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HOME > Short Stories > Argentina and Uruguay > CHAPTER VI MONTEVIDEO AND BUENOS AIRES
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Montevideo, the first discovered point of the River Plate countries, is also the first stopping-place for passenger boats from Europe; and if the traveller from thence be in no immediate hurry to reach Buenos Aires he might do much worse than spend, say a week, in the clean, cool, pleasant capital of La Republica de la Banda Oriental del Uruguay.

Leaving his baggage to be sent for later, he will walk, or take a convenient tram, from the harbour up the fairly steep incline of a narrow street and find himself at a corner of the ancient Plaza of the City; the Plaza with History represented on two of its sides, to his right and left respectively, by the Cathedral and the old Congress buildings. Facing him, he will see modernity embodied in the palatial Club Uruguayo, while immediately on his left hand, at his back, is a little front door and staircase leading to the comfortable and hospitable English club.

The middle of the square is occupied by fine subtropical and other plants surrounding a band-stand from which very sweet music indeed proceeds at night in the summer-time; which, including Spring and Autumn, lasts for nine months of the year.

Afterwards, he will find his way to the Plaza Independencia on one side of which is Government House, and almost behind which is Montevideo’s Opera House, the Soler Theatre. Later he can visit Pocitos, Ramirez and other delightful, white-sanded bathing beaches, with which Montevideo[80] abounds; for this city on a hill occupies a small peninsula which juts out just where the estuary of the River merges into the Atlantic Ocean.

All the streets leading from three sides of the old Plaza go downhill to the sea; and up one parallel set or another of them comes a fresh breeze at all times of the day and night and at all seasons of the year. One seldom or never suffers in Montevideo from the stifling oppression sometimes so painful in the dog-days of Buenos Aires.

With so many natural advantages, it can be readily understood that Montevideo has an ambition and that that ambition should be to become the seaside resort of South America.

Towards the realization of this desire the Government and the Municipality spare no expense at all commensurate with their means. Fine broad motor drives and promenades run, or are being constructed to run, all round the three water-bound sides which, by the test of school geographies, indicate a true peninsula.

Gaily striped bathing tents can be hired by the hour, day, week or season on what have just been said to be delightful soft, warm, sandy beaches. To come out of the water and roll oneself dry in this fine clean sand is an experience not to be missed and certainly to be remembered, apart from its proclaimed virtues as a sovereign cure for rheumatism.

That malady must, however, surely be an imported article; one does not naturally associate it with the bright dry climate of Montevideo.

Municipal bands, good operatic and dramatic companies are added lures for holiday-makers of the wealthier class from neighbouring Republics; while Montevideo sustains the ancient custom of keeping carnival, masked and with illuminations, flower-throwing and costumed corsos, in a fashion which entirely throws into the shade the now moribund carnival of Buenos Aires.


At Montevideo, all is done to please and nothing to annoy,[81] so that the throwing of water which was a leading feature of the old-time carnival is now strictly prohibited by authority enforced by the police; as is also the case in Buenos Aires.

Thousands of people cross each year from Buenos Aires for the Montevideo carnival, the whole available fleet of the company which runs luxurious boats between the two cities are pressed into the service of this occasion and become floating hotels; the normal hotel accommodation of Montevideo being insufficient to meet such an influx of visitors during these few days.

By the way, the origin of this fine steamboat service is an interesting example of the progress made by the two countries and the fortunes which have been amassed in them during existing lifetimes.

Before the building of the present dock system of Buenos Aires, one of the boatmen who used to land and embark passengers from or on the ocean-going ships was a man named Nicolas Mihanovich; evidently a very level-headed and at that time at least, a very frugal and saving person indeed.

With his row-boat he gained sufficient to enable him to purchase a sailing vessel which he used for regular traffic to and fro across the broad mouth of the River Plate. So, his enterprise grew; and only a very few years ago he turned his own private company into a public one with larger aims, in which latter company he nevertheless retains a very large interest. The one-time boatman is now a multi-millionaire. The present service leaves Buenos Aires, or Montevideo as the case may be, at about ten o’clock each evening and lands its passengers, after a good sleep in comfortable beds, on the other side at about seven o’clock the following morning.

Many are the true tales of fortunes amassed, sometimes one may almost say won, in Argentina, especially, within living memory.

