Squeezed in-between Brazil and Argentina, the tiny nation of Uruguay is often overlooked. However, with some architectural delights, good food and fantastic beaches, it really is worth a visit
It’s all too easy for a traveller to miss the tiny South American country of Uruguay and its capital Montevideo. However, although not as bold and brash as Buenos Aires, its Argentinean cousin across the River Plate, this historic city offers some architectural delights, good quality restaurants and miles of golden beaches. And head west out of the city, on near deserted roads, and there are some beautiful, historic towns and some surprising little gems to be found.
The best way of reaching Montevideo is by crossing the River Plate from Buenos Aires. The Buquebus ferries are new, modern and clean and there are good deals to be had depending on when you sail. The crossing to Montevideo, Uruguay’s only city or town of any real size, takes a little over three hours.
The main thoroughfare through the city is Avenida 18 de Julio, named after the day in 1829 when Uruguay became free of Argentinean and Brazilian control. The tourist office, offering advice and free city maps, is just off the main road at Plaza Gagancha. The main square, Plaza Independencia, at the end of Avenida 18 de Julio, is dominated by the Placio Salvo, a strange high-rise building that seems, for some unfathomable reason, to be dear to the hearts of the locals.
Just off the square the Teatro Solis is an exact replica of Madrid’s Teatro Maria Guerrero and is one of the oldest theatres in South America. In the centre of Plaza Independencia is the tomb of national hero General Jose Artigas together with an impressive statue of the man himself on horseback.
An old archway at the end of Plaza Independencia leads through to the Ciudad Vieja or Old Town and its narrow, winding streets and fabulous old colonial buildings. The Plaza Constitucion dominates and the Town Hall, which houses a museum, and the cathedral, the oldest building in Montevideo, can be found in the square.
However, all streets in Montevideo seem to head to the beach or port. At the port there is a fabulous atmospheric market, Mercardo del Puerto, which has open air restaurants and plenty of asados (barbecues) piled high with beef steaks, ribs and lamb cutlets. The city’s sandy beaches are impressively clean and are so wide it’s easy to find a secluded spot at which to sunbathe or picnic.
Although Montevideo has much to offer it’s only when you head out of the city that you get a true feel of what Uruguay is all about. The country, known as the Switzerland of South America, has a population of around four million, the majority of which live in and around Montevideo. No wonder then, as you head out of the city that traffic decreases and you are more likely to meet a horse and cart in more rural areas than cars.
The beautiful old 17th century town of Colonia del Sacremento, a two-and-a-half hour leisurely drive from Montevideo, is definitely worth a visit. It was founded by the Portuguese and built as a rival to Buenos Aires, which lies directly opposite on the other side of the River Plate. Since its foundation in around 1680 the region has been fought over, and controlled, by the Portuguese, Spanish and English with the Dutch occasionally firing the odd canon ball or two at the town’s defences.
Now, in the old town, cobbled streets are still lined with some original Portuguese and Spanish buildings and the ruins of the town’s original fortifications. Just outside of town is Uruguay’s only bull ring. However, it was apparently never used as the government banned the spectacle at the start of the 20th century just after it was completed.
Where to stay
The four star Sheraton Montevideo Hotel, at Calle Victor Solino, offers a great location, right next to the Punta Carretas Mall which has plenty of good quality shops as well as banks and chemist stores. The hotel is at the top end of the market with rooms costing around £150 a night. There’s a fitness centre and a fabulous indoor pool on the top floor offering great views across the beach.
The three star Ibis Montevideo, at Calle La Cumparsita, offers a cheaper option at around £35 a night. The hotel is unpretentious offering a good clean, no thrills service and, down near the beach, it’s in a great location.
Eating and drinking
If you like sea food you can’t do better than El Viejo y El Mar at Rambla Gandhi 400. Right down on the river front, the menu is full of fish, pasta and salad dishes with mains starting at around £15. It has a pleasant ambience and is decorated to look like a ship, in fact the bar is fashioned from an old boat. Try the paella, it’s as good as anything you’ll find in Spain.
Of course, like Argentina and Brazil, Uruguay is famous for its beef. At Las Picapiedras the portions are huge and incredibly cheap. Situated at Murillo 6608 esq. Arocena, the first thing you notice is the number of locals eating there - always a good sign. The steaks are deliciously tender but massive. Consider buying a T-bone to share between two would be my advice.
Heading out to Colonia del Sacremento, just outside the town you can find the estancia (ranch) of Arena Granja Colonia which has a great little restaurant and coffee shop. The menu includes empanadas, salads and home made salamis along with a fantastic selection of delicious sweets. The family operation also has a shop from which they sell an incredible range of home made jams and marmalades, all made on site.
Also on show are the collections of the head of the family, Eduardo Arenas. He was, as a child, apparently given a pencil as a present and began collecting them. He has now built up the world’s largest collection of lead pencils (7,500 plus) which are on show in glass cabinets alongside his collection of perfume bottles (1,500), key fobs (24,000 plus), drink cans (2,500) and ash trays (3,500). In truth, I couldn’t help asking myself the inevitable question, why?
However, travellers to South America shouldn’t dismiss Uruguay as insignificant or uninteresting. Uruguayans may be reserved but they are fiercely independent of the rest of South America. A perfect example being the nation’s strong secular tradition. The church plays no role in government and even church festivals, such as Christmas and Easter, have been renamed Family Day and Tourism Week respectively.
If you are planning a trip to South America, or back packing across the continent, include Uruguay - it's a country that so often slips under the radar, yet has so much to offer.