Uruguay is a small, quiet South American country living in the shadows of Argentina and Brazil. Often drowned out by the samba and tango of its more flamboyant neighbors, it has a history that is largely unfamiliar to the rest of the world, and even well-traveled explorers tend to bypass Uruguay in favor of more glamorous locales.
This is not only a shame, but it’s also a mistake, as a trip to Uruguay can be one of the more memorable and enjoyable experiences in all of South America.
The people are friendly and easygoing, good infrastructure makes travel easy, and the rewards that await you are nothing short of revelatory.
It’s also notably cheaper than other destinations close by and it’s one of the safest countries on the continent. What are you waiting for?
Most people enter Uruguay by crossing the Rio de la Plata from Buenos Aires into the town of Colonia del Sacramento, which sits nestled on the eastern bank of the river.
Compared to the pollution and bustle of the Argentine capital, entering this romantic, postcard town is like stepping back in time.
Sacramento, Uruguay’s oldest city, boasts a rich concentration of top-notch restaurants and boutique hotels, and has some of the most interesting history in all of the continent.
Founded by the Portuguese in 1680, this strategic locale’s history reads like a colonial pinata, changing hands many times over the years between Portugal and Spain.
As a result, the town is rich in both nations’ cultures. Cobblestone lanes lit with antique street lamps create a patchwork of small alleyways that wend their way downward to the coast.
One of the most popular streets is called the Calle de los Suspiros (Street of Sighs), and it lives up to its name.
The road dates back to the 17th century, and visitors meandering along its rough surface can tell by the patterns which portions of the stone were laid by the Spanish and which by the Portuguese.
Sacramento’s Barrio Historico (historic quarter) was named as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1995.
Visitors who want to slow down and relax even more can head to the countryside. The lush, verdant ranchlands offer the perfect place to indulge your inner gaucho.
During the summer, ranches on Uruguay’s expansive pampas (Quechua for plains) open their gates to tourists eager to try a hand at herding cattle or sheep.
The picturesque southeastern town of Villa Serrana is the ideal spot for visitors who enjoy everything from fine wine and luxury dining to hiking pristine hills and swimming in mountain streams.
Those looking for a taste of glamour and nightlife will want to make a stop at the nearby seaside resort town of Punta del Este.
A longtime favorite of international jetsetters, it comes alive in the summer, when the long stretch of beach is set upon by bronzed beauties in skimpy bikinis, eager to be seen sunning themselves at the edge of the dark blue sea.
The town’s boulevards are dotted with posh shops, cafes and clubs that remain bustling into the wee hours of the morning.
Foodies will definitely want to sample the Uruguayan cuisine. I suggest you start with the beef.
This country of 3.4 million people consumes 150,000 tons of beef each year (44 kilograms per person), and after one bite it’s easy to see why.
All the cattle are free-range and grass-fed, and the quality of meat is impeccable. All it needs is a pinch of salt before it hits the grill and you’re good to go. Anything more would mask its sublime flavor.
The best way to enjoy the beef is to go to a local parillada, or grill, and it’s a beautiful sight to behold.
Every cut of beef known to man (and a few I’ve never imagined) are laid out on a single massive grill, with the odd red pepper and potato thrown in for good measure.
Pick the cuts you want and it will come to you served on a single heaping plate.
In Montevideo, the capital, the Mercado del Puerto is the best place to experience these carnivorous delights.
The port market is actually one big hall with dozens of open grill restaurants that tantalize the senses. Walking through it will make any meat lover weak in the knees.
Another local delicacy on the menu here is called chivito (steak sandwich). Served on fresh bread with lettuce, a slice of tomato and a generous slathering of mayonnaise, it’s usually eaten with fries or a Russian salad.
The deluxe version, or chivito completo, is served with bacon, ham, mozzarella and fried egg. It might be your cardiologist’s nightmare, but I assure you, it’s your taste buds’ dream.
Once you’ve had your fill of steak, you can switch to, of all things, authentic Italian food. From about 1880 until the end of the early 1900s, the main destinations for Italian immigrants were Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay.
Italians began arriving in large numbers in the 1870s, and this migratory flow continued up until the 1960s.
Today, almost half of the population is of Italian descent. The influence on the city’s culture is so great that travel enthusiasts have often written that those who would like to visit Italy at a third of the cost should head to Montevideo.
Here visitors will find Italian language, cafes and architecture, and best of all, food. A single bite is all it takes to understand that the pizza, pastas and bread are all authentic.
The 29th of each month is still gnocchi day — an old Italian tradition that evokes the times when money was tight just before payday and the only thing left in the cupboard were the flour and potatoes used to make the staple pasta.
Whatever the case, it’s delicious and festive at the same time. And if you’re still not sold, there are Italian pastry and gelato shops on almost every corner.
So go ahead, head to Uruguay and indulge yourself. I promise it will be a memorable and great trip.
Just bring your spirit of adventure and, oh yes, your plus-size bikini for the beach at Punta del Este.
With all that amazing food and relaxation, you’re going to need it.