You don't hear a whole lot about Uruguay and it is certainly much more low key than its neighbours, but I was very curious to go and visit this black sheep of the South American family. Unlike its siblings, Uruguay is underpopulated with a total population of only around 4 million (practically a suburb for cities like São Paulo) and although it shares an awful lot in common with Argentina (tango, mate, barbecue and a funny accent), it has one thing that Argentina does not and that is beautiful beaches. Argentina may have its beaches but they are not famed for their beauty which is why so many Porteños (Buenos Aires residents) flock to Uruguay for their vacations. Since I was living in Buenos Aires it seemed rude not to ferry across the river and see for myself. This was my experience...
Colonia del Sacramento
If you’re heading to Uruguay from Argentina, then Colonia del Sacramento should be your first port of call. You could fly direct to Montevideo or Punta del Este but I don’t recommend missing a quick visit to Colonia del Sacramento. In fact, you can easily make a day trip out of it from Buenos Aires as it’s only an hour long ferry ride away and, while it is gorgeous and charming, you can see the best of it in one afternoon and be home in time for dinner (when you bear in mind that dinner is no earlier than 10pm in Buenos Aires). The Uruguayan immigration desk is at the ferry terminal in Buenos Aires so you get stamped out of Argentina and stamped into Uruguay from there and then you can just waltz straight off the ferry into Colonia at the other end. Too easy! But why visit Colonia del Sacramento? Because it is a charming little colonial town, founded by the Portuguese in 1680 and is now a UNESCO world heritage site. I had a wonderful afternoon the first day I arrived there, exploring the cobble stoned streets with all the cute little houses. There are a series of mini history museums inside some of the houses including, to my delight, a Portuguese tile museum. One ticket gains you entry to all although they are not all open everyday. It was already autumn when I visited and the weather was fairly dreary in this riverside town but the breeze carried the cosy smell of wood fires burning and the smoke from the parrilla restaurants beckoned me in to drink red wine by the fire. There is a nice little plaza in the centre with a few cafes where I imagine it would be delightful to sit out and enjoy a cold beer in the summer months. There are not copious amounts to do in Colonia but it is nice to just enjoy the historical surroundings.
Sadly, this is where my trip turned a little sour. On day two I came down with food poisoning. I endured a nightmare bus ride from Colonia to Montevideo in the grips of food poisoning and spent the next day and a half in bed (and in the bathroom). This experience, followed by the next week of disappointing food once I could eat again, has left me with a bleak impression of Uruguayan cuisine but it did not alter my opinion that Colonia del Sacramento is a charming town well worth a day’s visit.
Well my trip to Montevideo didn’t exactly go according to plan. Of the 2.5 days I had to spend there, 1.5 of those was spent on my death bed. I made it out for one day of exploring and though I was a little frail and subsisting on water crackers I actually found 1 day to be sufficient to explore Uruguay’s capital. While I hate to bad-mouth a place, and I’m not saying it’s an awful place by any means, it just didn’t offer me much to write home about. However, it should be noted that I wasn’t exactly up to the task of exploring a city with gusto thanks to one hygiene-negligent cook in Colonia del Sacramento. The thing is, Montevideo has a very rundown, derelict little city centre, and it doesn’t have a lot of charm to counter balance this (unless you embrace its derelict-ness as a charm in itself, which you definitely should). Buenos Aires, for example, is a filthy, disorganised city, but it does have a lot of other cards up its sleeve. Both are perched on a rather unexciting brown river but poor Montevideo only has a fraction of the architectural delights and big city buzz. There are some lovely buildings in the midst but it is generally lacking in maintenance. The old town might be expected to be quaint and charming, and while it does have a few pretty streets, but it seemed to be full of unsavoury types and I wouldn’t advise going there at night. It does boast the Mercado del Puerto which is pretty cool and worth a lunchtime visit. It is a market in the old town, now mostly aimed at tourists, it houses numerous parrilla grill eateries. You can take a seat up at the bar and admire the huge grills covered in an assortment of meats. It’s a meat lover’s mecca for sure and you can order any cut of meat you desire. Sadly, I was in no state to sample the offerings, but I can tell you that Anthony Bourdain gave it his thumbs up and if anyone knows their meat it’s Bourdain.
The highlight for me was actually on the second evening when I managed to slither down from my hotel room bed for a short walk around the block for some fresh air. It was a Saturday night and we passed through a plaza in the downtown area and there was tango playing on a loud speaker and a congregation of older people were dancing, or being wall flowers and hoping to be invited for the next dance. It could have been my imagination but I feel like Uruguay has quite a large elderly population. What I do know is they like to go out to dance tango, drink mate (an indigenous tea) and be in the lively company of others on their Saturday nights. To Montevideo's credit they make full use of the unexciting brown river with a promenade that runs quite far along almost as though it were a beach front. The much photographed Montevideo sign sits on the river “beach” front and from here begins a long stretch of high rise apartments and a slightly more modern side to the city. I thought it funny that one of the cities few main attractions is in fact just a large sign of the city’s name, but I did enjoy the walk along the promenade.
