You can now find the full show notes of the Crossing Borders podcast on LatamList.com’s new podcast section. I’ll still post the audio of the podcast on my blog and I’m planning to start writing more again on my blog, like I used to.
Note: This post is a collaboration between Nadim Curi, the Uruguayan cofounder of CityCop and me. Thanks to Nadim for taking the time to help out with this post!
The small country of Uruguay, wedged between its two much larger neighbors, Argentina and Brazil, is home to 3.4 million people and has been on the forefront of many innovative reforms. Uruguay ranks first in Latin America for democracy, peace, lack of corruption, e-government, and press freedoms.
Despite it’s small size, Uruguay has a unique culture and interesting achievements that have inspired Uruguayans to believe that anything’s possible. This attitude may be best epitomized by its national soccer team, which has won two World Cups, two Olympic gold medals, and 15 Copa Americas (more than any other South American country).
Besides football, Uruguay has a great quality of life and was ranked first in Latin America in democracy, peace, lack of corruption, press freedom, size of the middle class and prosperity. (more…)
After relaxing in Porto de Galinhas, I left my group to travel 5400 miles in three days to see USA/Portugal, Chile/Netherlands and Italy/Uruguay in Manaus, Sao Paulo and Natal, respectively. I left Porto de Galinhas with flip flops, shorts, a USA jersey, a sweatshirt, USA sunglasses and my tickets to the games, nothing more. My plan was to wake up at 4am, get to the Recife airport by 5 at the latest, then fly to Brasilia, then onto Manaus. But I almost didn’t make it.
We’d arrived in Porto de Galinhas two days earlier, but hadn’t filled up with gas. We’d planned to fill up upon arrival, but beach and caipirinhas got in the way. Instead, we decided to fill up at 430am on the way to the airport. But nobody told us that gas stations aren’t open 24/7 in northern Brazil. The first station, a half mile from our house, was closed. We asked the people partying (yes, partying at 430am in a gas station parking lot) where the next closest one was. They said there was one down the road. Closed too. The next one was closed, with all the lights turned off.
Enrique was accompanying me to the airport so he could use the car while I was gone, so the two of us continued until we got to a toll booth, already riding below empty on the gas gauge. I asked the toll booth operator if she could sell us a few liters of gas, but she said it wasn’t possible. I even offered to pay 3x the normal rate, but alas, no dice. I asked if there was roadside assistance and got an affirmative, so I asked if they could call now and have them bring me gas, but they said that they couldn’t call until we were fully out of gas. We decided to press on, against the warnings of the toll operators. They said that if (when) we ran out of gas that we had to stay on the highway and not get out of the car, as we had to pass favelas and other dangerous areas. As we pulled away they asked “first time in brazil?” and just smiled and shook their heads. Silly foreigners, expecting the gas stations to be open 24/7!
About a kilometer later, Enrique had the idea to go back to the tollbooth and have them call us a taxi. His idea saved me. As we pulled into the toll plaza again, an unoccupied taxi materialized out of nowhere. I jumped out of the car before he could pay his toll and asked how much it would cost to get to the airport. He quoted me a fair price and much to the shock of the toll operators, I jumped out of the car and into the taxi and was on my way. As we pulled away, I heard the toll operators yelling in a confused voice, “but where’s your luggage!”
Enrique turned around and made it back to within 2 blocks of our beach house and promptly ran out of gas. If I hadn’t turned around, I would have missed USA/Portugal and Chile/Netherlands. Two lessons learned: gas stations close early and there’s always taxis in Brazil!
Manaus – USA vs. Portugal
I needed to sell two extra tickets to the game and had been anyone wearing US colors if they needed tickets. Luckily the girl sitting next to me on the plane from Brasilia to Manaus needed a ticket, as did another guy she had met in the airport. Turned out the guys she had met were recent UW grads (Badgers are everywhere!) and I now had sold my extra tickets and had friends to hang out with before the game.
