BY Jean-Bernard Carillet
An estimated three million foreign visitors will arrive in Uruguay next year – but it’s a wonder it isn’t more when you grasp what the ‘Switzerland of America’ has to offer. Sandwiched between Brazil and Argentina, Uruguay has unfussily become a progressive society that boasts a small but perfectly formed capital in Montevideo, deserted lowlands where you can act out a gaucho (cowboy) fantasy, and nightlife by the sea amid the glamour of Punta del Este. We certainly expect that three million to rise.
Squished between South America’s two titans, Brazil and Argentina, this small country packs a big punch. What it lacks in size, Uruguay makes up for in peacefulness, hospitality and personality. While its two boisterous neighbours lurch from one crisis to the next, Uruguay stands out as a haven of political stability, good governance and prosperity – it’s not dubbed ‘the Switzerland of America’ for nothing. Uruguayans may seem shy and low-key, but they pride themselves on having constructed one of the continent’s most progressive societies without civil conflict.
After two centuries living in the shadow of its neighbours, Uruguay is now eager to promote its identity and assets as more than just a side trip from nearby Buenos Aires. But what is it that these holidaymakers come for?
Take Montevideo, which must be the safest capital in South America. When it comes to quality of life, Montevideo is unrivalled on the continent. It’s small enough to get around, but big enough to have some great architecture and a superb restaurant scene. The beach-lined seafront is easily navigated by bike, as is the Old Town, with its array of grand 19th-century neoclassical buildings.
An hour’s drive away lies gaucho country. Here, undulating lowlands (‘pampas’) are dotted with working estancias (cattle ranches), many of which serve as guesthouses. For great nightlife and gorgeous beaches, head to Punta del Este, a modern resort city on the Atlantic coast full of beautiful people.
But if you’re weary of high-rise buildings and cocktail bars, venture further east to Cabo Polonio and Punta del Diablo. These fabulously remote fishing-surfing villages peppered with colourful wooden cabins are seeing an influx of visitors, drawn by the bohemian vibes, empty beaches, shifting sand dunes, seal colonies and superb waves.
Need some cultural sustenance? The gorgeous town of Colonia del Sacramento delivers the perfect blend of authenticity and tourism development. A Unesco World Heritage site, this ancient Portuguese stronghold, with its cobblestoned alleyways, postcolonial ruins, art galleries and elegant B&Bs, has enough to keep visitors happy for days.
Uruguayans are the masters of the asado barbecue (but don’t tell the Argentines and Brazilians!). One of the best and most atmospheric places to sample Uruguayan beef is the Mercado del Puerto in Montevideo. This 19th-century wrought-iron market hall shelters a gaggle of steakhouses.
Pull up a stool at any of the parrillas (steakhouses) and watch the weighty slabs of meat being cooked over hot coals on a grill, then sink your teeth into a tasty morcilla (blood sausage) – memorable! Saturday lunchtime, when the market is crammed with locals, is the best time to visit.
As originally appeared in Lonely Planet