Uruguay: Surprising In So Many Ways

Uruguay surprises in many ways, like this nice almost-Greek style coastal resort in Jose Ignacio. The people are friendly, the landscape is green with lots of water ways and lakes. You will find stark contrasts between the very modern and memories of times long past.

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Uruguay is small; the third smallest country on the continent. It has around 175,000 km² with a population of just under 3.5 million. (You can find other interesting facts and historical information at this website. )

The southernmost state of Brazil, Rio Grande do Sul, has around 280,000 km², is home to over 10 million people. It covers only 3.3% of Brazil.

It was never in our sights as a place to spend any time. Before the end of 2015 we had entered the country 3 times for a total of 23 days. In May 2014, Juergen and Berta had also arrived in Montevideo from Germany. Our first surprise is that we have just spent the first 3 months of 2016 in Uruguay. Here we will share our impressions of this surprising little country.

 

The Coast of Uruguay

For a small country, Uruguay has a flourishing tourist industry. Most of this is concentrated along the coast, east of Montevideo. There are many white, sandy beaches often interspersed with interesting rocky headlands.

View from Punta Ballena towards the high-rise skyline of Punta del Este in the background. Photo taken on a Saturday in mid February; see how the beach is not overly crowded...

View from Punta Ballena towards the high-rise skyline of Punta del Este in the background. Photo taken on a Saturday in mid February; see how the beach is not overly crowded…

These days Punte del Este, which we like to compare to Australia’s Gold Coast, is the central tourist resort. There are lots of high-rises, restaurants, boutique shops selling designer labels, and beaches crowded in the summer with visitors mostly from Argentina and Brazil. You can choose to swim in the Rio de la Plata on the western side or the Atlantic Ocean on the eastern side of the peninsula.

But we were surprised and pleased to find that there are also plenty of remnants of the tourism industry of times past. Piriápolis is a good example. It was developed at the end of the nineteenth century as a holiday destination for Argentineans from Buenos Aires. It has some fine older buildings including the Casino and a recently renovated Art Deco hotel, both at the waterfront. In the off-season it’s a very nice place to wander around. From Piriápolis it’s only a few kilometres to the mural town of Pan de Azúcar .

The beach town of Piriapolis has some beautiful old buildings left.

The beach town of Piriapolis has some beautiful old buildings left.

When we visited José Ignacio in 2009 , we compared it with our home town of Byron Bay. Both are a little ‘over-loved’ by tourists. It is well worth some time wandering its streets where you will find interesting and different architecture, both modern and old-time.

Further east are many smaller beachside towns like Punta del Diablo and Valizas, which probably originated as fishing villages. They still have the feel of a beachside holiday town, but you can see development beginning to encroach…

And then there is Cabo Polonio, which was recommended to us as a popular, alternative tourist destination. There is no electricity, and no vehicles are allowed, because it is part of a nature reserve. We asked around a bit more. Locals we talked to hadn’t been there. Other travellers told us that it is very expensive to stay there. A blog post I read was quite damning of the whole experience of a visit. Finally, we were not keen on leaving Berta behind to find out for ourselves.

Apart from Punta Del Este, the coast of Uruguay is not (yet) overdeveloped. Mostly you will find small resorts or individual holiday homes, from state-of-the-art to not much more than a beach shack.

Apart from Punta Del Este, the coast of Uruguay is not (yet) overdeveloped. Mostly you will find small resorts or individual holiday homes, from state-of-the-art to not much more than a beach shack.

The Landscape

When you get away from the coast and drive through Uruguay you will notice that it is green and there seems to be water everywhere. The border with Argentina follows the Rio Uruguay and the Rio de la Plata. The Rio Negro crosses the country from the north-east to the south-west. And it is not uncommon to cross water frequently as you drive through the landscape.

All roads throughout Uruguay cross water from time to time; small creeks or large rivers.

All roads throughout Uruguay cross water from time to time; small creeks or large rivers.

The land is mostly rolling hills covered with large farms. Cattle, sheep and horses are a common sight. Land is also used for timber plantations, mostly eucalypt; crops of soy, corn, and even rice; and vineyards, with Tannat being Uruguay’s signature wine.

There are no mountains like those we are used to from the Andes. The highest ‘mountain’ in Uruguay is just over 500m. The roads are generally straight and wide, passing over undulating landscape; as we noticed one day, they are just right for trying out your new Porsche. Often there are wispy, fluffy clouds scattered over the otherwise clear blue sky. All of this together gives you a feeling of travelling through wide open spaces, and makes the country seem larger than it actually is.

There aren't any real mountains in Uruguay. This is a granite peak near Salto Del Penitente.

