We might’ve peaked with Cabo Polonio, but there’s still more to Uruguay than you probably think..
Uruguay is a bloody tiny country, but one that luckily snagged itself quite a bit of pristine coastline. For this reason, our trip through the country ran the length of the beaches. However, we forgot one very important caveat in planning our beachy getaway: it was effectively the dead of winter.
At least there was room enough for our towels on the sand, am I right?
Punta del Este
A resorty, beach destination, Punta del Este is every inch the Gold Coast of Uruguay. And, better yet, on the fringes of winter it’s an absolute ghost town.
While that means a colossal drop in tourists, you’ve also got to consider the colossal drop in temperatures – which mean the beach isn’t actually appealing, and there’s really not that much else to do. But at least the hostels are great fun.
The Trip Hostel is run by a group of the friendliest guys you’ll meet, and from stepping in the door it’s like you’re dropping in to visit some mates.
They’ll immediately welcome you for a ‘smoke’ (marijuana is legal here remember) and to sit with them for a few hours to shoot the shit.
The rooms are clean and tidy – and because you’re there in the stupidest season, will likely be yours alone – and the breakfast is a wide spread of fresh goods.
It also helps that there’s a jar of marijuana on the check-in counter.
Another capital city we seem to have entirely missed the memo on, because plenty of travelers had waxed lyrical about this and recommended it as one of the nicest capitals in Europe: but we just couldn’t find the cool vibe that was apparently lurking somewhere.
To be honest though, our experience might have been slightly marred by the debauchery that abounded in our hostel, but more on that below…
Montevideo’s ‘meat market’ might be one of its highlights – and no, unfortunately it’s not an auction to buy males.
Mercado del Puerto is stuffed full of stalls offering Uruguay’s best cuts of meat, lamb and chicken, all fired up on a grill as you watch, and served up with a bottle of the country’s best red.
It’s not cheap street food as such, but comparative to your home country it’s probably pretty good value.
If I have one resounding memory of Montevideo, though, it’s of our hostel – which for all intents and purposes was a sex dungeon. Which obviously, we did not know giving over our money and details on booking.com.
Willy Fog Hostel is the offending cesspit, which will still ping you USD$12 for a room in a 16-bed dormitory. Uruguay isn’t as cheap as many of its neighbours, or Montevideo at least, so the price is relative – what isn’t, is the dingy, windowless dungeon the 16-bed dorm room is set in. What’s worse is the couples, yes plural, who proceeded to get down and dirty in full view of every single other person in the dorm, at about 7pm at night. Sure, this can’t be blamed on the hostel, but I’d like to think that if someone was having sex in a communal room where other people have paid for a decent night’s sleep and all they can hear is rubbing and slurping and gasping, a staffer would come in with a barge pole and pry them apart.
Colonia del Sacramento
Aside from Cabo Polonio, this was a close second favourite of Uruguay – not least because it also had electricity.
Colonia is a Unesco World Heritage site, found on the banks of the Rio del Plata – and is actually closer to Buenos Aires than it is to Montevideo. The capital of Argentina is just 50 kilometres away, while Montevideo is 180km behind you, which is why this is such an important jumping-off point to Argentina.
But despite its role as a transit hub of sorts, Colonia never lost its laid-back and picturesque charm, and hasn’t yet been inundated with tourism operators and touts.
The narrow, cobbled streets of Barrio Historico, it’s ‘old town’ of sorts, is an abstract juxtaposition of colonial-era architecture, crumbling ruins, and leafy sycamores. There’s also plenty of river-front restaurants and bars for taking in the incredible sunsets (interesting fact: it’s Uruguayan custom to clap as the sun dips below the horizon – so don’t alarmingly look around for the subject of the rousing applause that erupts from nowhere).
It’s a popular destination for weekenders from Buenos Aires, so exercise caution when booking your trip – prices escalate in summer and on the weekends.
Things to do:
– Hire a bike: Most hostels will offer bikes for free or for a small fee, and it appears to be the most popular mode of transport in the town (aside from the golf carts that plague the streets for the lazier tourist).
From the centre of town, take the wide path along the Rio de la Plata, which is more like a giant harbour at this point, and bike the five kilometres or so out to the Plaza de Toros, an old bull ring on the outskirts of town. It’s supposed to be closed, but it’s reasonably easy to get in for a quick peek around at what kind of looks like a mini, less impressive Colosseum.
– The lighthouse: Offering the best vantage point over the town, take a jaunt up the stairs for a good viewpoint.
– Porton de Campo: You’ll find this stone gate and wooden drawbridge in the old town. It’s on the grounds of what remains of a former fort leading in to the historic quarter.
– La Calle de los Suspiros: a street. Yes, a street. But a cool street, nonetheless. This narrow, cobbled street is flanked by brightly-coloured buildings that are each hundreds of years old, and lends itself to a good picture or two. It leads down to the waterfront, via several small and quirky shops and restaurants.