Nearshore Americas

Getting in the Groove in Montevideo’s Barrio Sur

Visitor’s to Montevideo’s Barrio Sur neighborhood won’t want to miss Central Cemetery, the final resting place of many famous Uruguayans, or the chance to hear distinctive candombe music.

I will tell you the dreams of my life 
On this deepest of blue nights. 
In your hands my soul will tremble, 
On your shoulders my cross will rest.

(Excerpt from “Intima” by Uruguayan poetess Delmira Agustini)

Among many greats of Latin America, poetess Delmira Augustina rests in the Central Cemetery of Montevideo in Barrio Sur. With her are many influential writers and poets, including Mario Benedetti, author of over 80 books in 20 languages; Juan Zorilla, the national poet of Uruguay; and José Enrique Rodó, writer from the Modernismo movement in Uruguay. Realist painter Juan Manuel Blanes also rests beyond the cemetery gates designed by Italian sculptor Bernardo Poncini.

Scattered along the stone paths and stately trees are moss-adorned sculptures from the artists Jose Belloni and José Luis Zorrilla de San Martin. The graves of former presidents, vice presidents and political leaders help mark this unique location. Established in 1835, the cemetery sits on the corner of the famous Isla de Flores along the blue coast of Uruguay’s capital city, Montevideo.

Candombe Culture

Originally intended to be tucked away from the hustle and bustle of city life, the neighborhood around the cemetery was quickly populated after the abolition of slavery. Afro-Uruguayan people moved into the area, bringing with them an ancient, rich culture of music, dancing, history and tradition. Few corners of the world have seen such a distinct mixing of culture. In Barrio Sur, the outcome is lasting and one of a kind. Bright, color-splashed houses line the urban streets where Afro-Uruguayans honor customs from their homeland with candombe drumming late into the night.

Every weekend, especially on Sundays, drummers and dancers known as comparsas gather in circles around fires along Isla de Flores. Montevideo locals know the drumming did not start with the abolition of slavery. This ritual began informally long before. One person would walk through the streets on a Sunday night, banging the drum, echoing to their community that it was time to feed the soul and dance. One by one, others would emerge from their quarters, drum in tow, to join in the music. In this way, the tradition is more than a practice in cultural conservation; it has all the nostalgic elements of peaceful rebellion and human will to survive under harsh conditions.

For a short time, candombe, meaning “pertaining to blacks,” was cast aside as the liberated Afro-Uruguayans focused on assimilation with the neighboring descendants of Italians and Spaniards. However, candombe was enthusiastically embraced by non-African Uruguayans and was collectively revived with gusto by 1956 in the celebration known as Las Llamadas (The Calls), a parade which takes place on the first Friday of February each year in Barrio Sur and surrounding areas. This carnival tradition has a history all its own, and Barrio Sur is the soil it grew in.

Where to Eat and Stay, What to Do

Barrio Sur is marked off by Andes Street to the West, Canelones Street to the North, Dr. Javier Barrios Amorín to the East, and the coastal street Rambla República Helenica/Argentina to the South. At the southwest corner, lush green parks line the shore. Within this space, one can find cafés, parks, hotels/hostels, museums and more.

Apart from the cemetery and candombe rituals, the Museo del Vino (Wine Museum) is on Maldonado Street, just around the corner from Museo del Ferrocarril (Railroad Museum) on Paraguay Street. The Plaza Alfredo Zitarrosa, in a park across the street from the cemetery, commemorates the late Alfredo Zitarrosa, revolutionary tango and milonga composer of the early 20th century.

Shopping opportunities are spread out, but are more densely situated along Andes Street and Convención.

There are a variety of options available for eating out in Barrio Sur. Some good ones include: Recoleta, located on the corner of Santiago de Chile and Av. Gonzalo Ramirez; the Alto Palmero, also on Av. Gonzalo Ramirez; El Chicote, on the corner of Convención and Maldonado Street; and Bar Gula  and the Bulldog Resto Pub, both on Canelones Street.

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While Barrio Sur can easily be explored on foot, buses and taxis are available. The Terminal 300 bus stop is directly in front of the cemetery, one block from Ilsa de Flores, and can be used for 21 Uruguayan dollars per person ($1 USD).

For those who want to stay in this vibrant neighborhood, Hotel Iberia and Hotel Sur, across from Interpol, are inexpensive two-star hotels that are just a short distance from Ilsa de Flores and that enchanting candombe music. Local hostels are also available for the frugal traveler. Two such options are Ukelele, starting at about $12 per night and located just two blocks from the Cementerio Central de Montevideo, or the lovely Willy Fog Hostel, just outside Barrio Sur and placed five minutes from Independence Square on 18 de Julio Avenue and the promenade (Rambla).

For more luxury-minded travelers, the Raddisson Montevideo Victoria Plaza Hotel is a five-star option, located less than one mile from Barrio Sur.

This story was first appeared on NSAM sister publication Global Delivery Report.

Pat Antuña Yarza

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