Spotlight on Uruguay, South America’s little hidden gem

By | Category: Travel destinations

Long overshadowed by its giant neighbours, Brazil and Argentina, Uruguay is finally getting the attention it deserves says Kaye Holland

The eyes of the world will be on Brazil (the host of the 2016 Olympic Games) and Argentina (the land of gauchos and glaciers will be celebrating 206 years independence on 9 July) this summer.

However there is another Latin American destination that is beginning to dominate travel wish lists. Say hello to Uruguay (easier to pronounce, than it is to spell) which has been dubbed the ‘Switzerland of America’ owing to its economic and political stability in a region not known for either.

Uruguay may be the second smallest country (after Suriname) in South America but it has a charm, energy and style all of its own, meaning a trip here is fully warranted in its own right.

Colonia del Sacramento – a characterful UNESCO world heritage listed town that’s resistant to bright lights and late nights – was my first introduction to little Uruguay.  There’s not much to keep you here for longer than a couple of days but, if you’re getting over jet lag, then peaceful Colonia del Sacramento is the perfect spot in which to do so. For while Colonia is on the tourist trail, it’s not packed with visitors (unless you foolish enough to go at the weekend) and consequently you’ll never feel as though you are a trudging a well worn path.

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On arrival, chances are you’ll feel as though a veritable time machine has transported you to the past: Colonia is all cobblestone streets and aesthetically pleasing plazas (with which to impress your Instagram followers) – making it one of those rare places that looks stunning at any time of year.

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The best thing to do, is to explore Colonia del Sacramento’s winding streets on foot, sniffing out its nooks and crannies and enjoying its picture perfect street life. Then retreat to a cosy cafe or restaurant to read the papers.

For a tiny town, Colonia hums with places to eat but I can vouch for Lentas Maravillas. The menu won’t set your pulse racing, but this Santa Rita restaurant is a reliable choice for the freshest fish you’ll ever eat. But be warned: prices – as for all restaurants in Colonia del Sacramento – are surprisingly high.

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From Colonia, I moved onto Montevideo – the  nation’s capital and home to nearly half of Uruguay’s population. 

Often referred to as Buenos Aires’ little sister (it shares the same urban attractions, but is smaller and more laid back than BA), Montevideo is a prime target for cruise shippers. Boats dock here on a seemingly daily basis and tourists disembark and descend on Montevideo in their droves to eat asado (Uruguayans do barbecue even better than the Brazilians and Argentines) at Mercado del puerto – a gorgeous 19th century wrought iron market hall that’s packed with parillas (steak houses).

Or to pick an antique trinket or two from Plaza Matriz – a leafy square that was once the heart of colonial Montevideo and today hosts a superb Saturday flea market.

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Montevideo also puts on a big party for Carnival. Sure it’s not quite up there with Rio (South America’s carnival capital) but colourful parades take place constantly throughout February, as the city cuts loose.

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I was in town the final weekend of February and subsequently was lucky enough to experience the end of carnival. Yet no matter when you visit, you could happily spend 48 hours in Montevideo admiring the 19th century neo classical buildings and hopping between museums, meals at old school restaurants such as Bar Hispania, strolling along the seafront and catching a show at Theatre Solis.

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However the real reason that I hopped over to Uruguay from Argentina, was for a bit of beach action. Argentina may boast South America’s highest peak (step forward Cerro Aconcagua), best beef, widest avenue (hello 9 de Julio) and most exhilarating city (take a bow Buenos Aires), but it isn’t blessed with beautiful beaches. Uruguay’s coast line, on the other hand, is dotted with Persil-white sand, sapphire-blue water and the smell of asado (Latin American barbecues) in the air.

An easy two hour bus ride east of Montevideo brings you to Punta del Este, whose most famous attraction is La Mano (or the hand in the sand to give it, it’s English name). Created by Chilean artist, Mario Irarrazaba, for a 1982 art contest, La Mano is typically surrounded by tourists posing for pictures in front of its colossal digits.

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Punta del Este is shamelessly glitzy city where where star sightings (Colombian singer Shakira, Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood, supermodel Naomi Cambell and actor Antonio Banderas have all been spotted in the Miami of South America) are ubiquitous. You’ll find the ultra chic crowd soaking up the sun on a lounger or lunching at the Harbour Club – home to more yachts than you can shake a bombilla (the silver straw Uruguayans use to drink their beloved mate) at.

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It’s a fun place to top up the tan with the stylish set by day and party hop by night but I couldn’t help but feel as though I was still in Buenos Aires. When I visited in late February (aka the end of summer), the Uruguayan Riviera was over run with wealthy, well heeled Portenos all of whom had a penchant for calling Punta del Este a suburb of Buenos Aires – something that didn’t go down well with the proud locals!

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And so in search of a more authentic Uruguay, I pushed onto Punta del Diablo –  a former fishing village, about 175km from flashy Punta del Este, where empty beaches and wild sand dunes abound and the focus is not on nightlife, but on the waves.

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As such Punta del Diablo attracts a more bohemian crowd like Charlie, a 20 something British backpacker who pitched up for four days… and never left.

Charlie now works at El Diablo Tranquilo (one of Punta’s pioneer hostels) in between catching waves and toasting the sunsets with a glass or two of tannat (Uruguay’s loveliest wine) or maybe marijuana (it’s produced and sold legally in Uruguay so expect to catch wafts everywhere you wander) around bonfires.

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I joined Charlie and his comrades but only for a little while, as I had an early start the next day – I’m was off to Santa Teresa National Park. Situated in the top corner of Uruguay, just a stone’s throw from the border with Brazil, Santa Teresa is 200 acres of park land and hiking trails that led to some of the prettiest beaches I had ever seen.

After a day spent tramping in Santa Teresa, I returned to Punta del Diablo wowed, if hungry, and wandered into a no name hole in the wall shack where I ordered a chivito  a monster of a cheese and steak sandwich that is one of Uruguay’s culinary calling cards.

Given the early hour (it was 7pm and Uruguayans, like their Argentine neighbours, eat late) I was the only customer and greeted like royalty. Forget Luis Suarez (the Uruguayan footballer who has a habit of taking chunks out of his rivals), hospitality is a national obsession and open armed locals will welcome you like family wherever you go.

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Stomach full, I collapsed in a hammock on the terrace of El Diablo Tranquilo’s beach bar. With a book in one hand and a sunset cocktail in the other, I concluded that Uruguay may be small in stature compared to its cousins, but it deserves its spot on any South American travel itinerary.

Don’t wait, go now: there’s no time like the present…

Words and pictures: Kaye Holland

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