Uruguay: I couldn’t believe how tiny it was, how beautiful
Uruguay is home to some enchanting beaches and, for those traveling in South America and looking for sun, sand and surf, it is the perfect place to spend few weeks between Brazil and Argentina. Apart from some unusual attractions in the north of the country, most travelers will only discover the southern coastline and, as it is such a compact country to visit, you will never be more than two or three hours away from your next destination.
I spent three weeks traveling along the coast, from the colonial charm of Colonia del Sacramento to the east to the rugged landscapes of Punta del Diablo, so now I can tell you what to expect, what not to miss and how to spend your time in the most popular destinations of the Uruguay. In this post, I have listed the main points in the order in which you are likely to visit them, if you arrive from Argentina. If instead you arrive from Brazil, then it is probable that the order is the same, but everything on the contrary.
Colonia del Sacramento
A nice little place, Colonia del Sacramento is only an hour’s ferry ride from Buenos Aires. Although there is not necessarily much to do, its cobbled streets, the colorful colonial houses and the charming restaurants and cafes located in the historic district (an UNESCO World Heritage site), make it a pleasant place to spend an afternoon or even two.
La Calle de los Suspiros – Photo Credit: Kevin Wagar
This was a bay of pirates and smugglers and the property of this land has passed into the hands of Spaniards and Portuguese countless times during the colonial period, and the important thing is the architecture in the old part of the city has not changed. A hot spot is La Calle de los Suspiros (the street of sighs), so called for brothels, drowned prisoners or ghosts of lovers, but in any case is one of the most photographed places in the country. There is a modern part of the city, with some bars, banks and restaurants, which is not anything special, but fortunately it has several supermarkets. There are also eight small museums, with just one ticket you can visit them all.
Although it may not be known for its beaches, the capital Montevideo (picture on top) actually has a couple of nice places to spend the afternoon under the sun. Walk or cycle along the “La Rambla” in a summer weekend and you will find most of the city’s population on the clean golden sandy beaches of Playa Ramirez or Pocitos.
La Ciudad Vieja Gate
However, the true charm of Montevideo is revealed in La Ciudad Vieja during the afternoon. Montevideo was a really pleasant surprise for me and I invite all those who visit Uruguay to spend a few days here, discovering not only the beaches, but also the fascinating old city and its relaxed atmosphere.
Punta del Este
After Montevideo, your next next stop is the “Monaco of South America”, Punta del Este. This is the largest tourist destination in Uruguay, with a population rising from 20.000 in low season to 250.000 in high, between December and January. Expect traffic jams, higher hotel rates and lots of tourists. It is incredibly developed with hundreds of apartments on skyscrapers and holiday homes, and it is certainly more suited to the rich crowds of local tourists (it is also popular among Argentineans and Brazilians). It is here that young people come to show their bodies on the beach, where they can get a tan, eat and drink well and then fill the clubs or the casino.
Playa Hola – Beach of Jose Ignacio
If you prefer relaxing seaside resorts and off the beaten track, then you probably hate Punta del Este and then I suggest you to go to the beaches of Rocha. If you do not mind sharing the beach with others, tourists and spending a little more money, then you’ll like it a lot. The city is also a center for surfers. Punta del Este is also a good base from which to take a local bus and explore the beaches of Jose Ignacio, “the most chic place in Latin America”, just 30 km away.
La Paloma / La Pedrera
The twin seaside towns of La Paloma and La Pedrera could be just the best beach resorts in all of Uruguay. I stopped in La Paloma, in a place overlooking the deserted beach, and I loved it. There is not necessarily much to do (although this is considered by some to be one of the best surfing spots in Uruguay), but between a breakfast on the balcony and the discovering of beaches and the surrounding area by foot, I saw some beautiful sunsets that left me breathless.
The city itself is a bit dated and shabby (especially on the main road leading to the lighthouse), but with its dusty streets, relaxed people and the beautiful beach, La Paloma certainly gave me the sea experience that I was looking for. The nearby La Pedrera is also a popular choice with a similar atmosphere and is just a short walk away.
Cabo Polonio was a bit strange and definitely different from anywhere else I visited on this trip. On the one hand, it is a small community where electricity and running water are not allowed, there is only one shop and the sea lions are more numerous than permanent residents. On the other, it is an immensely popular beach destination for Uruguayans who abandon the privileges of modern life to enjoy a “poorer” holiday. No doubt it has a harsh beauty when the sun is shining, while at night the stars shine and the only light comes from the crackling bonfires on the beach. Hippies and most backpackers will love coming here (think bonfires, guitar music, walking barefoot) but Cabo is also a very popular place for Uruguayan families and holidaymakers. If you do not like being far from luxury, then this place is probably not for you.
Punta del Diablo
It is hard for me to write about Punta del Diablo. All the books I read and all the travelers I met told me that I would have liked it, in fact for many it’s the anti-Punta del Este. Sorry to be rude but it was a disappointment. We have to attribute most of this to two factors: time and season. For my three-night stay, the cloud was omnipresent as well as rain; it was more like winter in Newcastle than summer in South America. And when there is not much to do in the city in addition to surfing and relaxation near the beach, the weather certainly affects the entertainment of the area. Secondly, Punta del Diablo presented itself as a ghost town, with most of the premises, restaurants and shops closed or empty as well as the hundreds of holiday homes.
But it cannot be denied that for most travelers, this remains their favorite place in Uruguay. It must be said that the second most famous seaside town in the country, is devoid of skyscrapers and buildings along the coast, with dirt roads, pristine natural beaches and a much more relaxed atmosphere. I’m sure surfers will love Punta del Diablo.