Se?or Santamarina, now deceased, left on his huge estate at[82] Tandíl, one of his many properties, the original two-wheeled high cart which was his only fortune when he commenced life as what in other countries would be called a transport rider. This cart is, or till recently was, preserved in a glass house erected specially by him to house and exhibit it to all visitors to the estancia.

Another history is that of a millionaire family whose immediate ancestor certainly won fortune by an astuteness which may or may not be considered commendable.

He rented a large—large even for the Argentina of those roomy days—tract of land from a man who foresaw wealth in tree-planting. The latter was right; but his personal calculations did not, as will be seen, turn out as he had planned. He made it a condition that not less than a certain number of trees should be planted on the land within the period of the lease, and that for every tree above that number planted he should, on the termination of the lease, pay the sum of $1 to the outgoing tenant.

The wily lessee immediately set to work to plant trees as fast as ever he could, and at the expiration of his lease had millions of them, over and above the stipulated number, to show for his pains. The unfortunate lessor could not pay so many million dollars, and to end the affair was glad to let his former lessee have full freehold possession of the land and so call quits.

That land, still in the possession of the original lessee’s family, is worth a huge fortune to-day, and its produce represents a very large income indeed—forestry apart.

And now, as these stories have taken us to Argentina, the reader may as well prepare to follow them by embarking on one of the “Mihanovich” boats; as they still are and probably always will be called, in spite of the longer name of the new company, and find himself in Buenos Aires next morning.

By leaving his baggage for further consideration, as he did at Montevideo, he can go on foot in about five minutes from[83] the landing-place across the gardens of the Paseo de Julio, which name is a first reminiscence of the birth of the Republic, round one or the other side of the “Casa Rosada” or pink-coloured Government House, and find himself immediately in the Plaza Victoria with on his right the Stock Exchange lying between the Calles 25 de Mayo and San Martin—further reminiscences of the wars of Liberty. Keeping his back towards the Casa Rosada, he will look straight up the broad Avenida de Mayo with the historic old Cabildo or Town Hall on the left corner of the commencement of the avenue and the fine new Municipality opposite.

At the far end of the avenue rises the splendid edifice of the new Congress Building, the “Palace of Gold” as it is called in quasi-humorous reference to its costliness. This is, however, not a new joke. Formerly it was applied to the Casa Rosada, now become a comparatively humble edifice. Besides, if an Argentine calls one’s attention to the scandalous cost of a public monument or building, it does not necessarily mean that he is really so very angry about it. On the contrary, it may well be that he is proud of belonging to a Nation which can bravely bear such expenditure.

Under the Avenida de Mayo is the “tube” which runs from the Once station (which is situate on the western side of the town and is the terminus of the Buenos Aires Western Railway) to the Docks. The Once marks the point of departure of the first six miles of Railway built on the River Plate.

The new-comer will at once notice that the City of Buenos Aires is laid out on the chessboard pattern with its streets running North and South and East and West, a variation of the pattern being now introduced by the new diagonal avenues converging towards the Plaza Victoria, in course of construction.

Along almost every street, except Calle Florida, the Avenida de Mayo, and the diagonal avenues, runs a tramline on which the cars all go in one direction in one street and in[84] the contrary direction in the next and so on. Ten cents is the fare for a single journey anywhere within the length or breadth of the Federal Capital, but one cannot take tickets entitling one to any change of car; and for that one must buy another ten cents ticket.

This matter of change of car may have been overlooked by the Municipality when the concession was granted to the Anglo-Argentine Tramways Company, of which concession the universal 10 cent fare was a sine qua non condition; perhaps, on the other hand, the Company stuck out on that point. Anyhow, if one wishes to get full value for his 10 cents on a Buenos Aires tramline he must stick to the car in which he has begun his ride. By doing so, he can often take a long round trip and come back to his point of departure. This observation also applies to the Tramways in Montevideo, but there, with due knowledge and careful selection, one can practically get all over the place, without changing; owing to the more erratic routes taken by the lines.

For a variety of reasons, the Buenos Aires Tramway system is considered by authorities on such matters to be the best in the world. It is mostly in the hands of the Anglo-Argentine Tramways Company.

Another company is the Lacroze, a private company largely interested also in the Buenos Aires Central Railway. Its trams run through the Capital and to the Western suburban districts.

