Why Uruguay should be on your travel radar in 2018
20 Dec 2017
Written by Karen A Higgs
The unassuming South American nation of Uruguay, nestles between Brazil and Argentina is off-the-radar to Europeans. But Brazilians and Argentines have been flocking there for years.
Equip yourself with the only travel guides ‘made in Uruguay’. Being so small, Uruguay typically gets relegated to a chapter in a guidebook to Argentina. It’s not because there’s little to do, it’s because up until now all the travel guides have been written by people who jet in for a few weeks. Now Uruguay has the guides that do it proud. The author of the Guru’Guay guides is a Brit who has lived almost twenty years in Montevideo and has accrued all the contacts and secret destinations that only a local could have. Guru’Guay is even part of Uruguay Natural, the official country brand of Uruguay. It all started with a website and now Karen A Higgs’ second book The Guru’Guay Guide to Uruguay: Beaches, Ranches and Wine Country is available globally.
The beaches – empty for ten months of the year
Roam the sandy streets of hippie hideaways next to the Brazilian border in Rocha, commune with thousands of seals in the Hebridean solitude of Cabo Polonio and chill out in Jose Ignacio, a laid-back fishing town frequented by the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and Shakira. Uruguay has an extremely short high season when glamour puss hot spots team with Brazilian magnates and Argentine super models. The remaining ten months of the year you’ll have the entire beach pretty much to yourself.
During the summer, Uruguay’s population of just three million people doubles as Argentines—many who have holiday homes in Uruguay—and Brazilians who love the safety a holiday in Uruguay offers, flood in. It’s no surprise. In South America, Uruguayan beaches have been hugely popular with its neighbours for well over a century. Europeans, Americans and Canadians make up just one in ten visitors so you’re in the vanguard.
Image credit: Marc Veraart
Gaucho country – step into a kinder, gentler time
Uruguayans refer to anywhere beyond Montevideo and the coast as “the interior” or “Uruguay profundo”. As you head into Deep Uruguay, the land is virtually untouched by development. You’ll cross more gauchos on horseback than you do cars. Take a few days to step back into a kinder, gentler time. The best way is to spend a few nights on one of Uruguay’s traditional cattle and sheep ranches known as estancias.
There are estancies to suit all tastes and pockets. From a rustic ranch run by actual gauchos who make ends meet by taking in visitors, to a grand estancia managed by the fifth generation of an Austrian-Uruguayan family with a lovely pool and capybaras in the garden, to a ‘million-star’ vegetarian inn specialising in adventurous horse rides lying in an alternative enclave in the stunning hills of Rocha.
Image credit: Karen A Higgs
No standing on ceremony. Uruguay has the friendliest wineries ever
If you’re wondering why you haven’t tried Uruguayan wine yet, it may be because the entire wine production of Uruguay is equivalent that of just one medium-size vineyard in neighbouring Argentina! In the last couple of decades wine-making has professionalised and Uruguayan wines are winning international recognition. However a visit to a winery in Uruguay is still a uniquely friendly and personal experience. Your host will often be the actual owner or wine-maker, the great grand son or daughter of Italian immigrants. These are people who produce their award-winning wines themselves and bottle and label them by hand. There’s no standing on ceremony. No pomposity. Just love of wine.
In the Maldonado region world-class vineyards are just thirty minutes drive from the coast – perfect to pair with a beach holiday. The close proximity of the tiny vineyards clustered around Carmelo, a rural town in western Uruguay, make it simple for you to organise your own two-night wine immersion programme (so to speak). And the largest wine producing area is just minutes from the capital.
It’s not just the beef, stupid
Until five years ago “Uruguayan cuisine” was principally a slab of grass-fed beef accompanied by a simple lettuce, tomato and onion salad. Things have really changed in the capital and on the coast with a boom in gourmet but still affordable eateries. Places like Macachín, an 18-seat bistro in an urban backstreet minutes from downtown Punta del Este run by an ex-motorbike mechanic whom chefs are saying is the most exciting thing to hit Uruguay culinarily in years. And La Pulperia, a sumptuous gourmet outpost in western Uruguay lorded over by the local strong man—a meat-packer of course—and subsidised from his own pocket to meet his desire for a top-notch place to dine in the backwoods.
Image credit: Indrasish Banerjee
Dressing down obligatory
Uruguayans take pride in being a very egalitarian society. No one likes to stand out and that includes regarding attitude and dress. Uruguayans dress down even at the most exclusive of locations. At the beach and in the countryside the dress code is so laid-back as to be non-existent. Do yourself a favour. Leave the formal wear at home and save space for the wine you’re going to want to bring back.
When to visit
Uruguay is a temperate country with four seasons in the opposite order to seasons in the UK.
Summer (December-February) These are the hottest months with daily averages of around 90°F. Around New Year temperatures can rise above 100°F but just for a few days.
Autumn (March-May) You can swim until April when the waters are warmest after heating up all summer. These months are particularly lovely weather-wise, days are mild (70°F), and there are frequent Indian summers.
Winter (June-August) Even during the coldest months, the average sunlight hours are 6-7 hours a day.
Spring (September-November) With temperatures around 70°F, spring is a wonderful time to visit. It may be a bit cold for most people’s idea of swimming but it’s the prefect time to visit an estancia as the countryside is in full bloom with newborn animals.
Avoid Christmas and New Year Revellers from Brazil and Argentina and locals flood in with family and friends to celebrate the holidays between December 24 to January 10. Why battle with soaring hotel prices and crowded beaches when you can have the place to yourself the the rest of the year?
Main photo credit- kumsval (Playa Ramirez beach)