Get active in Uruguay

By | Category: Travel destinations
Santa Teresa

Forteleza de Santa Teresa

Uruguay’s picturesque countryside and coastline provide plenty of hiking options, particularly of the gentler kind – the highest mountain anywhere in the country barely rises above 500 metres.

One of the best areas for hiking, Santa Teresa national park, is a fair distance from capital Montevideo – over 300 km to the northeast towards Brazil – but well worth the journey. The park spreads over a largely forested area of over 2000 acres with hiking trails, pristine beaches, natural rock pools and plenty of facilities. It’s popular with Uruguayans and Brazilians alike, but somehow manages to feel spacious and secluded even in high season. Choose from campsites, cabañas or the recent addition of a hostel, if staying overnight. Hiking is only one of the park’s draws. The main claim to fame is a vast, mid-18th century hilltop fortress, Fortaleza de Santa Teresa, a very well preserved building now open as a museum. A few kilometres further north towards Brazil, Fuerte de San Miguel, another historic fortress, also offers a good mix of history and hiking amidst lush, green countryside and inland lagoons excellent for bird watching.

Santa Teresa beaches

the beaches at Santa Tresa

Lying on the beach in all honour, but there’s more to enjoy on the Uruguayan coast than just sunbathing. Along parts of the Atlantic, impressive sand dunes à la Lawrence of Arabia meet the sea, forming a desert-like landscape perfect for sand dune walks with easy access to refreshing dips in the sea afterwards. The small seaside hamlet of Barra de Valizas is a great base for shorter or longer sand dune treks – nearby Cabo Polonio national park, home to some of the highest, most striking dunes, can be reached on foot from here on full- or half-day treks. Take plenty of sun screen and water, avoiding any urges to do a “mad dogs and Englishmen” in high season (Jan-Feb) and you’ll find the views of the Atlantic on the one side and the Castillos Lagoon on the other will make any strenuous exercise seem a small price to pay. The avid surfer will find the seashore in the departments of Rocha and Maldonado offers plenty of excellent waves, with a good mix beaches for all levels of experience. It’s even possible to surf some of the beaches within the city limits of Montevideo, on Río de la Plata.

he racetrack Estancia Vik

Estancia Vik

The gaucho, that mate-drinking, mythical horseman of legendary skills, might be slightly harder to come by these days, but thankfully Uruguay remains largely rural and there’s still a place for the hardy cowboys who spends their days in the saddle. In fact, the whole country is remarkably riding-friendly, making horseback riding one of the best and most scenic ways of getting around the country. The pastime has taken off with foreign visitors and there are now several tour operators specialising in longer or shorter itineraries for riders from the beginner to the more advanced. An excellent way to get to grips with gaucho culture and find out more about life in rural Uruguay is to stay on an estancia, or ranch. Once away from the beach resorts and bigger towns, Uruguayan life moves at a different pace altogether and the gently undulating hills of the interior are home to large numbers of estancias of varying sizes and standards. Many are fully functioning ranches offering visitors a peek at local life while others, such as the beyond-fabulous Estancia Vik, near José Ignacio, is the latest in luxury, while still offering traditional Uruguayan asado lunches, where meat is grilled to perfection on the open fire. A stay at any estancia, whether posh or rustic, will invariably give visitors the chance to do some horseback riding and sample the local food and wine, a definite treat.

Barra de Valizas beach

Barra de Valizas

One might argue that including wine-tasting in “active tourism” is stretching the definition somewhat, but the sampling of grapes is an activity not to be missed in Uruguay, where, increasingly it’s possible to tour vineyards, gaining insights into the local wine culture and sometimes even staying the night, “widening the research”. The Uruguayan Wine Tourism Association has good information on vineyards open to the public across the country, which, perhaps surprisingly given its size, is the fourth largest wine producer in South America. The main wine regions are situated in the south, but as many as 15 of Uruguay’s 19 departments have some kind of wine production, many of them focusing on the signature Tannat grape, making robust red wines suited to Uruguay’s flavoursome meat dishes. Wine-tasting day trips from Montevideo are easily arranged and a stay at a wine finca in the south can be combined with a trip to Colonia del Sacramento, one of southern South America’s best preserved colonial towns, dating back to 1680.

The Brits introduced Uruguay to football back in the 19th century and to say the sport has taken off would be the understatement of the century. Uruguay loves, just simply loves, the beautiful game and getting knocked out of this year’s World Cup in the early stages may well have led to a prolonged period of national mourning. The country hasn’t always been thus unlucky – they won the World Cup in both 1930 (the very first World Cup, which they were also hosting) and 1950. Catching a local game is great fun and another good option is to take a football tour of Montevideo, visiting the stadiums and delving into the football crazy history of this nation. While in Montevideo, another national obsession isn’t far off – although mostly associated internationally with Argentina, tango is alive and well in Uruguay, with a range of shows, and also classes on offer, if you want to dance the night away in Montevideo’s Ciudad Vieja, the old town down by the port.

For more information about Uruguay, click here.

Further information activities: (info on national parks, Spanish only) (beaches, surfing, general info on the department of Rocha) (horseback riding, estancia stays, wine-tasting) (Estancia Vik) and (wine tourism) (football tours in Montevideo) (tango info in Spanish)


Getting there and around:

There are currently no direct flights from the UK to Uruguay, but good connections via South American, European or U.S. hubs.

All main cities and towns are served by a variety of bus companies originating from the Tres Cruces Terminal in Montevideo ( More remote locations, smaller towns and villages are served less frequently, particularly off season.


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