Squeezed in between Brazil and Argentina, Uruguay is a well-developed little corner of South America with an exclusive Atlantic seafront. Montevideo, a capital of effortless class, is dotted with Spanish and Italian-style colonial architecture and set around wide, palm-lined boulevards that extend to the waterfront. The interior of the country is dominated by the Rio Negro, which gives the country its name, meaning river of colorful birds.

Why You Should Go

What’s Cool: Huge slabs of tasty steak, tolerance of ethnic and sexual diversity, low crime rates, rubbing shoulders with the jet-set at Punta del Este and the country’s motto—liberty or death!

What’s Not: Rampant anti-Americanism, driving at night without headlights, seaside rip-offs, lacking mountain scenery compared to the rest of the region and the ghost town feel along the coast in winter.

When to Go

Given Uruguay’s position far south of the Equator, there is a marked difference in the temperature between seasons. The summers, between October and February, are just right—warm and sunny with a little rain. The winters are much cooler, but never reach freezing.

Getting There & Away

Montevideo is easily accessed from across South America. To get anywhere outside of the region, you will most probably have to change in Buenos Aires or Sao Paulo, among other major regional hubs.

Cross-border travel is very possible from Argentina by boat or land, and in the north, buses also go to and from Brazil.

Hitch-hiking is fairly common in rural areas of the country and should not get foreign travelers into too much trouble providing you know where you’re going.

Around towns and cities, buses are taxis are the norm—taxi drivers are also likely to treat you fairly, a shock to the system for those used to traveling elsewhere in Latin America.

Health & Safety

With the lack of gang violence and high crime rates that have made big cities in neighboring Brazil and Colombia notorious, Uruguay in comparison is considered tame. Sensible driving has only added to the country’s reputation.

That said, petty theft is still a problem in Montevideo and other areas that are popular with tourists. The tap water is safe to drink and health services are of a high standard compared to the rest of the region.

Some travelers have reported strong anti-American sentiments which can surface late into any alcohol-fuelled night, so when in doubt, pretend you’re Canadian.

Food & Hospitality

Only vegetarians are likely to go hungry in Uruguay. Beef steak is very popular here and is usually cooked to perfection. Chivito, a grilled sandwich, is also a delicious local favorite filled with meat and vegetables. Expect seafood aplenty along with European and South American cooking at the huge variety of restaurants that vie for space along the seafront.

Any trip to Uruguay would not be complete without trying the national obsession that is yerba mate, a social, non-alcoholic drink akin to coffee and tea, and made from the plant of the same name. Try not to screw your face up at the bitterness to avoid offending bystanders and indeed, the whole nation. Hotels are usually good value for money although prices sky-rocket during the summer, particularly at popular beach resorts.

Itineraries

Up to two weeks in Uruguay is usually enough to get the best of the beach, the capital and other sites inland.

  • Three days in Montevideo enjoying sunset strolls along the seafront, eating great food and taking in the sights.
  • Three days in Punta del Este, Uruguay’s premiere Atlantic resort and one of the most glamorous play towns in South America.
  • Two days in Colonia del Sacremento, an old and now protected colonial town with attractions including the country’s only bull-fighting ring.
  • Two days in Salto, a town in the citrus-growing region of the country with a famous healing herbal spa and huge dam.
  • Two days in Rocha’s Santa Teresa National Park featuring a restored 18th century fortress, beautiful scenery and secluded, untouched beaches.

Extra time

  • Two days in Piriapolis, a laidback less expensive version of Punta de Este with a good beach not far from the capital.
  • One day in Chuy, a border town with a main street that separates Uruguay from Brazil where you’ll find tax-free shopping.

Highlights

Montevideo: with a beautiful Old City and tourist hotspots including the Sexual Diversity Museum, the Uruguayan capital is a great place to spend a few days.

Punta del Este: fun in the sun with lots of restaurants, bars and nightclubs in this popular beachside town.

Santa Teresa National Park: uncrowded beaches and a historic fort started by the Portuguese and finished by the invading Spanish are some of the attractions here.

Colonia del Sacremento: cobbled streets and World Heritage status make this coastal town near the border with Argentina a popular spot.

Tacuarembó: a town in the Uruguayan heartland that goes wild during two main festivals in March and June.

Piriapolis: an unpretentious beach resort with a castle and hills overlooking the bay. Gamblers will no doubt head to the town’s popular casino.

Salto: right in Uruguay’s agricultural heartland, this town is famous for its giant dam—a tourist attraction in its own right—and the thermal spa just a few kilometers away.

Activities

Horseback riding: popular with the locals, horseback riding is a strong tradition given the long, flat terrain and picturesque countryside.

Partying: Punta del Este has a legendary night scene that begins sometime after midnight and ends sometime before lunchtime the next day.

Gambling: around-the-clock casinos are abundant along the Atlantic coastline and in the capital.

Boating: join Uruguay’s rich and famous at the Punta del Este marina, a millionaire’s playground filled with luxury yachts and smaller wannabes.

Bird-watching: Uruguay is not called the river of colorful birds for nothing, attracting keen ornithologists to areas like Rocha.

Festivals & Events

Lots of tango is the order of the day during Uruguay’s many festivals. Here is a selection of some of the most vibrant:

February: Montevideo and Punta del Este celebrate the Goddess of the Sea Festival in which thousands make offerings dressed in blue and white robes.

March: the Festival of Gaucho kicks off for a week with lots of horses, rodeos, barbecues and dancing out in the open air.

June: the town of Tacuarembó goes mad for a week in honor of the father of tango, Carlos Gardel, who was born here in 1883.

August: Uruguay’s Independence Day on the 25th is a national holiday and time for everyone to let loose with lots of good food and dancing.