It made absolutely no sense to have Manaus be a world cup city. Although its a city of a few million people, it’s completely in the middle of the Amazon. You can’t arrive by road. Just boat and airplane. It’s 90% humidity and 90+ degrees. There’s mosquitos. Spiders. Crime. Hotels are incredibly expensive. And the local soccer team draws about 1000 people per game. But FIFA and its corrupt Brazilian partners decided to make Manaus a venue. They spent at least $300m on a stadium that was used four times and might be used as a jail afterward.
The flight into Manaus is extremely beautiful. You can listen to people describe the Amazon, but until you see it, you can’t appreciate just how big it really is. Swampy wetlands as far as the eye could see. A 1-2 mile wide river. Bright colors. Incredible clouds. But Manaus itself is just another past its prime big city. Manaus was one of the richest cities in the world during the rubber baron era, but when synthetic rubber was invented, it began its first precipitous and now slow decline. The Brazilian government wants to keep its hold on the Amazon, so Manaus is a tax incentive zone where manufacturers can produce products with little to no taxes.
The first thing that you notice when you land is the humidity. It hits you like punch in the face as you leave the airport’s strong air conditioning. You’re sweating immediately. Otherwise once you’re in the city, you’d have no idea you were in the middle of the Amazon.
It was all a bit surreal when we arrived at the American Outlaws party to find 500+ US fans drinking beer, caipirinhas, eating some of the saddest pizza I’ve ever eaten. There was a live band playing patriotic songs and every so often the national anthem would break out. We proceeded to drink beer and hang out with US fans from all around the country that had made the trek to the middle of the Amazon to watch the national team.
We piled into a taxi and were dropped off close to the stadium. We were so hungry that we stopped at the first shack/bar we saw that had food. It didn’t matter that a 13 year old was manning the grill and that the owners didn’t tell me what kind of meat it was until they sheepishly said “beef” after I asked for the 4th time, but in the moment it tasted amazing. You can’t do much better than mystery street meet on a stick in the middle of the amazon! Shockingly, I ate an incredible amount of street food in Brazil and only got mildly sick on my last night from a dodgy “dogao”, or street hotdog, in Salvador.
The stadium itself in Manaus might have been my favorite stand alone stadium. It’s small enough that you’re right on top of the action and the outside design looks like something that could be floating down the amazon. Really beautiful. A great place to see the game. But it just made no sense to build it just for four world cup games. What a colossal waste of money and resources, not to mention making four games nearly impossible for most people to go to.
We had second row tickets in the US section and had a blast. Even though the US went down 1-0 inside five minutes, the fans were into it and screaming the entire game. When Jermaine Jones equalized with one of the best goals of the tournament, the entire US section went crazy. When Dempsey put the US in the lead a few minutes later, people really started to believe the US would qualify. When the ref showed 5 minutes of stoppage time, we booed mercilessly, but didn’t really think Portugal would muster much of an attack. After the first five minutes of the first half, the US really worked Portugal from end to end. But Cristiano wouldn’t be denied and made one of the best passes I’ve seen in person to a diving teammate who scored in the 95th minute. Even though the US had just tied Portugal and had 4 points from two games, it felt like a loss.
We were deflated and left to drown our sorrows in more brazilian churrasco, or steak, rice, beans and farofa. After dinner, we went to a bar for a beer, then I bid my new friends goodbye and went back to the airport to continue my adventure to Sao Paulo to see Netherlands vs. Chile twelve hours later. Manaus was a strange, expensive city in the middle of nowhere, but I’m glad I made the trip.
Sao Paulo – Netherlands vs. Chile
I slept a few hours in the airport, then the entire three hour plane ride and arrived in Campinas, about an hour from Sao Paulo at 6am for a 1pm game. I was still in my same outfit that I’d left 85 degree Recife and 95 degree Manaus, but arrived in 60 degree Sao Paulo in my flip flops, body paint stained US jersey, shorts and sweatshirt. I slept the entire bus ride into Sao Paulo and met up with some Chilean friends.
