Why Uruguay Is South America’s Hidden Gem

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Nestled between southern Brazil and eastern Argentina lies the tiny country of Uruguay. Visitors often overlook this beautiful country along the Atlantic Ocean, but despite being the continent’s second-smallest country, Uruguay is packed with fantastic things to do and see. Here are a few of the many reasons you should book a trip.

Culture

Plaza indepedencia in Montevideo, Uruguay.
Credit: vale_t/ iStock

Uruguay, like its neighbors Brazil and Argentina, is a melting pot of Indigenous and European peoples. The Spanish colonized Uruguay, and their influence is evident everywhere, from language to architecture to cuisine. It’s common to see plazas similar to the ones in Spain, with a church overlooking the center, which features a monument. The Spanish also brought bullfighting to Uruguay in the early 1900s. They built a large ring, but the Uruguayan government banned the practice within a year. You can visit the historic bullfighting ring, the Plaza de Toros, in Colónia del Sacramento. The city is currently restoring and renovating the structure into an entertainment venue.

Surprisingly, Italians play an influential role in the nation’s culture as well, with an estimated 45% of the Uruguayan population possessing Italian ancestry. As a result, you’ll find a wealth of Italian-inspired cuisine, including dishes such as gnocchi, pizza, risotto, and spaghetti. The country's Indigenous population is important too, though it's smaller than those of most other Latin American countries. Many of their ancestors were Charrúa, and in recent years, the Charrúa have made efforts to reclaim their heritage and identity.

Since the country lacked gold and other precious natural resources, raising cattle has played an integral part in boosting the economy. As in Spain and in Uruguay’s neighbor Argentina, gauchos (cowboys) are prominent in folklore. You can see gauchos herding cattle if you venture inland, where most of the estancias (ranches) are located.

These family-run, grand estates date back to the early 1800s, and many offer activities for visitors to experience gaucho life, such as riding horseback across the enchanting hills and valleys, through vineyards or olive plantations. Accommodations range from modest guesthouses to beautifully decorated cabins with private decks and unsurpassed views. Guru’Guay.com is an informative travel site run by a local citizen with various recommendations on things to do and places to stay.

Cuisine

Yerba mate-South American tea, dried leaves in wooden bowl with a wooden mate calabash with tea.
Credit: Nika Art/ Shuttestock

The gaucho culture significantly influences Uruguayan cuisine. Beef reigns supreme in this South American country — popular dishes include asado (grilled meat), chivito (a sandwich featuring thin-sliced, grilled meat), pancho and choripán (sausages on a bun), and lengua a la vinagreta (sliced beef or ox tongue marinated and topped with capers and hard-boiled eggs and served cold).

If you’re wondering what to wash down all that red meat with, Uruguay also boasts a rich winemaking scene due to its abundance of tannat grapes. French Basque settlers introduced grapes to Uruguay centuries ago, and the clay-rich soil is perfect for growing vineyards. Wine enthusiasts will also enjoy visiting the quaint town of Carmelo, often called the “Uruguayan Tuscany” due to its several boutique wineries.

To start the day, make it through the afternoon, or stay awake for the late nights (dinner doesn’t usually begin here until 9 p.m. or later), be prepared to sample the local favorite energy drink, maté (pronounced “mah-tay”). Similar to hot tea, maté is a naturally caffeinated drink made by soaking dried yerba leaves from the ilex paraguariensis evergreen tree in hot water. Traditional maté is served in hollowed-out gourds, but Uruguayans sip maté all day, and you’ll see them carrying thermoses and specialized cups with metal straws called bombillas. Maté is such a part of Uruguayan culture that the Museo del Gaucho de la Moneda even has exhibits featuring it.

Elsewhere, Uruguayans honor the country’s cattle-raising history in the Museo de la Revolución Industrial in Fray Bentos. Formerly a meat-packing plant, it’s a surprisingly fascinating place with photos and artifacts depicting the technology used and the plant’s history in feeding World War II troops. Fray Bentos is situated more than 100 miles up the Uruguay River from Colónia del Sacramento.

The Tango

Several tango dancers dance in Plaza Fabini,
Credit: carterdayne/ iStock

No visit to Uruguay is complete without experiencing the tango. Try to catch a performance of this seductive, flashy dance — you won’t be disappointed. Tango originated in this region, and Uruguay and Argentina continually lay claim as to where it originated. Once considered a dance for Buenos Aires and Montevideo’s lower urban classes, the tango and its accompanying music embody the region's diversity, with African, Creole, and European influences. UNESCO even added the tango to its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

The tango isn’t Uruguay’s only culturally significant dance on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity — candombe, a communal dance performed to rhythmic drumming, is also on the list. Candombe is a fusion of African traditions created by the descendants of enslaved African people. For more opportunities to partake in Uruguay’s vibrant dance culture, visit the country during Carnaval. Events kick off in January in Montevideo and run for about 50 days, ending in mid-March, making it the world’s longest carnival of its kind — even beating Brazil’s legendary Carnaval. Learn more about the event at the Museo del Carnaval.

