A few years ago we decided to escape from the daily grind. Escape far away. We managed to accumulate hundreds of thousands of frequent flyer miles and hotel points by signing up for credit cards with bonus offers. We felt it was time to start spending these not-so-hard earned rewards.
Whenever it gets cold here in North Carolina, I think about how it’s much nicer elsewhere in the world. Why not go there? We considered Hawaii, Mexico, and Central America. All warm places. Then I started thinking strategically. Why not find the most expensive plane tickets we could get for free using a limited amount of points?
After some snooping around the internet, we noticed tickets to Argentina were usually expensive. Since I studied the award chart for our American Airlines Aadvantage miles, I knew we could get to South America for only 40,000 points during the “off-peak” period of March-May and August-November. As it turns out, March is still nice and warm in Argentina since their seasons are the opposite of ours in North America. 40,000 points for a ticket that normally costs $1,300 is a steal, since a ticket in the US is normally 25,000 points in the American Airlines miles program (for a $300-400 ticket).
Then I started thinking, “if we are traveling halfway across the world, are there other interesting destinations near Argentina?”. I researched the region a bit, and saw that Uruguay was just across the river from Argentina and travel between the two countries was easy. Uruguay made the list to visit while in the southern hemisphere.
Iguazu Falls is another interesting destination in Argentina. By some measures, Iguazu Falls is the widest waterfall in the world. As I researched Iguazu Falls, I realized Argentina was a big country and there was no way we could see all of Argentina in one trip. Iguazu Falls would have been at least a two day side trip if we traveled by air, which would consume a big part of our nine day vacation. In hindsight, I wish we saw Iguazu Falls. There is always a next time though!
I mentioned Argentina is big. It’s 2,300 miles from the northern regions to the very southern tip of Argentina. If you picked up Argentina and rotated it ninety degrees and dropped it on top of the US, it would barely fit within our borders. Needless to say, there are a number of distinct geographic and cultural regions of Argentina. It is geographically similar to the US with arid regions, mountainous regions, plains, and forests.
We decided to focus on the main attraction, Buenos Aires, and the surrounding area. Uruguay is right across the water from Buenos Aires, and Uruguay is where we started our journey. Since we were using American Airline’s Aadvantage miles, we were able to buy one way tickets to and from South America without paying outrageous prices as you would if you buy one way tickets with cash. We bought tickets to Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, for 20,000 miles, and booked the return flight from Buenos Aires to Raleigh for another 20,000 miles.
Some say frequent flyer miles are hard to use, but we had no problem getting direct flights with a short layover and reasonable departure times. We had a two hour layover in Miami International Airport on the flight to South America and on the return trip. How did we get all these Aadvantage miles? We signed up for a couple of Citi Aadvantage credit cards that were each offering 30,000 or more miles as an initial sign up bonus. We also received 50,000 miles on British Airways by signing up for their credit card. We chose to use the American Airlines Aadvantage miles for the tickets to Uruguay and Argentina.
If you want to get your own free tickets to Argentina or somewhere else in South America, apply for your own Chase Sapphire card, Citi Aadvantage card, British Airways card, or any other travel rewards card that offers a large sign up bonus. Or sign up for multiple cards and travel around the world for free! Here’s the link to the best travel rewards card offers available today: Travel Rewards Credit Cards . For a few minutes of effort, you can get a free flight that normally costs $1,500 or more.
Arriving in Montevideo, Uruguay
After a short layover in Miami, the flight to Montevideo, Uruguay was about 9 hours. The flight was overnight, and I didn’t get a lot of sleep on the plane. Montevideo’s airport is rather small and clearing customs was a breeze. Bienvenidos to Uruguay!
We immediately changed some US dollars to Uruguayan pesos at the airport to cover the bus fare to our downtown Montevideo hotel. The bus ticket was about $1 (USD). The taxi was a little more expensive, however I think we had a more genuine local experience on the bus. After 45 minutes, we knew we were getting close to downtown Montevideo, but we had no clue where our hotel was located (we didn’t have a smart phone with GPS). I turned to a police officer riding the bus with us and asked if he knew where our hotel was. Not only did he know exactly where our hotel was, but he offered to personally escort us to the hotel. Score! I think. I noticed he had a really old revolver strapped to his wide leather waist belt. The gun looked like an antique pilfered from a history museum or something you might see in an Old West cowboy movie. Bienvenidos to Uruguay!
