Uruguay is one of those small South American countries, the second smallest in fact, that no one seems to know about. When we were there, my mom told people we were in Uganda and when I corrected her, she said “Well, I knew it was one of those “U” countries.” We spent nearly six months there and we think it's a particularly well-kept secret. It's a little buffer country separating Brazil from Argentina. The Uruguayans are “tranquilo” ... laid-back and friendly. The country is stable and progressive and, for a country about the size of Missouri, there's a surprising amount to see.
We sailed into Piriapolis from Buenos Aires, but you can fly into Montevideo, drive, take a bus or take a ferry to and from Buenos Aires . The bus system is excellent, as it is in most of South America, and this was our primary mode of inland transportation.
Piriapolis has pleasant beaches, an Armada-run marina, plenty of hotels, restaurants and shops, but it's definitely not a destination itself. If you're on a boat, it's a good, safe place to stay or haul out. If you're in a car, it's one of those towns you stop in for a quick look-see and maybe grab lunch on your way to somewhere else.
Montevideo, the nation's capital city, is about as Euro as you can get in South America. Founded in 1726, it's a city of cupolas which grace many of the grand buildings (some past their prime), a reflection of the country's Spanish heritage and its neo-classic building heyday in the 1930s. A blend of old and new, this once walled city offers lots of restaurants, shops, hotels and tours for visitors. We found the city to be safe and friendly and spent many a day wandering around just marveling at the statues and architecture.
Everybody drinks maté (mah-tay) in Uruguay, an herbal drink that can be sipped hot, cold, bitter or sweet to your liking, but it's as popular here as coffee is in America or tea in the UK. Maté, elaborate maté cups and bombillas (straws), maté carriers, My First Maté Cup for toddlers … you'll see it all. People on mopeds drive by with maté cups strapped to their backs and walkers have their thermoses of maté tucked in the crook of their elbow.
Colonia del Sacramento, an 18th century strategic seaport on the Rio de at Plata, is a UNESCO world heritage city and an interesting place to visit. It's easy to catch a bus from Montevideo and it's well worth at least an overnight visit. Wander along centuries old cobblestone streets past old houses and buildings. Climb to the top of the lighthouse for great views of the river.
Punta del Este, known by the locals as simply Punta, is a playground town for both Uruguayans and Argentines. It's scenic, upbeat, upscale and fun with lots of boutiques, restaurants and tourist attractions. Here the Rio de la Plata gives way to the South Atlantic Ocean. “La Mano” (The Hand) is a huge sculpture rising from the sand on one of Punta's many beaches.
You can follow the scenic coast road from Colonia to Punta and then head north to visit some tiny seacoast towns and villages with spectacular ocean vistas. In Punta Ballena just outside of Punta, there's Casa Pueblo, an over-the-top hotel, restaurant, gallery and working studio for artist Carlos Páez Vilaró which is definitely worth a stop.
In LaBarra, just north of Punta, drive over the unique “undulating” bridge for a novel experience.
Some things to look for and try while you're visiting...
Maté, for sure. You can purchase it in any supermarket or restaurant or snack bar. Mate cups and bombilla are available everywhere and make good souvenirs.
A parrilla (pah-ree-jah) – There's a parrilla (BBQ grill) in every Uruguayan's backyard. They grill beef, fish, lamb, veggies, whatever. A great place to try a parrilla if you're not invited to someone's home is the Mercado del Puerto, a Montevideo dining/market institution.
Tannat wine – a robust, full-bodied red wine varietal not found in the USA. Our friends, the Filgueira's, own a beautiful vineyard just northwest of Montevideo with a great bodega for tastings.
Try a chevito one day for lunch. It's a decadent steak sandwich layered with cheese, ham, egg, lettuce, tomato, olives...the kitchen sink. It's wonderful!
Save room for a Martin Fiero for dessert, a portion of membrillo (quince paste) served with cheese.
Vintage classic cars. Because of the Uruguayan fondness for owning and preserving classic cars, it is quite common to see pristine vintage cars on the road. If your timing is good, visit one of the periodic antique car auctions in Punta del Este.