Montevideo cautions

This item appears on page 54 of the December 2011 issue.

Over many years of travel, I’ve found that the warnings in Lonely Planet guidebooks’ “Dangers and Annoyances” sections are on target and certainly not alarmist. I did not fully appreciate, however, their warning about Montevideo’s Ciudad Vieja (Old City), which said, “Wallet- and purse-snatches are not uncommon.” Amen to that!

My wife and I were in Montevideo, Uruguay, for three days in November ’10, and one of our traveling companions was victimized by wallet-snatching on two consecutive days in the Ciudad Vieja. Both incidents occurred in broad daylight, with other people around, near the popular pedestrian street Peatonal Sarandí, a few blocks from the Mercado del Puerto.

In the first event, our friend had his wallet stolen. The second occurrence was aborted when his wife realized what was happening and shouted at the attempted thief, who, moments earlier, had approached me as a beggar.

Both incidents were of the grab-and-run variety, not the subtle kind of pickpocketing you don’t notice until it’s too late. Only our composure was harmed.

The Ciudad Vieja is certainly worth visiting, but we found that the district cleared out at night and on weekends. Most restaurants, except those in the Mercado del Puerto, were closed on Sunday. Even during the day, the backstreets could be surprisingly empty. Car and burglar alarms were commonly heard.

Lonely Planet also warns travelers to avoid particular parts of the Ciudad Vieja at night, especially the area around the Mercado del Puerto. If you want to have dinner at one of the popular restaurants in the Mercado del Puerto, take a taxi; do not walk there. On weekends, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to take a taxi there even during the day.

You also should be on your guard in the Plaza Independencia area, adjacent to the Ciudad Vieja. During the day, beggars and vagrants there weren’t aggressive, but they took over the area at night, especially on weekends. The plaza was busy during the day, but on a Friday evening during our visit the area emptied out faster than you could say ‘Buenas tardes.’

We saw policia turística (tourist police) patrolling the busier, and safer, parts of the Ciudad Vieja, but they were almost always chatting among themselves in groups or having coffee at an inviting sidewalk café. None were to be found near where our two wallet-snatching attempts occurred or in the sketchier parts of the Ciudad Vieja.

Don’t allow this to discourage you from going to Montevideo. It’s no less safe than other cities; it’s just that many tourist sites are in the dodgier part of town. When you visit, be prudent, wear a money belt and trust your instincts.

Charlotte, NC