A third company runs trams out of the Capital to the Southern Suburban districts.

It may here be said that a good supply of taxi-cabs is to be found both in Montevideo and Buenos Aires.

One advantage, suggested by the mention of taxi-cabs, of visiting Montevideo before Buenos Aires, is that that way one feels richer after the journey between the two than one would if the itinerary had been reversed.


Living is not cheap in Buenos Aires, but its cost is a relief[85] after a sojourn in the Uruguayan Capital; though expense there is again as nothing if one has experienced that of Rio de Janeiro, the dearest place, probably, in the whole world, and the one in which, scenery apart, one gets as little satisfaction for one’s money as anywhere.

In Montevideo one has, it is true, plenty of satisfaction of a quiet, pleasant kind, but those (actually, although founded on a firm gold basis) paper dollars—only four of them and 70 cents worth of mixed change for a British Sovereign—melt quickly into inappreciable small silver and nickel; none of which seems to be worth much, though a 50-cent bit is really worth more than a British florin. For exchange purposes that is; in its native land its purchasing power is strikingly small. After Montevideo, there is some satisfaction about the feel of the bundle of Argentine paper dollars one gets for one’s Uruguayan money. And in Buenos Aires several quite useful things can be got for $1, National (paper) money. Although the purchasing power of this last (its exchange value is 1s. 8?d.) is not that of one shilling in England.

In neither country does one often see an actual gold coin, in Argentina practically never in ordinary everyday life; most of the gold against which the current paper is issued going, as will be seen in the Chapter on Finance and Commerce, into the “Conversion” strong rooms and staying there.

The passion for amusement must indeed be overpowering in anyone who is not satisfied with what Buenos Aires provides of all kinds in that regard. Two Opera Houses, the older one, stately and comfortable in its interior arrangements, and the new Municipal Opera House, the Colon Theatre, gorgeous in velvet and marble; and powdered, gold-mace bearing lackeys to bow one in at its wide portals.

Great is the rivalry between these two houses to secure the best stars and companies; and between them they certainly get the best that Europe can provide. In some[86] cases they have anticipated Europe, notably in the instances of Caruso and Maria Gay, both of whom appeared in Buenos Aires before Europe had even heard of them. One feature is common to the policy of both Opera Houses, viz., a scale of charges for admission so high that it is impossible for anyone who wishes to be considered somebody not to have his or her box at one or both of them for the season.

After the Opera House comes, in degree of prestige, perhaps, the Odeon Theatre; most frequently devoted to the representation of classic or serious drama. After it come many theatres; the finest among them being the Coliseo in which good companies, chiefly Italian, give first-rate performances of every kind from Grand Guignol to Light Opera. After these, again, come the purely Argentine Theatres; in which drama and comedy faithfully reflecting the true native life are performed.

Such performances should not be missed (as they too often are because they are not fashionable in a country where fashion’s favour is almost exclusively bestowed on imported wares) by anyone having sufficient Argentine Spanish to appreciate the purport and point of their dialogue; which, in true Argentine fashion, includes a liberal use of words and phrases capable of double meanings.

Brilliantly lighted, sumptuously panelled and upholstered cafés with tables spreading over the pavement outside them, tend to keep life in Buenos Aires awake till the wee sma’ hours begin to grow large.

“See Naples and die” runs the Neapolitan saying. “See Buenos Aires and stop there as long as you can” is likely to prove acceptable advice to anyone with a taste for easy gaiety and with a disposition for not doing to-day anything of an irksome or disagreeable nature which can possibly be put off till the morrow. Much native encouragement will be afforded him to postpone it till the Greek Kalends; and then to change his mind about doing it at all.


Till the morrow’s sun shines, that is. Then he will see the[87] City, which overnight he may have thought wholly absorbed by pleasure-seeking, transformed into a quick-moving, alert commercial centre. Surely the Argentine when in Buenos Aires burns his candle at both ends. The well-to-do have, however, their Estancias on which to vary town life with mentally restful, if often physically laborious, days spent in superintending their agricultural interests.

Fine-looking new buildings are ever springing up in Buenos Aires with such surprising suddenness and rapidity as to render any description of the chief edifices of that city out of date almost before it can get into print. Even the palatial home of the Jockey Club, renowned as the most splendidly luxurious Club House in the world, is soon to be abandoned by its members for another more gorgeously wonderful still.