There aren’t any real mountains in Uruguay. This is a granite peak near Salto Del Penitente.

Travelling through the far eastern corner of Uruguay, as we were leaving for Brazil, we felt the landscape changing subtly. It seems to lose its homogeneity with the rest of the country. There are hectares of Butia palms not seen anywhere else; the paddocks full of anthills are also new; and everything looks just a little bit wetter and a little bit greener. It looks just a little bit less typically Uruguayan, and we are also surprised by that.

Butia palms along the highway towards Brazil in the east.

Butia palms along the highway towards Brazil in the east.

Water is everywhere in Uruguay. Top row: river at 25 do Agosto, sunset across Rio Uruguay, our camping spot at Laguna Garzon. Bottom: horses in a rural dam, fog on a lake near Tacuarembo, morning light at our camping spot at Balneario Ipora.

Water is everywhere in Uruguay. Top row: river at 25 do Agosto, sunset across Rio Uruguay, our camping spot at Laguna Garzon. Bottom: horses in a rural dam, fog on a lake near Tacuarembo, morning light at our camping spot at Balneario Ipora.

The People of Uruguay

Everywhere we went we were greeted with a smile or a wave. The people of Uruguay are friendly and appear to be relaxed and contented.

One of the most interesting customs we noticed concerned outdoor folding chairs – everyone has one and they take them everywhere. We were very surprised by the number of people we would see, parked along the highways, under the shade of a tree, sitting in their chairs, drinking maté and watching the traffic go by. Drinking maté is a strong part of Uruguay’s culture and social interaction.

We never managed to find out why they choose to sit right next to major roads. Originally we thought it was for the shade. After all, it was summer. Then one day, when autumn was in the air, the cars were still lined up along the road but the people were sitting inside them, drinking maté, and watching the cars go by. For some things there is just no explanation.

At the Tacuarembó Gaucho Festival , everybody had a chair. They would leave them in front of the stage and come back when the entertainment started. They were confident that nobody would take their chair or move it. And I guess nobody did.

The people of Uruguay fish – anywhere there is water, in any kind of weather, with all kinds of gear, including their chairs. One day we saw a family fishing at a lake with bamboo poles and lines tied to the end of them. Parking at the lighthouse in Montevideo we saw people out fishing off the rocks all the time. It didn’t matter if it was in the midday heat of a summer’s day or almost gale force winds blowing rain everywhere.

Typical Uruguay! In the top row all sorts of stuff for sale at the Tristan Navaja Sunday market. Bottom: Mate! The typical pose of a mate drinker, cup in hand, thermos under the arm; fishing and drinking mate; sitting by the highway drinking mate.

Typical Uruguay! In the top row all sorts of stuff for sale at the Tristan Navaja Sunday market. Bottom: Mate! The typical pose of a mate drinker, cup in hand, thermos under the arm; fishing and drinking mate; sitting by the highway drinking mate.

They are also incredibly hospitable people.

One day, as we were driving slowly through traffic along the coast in La Barra, we were photographed by a woman following us. She posted the photo on Instagram and looked for us on Facebook. We had a conversation there, and she invited us to meet her (and her husband) for a meal the following weekend. We met them for Sunday brunch at a café in Manatiales, and spent a pleasant morning discussing travel and answering their questions about our life on the road.

Another time, in Melo (on our way to Tacuarembó), we met a young man at the local racetrack. We had gone there to find a place to park and sleep. He contacted us through Facebook and invited us to dinner with his family the next evening. We had thought to drive on but decided to stay and accept his offer.

We had a wonderful evening with him, his mother and sister, and his uncle and aunt. He cooked a vegetarian dish for us – a stew of zapallito, leeks and potatoes served with rice. Zapallitos were new to us. They must be related to squash, and have now become a regular part of our diet.

After these 3 months in Uruguay we have come to think that the mood of the people reflects the landscape. There are no big ups and downs; life just goes along smoothly.

Most land in Uruguay is used for grazing cattle and horses. It seems that every farmer has at least a few horses.

Most land in Uruguay is used for grazing cattle and horses. It seems that every farmer has at least a few horses.

The Cities and Towns

Actually, there is really only one city: the capital, Montevideo. More than half the country’s people live there. The next biggest urban centre is Salto in the north-west with around 105 000 people.

We are not surprised to hear that Montevideo is known by some as the most relaxed capital city in South America. It’s a very easy city to get around in, and has many surprises for the avid city wanderer.

There are many lovely old buildings; some of them are rather evidence of a former grandeur than a current one. They are in a sad state of disrepair, but you can still see their beauty. At ground level you feel like you are walking through any city, but just look up and you will see the splendour of the architecture on show.

