A secret destination, Uruguay has a World Heritage site, a plethora of beaches, thermal spas, working guest ranches, friendly people and a tranquil ambiance that is hard to find in today’s frantic world. Tucked between Brazil and Argentina, two of South America’s tourist biggies, is Uruguay. It is a nice place to visit and, yes, you just might want to live there.
Montevideo, the capital, doesn’t wow visitors, it woos them. As the southernmost South American capital, it is home to half of the country’s 3.5 million people, whose diversity has influenced the architecture, food and celebrations. Located on the banks of the Rio de la Plata, the city started as a Spanish fortress and became a major port in the mid-18th century, luring Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian and British immigrants. As in most South American countries, the African population stems from the slave trade.
Most of the historic aspects of Montevideo can be conquered in a day, but the charm is found when wandering along La Rambla. La Rambla stretches along the water from the Old City to the neighborhood of Carrasco, pass parks and beaches dotted with fishermen, bathers and street performers, and is home to the popular weekend Port Market.
Montevideo lets all the stops out during Carnaval. It is not as commercially popular as Rio de Janeiro’s in Brazil, but it is the country’s biggest party and includes Semana Criolla, where participants re-create rural Creole life with equine activities, music, story telling and songs.
Looking to be wowed by a five-star, world-class hotel on a beach? Then head to Punta del Este, a coastal destination that has attracted visitors for more than 100 years. It is where the beautiful people play and second only to Rio as the place to be seen in South America. There are beautiful beaches, whale- and seal-watching boat trips, great restaurants, Vegas-style shows, casinos, art galleries, golfing and everything one would expect from a world-class destination. Punta del Este is proud of its weeklong Carnaval, which rivals Montevideo’s.
A favorite spot to enjoy a spectacular sunset is Punta Ballena, only 10 minutes from the heart of Punta del Este. Punta Ballena is also home to the unique Casapueblo. The architecture of the rambling home, studio and hotel created by artist Carlos Páez Vilaró brings to mind peaks of whipped cream.
Visitors looking for something less Miami-like need only head east or west of Punta del Este to find quiet, laid-back places like Punta del Diablo, a little fishing and surfing village of wooden cabins and winding dirt streets, plus miles of sandy beaches to wander. With more than 400 miles of coastline, there is a beach to wow everyone.
Wandering in Colonia
West of Montevideo is Colonia del Sacramento, a UNESCO World Heritage City, and a great place to stroll along the cobblestone streets. Dating from the 17th century, the old city boasts a beautifully preserved colonial ambiance. While it is easy to view the entire historic area in a couple of hours, visitors find themselves sitting for hours at one of the alfresco dining areas. One of the restaurants, El Drugstore, has the interior of a 1920s Ford Model T set up as a private dining area. Lovers of antique cars will think they are in car heaven. Well-preserved antique cars are a common sight in Colonia, as well as in the rest of Uruguay.
Occasionally, the pulsating rhythm of Candombe can be heard on the streets and in the restaurants. Candombe, a drum-based rhythm with its roots from Africa, has been a part of Uruguayan culture for more than 200 years.
Located on the Rio de la Plata, Colonia offers accommodations in colonial buildings in the historic district and first-class hotels with river views, plus the Balinese-style Four Seasons Carmelo is only an hour away.
Getting in hot water
While Montevideo, Punta del Este and Colonia are the most popular tourist destinations, the thermals north of Colonia near Salto are all-season destinations. In the 1940s, while drilling for oil, pockets of pure hot water were discovered that led to the development of resort hotels. The Hotel Horacio Quiroga, located on the Rio Uruguay, is just one of several resorts with thermal pools, a water park, spa, sailboat rides and nightly events that include tango lessons. The temperature of the pure water in the pools and piped to the accommodations averages about 104 degrees and is considered therapeutic.
The interior of Uruguay is mainly farmland where visitors can really feel the pulse of Uruguay while staying on an estancia turistica, a working ranch. Dotted throughout the country, most estancias offer excellent accommodations with the opportunity to get up close and personal with the day-to-day running of a ranch, maybe even riding with the gauchos. Each estancia is different, with many offering bird-watching, horseback riding and other eco-related activities. La Paz Estancia, near Paysandu, was one of the first tourist ranches. It continues as a Charolais breeding farm and sheep ranch. La Paz has maintained its rustic character with accommodations in a historic 1860s building, its own church and plenty of open space, and it also has a pool and a small spa.
Wining and dining
Still a niche player in the world of wine, Uruguay boasts some 300 wineries with a wine heritage that goes back to Spanish immigrants who introduced grapevines more than 250 years ago. At the Carros de San Juan winery, near Colonia, visitors have the opportunity to taste “tannat,” a local red wine with an extremely tannic nature that often requires years of aging to become drinkable. However, the most common libation is mate, a tea prepared by steeping dried leaves of the yerba mate. It is the national drink of Uruguay. With three-fourths of the land dedicated to grazing, beef lovers will enjoy excellent Uruguayan steaks along with their wine and mate.
Way to go
Pie-shaped Uruguay is about the size of Washington state and is sometimes referred to as the New Zealand or Switzerland of South America, due to its peaceful democracy, strong agricultural economy and highly literate population. Direct flights to Uruguay are basically nonexistent, but the fun way to get there is by the one-hour Buquebus ferry from Buenos Aires (Argentina) to Montevideo or Colonia. Within Uruguay, bus connections are frequent and reasonable; the roads are good and fairly devoid of traffic, making renting a car an excellent option. The climate is mild, but remember “beach time” is during the South American summer — December to March.
Uruguay is a place that visitors like to tell their friends about when they return home. But you may stop at midsentence and think: “Do I really want people to know what a wonderful destination it is? Will telling people ruin it? Should I keep it a secret?” The truth is that a secret this wonderful needs to be shared.