Uruguay: Surprising In So Many Ways
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.
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 .
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 .
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?