There are also museums, markets, the old city, lots of parks, and The Rambla, which follows the Rio de la Plata for kilometres.

Most towns are fairly small and nestled into green hills, almost always on a major river with a beach. This is Minas.

Most towns are fairly small and nestled into green hills, almost always on a major river with a beach. This is Minas.

The towns of Uruguay all have a similar look and feel to them. They are regional centres. Businesses focus on providing all the needs of the people who work the countryside surrounding them. In every town there are signs of Uruguay’s economic boom of the 1920s and 30s. Most have beautiful buildings, particularly in their centres, which are remnants of these glory days.

Overall they have a sleepy feel to them. People move slowly and almost everything is closed for at least 2 hours in the afternoons. Sometimes you get the feeling that nobody is at home.

In all towns throughout Uruguay you will find some beautiful old buildings – proof of the early wealth in this country.

In all towns throughout Uruguay you will find some beautiful old buildings – proof of the early wealth in this country.

Public Art in Uruguay

We are pleasantly surprised by the amount of public art we found in Uruguay.

Street art is a big favourite of ours and Montevideo has lots of it. You can spend days walking the back streets of the city, finding new pieces to add to your digital collection . Most other large towns are home to a few fine pieces too.

There are also sculptures and other pieces of art in most plazas of towns, big and small.

To add to this, the mural towns of Uruguay were a big surprise. 25 de Agosto was an unexpected pleasure for us. We wandered the small town in awe of what we saw. When we discovered the existence of murals in Pan de Azúcar and San Gregorio de Polanco , we made detours in order to see them.

The Pablo Atchugarry Sculpture Park was also a surprising chance discovery, when we came briefly through Uruguay in October 2015. Although it is not strictly speaking ‘public art’, it is owned by a foundation and is free to enter. I happily include it in this category.

Cars in Uruguay

One of the joys of driving anywhere in Uruguay is playing ‘spot the classic car’. They have old cars on their roads which must surely rival what you would see in Cuba. Some of them are in pristine condition; others are simply rust buckets held together with a lot of hope, some wire and string; and the rest lie somewhere in between. Pickup trucks from the 50s and 60s are a personal favourite, but Juergen is happy to see almost anything, and usually manages to name it by make and model. [We have now added a gallery dedicated to ‘classic cars’ in Uruguay.]

But don’t assume that there are no new cars on the road. There are countless Chinese vehicles to be seen in the city and along the highways; Fiat and VW ‘utes’ – as we call them in Australia – are very popular; and there are a few ‘rich guy’ cars to be seen, like the Porsche mentioned above, particularly around Punte de Este and in Montevideo.

Some well-kept old cars in Uruguay. Top row: a 4x4 called 'Rural' (a Jeep?) and an old Willy's Jeep. Bottom row: you find VW Beetles everywhere, also old Ford Falcons.

Some well-kept old cars in Uruguay. Top row: a 4×4 called ‘Rural’ (a Jeep?) and an old Willy’s Jeep. Bottom row: you find VW Beetles everywhere, also old Ford Falcons.

We were amazed by how many old US pick-up trucks are still in daily use in Uruguay. All brands: Ford, Chevrolet, Fargo (now Chrysler).

We were amazed by how many old US pick-up trucks are still in daily use in Uruguay. All brands: Ford, Chevrolet, Fargo (now Chrysler).

Contrasts

The most surprising thing of all about Uruguay is the contrast we witnessed every day. You look in one direction and see a thoroughly modern country; turn and face in the opposite direction and you have been transported back in time.

The cars are a great example of this, but there are many more.

At the Tristan Navaja Sunday market in Montevideo you will find stalls of antique items alongside stalls with all kinds of electronic accessories.

In the streets of Montevideo and the regional towns you will see old houses right next to a very modern construction.

There are numerous specialised shops for old books, vinyl records, and antiques.

On the coast we were often surprised to see old timber beach cottages directly opposite an ultra-modern rock, metal and glass structure.

The contrast in coastal building styles. The two structures in the top row were opposite each other on the same road (we stopped and photographed both at once).

The contrast in coastal building styles. The two structures in the top row were opposite each other on the same road (we stopped and photographed both at once).

Some people are still running their businesses using a horse drawn cart, and one of the larger supermarket chains is noting that all its lighting is energy-efficient LED. Most of the street lights are also LED.

Driving through the countryside you spot gauchos on horseback with wind power farms for a backdrop. Uruguay is actually producing the most wind power per capita in the world .

Surprising Uruguay: the Disco chain of supermarkets is fitting out all of their shops exclusively with energy efficient LED lights. Uruguay is fairly 'breezy' and you see large wind power installations everywhere.

