Overlanding in Uruguay: a Small but Inviting Country
Many overlanders arrive in Uruguay on RoRo-vessels from Europe. But they are often eager to go south, and thus miss out on exploring what this country has to offer. Being such a small country, without sensational landscape features, Uruguay is simply overlooked. Yet we experienced it as an easy and pleasant place for overlanding, and the people were mostly very laid-back and inviting.
Our Overland Travels in Uruguay
Like many others, our truck also arrived in Montevideo‘s port – in early May 2014. At that time, I was eager to meet up with Yasha in Chile, so I left as soon as possible after having cleared all customs procedures .
But we returned to travel overland through Uruguay – twice (four times, if you count two brief border crossings in-and-out). The second visit was in September 2015, to meet some German friends, with whom we wanted to explore some of Brazil. Again, we didn’t spend much time; just long enough to get a visa for Brazil, meet our friends, and drive on. This changed in 2016, when we arrived on New Years Eve and didn’t leave until early April.
We had planned to fulfil a volunteer job for a month, and later we waited for mail with new bank cards. The volunteer work was cut short, and the cards arrived later than expected, which gave us plenty of time to explore Uruguay.
The Sights of Uruguay
As mentioned above, unlike its neighbours, Uruguay doesn’t have many spectacular natural sights. It’s a pleasantly green country, of rolling hills and large fields, with quaint little towns spread out fairly evenly in between. The highest ‘mountain’ is Cerro Catedral, at a mere 513 metres.
Yet Uruguay makes up for its size with quite a few ‘man-made’ sights and events. The country has two UNESCO World Heritage Sites, which couldn’t be more different: the old historic town of Colonia del Sacramento, and the former ANGUS meat works of Fray Bentos .
As well as in Colonia del Sacramento, there are many fine examples of Art-Deco buildings in Montevideo and, surprisingly, even in many smaller towns in Uruguay. Some are beautifully renovated; others in sad need of some TLC.
Uruguay also has a long standing Gaucho culture, rivalling the one in neighbouring Argentina. To this day, farmers in rural areas are eager to keep this culture, and its paraphernalia, alive – as you can witness, driving through farmland and at several of its famous Gaucho festivals .
Please note: there’s also a smaller, more touristy Gaucho festival in Montevideo during the Criolla Week (around Easter), and Rocha holds the “Fiesta de la Primavera Gaucha” annually, on the 3rd weekend in September. Both are easier to get to, but the one in Tacuarembó is the most authentic.
If you’re in the country at the right time, don’t miss the ‘longest carnival of the world’! Las Llamadas in Montevideo is a colourful and fascinating spectacle, with deep roots in the black African culture.
And finally, there are some interesting street art projects in Uruguay. You can find examples in our ‘Street Art Galleries’ .
Road Conditions in Uruguay
Most roads in Uruguay are in as good condition as you would find in Europe and North America. There are exceptions, notably in the west along the Rio Uruguay, where we found some main roads in shocking condition.
In towns, we never had any problems navigating or finding parking reasonably close to shops or the town centre. As in Argentina, most towns in Uruguay follow a grid pattern with one-way traffic on alternating roads.
Road tolls in Uruguay are very reasonable, as long as your vehicle has single rear wheels (like our Berta has). We never had any discussion about the size of our overland camper putting it in a more expensive category. There aren’t many pay stations; the most are found between Colonia and Punta del Este = north and south of Montevideo.
The same fee structure applies to the more expensive bridge tolls, when you want to cross the Rio Uruguay into Argentina. As long as the toll is charged by the Uruguayans, it’s cheap. But be careful, at some of the crossings the Argentinians charge the bridge toll, and then you pay a lot more!
Most border crossings in and out of Uruguay were fairly easy and straight forward. The notable exception was in Rivera in the far rural north of the country; there the official border with Brazil runs through the middle of town. The Uruguayan border police are in the south of town in a small nondescript building on a main road. We didn’t find the customs house at all, but we also didn’t need to because our vehicle permit was still valid. This might cause problems though, if you are arriving for the first time through this border. The Brazilian offices are hidden in a residential part of town on the north side – without GPS points on iOverlander we wouldn’t have found them…
It appears that you can enter and exit Uruguay as often as you like, and receive a 90 day permit to stay every time.
One point, which is very interesting for long-term overlanders, is the fact that Uruguay issues a Temporary Import Permit (TIP) for your vehicle for 12 months. This is made use of by many who want to interrupt their trip and fly home for a longer period.
Note: there were some upheavals in late 2016, when Uruguayan customs confiscated many vehicles, which had been left in the country under this rule. But the courts decided that it was okay and released the vehicles back to their owners in early 2017.
Shops & Services in Uruguay
If you want/need anything special, you have a good chance of finding it in Montevideo. We noticed already in 2014 that there was an extensive range of LED lights and alternative power things, like solar chargers, for sale. No wonder Uruguay is a leader in alternative power generation.
Also, we needed to repair our fridge door locks and I found a small manufacturer for all sorts of springs in Montevideo. Their springs (for less than a dollar) in our locks are still working to this day; the alternative was to buy new complete handles from Europe for €49 each, plus outrageously expensive postage.
Personally, we didn’t like that so many products in Uruguayan shops originated from China. Even in supermarkets you have to check, as most food is imported (and still not cheap). If you go to a hardware store, many items can be sub-standard imports.
Out in the countryside, you’ll find a supermarket in almost every regional town of 20,000 people or more. The two dominant chains are DISCO and Ta-Ta, where DISCO is a bit more upmarket.
Another thing is fuel prices! Uruguay sells the most expensive fuel in all of South America – price levels are above what you would pay in Germany. Prices seem to be set by the government, as we never noticed any difference from one place to another. Good thing the country is so small…
Overnight Places in Uruguay
I dare say that we found some of the most beautiful and quietest places to free camp in Uruguay. On the way south, from Fray Bentos to Montevideo, we stayed on an ‘official camping ground’ at the edge of a river, which was completely free. They had large grassy areas, lots of shade trees, clean bathrooms, play areas, beaches, and even a small zoo for kids. Unfortunately we were in a hurry (unusual for us!) and couldn’t stay more than one night.
Safety in Uruguay
Uruguay feels really safe – everywhere. The locals are usually very relaxed and friendly. I don’t think we ever saw any evidence of violence, anywhere! Even drunk crowds at Carnival and the Gaucho festival were reasonably well behaved.
We really enjoyed our time in Uruguay. To us it felt a bit like taking a holiday , a break from our regular travels. Almost everything seemed so easy. The country has a very relaxed feeling and the locals are usually very friendly and helpful. As mentioned before, we probably found some of the nicest free camping places in Uruguay, which meant we didn’t move as much or quickly as we would otherwise…