I arrived in Uruguay at the very end of a four months backpacking trip. I was exhausted, and all I wanted to do was rest, lay in the sun, enjoy the sea breeze, eat nice food and write. My expectations were met and exceeded, and by the time I boarded the first of a number of flights that would take me back to Sardinia, I knew I was in love with the country and would have to go back in the future.
Locked between Argentina and Brazil, Uruguay is the smallest Spanish speaking country of South America. It is often – and wrongly – ignored by travellers. For as small as it is, it offers the opportunity to have a great time and do a variety of activities, that will leave you wondering why you had not considered going there before and will make you want to visit again. Yet untouched by mass tourism, I found Uruguay to be an incredibly beautiful country; where people are friendly and relaxed. It is the perfect place to meet the locals, to recharge your batteries, and to feel a bit lost in time – especially if, like me, you go a bit off season, in mid March, when most of the summer season vacationers from Argentina and Brazil have left to go back to their office jobs.
There are many things to do in Uruguay, many places to visit, and you could spend weeks exploring the coast and its interior. But if you have very limited time, these three places will give you a good feel of the country and will allow you to have as varied an experience as possible.
The picturesque Colonia del Sacramento
Colonia del Sacramento is among the top tourist attractions in Uruguay, and can be reached on a 3 hours bus ride from Montevideo, or in one hour on a ferry from Buenos Aires. The Barrio Histórico of this small city has been declared UNESCO World Heritage Site. Walk around the centre and don’t miss Calle de los Suspiros, a lovely cobbled little alley where bougavinllea bushes pop out from colourful colonial houses; walk up the lighthouse for a nice view over the mighty Rio de la Plata; admire the old 1950s cars parked at the side of the street; seek refuge from the heat under the shade of sycamore trees; sip a cold Pilsen beer at sunset while you stare at an enchanting sunset; and enjoy a fabulous dinner (“rabas”, or fried calamari, are delicious here) in one of the lovely restaurants around the Plaza Mayor, accompanied by a glass of the increasingly popular Uruguayan Tannat wine.
The sleepy Punta del Diablo
At about 5 hours by bus from Montevideo, Punta del Diablo is a world apart. What used to be – and still is – a fishing village where no more than 1000 people live in the winter months, has in recent years become a popular tourist destination to the point that new holidays cottages and hostels are being built. However, the coast has remained untouched, with pristine beaches, sand dunes and the fishermen still going by their daily business. While the best activity here remains lazying out under the sun, if you feel more active you can also rent surf boards or horses or walk the one hour path towards Parque Nacional Santa Teresa. At night, there are many lovely small restaurants along the waterfront. December to February are the busiest months, so if you like peace and quiet, opt to go in March.
The lively Montevideo
The capital city of Uruguay, Montevideo is also its biggest city, with roughly 1.3 million inhabitants. It is an incredible city of contrasts, where next to the old buildings of the historic centre (such as in Plaza Indipendencia) you will also find incredible modernity. Not to be missed: a visit to the Mercado del Puerto, where you will find the best “parrilla” (barbecue) in town; a Saturday afternoon walk along the Rambla – Montevideo’s waterfront – for a chance to spot locals sipping mate; the longest Carnaval of South America, lasting a full 40 days, with the Desfile de las Llamadas – a parade accompanied by the drumming of candombe, brought to Uruguay by African slaves in the 18th century; a tango dance in one of the many milongas in town. Finally, for a full local experience, one of the best things to do in Uruguay is to watch a “futból” match at Estadio Centenario. Football is the national sport here, and it is taken very seriously, so be prepared to support your team of choice.
Hurry up, before everybody discovers Uruguay!