Surprising Uruguay: the Disco chain of supermarkets is fitting out all of their shops exclusively with energy efficient LED lights. Uruguay is fairly ‘breezy’ and you see large wind power installations everywhere.

Uruguay is small, but it has a big heart.

If you are coming to South America for the first time, Uruguay would be a great place to start.
If you are an overlander in your own vehicle like us, we would recommend it as a very easy place to begin your journey. It’s safe. We had no problem finding places to spend the night, or a few days, or even longer.

You’ll be surprised how much Uruguay has to offer to travellers of all types.
Our favourite sticker is still “Uruguay Natural. 1 turista 1 amigo.”
And did we say that the people are friendly?

Yasha

dare2go's human navigator (we're not lost because there's nowhere particular we have to be) alongside our Nexus 7 tablet, writer and editor of our blog, first cook and loving wife. Teaching English as a second language when possible.

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20 Responses

  1. Corinne says:

    I think we will love Uruquay. I love seeing those contrasts you mention, and your photos make me want to book a ticket today!

    • Yasha says:

      It is certainly worth a visit. And you will be rewarded with interesting experiences and a very relaxing time.

  2. budget jan says:

    Contrasts are quirky and I love that, especially in housing. If there is a brand spanking new place next to an old beach house, chances are I will be attracted to the old beach house. This is a wonderful post and I feel like I really know something about Uruquay now. I would like to travel around in both the USA and to the south in our own vehicle so I’m signing up for your newsletter. I’ve also started a new Pinterest board called America south of USA and pinned this to it. Cheers! Jan

    • Yasha says:

      Thanks Jan: for your lovely comments about our post, for signing up for our newsletter, for pinning our post, and for being inspired.

  3. Ruth says:

    Wow! It was great to read your comprehensive post about Uruguay. I have been to Montevideo and liked the city (even thought even the locals said that is the ugly part of the country). I met a lot of nice people and they left a strong impression on me. I hope I am able to visit the country again. I will like to hop around the coastal cities (or towns).

    • Yasha says:

      We love Montevideo – the most laid-back capital city of South America. There are many beautiful parts to it. And the people in Uruguay are very hospitable. We encourage you to see more of Uruguay.

  4. Kathy Marris says:

    Such a comprehensive guide to Uruguay. It really is one of those countries that you hear very little about so it was interesting to take your guided tour. It looks beautiful.

    • Yasha says:

      We were absolutely surprised by what we found there and now we want to encourage others to explore this little country. Thanks for visiting our blog.

  5. beautiful photos! #travel photo thursday

  6. You do not hear that much about Uruguay, and I don’t know much about the country. But after reading your post I think we’ll like to visit this country. And just have to say that I absolute LOVE the photo with the grazing cattle and horses… Gorgeous!

  7. Fun to learn about Uruguay since it’s a place people overlook when it comes to South America and they make places like Peru, Brazil and Ecuador a priority instead. I admire all of the greenery and beautiful landscapes, and I also enjoyed your story about the kindness of strangers. Too often, there is a large concern about strangers when you travel, so it’s nice to hear locals reaching out with good intentions.

    • Yasha says:

      We found the people of Uruguay to be friendly and helpful wherever we went. Uruguay is certainly under-represented when it comes to receiving travellers from outside of South America. But it is such a pleasant place to be.

  8. Thank you for the introduction to Uruguay! I love that there are so many old cars in use there. Also the part that everyone owns a folding chair and takes it with them is quite unique. Hope to visit someday. Thank you for linking up with #WeekendWanderlust

    • Yasha says:

      They are all just a bit quirky – but that is really part of the attraction of this small country. Uruguay is certainly worth a visit – and it’s so small it doesn’t need to be a long one, although we had no problems enjoying 3 months there.

  9. Uruguay seems to be a peaceful and safe place to travel. And there is a great president as well which most politicians should take as a model. What about the prices? We experienced in Argentina that the prices raised from day to day and the population suffers quite a lot under the devaluation of their property.

    • Yasha says:

      Uruguay is unfortunately quite expensive. It is probably the most expensive country in South America. But you don’t need to spend a lot getting from place to place because it’s so small. I’m guessing that on a short holiday people wouldn’t notice much difference to many other places.

  10. Sophie @ Sophie's World says:

    I’ve only ever visited Colonia (beautiful little town), but would love to explore more of Uruguay. Thanks for the lovely introduction here :)

  11. Your post makes me want to travel more through South America. When I was in Peru, I noticed a mix of old and new as well. Those cars though! From the photos I’ve seen of Cuba, Uruguay certainly rivals the Caribbean island’s classic automobiles.

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