The middle aged police officer on the bus was very friendly and helpful to us strangers from 5,000 miles away. You would think the Montevideo Chamber of Commerce sent this guy to personally welcome us to the country. After walking a few blocks along the cobblestone sidewalks, the nice officer delivered us to our hotel and wished us well. Not even a subtle suggestion that we should “tip” him for his assistance. Maybe they pay the cops well here in Uruguay, unlike much of Latin America.
Everyone was friendly in Montevideo. Montevideo itself was fairly cosmopolitan, with a lot of Brazilian tourists. We heard Portuguese regularly, but rarely heard English. Size wise, Montevideo is like Raleigh, Charlotte, or other mid-sized US cities. Montevideo has a population over 1 million people, and constitutes about a third of Uruguay’s citizenry. The city proper was decidedly urban, but like many mid-sized cities in the US, once you drive 20-30 minutes out of downtown, the scenery turns more rural.
We spent two nights in the historic “Old Town” in the middle of Montevideo at the Hotel Palacio. We paid around $35 USD per night back in 2010. Today, they are charging $45 USD per night. The room was decent but basic. The building must have been 100 years old but appeared well kept and updated. The elevator appeared to be of Victorian vintage, however it faithfully allowed us to bypass four flights of stairs every day. We didn’t really spend a lot of time at the hotel, so it was perfect for us.
We could have stayed for free at the Four Points by Sheraton Montevideo hotel using our Starwood Preferred Guest Points (Sheraton Hotel’s loyalty program). We signed up for a few of the Starwood American Express credit cards and obtained enough points to stay for a few WEEKS for free. Since the historic Hotel Palacio was very inexpensive, we decided to go local and pick a cheap option for our first two nights in South America. The Four Points in Montevideo was in the same points category as some $150-200 per night hotels in the US, so it wasn’t a great value to get a few free nights with points when there was a viable $35 per night room nearby.
Pro Tip: If you are interested in getting up to eight free hotel nights at a Sheraton or Four Points hotel, check out the 25,000 bonus point offer on the Starwood American Express card here: Travel Rewards Credit Cards. Starwood is the most valuable hotel loyalty program in my experience. Don’t forget you can get a card in your name and in your spouse’s name for double bonus points!
We spent most of our three days in Uruguay exploring Montevideo. After arriving at our hotel we relaxed for a few minutes on our balcony and made a plan for the day. Our overnight flight left us a bit tired, but curiosity overcame fatigue and we headed out for a day of exploring the Old City of Montevideo. The Old City’s streets are arranged in a grid pattern, making navigation by foot very easy. The Old City covers the entirety of a small peninsula one half mile wide and one mile long that extends into the Rio de la Plata river. You can walk across Old City in ten to twenty minutes and you don’t need a car at all.
I can’t really describe the Old City with one adjective. It’s a mixed bag. Some parts were really nice with well maintained plazas surrounded by architecturally impressive buildings. Other parts were rather run down with streets and building facades best labeled as “works in progress”. I guess it would be unreasonable to expect everything in the “Old City” to be shiny and new. The word “old” is in the name of the area, after all.
We never felt unsafe anywhere in the Old City or anywhere in Uruguay for that matter. We did have some unruly teenagers approach us while we were resting on a bench. They wanted to know the time. Me being a nice guy, I offered them the time of day. It was after I pulled out my broken watch with no straps to tell them the time that they started asking about my phone. “Where’s your phone”? “Where’s your phone”? I assume they wanted me to pull out my phone to tell them the time so they could snatch it and run away. Since I didn’t have a phone (just my crappy old broken watch), they eventually got frustrated, gave up their attempted thievery and went their merry way. The quickly approaching police officer may have also hastened their departure after discovering my cellular poverty.
