Squeezed between Argentina and Brazil, this pint-sized South American nation packs a punch. Considering its size (just over 176,000 square kilometres), Uruguay offers windswept Atlantic coastline with perfect surf and sand dunes, shimmering lagoons, beach resorts, sleepy fishing villages as well as charming colonial towns, working haciendas, thermal springs and traditional Gaucho life.
The capital city of Montevideo should not be missed. Often considered to be the jewel in Uruguay’s crown, the city is of great importance both culturally and economically. It’s a cosmopolitan, culturally sophisticated place filled with beautiful architecture, breezy promenades and sandy beaches. It also hosts the world’s longest carnival – a massive six-week street party – that quite simply dwarfs all other South American carnivals.
Just off Plaza Independencia, you will find Montevideo’s premier performance space. This grand theatre first opened in the late 1800s and has since been renovated into a modern performance space, featuring many prestigious national and international artists. Come for a concert, a theatre performance or tango show, or simply join one of the regular scheduled tours which are well worth it just to fully appreciate the building itself.
This extravagantly ornate former 18th century palace now houses two significant museums distributed over various floors. Museo del Gaucho spells out the deep roots between the gauchos (South American cowboys), the land and their animals. Here you can view a good collection of historical relics such as horse gear including silver and gold spurs, gaucho belts, silver artefacts as well as mates and bombillas (metal straws and mugs used for drinking local mate, a traditional bitter tea). The second museum is the Museo de la Moneda (Mint Museum) which showcases items from Uruguay’s National Bank, including a decorated safe, counting machines and a huge hand-written ledger.
Mercado del Puerto
For a taste of local life, don’t miss Montevideo’s market building in the old port, at the foot of Pérez Castellano. Inside the impressive wrought-iron exterior you will find a cluster of bustling parrillas (steak houses) so don’t miss out on their mouth-watering racks of roasting meat. Weekend afternoons are particularly colourful and lively as the area also attracts the city’s craftspeople, artists and street musicians – a great place to stop for lunch as you take in the atmosphere and people watch.
Football at Estadio Centenario
Uruguay is wedged between two of the world’s greatest footballing nations: Brazil and Argentina. Uruguayans are just as passionate about the game so watching a match also means sharing in the unique carnival-style spirit on the terraces. You can also take a look around the Football Museum at the stadium where Uruguay won the first World Cup in 1930.
It’s impossible not to get swept up by the carnival’s lively dancing and drumming in the streets every February. Montevideo’s carnival is an exuberant Afro-Uruguayan affair. It hosts the nation’s best festivities, based on the African slaves’ Candomble faith brought to Uruguay by the Spanish. The main events take place during the two days before Mardi Gras; however, many of the locals like to spend a whole week enjoying all the fun.
Punta del Este
Cascading down a cliff side at Punta Ballena lies a delightfully whimsical, gleaming white villa belonging to the prolific Uruguayan artist, Carlos Páez Vilaró. The nine floors of living space make for an inspirational setting in which to appreciate his art – mainly a bold series of paintings created in his studios in New York, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Tahiti and Paris – which can be viewed in five of the rooms, along with a video on his life and times.
The villa’s position on a headland makes for an excellent opportunity to take in the spectacular sea views – head upstairs to the café and if you’d like to stay a while longer, there’s a restaurant and a hotel here too. Don’t miss the Ceremonia del Sol (sun ceremony) which has taken place on the musuem’s terrace every day.
La Mano en la Arena
At Playa Brava you will encounter another of Punta del Este’s famous landmarks: a monster-sized, sculpted hand protruding from the sands. This iron and cement construction was created by Chilean artist Mario Irarrázabal, and won first prize in a monumental art contest in the early 1980s. It has remained feature of Punta ever since. Visitors climb up and jump off its fingers and, of course, they love to pose for photos with it.
Punta del Diablo
No longer a sleepy fishing village, Punta del Diablo has turned into a hugely popular summer getaway for Argentines and Uruguayans. Despite the numerous resorts that have sprung up, the stunning shoreline and relaxed lifestyle still pull in the visitors. Surfing is a popular attraction, thanks to the strong surf in the South Atlantic, at its best at La Paloma and La Pedrera. If you’re not riding the waves, take a wander across the endlessly sandy beaches.
Northeast of La Paloma you will find Cabo Polonio, one of Uruguay’s wildest places. A main attraction is Uruguay’s second largest sea lion colony. The area has been declared a protected national park and, despite an ever-increasing influx of visitors, Cabo Polonio remains one of Uruguay’s most rustic and unspoilt coastal villages. You will find no banking services here, and its limited electricity supply is generated from solar and wind power.
Salto’s hot springs
Once you’ve explored Uruguay, you might be ready for some pampering and relaxation. Northwest Uruguay’s underground aquifers are world renowned for their warm, medicinal springs. The curative thermal waters are between 38 and 46 degrees centigrade and contain a high content of mineral salts, making them good for drinking. The area in and around Salto contains several excellent spas, perfect for washing off all that Pampas dust.