao Paulo.
The sexual diversity monument on Policia Vieja, between Plaza de la Constitución and Plaza Independencia was erected in 2005. Inscribed with the words "Honouring diversity is honouring life; Montevideo is for the respect of all identities and sexual orientations" -- the first such monument in South America. In December 2013, Uruguay became the first country in the world to completely legalize marijuana nation-wide. Tourists are technically not allowed to buy cannabis, but devils in the legal details are still being worked out.
Tourism in Montevideo is centered in Ciudad Vieja, which features the city's oldest buildings, several museums, art galleries, and nightclubs. Sarandí Street and the Mercado del Puerto are the most frequented areas of the old city, but Plaza Independencia with the Solís Theatre and the Palacio Salvo at one end of 18 de Julio Avenue with its Art Deco buildings and many shops, is another important tourist destination. Most visitors are from South America or Europe, but with better flight services, and promotions such as The Wine Experience, more North Americans are coming.
Carrasco International Airport serves Montevideo, 12 miles (19 km) from the city centre, with 16 regional and international airline connections, including American Airlines flights to Miami, Air France to Paris and Iberia to Madrid. See Guru'Guay for airline tips. Three services, Copsa, COT and Cutcsa provide bus connections to downtown (around US$6), along with other destinations such as Punte del Este (US$7-10). Taxi Aeropuerto de Carrasco, the only authorized taxi and van service, charges around US$55 from the airport to downtown/ Old Town. All prices as of January 2017.
Heading to Montevideo from Buenos Aires? Take the high-speed ferry operated by Buquebus for around US$100-126, one-way, economy to tourist class (Jan 2017), a trip of about 2 hours. There are two departures from Puerto Madero each day, with arrivals at the Montevideo Tres Cruces terminal. Five slower ferries can cost as little as US$40 a trip, but take from 4.5 to 6.5 hours by way of Colonia. In either case, book ahead as tickets cost more and sell out closer to travel dates.
The port on Montevideo Bay, one of the reasons the city was founded, gives natural protection to ships, and is competitive with Buenos Aires, the other great port of Río de la Plata. Every year more than one hundred cruise ships bring tourists to Montevideo. Gay tourists aboard the Atlantis Rio Carnival to Buenos Aires Cruise will stop here in March, soon after the end of Carnival 2017.
Bus networks cover the entire city and single trips cost around US$1. The Como Ir and MontevideoBus websites (and phone apps) can map your route (Spanish only). Pay the driver or his assistant as you board the bus. The Tres Cruces Bus Terminal, on the lower level of the shopping center, Artigas Boulevard side, offers long distance/ intercity bus services to destinations within Uruguay. At their website click a bus line name for their website; or if you don't know, scroll to the red "Horarios y Destinos" boxes to enter departure and arrival points to get all scheduled options.
The Uraguayan Peso (UYU), using the symbol $U, is the currency. In the past five years the peso exhange rate has fluctuated between 19 and 32 pesos to one US dollar. See XE.com for current rates. The coins are divided into the same denominations as most currencies, so getting to know the local money is easy. Visa, and to a lesser extent Mastercard, are widely accepted - but AmEx and Diners are not. Before leaving home notify your local bank to ensure that ATM and credit card transactions move smoothly. Also ask if your bank has a local partner to save on ATM withdrawal charges, and for 24-hour bank phone numbers -- just in case. Guru'Guay reports that using foreign credit or debit cards in Uruguay gets you the 22% VAT deducted from restaurant bills and car rentals.
Local media & resources
Friendly Point offers community services (Joaquin de Salterain 931) and a facebook page with local resource and events listings, providing links within the LGBT community of Montevideo and throughout Uraguay.
VamosGay has English-language guides to Montevideo and Punta del Este, along with guides to Buenos Aires and other Latin American destinations.
The Nomadic Boys came and wrote an article on Gay Montevideo in late 2016, in conjunction with September events sponsored by CCNLGBTU, the local LGBT Chamber of Commerce and Business, during their campaign to promote the city.
The 35th Annual Cinemateca Uruguaya International Film Festival in April continues a legacy from the darkest days of the dictatorship - when even the right to gather to watch a film together could be denied. The group also screens films throughout the year at several venues around town.
For 40 days in January and February, Montevideo puts on the world's longest Carnival, an event still designed mainly for locals to dress up, bang drums and dance in the streets.
Guru'Guay, "the real insider's guide to Uraguay and Montevideo," an English-language guidebook and website, with tips on getting around, what to see, and do, also has beach and wine country information. Other nuggets include: "Uruguayans appreciate the art of cinema, and they like it as it was conceived, in its original language" - meaning the latest Hollywood or European movies are subtitled here rather than dubbed - as is done in most Spanish-speaking countries; plus The Cannabis Culture Tours.
MercoPress is an Independent news agency providing news in English for Uraguay and the South Atlantic region.
Chains Club (Soriano 827), diverse ages gay disco/pub, men/women, shows.
Il Tempo (Gonzalo Ramirez 2121), gay/alt men/women; live music, dance, comedy, drag shows.
La Fonda (Peatonal Pérez Castellano 1422/ 25 de Mayo), gay-popular restaurant, fine dining and lunch; meats/seafood and veggie options.
La Pasionaria (Reconquista 587), gay-friendly alternative cafe/ art space; sandwiches, pastries, bookshop and art gallery.
See more restaurant suggestions at our map & listings pages.
Sauna Horus (Julio Herrera y Obes 1240), steam/sauna/cruising/bar, massage; open all-night Friday/Saturday.
Toronto Sauna (Tacurembo 1531, Cordón), sauna steam for men, cruise areas, cabins.
Near Punta del Este, 115 km from Montevideo city, Playa Chihuahua is the most popular gay beach in the area, much of it clothing optional. The nearby Undarius Hotel (Calle La Rastrera, Chihuahua), for gay men only, has ten rooms, a clothing-optional swimming pool and garden, satellite TV, breakfast and free WiFi - just five minutes walk from the beach. Posada Chihuahua has gay-friendly apartments and cabins, a pool and gardens, right on the naturalist beach. For more about the beach see NaturalismoUraguay.
Punta Pride, three days of music, food, parties, design, arts and fun is an LGBT time of celebration open to all each February. Events last year took place at gay-friendly venues such as Conrad Resort Ovo Beach Club, Playa Mansa, and Soho, Punta del Este.