Our first dinner in Montevideo was quite an experience. “Eat lots of meat” was very high on our “to do” list while in Argentina and Uruguay. Both countries have abundant grazing land that produces lots of beef. We headed down to the Mercado Del Puerto (Port Market). The Mercado Del Puerto looks like it beat up a train station and stole its Victorian era wrought iron roof structure. The large cavernous enclosure under the wrought iron roof hosts a variety of parillas – restaurants that serve a wide variety of grilled meats. We walked around the Mercado Del Puerto at least twice looking for the best grilled meat. In an episode of No Reservations, Anthony Bourdain visited this same market and supped on large chunks of meat. After seeing him chowing down and visiting the rest of Uruguay, we knew we had to visit some day.
Eventually we pulled up some bar stools to the side of a particularly appealing grill and placed an order for a couple of beers and some hunks of meat and sausages. We were sitting about five feet from the edge of the grill.
After a short wait, our food arrived smoking hot and juicily smiling at us from our plates. Eating ensued. The meat here was good. The prices were a little cheaper than in the US – around $35 for the whole meal for two including a couple of drinks and a tip. We ended up at the Mercado Del Puerto later in our stay in Montevideo and had some less than stellar fish and chips at American prices. My take on the Mercado Del Puerto: a little touristy. It’s a neat experience to visit and grab a meal, but one meal is probably enough. Better quality food and prices can be found elsewhere in Montevideo away from the most tourist-laden areas.
On our second day in Montevideo, we finished our exploration of the Old City. We walked out on the sea wall or jetty that extends a half mile into the Rio de la Plata river. Lots of locals were enjoying an afternoon fishing or lazing about. We hit up a few museums and local restaurants before stopping for dulce de leche (caramel) ice cream at McDonald’s.
Since we only stayed a few days in Montevideo, we didn’t have a lot of time to explore the rest of the city. We managed to break away from the Old City for a few hours when we took a local city bus (fare = $1) to Pocitos, a visibly nicer and wealthier part of Montevideo. The bus route skirts the beaches along the coast for part of the way. We tend to skip the paid organized tours when we travel and instead jump on a city bus and see where it takes us. It’s a more authentic way to experience the city and its people. You’re rubbing shoulders with the locals (literally) and you get to see off the beaten path neighborhoods where the locals live and work. Compared to organized tours, it’s also way cheaper and the schedule is more flexible since local buses run all the time.
How did I find out about this awesome bus route? In this case, I asked the lady at our hotel’s front desk about local bus routes that could take us to Pocitos and she let me know about the nice scenic route along the beach, and she showed on a map exactly where to catch the bus.
In the evening of our second day in Uruguay, we caught a presentation of Macbeth (in Spanish) at the Solis Theatre just a block down from our hotel. Built in 1856, it is the oldest theater in Uruguay. Inside the theater, it looked just like an opera house plucked straight out of Vienna or Italy. Probably because most of the interior furnishings were imported from Europe back in the 1850’s. Since I’m a big Shakespeare fan (love the Bard!!), I got a kick out of the play. Mrs. RootofGood? She got a good nap.
We finished off our last night in Montevideo with some late night pizza and drinking 40’s in the park. Slumming it Montevideo style! The pizza here is good, but different than what we are used to in the US. Order pizza and you get bread sticks with some marinara sauce on top. You have to order “with mozzarella” if you want cheese on top. And any meats or other toppings must be requested.
In the Old City, there were dozens of restaurants, cafes, and bars, most with sidewalk seating. For breakfast one day, we bought some delicious pastries and quiches from a bakery for just a few dollars and dined by the waterfront. Overall, the prices were a little less than what I’m used to in the US. $5-10 could get you a basic lunch or dinner, or you could try street vendors for $0.50 to $1 for hot dogs or burgers ($5 lunch for two!). Our meatstravaganza on our first night was the most expensive meal in Uruguay at $35.
The travel guide we used. Includes Buenos Aires and also covers Montevideo and Colonia in Uruguay:
In part two of the Argentina and Uruguay Trip Report, I’ll cover Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay. I’ll also sum up my thoughts on Uruguay and provide a detailed cost summary. In part three, I’ll cover Buenos Aires, Argentina. Make sure to subscribe on Facebook, Twitter, or by email (in the column to the right) if you want to catch parts two and three of the Argentina and Uruguay Trip Report.
Have you ever been to Uruguay? What did you think? If you have never been, what images did you have of Uruguay before reading this article?
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