One leaves the City for a few weeks in the Camp wondering what the former will look like on one’s return.

That is one did, until very recently. Just now, the War has called a temporary halt in the commencement of many projected building operations.

One cannot, however, leave Buenos Aires without mention of the beautiful, park-like suburb of Palermo; with the broad Avenida de Alvear leading from the northern part of the City to it. It may here be observed that fashion has not travelled westward in Buenos Aires; the Northern parts of the City being the most fashionable and adorned with the most palatial new dwellings.

A wide palm-bordered avenue leads to others winding round grassy spaces in which backwaters of the Tigre River glint under overhanging trees; amid all of which is a great restaurant, after the fashion of those in the Parisian Bois de Boulogne.

That restaurant is, to the author’s mind, the one great tawdry blot on the picture; but it is only fair to add that every afternoon and evening, during a long season, it is crowded with gaily dressed people who all seem happy and[88] vociferously contented with the refreshments and music it provides.

The Palermo Avenue is the fashionable drive, the Corso of the élite of Buenos Aires Society; and also of others desirous of attracting attention to their equipages and themselves. Everyone the aspirant to social distinction ought—and ought not—to know is to be seen at Palermo on a fine late afternoon or evening in Spring. In Summer most of them are, naturally, at Mar-del-Plata.

Adjoining the Park is the Palermo race-course, over which the Jockey Club rules absolute. It should be added that the Buenos Aires Jockey Club is not only an association of racing men, but is in reality the hub of social intercourse in Buenos Aires.

Its large and small dining-rooms are available to members, and even to very distinguished strangers, for private dinners; which are exquisitely cooked and served by the numerous and highly expert staff of the Club.

In fact the Jockey Club is a very influential body indeed; quite apart from racing matters.

There can be no manner of doubt that the gambling element in racing is far too popular in Buenos Aires. There is a race meeting on every day in the week, Sundays, of course, included, during a season which lasts nearly all the year round. And these meetings are thronged by youths and other people who most certainly should be, and would much better be, at work.

Whatever may be thought of the system of weekly National Lotteries (these are at least carried on with unimpeachable fairness and 10% of the amounts subscribed to them, in payment for tickets, goes, after paying working expenses, printing, etc., to charity) the totalizer appeals far too sympathetically to the Latin-American natural love of gambling; and that love, as always in a new country where so many fortunes seem to have had their origin in luck, has developed dangerously on the right bank of the River Plate.


Close also to Palermo Park is the scene of the annual Agricultural and Live Stock Show; now a world-renowned Exhibition of as fine cattle and sheep as can be seen anywhere. Horses and Poultry also are splendidly represented at this show; which is perhaps the greatest event in the Argentine Calendar.

Further out from the city, past and beyond Palermo, is Hurlingham; an ever-enlarging group of English red-brick villas inhabited for the most part by English people. These villas surround the ample grounds of the Hurlingham Club, where polo and riding and driving competitions, etc., follow the lines of its English prototype. The Club house is comfortable, the food good, and a huge swimming bath is among its many undoubted attractions. It also has a drag hunt.

Further out again are beautiful reaches of the Tigre River, famous for boating; and on which an annual regatta, the Henley of South America, is held.

The Avenida de Alvear, above referred to, runs through the most fashionable residential quarter of Buenos Aires, a quarter filled with veritable huge palaces which with their gardens surround the Recoleta, the fashionable cemetery. A strange city of the dead in which the coffins are seen on shelves contained in small plate-glass fronted temples, so that all may view the last outward casings of generations.

On “The Day of the Dead” (All Saints’ Day) the Recoleta is a blaze of beautiful wreaths and floral tributes; afterwards too often replaced, alas, by ugly contrivances in porcelain or, worse still, enamelled iron.

Returning to Buenos Aires proper one must not, cannot, forget Calle Florida, “The Bond Street of the South.” So called because in it are situate most of the finest shops in South America for the sale of what are sometimes officially described as articles of luxury; wearing apparel of the best and costliest, for both sexes, jewellery, stationery, etc. It is, in fact, to Buenos Aires all Bond Street once was, and old Bond Street to some extent still is, to London.


