Although dwarfed by its bigger, louder neighbours Argentina and Brazil, Uruguay has plenty to shout about. Here are five reasons why it should be on your bucket list
1. Colonial charm
In a country shaped by squabbles between Spanish and Portuguese invaders, the picture-perfect cobbled streets of Colonia Del Sacramento left by the latter more than justify falling in love with. One of Uruguay’s oldest European settlements, this promontory of land that juts out into the waters of La Plata river was colonised by the Portuguese in the 16th century, creating a warren of tiny streets and alleys that today plays host to a range of art galleries and cafes that cluster around the Basílica del Santísimo church. Sections of the original city wall keep modernity at bay, preserving the city’s enduring romantic allure while the maritime connection remains, with a busy marina and daily ferries shuttling visitors in and out of the town’s port.
Although the charms of capital city Montevideo, itself an 18th-century Spanish stronghold, may be a little harder to define on arrival – scattered as they are throughout the modern harbour and slick barrios of seafront high-rises – on closer inspection there’s plenty to love. The sleepy streets of the old town come alive during weekdays with the bustle of everyday life; shopkeepers sip on the national drink maté and the shouts of market-stall holders selling fruit and vegetables add verve to the museum-worthy mishmash of centuries-old buildings. Don’t miss the tiny La Ronda bar favoured by local creatives, Cafe Brasilero for the morning papers and the striking old marketplace Rincon de las Poetas, where a typical parrilla showcases the country’s carnivorous cuisine while elderly couples dance tango between courses.
2. Laid-back beaches
Beyond the gleaming high-rises of Punta del Este – playground to the continent’s rich and famous – Uruguay is blessed with white sands and dunes that stretch along the Atlantic coastline. The bohemian La Barra combines empty beaches with yoga schools, flea markets and antiques fairs, while the sleepy fishing village of Jose Ignacio has become a chic retreat away from the masses. To the north, the cragged coves and bays of Punta Del Diablo have long been famed as a surf destination, yet set alongside the natural beauty of the Santa Teresa national park next door – complete with sea lions, capybaras and myriad birds – it’s a perfect retreat for nature lovers, too. Yet perhaps the jewel in the crown is the stunning and completely unique Cabo Polonio, a village community comprised of a motley collection of tin shacks and houses and only accessible by truck over six kilometres of sand dunes. It’s drawcard is a bohemian community unhindered by technological addictions, plus an immense natural beauty – be sure to walk among the huge sand drifts and watch the sea lions bask in the sun on the rocks that lie to the south of the lighthouse.
3. First-rate wine
As the new-world wine market spreads its net wider, an appetite for Uruguay’s vastly improving wine output has resulted, in particular for the staple local red wine, tannat, and its no surprise. Similar in style to Malbec, this is a hearty, full-bodied red that complements the meat-heavy local diet. White wines are attracting attention, too, with Sauvignon Blancs and Albariño grapes flying the flag for the country’s underrated varietals. Uruguay’s ample farmland and warm year-round climate mean good conditions for growth and the vineyards – helped by subsidies, increased know-how and buoyant confidence in the product – have upped their production and the improved calibre is good news for oenephiles worldwide.
4. Rich cultural scene
The pace of life in Uruguay may be a few notches slower than you’ll find elsewhere on the continent but when it comes to the arts there’s plenty going on. Running for almost a full month at the beginning of the year, the epic Uruguayan carnival showcases the country’s vibrancy, with Montevideo pulsing to the sound of African-influenced candombe drums. In the past decade a series of lauded films –including Juan Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stoll’s Whisky and 25 Grams – have won cinematic kudos, the international film festival has put the country on the cinematic map and there has also been a rise in the number of major film companies arriving to shoot among the country’s unique locations.
And despite the fact that a dictatorship in the late Seventies and early Eighties saw a mass exodus of the countries creatives to neighbouring Brazil and Argentina, there’s still a strong legacy in the visual arts, the most notable pioneers including the Afro-Uruguayan work of Carlos Páez Vilaró, who plied his trade in Punta Ballena, and the gritty realism of Montevidean Juan Manuel Blanes. Perhaps the most celebrated Uruguayan artists, Joaquín Torres Garcia, was famed for abstract geometric murals, likenesses of which can be found throughout Montevideo and – despite a large quantity of his work being lost in a fire in 1978 – restored originals are on display in the city’s highest point, the Torre de Telecommunicaciones, which also offers panoramic views across the bay.
5. Wide open spaces
One of South America’s best-kept secrets, Uruguay’s charm and natural beauty is amplified by the fact that it’s underpopulated and underrated by overseas visitors. The local tourist season runs from January through to February, which brings in many Brazilians and Argentines, but the warm climate means that the months either side of this period are perfect to visit at a time when you won’t be fighting for a spot on the sand.
by Ben Olsen
Photographs by David Bewick