The look on the my friend’s face was priceless, but all he could muster was “you have something in your eye…” I knew I looked like a wreck, but I had to push on. I met up with another friend a few hours later and took a shower in his hotel room. As soon as I looked at myself in the mirror, I realized I must have scared my friend half to death! Some of the body paint from the night before had gotten into my eyes and had created a white streak across my entire eye. It looked like a big white cut across my eye or some strange tropical disease.
After showering, we took a taxi to the stadium, which is about 45 minutes outside of the main part of the city and met up with Enrique (who had a new Chile jersey for me). He’d had his own adventure, flying in from Recife that morning for the match. The stadium itself is really cool looking, but it was one of my least favorite venues because it’s hard to get to, isolated and there’s nothing to do around the stadium, as it’s located in a poor area of town with no bars, restaurants or really anything around it. And probably 30% of the seats (the ones behind the goal in the upper deck) are really, really far from the field. At least the stadium will be used after the world cup by Corinthians, one of Sao Paulo’s biggest teams.
Chile’s fans were the most impressive and most passionate of any that I came across. There were at least 100,000 in Sao Paulo, many of whom were paying whatever price they could to get into the game. They cheered loud and long during the game, even when they got scored on and even when they ended up loosing. The national anthem was worth the price of admission.
I wish I had taken better photos from our seats in the fourth row, but Chile looked like midgets compared to the Dutch. Chile was the smallest team in the world cup and the dutch were the second tallest. It looked like the u12s were playing the u18s, but the u12s were somehow holding their own. The game featured the two most impressive players I saw in person: Arjen Robben and Alexis Sanchez. Both players change the game just by being on the field.
Natal – Italy vs. Uruguay
After the game we went back to the airport to catch our 3am flight back to Recife. I was so tired and promptly fell asleep beneath a bank of phones and slept until they called our flight and then the entire flight to Recife. Still wearing my same clothes, we got off the plane at 6am and were on our way to Natal for the 1pm Italy/Uruguay game that afternoon. We arrived in Natal at 1030am, parked in the mall, had more gaucho food and then walked to the stadium. We drank a beer while we watched the crowds and met up with a Japanese friend of mine from the Japan/Greece game.
I had two extra tickets to sell and sold to two Uruguay guys who kissed me on the cheek they were so happy to get into the game. I saw one of FIFA’s henchmen directing the police to arrest ticket sellers and then the police taking people away. The saddest was when they arrested a ~25 year old Uruguayan guy with face paint and a flag draped around his back for selling his one extra ticket. He started crying knowing that he would miss the match.
The professionals mostly knew how to avoid the police and never got arrested, as far as I could tell. I saw the same scene at other matches, even when people were selling below face value. It would infinitely more ridiculous a week later when Rio police busted an illegal FIFA ticket selling ring worth a reported $100m per world cup. FIFA’s disgusting corruption really knows no bounds. It’s bad enough that FIFA were reselling their own tickets at 10x face value, but to have the gall to tell police to arrest fans selling single tickets and tickets for below face value is just too much!
The Uruguayan fans were really impressive. They got to the stadium early, chanted and sang though out the game and stayed late. It was a pretty boring game until Italy’s red card, but then the game opened up. Luis Suarez’s bite was right in front of us, but we could only see that he’d done something. I speculated that maybe he bit him, but nobody could believe that he would be so brazen in a world cup. The entire stadium erupted into pandemonium when Uruguay scored to put them into the knockout round and eliminated Italy in the group stage for the second straight world cup.
After the game we had lunch and then made the long drive back to Porto de Galinhas through a driving rain. We had two near death experiences on the road leading into Recife which again drove home the point why Brazilians were mad about spending money on the world cup when basic things like “this lane ends” signs were non existent.
After traveling 5400 miles in three days, sleeping in airports and airplanes for three nights, I was ready to get back to the beach and stay put for awhile. In past world cups I’d never done anything like this and I don’t think I will in the future. It was worth it, but just barely!
Uruguay is a small country of about 4m people sandwiched between Argentina and Brazil. Nearly half live in Montevideo, the capital. It sort of feels like an upscale, more laid back Argentina that actually works. People speak the same accented spanish as they do in Argentina, but with seemingly less slang. I took an eight day trip last month during Carnaval for a short vacation.