Montevideo is a nice city to visit, I just do not believe you need very long to see it and when compared to other cities on the continent I would not describe it as a must visit city. This is of course, purely personal opinion and I daresay there is a lot more to Montevideo than what you see at first glance, if you only know where to look. But Montevideo is generally not the reason people visit Uruguay anyway, it’s Punta del Este that gets all the attention.
Punta del Este
I arrived in Punta on a much higher note than I did Montevideo, and I was eager for some r & r on the beach, after all that is why you go to Punta del Este. A resort town, considerably more swanky than the country’s capital, Punta is full of modern high rise holiday apartments and casual holiday mansions (some seriously huge and amazing places). One side of it is technically still river and the other side of the peninsula is where the sea begins, however the river side still has a lovely beach and is good for a swim. There’s no shortage of yachts, swanky yacht clubs and up market restaurants although the city is actually a bit of a ghost town for a large part of the year. Even at the tail end of summer it was already very quiet, it would have been different to see it in the full swing of the high season when it’s choc-a-bloc with wealthy/famous Argentines, Uruguayans and Brazilians. My initial reaction was that it was no way near as glamorous as I had been led to believe, and really the centre around the peninsula isn’t, but I realised on my way out of town towards the Cabo Polonio that there is plenty of glitz and glamour, incredible mansions, shopping and bars in the northern coastal end of the city. The most famed attraction is the giant hand in the sand sculpture on Brava beach made by Chilean artist Mario Irrazábal. Getting a photo of it without some vain tourist with a selfie stick clambering all over it is an achievement.
Still recovering from my illness I took advantage of the quiet season (March) to enjoy relaxing on the beach in relative warmth and peace. There didn’t seem to be a lot else to do and I think it’s a great place to visit for lazy days on the beach (or on your yacht) followed by late waterfront dinners and nights of drinking, so if that’s your thing Punta is as good a place as any. I can see why Argentines flock there on their holidays!
Hands down, Cabo Polonio was the highlight of my trip to Uruguay. It was such a unique experience and I think it’s so wonderful that little places like it exist out in the world. Cabo Polonio is a national park in the Rocha department of Uruguay. It’s about a 2 hour drive north of Punta del Este only you can’t drive all the way there. You can drive only as far as an outpost where you may park your car (or take a bus to), from there you have to hitch a ride on a 4x4 truck that drives through the park, over the sand dunes and out to the point where lies the funny little town of Cabo Polonio. It’s an enclave of hippies, surfers, fisherman and dreamers. Facilities are minimal although there are now several backpackers and B&Bs and they have showers and flushing toilets. Woohoo! I went for a day trip only and wished so much I had planned to stay the night. The beaches are beautiful and wild and there are lots of little dream shacks and cottages on the hill of the peninsula, along with a few horses and plenty of roaming chickens. There are plenty of little stalls selling your usual hippie wares and several bars to enjoy a Uruguayan lager and a bite to eat. You can hire surf boards or visit the lighthouse and the sea lion colony that lives beneath it. If there’s any must-do item on your Uruguayan Itinerary this should be it. It’s a chilled out little community of people looking to live the simple life and it was such a treat to visit it. Hopefully it manages to stay small and simple over the years with just the right amount of environmentally conscious visitors who leave it just as they find it. I didn't have time to go any further north but from what I understand of beaches such as Punta del Diablo is that these remote beach communities of simple-life living hippies are scattered along the rest of the coast up to the border.
The most intriguing thing to me is how completely different each of the towns and cities I have mentioned are from one another. Plus, there is another side to the country that I didn’t get a chance to see which is the inland farming country and the Gaucho culture that Uruguay shares with it’s neighbouring countries. It’s a tiny country but it still manages to vary greatly from one side to the other. I wish I had some delicious stories of the cuisine to share but that simply wasn’t my experience, and not just due to the food poisoning (for the most part the food we experienced was really quite bad and expensive when compared to the quality). But the beer and wine were good and the beaches wild and rugged, so in spite of a minor glitch the trip was, overall, still a wonderful one. Uruguay is a country that often gets left off the great South American itinerary but I found it to be a beautiful country with plenty to offer visitors. My advice is simply not to muck around in the capital but to head straight up to the coast line, switch off and enjoy the remoteness of the beaches.