As one of South America’s least-visited countries, Uruguay offers an off-the-beaten-trail and authentic travel experience. Also, might we add, an incredibly surprising one. Unbeknownst to many, Uruguay boasts some of the most formidable attributes for which this continent is so renowned including world-class vines, sensational culinary specialities and hiding, behind a cloak of unassuming nonchalance, startling colonial-era treasures. With a host of natural hot springs and glorious beaches not besieged by busloads of tourists, and with the added bonus of short distances and top-notch roads, a comprehensive tour of Uruguay is just the kind of surprise you’ll cherish on your up-coming trip to Latin America.
Getting a foot in the Uruguayan door is dead easy, with hour-long ferry rides connecting its two most prominent hubs, Montevideo and Colonia, to Buenos Aires.
Best Highlights of Uruguay
Colonial architecture, natural mineral springs, glitzy seaside stars and revitalizing estancia stay: in Uruguay, you can experience it all up in just a few days.
Soak up the historic charm of Colonia del Sacramento
One of the prettiest colonial-era historic centres in all of Latin America, Colonia’s UNESCO-listed core is an architectural gem like few others. Having changed hands repeatedly, from Spanish to Portuguese and back again a few more times, this historic walled city – the oldest in the country – showcases traits and influences from both powerful empires. Cobblestone winding laneways, ancient forts, museums, great shopping and delightful dining await you at the end of the short and scenic ferry ride from Buenos Aires.
Get your history, cuisine and culture fix in Montevideo
The Uruguayan capital has much going for it, least of all the fact that it feels more like an overgrown laid-back village than a truly bustling metropolis. Being gorgeous helps, of course, yet Montevideo offers a wide array of attractions to satisfy all tastes. Its historic harbour side centre, Ciudad Vieja, boasts classical and art deco architectural gems as well as several pedestrian-only strolling and shopping strips. The city also boasts an impressive foodie scene that rivals those of more illustrious capitals so make sure to spend a couple of days here at the very least, as feasting takes time! Mercado del Puerto is a particularly great hive of activity with artisan stalls and food carts feeding the eyes, the taste buds and the soul, in equal measure.
Spend it up in Punta del Este
Down the southeast tip of Uruguay is the glitzy seaside hub of Punta del Este, where lovely beaches, plush hotels and a wicked nightlife attract locals and tourists alike. Dubbed the St Tropez of South America, Punta del Este is where you go if you want to sip refreshing mojitos in swanky seaside bars, whilst watching the fabulous emerge from their multi-million dollar luxury yachts. This luxury seaside resort town may be Uruguay’s most expensive destination but living it up here is still cheaper than Europe and Australia, so include a few days to enjoy the city attractions, long stretches of beautiful beaches as well as expansive gaucho plains that surround the city.
Soak in the hot springs of Salto
Thermal resorts take advantage of the heated springs of the Guarani Aquifer to offer a flurry of relaxing and rejuvenating treatments in the area around Salto and Paysandu, in north-western Uruguay. With temps ranging between 38 and 46, the mineral-enriched waters are said to be sublimely therapeutic and, if nothing else, they are exceptionally relaxing. Thermal spa vacations are popular with locals and you’ll discover several spa resort towns along the revered Rio Uruguay.
Take a hike in Santa Teresa
Many visitors mistakenly consider Uruguay a country of scenic but flat landscapes yet the truth is altogether different. Given the ease of transport and relatively diminutive size, together with a surprisingly eclectic topography, Uruguay is actually a much-coveted hiking country in South America with well-established trails satisfying the cravings of multi-day avid trekkers, day-hikers and even active families with young kids in tow. One of the most enjoyable hikes in the whole country is done in the Santa Teresa National Park, a forest-covered coastal reserve 300km north of Montevideo, and only 180km from Punta del Este. Views of sandy shores and the glistening Atlantic keep you company as you meander your way through sections of pristine forest that lead up to a 300-year-old fort affording all-encompassing views.
Relax with an estancia stays
Countryside estates turned into tourist havens are as blissful as the description suggest. Stay with a local farming family, enjoy the delights of home-made authentic meals and enjoy the kind of scenery and relaxation only a country home can offer. The most established estancias take great pride in their services and location, offering hiking, biking and horseback riding trips to guests who wish to be active.
Take your taste buds on a whirlwind wine tour
Uruguayan wines, like the whole country in general, are some of the best surprises to discover in Latin America. With several world-class wine-making regions, you can make a real experience out of a road trip, combining fantastic scenery, wine-tasting, cuisine indulging and estancia stays. The most prominent vino lover’s destination is Canelones, where more than half the country’s wines are produced and conveniently located just outside Montevideo. Visit the oldest established family winery estates in the country and choose a tour that includes tasting, a behind-the-scenes look at the winery and a home-made lunch of local specialties and you’ll enjoy one of the most unforgettable Uruguayan experiences of all.
Best Time to Travel to Uruguay
Uruguay is, generally speaking, a year-round destination unless your main priority is beachcombing, in which case you ought to travel here in summer, between November and February. The country’s historic cities are a delight to visit at any time and the countryside is particularly charming in autumn, between March and May. Yet considering the fact that you are likely to include a jaunt to Uruguay as a side-note to longer and multi-country travels, you ought to plan your visit around the best time to travel to your most prioritised destinations.
Best Way to Reach Uruguay
Ferry rides from Buenos Aires to Montevideo are the most popular entry option into Uruguay. With an array of international airlines offering direct flights to the Argentinian capital from every corner of the globe, this is also the cheapest and fastest way to reach the country.
Fancy an adventure with a difference? Then check out our tours of Uruguay and Paraguay and plan an exhilarating add-on to your trip to Argentina. Because sometimes, finding offbeat destinations in this very popular continent is hard enough so when they’re presented to you on a silver platter – in the shape of a short ferry ride – it’s an offer that’s too good to pass up!
Author: Laura Pattara
“Laura Pattara is a modern nomad who’s been vagabonding around the world, non-stop, for the past 15 years. She’s tour-guided overland trips through South America and Africa, travelled independently through the Middle East and has completed a 6-year motorbike trip from Europe to Australia. What ticks her fancy most? Animal encounters in remote wilderness, authentic experiences off the beaten trail and spectacular Autumn colours in Patagonia.”