I arrived into the Montevideo airport, tried to rent a car, but couldn’t find anything, so I immediately took a bus directly to Punta del Este, hoping to find a car there. I hadn’t realized when I booked the flight that it was going to be Carnaval in Uruguay, but that explained why everything was busy.
Punta del Este is the French Rivera of South America. South Americans with money come from all over to play on the beaches, eat in top restaurants and hobnob with each other. As such, it’s really expensive, but there’s great food and good beaches. Nearly everyone there was in good shape, extremely tan and fairly well dressed. It wasn’t really my style, as Punta is very built up and feels a bit like Florida. After a day and a half it was time to move on.
I took a bus north along the coast to Punta del Diablo, a small town that gets overrun with tourists in the summer. One family used to own all of the land, but has now sold lots to developers for cabins, restaurants and small apartments. Since it was Carnaval and everyone had monday and tuesday off from work, the place was packed. It’s really close to the Brazilian border and you can tell: portuguese is everywhere, the merchants accept reales, caipirinas are on every menu. They also accept Argentine pesos, but at 10 pesos to the dollar, or 2x the official rate. Argentinians were happy to pay.
Punta del Diablo has two huge beaches that were full close to town, but if you walked 10 minutes, you could find beaches with hardly anyone. It was hot and sunny, maybe 90 degrees, in the morning, but every late afternoon it got cold. Try to stay at a cabin instead of a hostel, they’re about the same price.
The surf was pretty high, making the water seem colder than it was. There are tons of little restaurants, mostly catering to tourists. The best ones were farther into town, maybe 3 minutes walk. The first ones were touristy, kind of expensive and lower quality. My favorites were a mexican cantina through the center of town and Il Tano Cucino, an Italian restaurant where the owner makes his own pasta and gnocchis outside each day. It was so good I went twice in one day.
At night during Carnaval, the city came alive. Local kids filled up anything they could find to have massive water fights with each other. Others took to ambushing tourists. My favorite was a kid with a hose who hid behind some bushes to spray people. After I got hit, I watched for 20 minutes as other got destroyed by the water.
Later on in the night, there were two parades with local kids dancing, singing and riding around in floats. Everyone followed the parades, dancing, singing and drinking until they arrived at the beach, between three bars. It morphed into a huge outside dance party with the occacional spray of water from some kids. Everyone was happy. You could tell the Brazilians apart from everyone else by how quickly they moved their feet.
After a few days in Punta del Diablo I went on a day trip to Velizas, about an hour to the south. It’s a tiny town, much less developed than Punta del Diablo, but the beach was beautiful. The water was warm and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Looking to the south, you can see the huge sand dunes of Cabo Polonio national park. I wished I’d spent a little more time there.
I spent my last two days in Montevideo. I found a great hotel on booking.com that happened to have a 65% discount in the old section of town with a view of the “sea.” Although everyone calls it the sea, it’s really the rio de la plata, which at montevideo happens to be one of the widest rivers in the world. The old section is in the middle of being restored. There are boutique hotels, small shops, good restaurants and stores that are going into beautiful old buildings. Montevideo has some incredible arquitecture that is way better preserved than Santiago and the old city is going to be incredible in a few years as people start to move back.
I went for lunch at Mercando Central and sampled Medio y Medio, a half and half mix of white wine and champagne that really sneaks up on you. Uruguayans eat the fourth most beef per capita in the world and for good reason. Their steaks were incredible. Bar Fun Fun is a touristy but eclectic bar that’s been in business since 1895, complete with live tango and music. At night, hardly anyone is around in the old city, except at a few bars. It was a little creepy and felt like a zombie movie, especially compared to the day when it’s filled with people
I really liked Uruguay. The country seems stable, people are nice, the cities seemed safe and things seemed to work. People seem to have a really high quality of life. Montevideo is in the middle of gentrification and the old city will be incredible in about 5 years if they continue to make progress. I will definitely be back in the future.