Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Uruguayan Values

Except in the European Union, whenever you cross a border, you have to deal with a new set of banknotes and, simultaneously, a new set of historical figures you may never have heard of. Most countries in the Americas showcase portraits of soldiers and politicians who played key roles in their independence struggles and comparable historical events. With its volatile economic history, Argentina has gone through countless currency changes, but at present every banknote showcases a general, including the uniquely vicious despot Juan Manuel de Rosas on the 20-peso note (in fairness, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, on the 50-peso note, was also an educator and an implacable foe of Rosas). Chile depicts mostly military men, though it also includes Nobel Prize poetess Gabriel Mistral and educator Andrés Bello (a Venezuelan by birth).

Uruguay, though, is different: all of its banknotes offer representations of artists, educators, and writers who enriched to the country's cultural life, though some (like painter Pedro Figari, pictured here on the 200-peso note) were also politicians. The backside of the note usually shows a sample of their work. Uruguay does acknowledge independence military hero José Gervasio Artigas, but only on coins.

Perhaps this says something about Uruguay's priorities, but I've also had practical concerns. Since I last crossed the river from Buenos Aires, a couple years ago, the Uruguayan peso has (like the Chilean peso) gained strength against the dollar. Then worth about 25 per dollar, it's now about 20, and prices have risen accordingly. That said, it's less costly than Chile, even if more expensive than Argentina: it's possible to find hostel beds for US$10 or less, or a decent hotel for US$50 or even a bit less, though most cost more. Dining out costs about the same as in Buenos Aires, with lunches for less than US$10 and dinner correspondingly more expensive. In Buenos Aires, though, quality restaurants are far more abundant, and their menus are more creative and diverse.

Merchants in Colonia, for their part, don't worry much about banknotes per se. Accustomed to foreign visitors, they happily accept their own pesos, but also Argentine pesos, US dollars and, increasingly, Brazilian reais and euros. In fact, restaurant checks often suggest equivalents in three or more currencies.

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