Montevideo

 A view of Mercado del Puerto in the left, the famous place in Montevideo.
Credit: vale_t/ iStock

About 110 miles east of Colónia del Sacramento at the Río de la Plata's wide mouth lies Uruguay's bustling capital, Montevideo, which is home to about 1.3 million of the country’s 3.5 million residents. Plaza Independencia is a great starting point to explore Montevideo’s Ciudad Vieja (Old Town). The plaza is bordered to the east by the 26-story Palacio Salvo and to the west by the Puerta de la Ciudadela, one of the few remaining parts of a wall that once surrounded the city. Also nearby is Uruguay's renowned Teatro Solís, where you can catch performances or take a guided tour. Inaugurated in 1856 and designed by an Italian architect, the neoclassical, Old World building rivals some of Italy's most famous theaters. And further west of the plaza, you can sample delicious, local cuisine at the Mercado del Puerto (Harbor Market).

From Ciudad Vieja, take a stroll along La Rambla. This 14-mile, seaside promenade begins along the Bay of Montevideo to the west, meandering through several neighborhoods and past Montevideo’s popular beaches. One of the best ways to explore the route is by bike. You can rent a bike in one of the shops in the historic center.

If you’ve ever wanted to hear a Latin American soccer commentator excitedly yell, “Goooooooooooooal,” head to Montevideo’s stadium. The Estadio Centanario was built in 1930 to host the first-ever Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) World Cup. The stadium is still in use today, and is the only stadium in the world to be declared by FIFA as a “Historical Monument of World Football.” Soccer enthusiasts also may enjoy spending time in the Museo del Fútbol, which displays World Cup memorabilia, or better yet, watching a match with enthusiastic local fans.

Beaches

Mercosur Parliament building along the bank of Rio de la Plata in Montevideo, Uruguay.
Credit: Don Mammoser/ Shutterstock

Windswept coastlines, shifting dunes, and abundant marine life are just some of the reasons why Uruguay’s beaches should be on your radar. If you only have time to visit Montevideo, you can visit one of the many beaches in or near the city. If you’re willing to travel a bit, head northeast along the coast to the town of José Ignacio. Situated on a peninsula, the town offers great surfing, but you’ll need a wetsuit to enjoy the chillier water.

Keep heading north and you’ll reach some lesser-developed beaches. La Pedrera is a beautiful, quiet resort town with beaches lined by grass-covered dunes. For a chance to see sea lions and fur seals, visit Cabo Polonio, a tiny fishing village nestled in the sand dunes. This remote, wild area is part of the Cabo Polonio National Park and is accessible only by all-terrain vehicles or on foot. You won’t find running water or electricity here, but you will find breathtaking views and a towering lighthouse that is a designated Historical Monument of Uruguay. Built in 1881 to help ships avoid the treacherous rocks, the lighthouse offers an incredible perspective of the surrounding area — if you can climb the 132 steps to the top.

Punta del Diablo (Devil’s Point) is another sleepy fishing village that has turned into a popular vacation destination for Argentines and Uruguayans. During the peak summer months (December to February), the town swells in size as surfers, tourists, and backpackers descend to relax in the sand. The last stretch of coastline before the Brazilian border also offers some beautiful, quiet beaches such as Playa Grande. Inside the nearby Parque Nacional Santa Teresa sits an impressive hilltop fortress built in 1762.

Punta del Este

La Pedrera beach and bay on a sunny summer day, Uruguay, South America.
Credit: Olaf Speier/ Shutterstock

Envision Brazil’s famous Ipanema beach or Miami’s South Beach, and you’ll know what to expect in Punta del Este. Popular with Argentines and Brazilians, Punta del Este is the see-and-be-seen place to party until dawn. High-rise apartments, glitzy restaurants, expensive hotels, celebrities, and an immense hand sculpture (La Mano) are just a few of the things you’ll encounter in this resort town about two hours east of Montevideo.

Since it’s a peninsula, the beaches vary quite a bit depending on which side you’re on — the west side is more protected and calm (hence the name Playa Mansa, which means Tame Beach), while the windier, rougher east side is Playa Brava (Wild Beach). About six miles offshore lies Isla de Lobos (Wolf Island), home to the Western Hemisphere’s largest colonies of sea lions and fur seals. Accessible by boat tours, the island is a great place to see the frolicking marine animals up close. The island also happens to house the nation’s tallest lighthouse, which stands at about 217 feet.

Colónia del Sacramento

Old neighborhood in Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay.
Credit: kastianz/ Shutterstock

The picturesque waterfront town of Colónia del Sacramento in southwestern Uruguay is well worth a visit — and perfect for a quick day trip. (If you happen to be visiting Buenos Aires, too, it's only a 75-minute ferry ride across the Río de la Plata from the Argentine capital.) You can wander the narrow cobblestone streets and leafy tree-covered plazas as you explore historical churches and structures. UNECSO added Colónia del Sacramento’s well-preserved historic quarter to its World Heritage Sites list in 1995 for its “Outstanding Universal Value.

Salto

Landscape in the Rio de la Plata.
Credit: GAT0/ Shutterstock

Uruguay’s second-largest city, Salto, sits far north of Colónia del Sacramento along the Uruguay River, on the border between Uruguay and Argentina. Here, you’ll find 19th-century architecture and an attractive riverfront, but one of the main draws is Salto’s nearby thermal hot springs. Many of the springs, such as Acuamania Water Park and Parque Aquatico Termas de Salto Grande, include waterparks, with slides, waterfalls, pools, and fountains. Termas del Dayman is another option, with several pools of varying temperatures.

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