Needless, almost, to say, Florida deals exclusively in imported goods and a very great majority of its shopkeepers are foreigners; among whom the purveyors of “Modes,” “Robes” and “Lingerie” are, naturally, mostly French.

No vehicular traffic whatever is now allowed in Calle Florida between certain hours of the afternoon; in order not to incommode the throngs of fashionable shoppers with whom it is usually crowded. It is the only street in which Argentine ladies of high degree are to be seen on foot. In bygone and less crowded times it was the scene of the afternoon Corso; when play was made with fans and gallants ogled from the edges of the pavement.

There is at present still a lack of Hotel accommodation suitable for Europeans of moderate means. There are great numbers of Hotels in Buenos Aires, but the good ones are very expensive while the cheaper ones are not very good. That is to say, one must have got accustomed to the South American haphazard fashion of service and general arrangements before being able to regard the latter as in any way comfortable. Montevideo is still worse off; having few Hotels which can be regarded as good (though there are one or two), while prices, as in everything else, run higher than in Buenos Aires.

A word must be said in defence of the latter City against a prevailing impression, created, goodness knows how, of its intense immorality. This charge simply is not true. Buenos Aires is no more immoral than and certainly not as vicious as are most European Capitals.

True, it is not in South American human nature to be puritanical but the lower classes in Argentina and Uruguay are but non-moral, to use a somewhat fashionable term, with the non-morality of grown-up children, which they are. They have not the faintest idea of the vice which abounds in the great cities of the Northern Hemisphere. Montevideo is more staid than cosmopolitan Buenos Aires; even at Carnival time the former City seems to take its merrymaking[91] seriously. Any real vice which can be found in either Capital is an imported article.

If among the lower classes of both countries the whole advantages of the marriage ceremony seem not to be duly appreciated, this is due, in the vast majority of cases, to motives of economy. A religious marriage service is a costly item in the equipment of a young couple, and a purely civil ceremony is even less favourably looked on by neighbours than a postponement of any ceremony at all. Later, such couples usually do marry with due pomp and circumstance, including the invitation of all and sundry to the humble wedding feast. After that, all is in order in the case of the death of the husband and father; for marriage legitimatizes previously born children. Indeed, the writer was once present at a fiesta in a rural district, not forty minutes’ run by train from the City of Buenos Aires, organized to honour the occasion of the visit of a Priest who in a very short space of time married the parents and christened a whole batch of their children.

An old custom still chiefly prevailing among the humbler classes, both urban and rural, is one which may be called the “waking” of the dead. The news of a bereavement spreads quickly among neighbours; who do not wait to be invited but arrive, in groups organized extemporaneously by themselves, at the house of mourning. There, one of such groups succeeds another, and so on throughout the night after a death; sitting silently and only moving to partake of the necessary refreshment provided in view of their sure coming.

As in most other countries where modernity has not yet suppressed all local colour with its neutral tints, the lower classes in both Argentina and Uruguay are much the most interesting. The free-and-easy Bohemian sort of life in a conventillo[16] is curious. In each of its many rooms lives a family, while the court is common to all for cooking (a[92] charcoal brazier usually stands at the side of each door), washing of clothes and, last but not least, the discussion of mate and gossip. All sorts of people dwell in a single conventillo, artisans, hawkers, washerwomen, milliners, factory hands, poor employees, etc. etc., and all group themselves in the common courtyard of an evening when work is done, frequently to the music of a guitar.

The upper classes, on the other hand, strive chiefly to reflect the latest moods of European fashion in general and of that of Paris in particular—even, since the War, to the extent of making retrenchment in living expenses the fashion. A fashion which, if it last, will not be the least of the good which has come to Argentina from the European upheaval which has forced the River Plate countries to learn to rely on their own resources and individual efforts. Gone, already, are the battalions of motor-cars of very latest pattern with which every wealthy Argentine family has hitherto thought it necessary to its dignity to be provided—one each for father, mother and each son and daughter—economy is now “De Moda” and ostentation therefore become old-fashioned and bad taste. An immense change to have taken place, as it did, in the course of only a few months.

Montevideo had no need of such a volte face of habit. Uruguayans never developed the love of display so characteristic of Argentine aristocracy.

With its some 1? million inhabitants, Buenos Aires has the largest population of any Capital City in America. Montevideo, with some 400,000 inhabitants, surpasses Washington in this respect.

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