There are three things that are legal (well, one is semi-legal) in Uruguay that you may not be able to do at home: Gambling, Prostitution, and Drugs. With such vice-availability, I began to call Uruguay The Amsterdam of South America.
Gambling in Uruguay
Back in the good ole’ USA, I have been to Las Vegas a time or two, or three, or more, but who’s counting. And so, as I was reading up on Uruguay before I visited, I had read that casinos are legal in Uruguay.
I’ll have to be mindful of this one, I thought. I am going to South America to experience the culture, the people, the history…not another casino. However, like any good investigative journalist, I had to take one for the team just to report back to you, the reader.
The casinos in Uruguay are not like those on the strip in Las Vegas. However, if you have ever been to the off-strip casinos in Las Vegas-the ones where the locals play-you’ll have a better idea of what the casinos in Uruguay are like.
Gone are all the flashing lights, the upbeat party atmosphere, the happy vacationers and smiling tourists, the attractive waitresses, and in Uruguay, the free cocktails. Just like the off-strip casinos in Nevada, people are there to make money. But, as in all casinos, the only winner in the end is the house. Thus, you are left with a rather somber crowd.
Given the state of the economy in Uruguay, I also thought that the minimum bets in Uruguay would be minimum-ier. One of the beauties of the off-strip casinos in Las Vegas is that you can find blackjack tables with $1,2,3 minimums. Any person who plays by the basic blackjack rules can last forever on these tables. However, in Uruguay, I was not able to locate any tables with small minimum bets. At most casinos, the minimum bet exceeded $5 and, on average, was the equivalent of $10.
The first casino that I visited with my friends was in downtown Montevideo, near Plaza Independencia. I traded some money for chips and sat down to play a little blackjack. I played 4 hands, won them all, and then left…the atmosphere just wasn’t that fun. (I don’t think that I have ever left a casino within 10 minutes!) Thinking my first visit must not have been a good representation, I went to another casino in Parque Rodo about 2 months later-same experience.
Over the summer, I visited one of the casinos in Punta Del Este in the Conrad Hotel. This casino most resembled Las Vegas as people are there on holidays and having fun. However, as Punta Del Este is the Gold Coast of South America, it will cost you more to play.
I learned a lot about myself, and my tendencies, in the casinos in Uruguay. I realized I go to casinos much more for the atmosphere than the cards. In all, I spent a total of 30 minutes in the casinos in Uruguay in 9 months. If a friend of mine in the States met a friend of mine from Uruguay, the conversation may go as follows:
“Does Richard go to the casinos all the time?” –friend in the States.
“What are you talking about? He doesn’t even like to gamble.” –friend in Uruguay.
If you’re going for straight-up cards, these casinos have it. But if you’re going for a Vegas type of atmosphere, wait until you get back home and just go to the real Vegas.
Prostitution in Uruguay
At a dinner party hosted by my friend American friend Amy, she began a conversation about prostitution in Uruguay. Because, as I learned from Amy, prostitution is legal in Uruguay. Amy, independent and inquisitive, sought to investigate this matter first hand.
She visited some of the brothels, also often known by the name of Whiskerias (bars that serve Whiskey…and women) or Casas de Masajes (house of massages). I listened intently to Amy’s tale and then asked:
“What are they like, these Whiskerias?
“Well,” she responded, “they are just like bars. You sit down, order a drink, talk to your friends, have a good time. And, there are women available if you’re in the mood.”
Interesting. Later that night, I asked my friend Roberto about the Whiskerias. I thought Roberto may have different insights since he is an Uruguayan…and a guy.
“Roberto,” I asked, “Have you ever been to one of these Whiskerias?”
He looked around to make sure his girlfriend was not within earshot. “Of course,” he responded. “They are great and have many beautiful women. When you haven’t…you know…in a while, it’s a great way to keep your system going if you know what I mean.”
I was surprised about this because Roberto is not someone one would naturally assume visits a brothel. So, I continued:
“What percentage of guys here have been to them, the Whiskerias?”
He looked around again. No girls in the vicinity. He smiled and said, “100%.”
Smoking (Drugs) in Uruguay
Smoking pot in Uruguay is like in Amsterdam. Technically, it’s illegal (most people don’t know that smoking marijuana is, in fact, illegal in Amsterdam), but everybody does it.
I realized this one of my first nights in Uruguay when I found a nice pub called Living. I wanted to have a cigarette-a regular one-and they said that I would have to go outside. Smoking indoors is not permitted in Uruguay. When I got outside with my Marlboro Light, I noticed that a lot of people rolled their own cigarettes. Wait, I thought as a distinct, familiar aroma aroused my senses, those are not cigarettes.
It’s pot! At half of the people on the outside patio were smoking pot.
“Is it legal?” I asked someone in my broken Spanish.
“No, but nobody cares. It’s accepted.”
Unlike in Amsterdam though, you cannot just walk into a coffee shop and buy it. Why? Well, for one, Uruguay really has no coffee shops (could be a great business idea) because they all drink Mate. And secondly, while you seem to able to smoke everywhere, it is not as out in the open as in Amsterdam.
If you want it, I imagine the best way to get it is to go to a bar, hang out outside, start talking to people, and they will have some for you or know where to get it.
A Final Thought on Gambling, Prostitution, and Drugs in Uruguay
One of the things that I love about Uruguay is the general attitude. If what you are doing does not affect or harm others, it’s ok.
They don’t seem to legislate morality…or stupidity.
If you want to gamble, gamble. If you want to be with a woman, be with a woman. And if you want to get high, roll a fatty.
However, if you get high and run out in the middle of the street and get run over by a car, or fall into a hole in the sidewalk, don’t plan on suing the driver or the city, because in Uruguay you are just what you are: a stoned person who did a stony, stupid thing 🙂
Get your copy of his latest book entitled Obvious Conclusions, stories of a Midwestern emigrant influenced and corrupted by many years living in San Francisco and abroad. It just received its first outstanding review "...reminiscent of David Sedaris or Augusten Burroughs" on Amazon UK.
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