For some reason, Uruguay is not somewhere that we hear a huge amount about in the UK; although admittedly no news tends to be good news – particularly when it comes to South America! Nonetheless, when planning a trip around South America it would be easy to miss out somewhere like Uruguay, which is the mistake we nearly made. Fortunately, at the last minute, we did decide to visit. We arrived with absolutely no expectations and before long we were extending our stay.
Uruguay is dwarfed by its better-known neighbours, Argentina and Brazil. Between the iconic destinations of Rio de Janeiro, Iguacu Falls and Buenos Aires, it’s easy to see how the quaint towns of Uruguay get overshadowed. But with beautiful landscapes, a rich culture and friendly, progressive people, perhaps Uruguay deserves a bit more credit.
In a short period of time we visited three cities with very distinctive identities on Uruguay’s southern coast: Colonia Del Sacramento, Montevideo and Punta Del Este. Sadly, we didn’t have enough time to work our way further round the coast or into the rolling pastoral land of the interior (maybe next time!), but we did see enough of the country to fall in love with its people and their way of life.
Colonia Del Sacramento
Just a two-hour ferry across the Rio de la Plata from Buenos Aires, lies the old 17th century Portuguese smuggling port of Colonia. Of course, the town has changed greatly since then, but part of the old fortress still stands and the Barrio Histórico is a protected UNESCO world heritage site. The dimly lit, cobbled streets and relaxed attitude of the locals, points to a place that has not felt the need to move at the same pace of other parts of South America. As a visitor, there isn’t much to do, aside from wandering between the museums, lighthouse, and the numerous excellent restaurants that are found here. So, there is no need to stay for days on end, but a couple of nights spent exploring this picturesque, sleepy town is well worthwhile.
Uruguay’s capital city is the most understated capital I have ever visited. Montevideo is renowned for many of the same reasons as Buenos Aires – dancing tango, drinking wine and eating delicious steak – and many would argue that the Uruguayans actually do all of this better than their more famous neighbours. I certainly had one of the best steaks of my life here and anywhere where the cost of wine is about the same as water is good with me.
There are few ‘must see’ sights here, instead visitors need to experience Montevideo the same way the locals do. Walk through the modern area of the city to the old town; which with its crumbling 19th century buildings, palm trees and old cars is said to resemble parts of Cuba; down to the beautiful beaches. In truth, the comparison to Cuba might be a bit of a stretch, but either way the city is far more attractive than I had imagined it would be!
Every Saturday it’s possible to witness a heart-warming tradition that highlights the amazing sense of community they have in Montevideo. People young and old (although it’s fair to say that it’s mainly the very old!), gather at the Plaza Fabini to dance tango with one another. Some know each other, but most don’t. It’s something that has been done for decades and hopefully it will continue for years to come.
Having seen the amateurs have a go we were desperate to see the tango performed properly. We stumbled upon one of the most remarkable bars I’ve ever been to. ‘Bar Fun Fun’ (don’t judge it by its name) opened in 1895 and has been stuck in time ever since. It’s a small bar packed with people and tables, that the staff frantically try to dodge as they work their way around the room delivering sharing platters and bottles of wine. The exposed brickwork is almost completely covered with old black-and-white photos of famous visitors and signed football shirts. We grabbed two seats at the bar and ordered a couple of ‘Uvita’s’ – a liquor that their founder is said to have invented and is not served anywhere else – and settled in to watch an evening of amazing tango dancing, singing and traditional music. Prices were reasonable and there were no other tourists there and I feel that trying to find a similar experience on the other side of the Rio de la Plata would have been less authentic and cost a fortune.
Punta Del Este
If parts of Montevideo are said to look like Cuba then apparently ‘Punta’ is Uruguay’s answer to Miami. Again, I think this is a bit of an exaggeration, but it’s definitely the most fashionable place in Uruguay, where celebrities from all over the continent come to be seen enjoying the beaches and expensive restaurants. There are no old colonial buildings here, just shiny modern tower blocks and modern art – quite a contrast to the other main cities. Love it or hate it, Punta shows a brand-new side of Uruguay and is well worth a visit.
Very few tourists choose Uruguay over Argentina but, from our experience, it’s better value and provides a much more authentic insight into life on this corner of the continent; so perhaps it deserves a little more of the limelight.