uruguay carnival dancer white

Uruguay erupts with drums every January, and throughout February an ambiance of sequence and Commedia dell’arte define the nightlife. It’s the country’s Carnival, and unlike the versions you might find in Brazil and Argentina, Uruguay’s 40-day celebration feels a little more authentic, intimate and easier on the wallet.

Head to the capital, Montevideo, to experience the two most important staples of the Carnival experience: La Murga concerts and the two-day Las Llamadas parade. The first is a song and dance show in harlequin bravura, usually taking place outdoors in a large amphitheatre, that involves a lot of horsing around with the audience, skits, onstage costume changes and some of the most powerful, well-balanced acapella out there. The second is an all-night parade in early February. Mixing African slave culture and European influence, the drummers, flag-bearers, sequenced dancers and stilt-walkers make for a startlingly unique cultural experience.

The parade really is the highlight of the whole month, not only for its grandeur, but because it somehow manages to stay grounded in tradition despite it. The parade route avoids major avenues, instead bottlenecking through a tight street in a quaint, little-visited part of the city. Position yourself on a balcony or a roof of one of the Spanish colonial houses that residents rent out for around US $30, or sit on ground-level for $10. You’ll be packed in with Uruguayans as they yell and cheer, drink mate and point out dancers or drummers they recognise from work, school or the neighbourhood.

It’s this relaxed, local atmosphere that gives the event an authentic undertone, that makes it feel less like an organised event — commercialised, advertised, commodified — than an incident, something produced naturally out of the culture. That’s what sets it apart from “top 10 destinations” destinations: the city, the businesses and the locals aren’t expecting you to be in Uruguay. If you do encounter tourists, they’ll most likely be from Chile, Argentina or Brazil, which still keeps the experience feeling as if you’re partaking in something regional, an inter-culturalism that doesn’t actually belong to you.

Uruguay as a whole is an easy vacation, however, especially during carnival season. There’s no shortage of hotels, hostels, Airbnbs and Couchsurfers in Montevideo. Most restaurants and cafés have wifi, and the water is clean enough to drink. The city certainly has that rough-around-the-edges finish of Latin America, but you don’t ever feel insecure walking down the street. And because Carnival events happen later in the evening, you can explore the city by day without feeling unsafe. Plaza Independencia is surrounded by some of Uruguay’s most important government buildings and French-influenced architecture and connects to Sarandí street, a long pedestrian zone full of great cafés, book shops and an open-air vegetable market. Nearby, the city’s beaches, though not on the clearest of waters, are worth a few hours of your time if you’re looking to chill out.

When the sun goes down during Carnival season, you’ll have as many as six Murga venues to choose from on any given night. The shows originated in Cadiz, Spain before making their way to Uruguay and Argentina as early as the 1870s, but other historians argue that people, particularly slaves, had been singing on the streets of Montevideo and other small towns long before that. It’s worth going to more than one while you’re there. Some are professional groups and others feel more like community theatre, but they all have their own costumes (some more harlequin and others more modern), routines (some more focused on dance and others, on singing) — and song lineups, so it never gets old.

They usually look back on current events and phenomena of the year — for 2016, that meant Pokémon Go, marijuana laws and President Tabaré Vázquez’s controversially expensive aeroplane. The clash of contemporary trends with traditional oral history provides these new songs a weighty, historical significance alongside Uruguay’s often dark past of slavery and discrimination from which the entire idea of Carnival originated. Today, it’s not the type of event that will bog you down in that history, but as you enjoy the festivities, try to keep it in mind.

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