A few years ago, if someone had asked me what I knew about Uruguay, I wouldn’t have had a whole lot to say. I might have remembered that its national soccer team won the first World Cup back in 1930. I could have guessed (incorrectly, as it turns out) that it shares a border with Paraguay. And I probably would have ventured that it’s a country with a rich gaucho heritage – an accidental correct answer, since I was really thinking of neighboring Argentina.
So imagine my surprise here in 2012, when I find myself extolling Uruguay’s virtues as one of South America’s most endearing travel destinations. In the past few years, this small coastal republic of 3.3 million people has become a magnet for food lovers, glamorous beach-goers and budget-minded backpackers alike – all of them eager to enjoy Uruguay’s pristine coastline, relaxed atmosphere, and rolling and rugged ranchland before the rest of the world catches on.
Begin the weekend in the beachfront capital of Montevideo, your starting point for a scenic road trip along the stunning Uruguayan coast. From the manicured luxury of José Ignacio to the isolated funky charm of Punta del Diablo, there’s a little something for everyone on this trip – even if you only have three days.
Montevideo Killed The Radio Star
Established by the Spanish in 1726 to counter the Portuguese settlement at Colonia del Sacramento, Montevideo is home today to nearly half of Uruguay’s population. But thanks to its intimate layout and tranquil environment, this port at the mouth of the Rio de la Plata is the antithesis of the chaotic South American city. And as one of the world’s southernmost capitals – surpassed only by Wellington and Canberra – Montevideo gives its visitors the intoxicating feeling of being incredibly welcome, yet very far away from home.
This Little Piggy Went To Market
Before renting a car and hitting the road for the coast, spend the morning (if not an additional long weekend) getting to know Montevideo. Begin with a walk through the quiet streets of Pocitos, a beachfront residential neighborhood peppered with colorful colonial homes. Finish with a taxi ride to the Ciudad Vieja, Montevideo’s oldest barrio and home of the Mercado del Puerto, an iconic gathering place for locals, visitors, diners and vendors since 1868.
Grab a stool at one of the market’s many parrillas for a tantalizing plate of asado (assorted grilled meats and sausages), or try your very first Uruguayan chivito (an irresistible sandwich of skirt steak, mozzarella, olives, fried egg, ham, and whatever else happens to be in the kitchen). Either way, you’ll have a wonderfully full stomach for the road.
No Way, José
A two-hour drive east along the coastal plains will bring you to the outskirts of Punta del Este, the glitzy heart of Uruguay’s riviera. But fear not –those towering high rises and crowded beaches will be a distant memory by the time you reach José Ignacio, a nearby fishing village-turned-exclusive playground for the rich and famous. Thanks to its charming sandy streets, colorful homes and stylish boutique hotels, José Ignacio can be a frustrating bottleneck during the peak summer months. But for those wise enough to visit in the shoulder season, you’ll have miles of white sandy beach all to yourself – and an open ocean between you and Antarctica.
Walk On The Ocean
As evening falls, kick the sand off your feet at the door of La Huella, José Ignacio’s favorite place to eat, drink and be seen. Scenically perched on the edge of the dunes, La Huella’s perfectly tanned clientele will help you understand how José Ignacio gained its reputation as The Hamptons of South America. With a candlelit table and the waves crashing outside, you can’t help but enjoy the delightfully simple menu of fresh fish, grilled meats and gourmet pizzas (Calle de Los Cisnes).
As you bid farewell to the glamorous life in José Ignacio, console yourself with a morning drive through some of Uruguay’s loveliest countryside. At the edge of the Maldonado region, food lovers and high rollers should head north from Route 9 to Pueblo Garzón, the unassuming ghost town chosen by renowned Argentine chef Francis Mallmann for his Hotel and Restaurant Garzón. With unforgettable meals prepared between two raging wood fires – an Andean technique known as “infiernillo” or “little hell” – a stay in one of the hotel’s five rooms comes at a sky-high price, but it’s a luxury-gaucho-dream-come-true.
Back on Route 9, the eastern department of Rocha awaits us budget travelers, with its stunning stretches of empty coastline, windswept plains and fascinating bird life. Keep your eyes peeled for the ostrich-like Greater Rhea, the largest bird in South America and an inhabitant of these grassy wetlands.
El Diablo’s In The Details
Two hours eastward, as Route 9 meanders alongside Laguna Negra, follow signs leading you to Punta del Diablo, a tiny coastal hamlet situated between two of Rocha’s most secluded beaches. With only 400 residents year-round, this funky and colorful surfers’ colony sees its population swell into the thousands during the peak of summer. But even then, the town’s beaches are never in the least bit crowded.
Where José Ignacio was plush and stylish, Punta del Diablo is rugged and secluded; instead of cocktails at the beach bar, think a bottle of wine and a hammock. Yet Punta del Diablo still treats its visitors to world-class beaches, hidden culinary gems, and a genuine opportunity to go off the grid and reconnect with your surroundings. So stake your claim at one of the quirky rental cabañas overlooking the ocean, and spend the afternoon basking in the sun on the beach.
On An Evening In Roma
Nestled among the cabañas just north of “downtown” is Il Tano, an unassuming Italian restaurant on the sandy Paseo del Rivero. Each summer, lucky diners are treated to a small menu of authentic Italian classics, highlighted by delicious homemade lasagna, agnolotti and tortelloni Bolognese. You may be only 30 miles from Brazil, but Il Tano brings a little piece of Italy to this quiet beach town.
Their Names Are Snoopy And Prickly Pete
Rise and shine to breakfast and coffee on your cabaña porch, before strolling over to El Diablo Tranquilo, a rustic beachfront hostel and bar that has been welcoming backpackers since 2007. Situated just above the rugged Playa de los Pescadores (Fisherman’s Beach), El Diablo Tranquilo is also helpful in arranging horse-riding tours in and around Punta del Diablo and the neighboring Santa Teresa National Park. So if you envisioned having a true gaucho experience, this is your chance to gallop along the coastal meadows.
Viva La Viuda
If you spend a leisurely afternoon on the beach south of town, you’re only a few convenient steps from La Viuda del Diablo, a chic guesthouse and restaurant overlooking Playa de la Viuda. With only a few tables inside the windowed dining room, La Viuda del Diablo – or Devil’s Widow – offers an intimate dining experience and simple, flawless Uruguayan cuisine. With fish fresh from the sea and a bottle of local tannat, there’s no better way for an unforgettable roadtrip to come to an end.
A Few Notes
Remember that Uruguay is near the bottom of South America, which means, of course, that the seasons are switched. The beauty of this? As winter hurls its worst at the United States in February, Uruguayan summer is just a plane trip away. To beat the crowds but still enjoy warm temperatures, plan your visit for December or March.
For budget accommodations in José Ignacio – oh wait, these don’t exist. But if you overnight in this lovely, pricey town, consider a standard room at the beautiful and immaculate Posada del Faro.
In Punta del Diablo, there’s no shortage of budget accommodations, easily reserved ahead of time on Portal del Diablo. But a word to the wise: make sure you bring plenty of cash into town – there’s no ATM in this rustic village.
One last thing. Almost everywhere you go in Uruguay, you’ll notice that men and women, young and old, seem to be toting a large leather case over their shoulder. No, it’s not binoculars – it’s maté, an infusion of a species of holly that Uruguayans love to drink socially. In those leather cases, you’ll find a hot water thermos, yerba maté leaves, and a hollow gourd from which to drink this tea-like beverage. Add a group of friends to help share the gourd, and you’ll have your first taste of Uruguay’s favorite pastime.