For many European visitors there’s something strangely familiar about the landscape of Uruguay. Largely devoted to agriculture, the green countryside is dotted with sheep and cows.
It is a land of rolling hills and verdant pastures, best explored on horseback like a true gaucho, or by staying at one of the many colonial estancias that have opened their doors to visitors.
Colonia del Sacramento, a short ferry ride from Buenos Aires is a well-preserved historical gem on a small peninsula jutting into the Río de la Plata. In the capital, Montevideo, things are a little more multicultural. Buildings in a riot of architectural styles – Spanish, French, Italian, English and Art Deco – line the streets. Mercado del Puerto, the 19th-century market building near the docks, is a carnivore’s dream – dozens of restaurants sizzle and steam with tray after tray of succulent and delicious asado (grilled meat), the staple diet of most Uruguayans.
Escape the cities and the giant barbecue and drive along the spectacular coast stretching east of Montevideo, a conveyor belt of small bays, beaches and promontories backed by hills and woods. Further east still, the population dwindles and you’ll find quiet lagoons where you can kayak through still waters to a soundtrack of chirruping birds.
For a classic road adventure, choose Route 7 towards Melo, heart of the cattle-ranching country. For most of its length the road runs through the Cuchilla Grande – a range of soft, curving hills – and past fragrant vineyards and orchards up to the Brazilian border.
Most visitors head to Uruguay in the summer months (December to April), when the coast is very hot but the interior slightly cooler, especially in the hills.
Montevideo Aeropuerto Carrasco (MVD). The nearest major airport to Montevideo, Uruguay is Ministro Pistarini International Airport (EZE) in Buenos Aires, Argentina, 216km from Montevideo.
Uruguay is a small country and is easy to get around. Buses in Uruguay are efficient and cheap, connecting all the major towns. Car hire is reasonable but you’ll need an international driving license. There are some domestic flights. There are no trains.
Standards are generally high in Uruguay. Avoid staying in Ciudad Vieja in Montevideo (which can be dangerous at night) and in super cheap hospedajes and pensiones where security is often lax. Hostels, campsites and country cabañas are common. For something different, stay in an estancia (country ranch).
Like its neighbour Argentina, it’s all meat, meat, meat in Uruguay. Steak is super succulent and very cheap; go to a parrilla to see it grilled in front of you. Take a break from beef by tucking into a milanesa (veal in breadcrumbs in a bun) or try a belt-busting chivito canadiense, a thin steak covered in ham, bacon and cheese served in a bun with fried egg. Needless to say, vegetarians will find slimmer pickings in Uruguay. Coffee is excellent, as is the wine.
Speak to your GP or travel clinic about vaccinations well before departure. Crime in Uruguay is less prevalent than in some of its neighbours, but you should take common-sense precautions against petty theft.
The Purple Land (first published 1885) by William Henry Hudson. An exuberant, wryly written, first-person account of a young Englishman’s adventures in 19th-century Uruguay
Passion of the People? Football in South America (Verso Books, 1995), by Tony Mason, looks at the South American passion for soccer
South American Handbook 2010 (Footprint, 2009)
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