Uruguay: Into the unknown

Charles Darwin noted its 'grand, green undulations' and 'hospitable gauchos'. Today, Uruguay remains one of South America's best-kept secrets — an alluring land of understated charm

By Chris Leadbeater
Published 22 Mar 2013, 14:03 GMT, Updated 30 Jun 2021, 13:02 BST

If it's usual for the first glimpse of a destination to give the observer a hint of what to expect — think Manhattan skyscrapers seen through a plane window; palm trees swaying in the heat of a Caribbean runway — then Uruguay guards its secrets closely.

Forty minutes outside Buenos Aires, its coastline appears above the soupy currents of the River Plate, vague and indefinable. And as my ferry inches into Colonia el Sacramento, I can identify few clues: a bay where the heavy brown waves of South America's widest estuary slosh ashore; the back fences and gardens of ordinary-looking houses — rather than chic mansions — overlooking the waterfront. Everything is calm, understated. It's just after midday but it may as well be 6am.

This is wholly appropriate. Because, for most of the planet, Uruguay is an unknown. Plenty of us dream of the towering peaks and Inca lore of Peru, the beaches of Brazil, the tango mysticism of Argentina — but images of Uruguay rarely haunt our travel fantasies.

There are reasons for this. For one, Uruguay is South America's second smallest country (Surinam is the smallest) — about a third larger than England. Indeed, to drive from Montevideo, the south-coast capital, to the city of Bella Union in the far north, is to cover a mere 403 miles; the same distance as the journey from Brighton to Berwick.

Within this little enclave, you'll struggle to find a landmark that cares whether you pay it attention. Yes, Montevideo is a major city — but there are no Andean summits here, no arms-outstretched figures of Christ. Uruguay is largely flat, and 77% pasture. Over 10 million cows digest its fields (around three per person for a population of 3.3 million).

Accessibility, too, is a problem. In April, Iberia will suspend flights between Madrid and Montevideo — a decision that will sever the one direct link to Europe. Last July, Pluna, Uruguay's national airline, was liquidated, leaving the capital's Carrasco airport hugely underemployed. No wonder that, of the three million tourists Uruguay receives each year, only 10% come from the Old World. In contrast, 54% (1.7 million) — sun-seekers heading for the beaches in the resort city of Punta del Este — hail from Argentina.

But then, the neighbours are a constant factor in Uruguayan life. The country is squeezed between the two behemoths of Latin America — Argentina to the south and west, Brazil to the north. It was ever thus. Colonial Spain founded Buenos Aires on the lower shore of the Plate in 1580 as it sought to expand into the fertile ground on either side of the river. A century later in 1680, Portugal set up Colonia del Sacramento on the opposite bank, 30 miles north east of the future Argentinian capital — a provocative act designed to drag the borders of its Brazilian territories down to the estuary. For the next 150 years, these two giants would squabble over the area – until, amid the New World revolutions of the early 19th century, Uruguay managed to throw off the yokes of not just Madrid and Lisbon, but of the fledgling Argentina and Brazil. In 1825, it declared itself an independent state, and has remained so ever since — though it's financially tied to the powers next door, its economy fuelled by Brazil's appetite for beef as much as Argentina's need for a holiday.

Colonial past

Colonia clings to these relationships — its Barrio Historico flirting with the 17th century. Granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 1995, its cobbled lanes remember the tough Portuguese imperial empire era they were born into. The whitewashed Basilica del Santisimo Sacramento is as much fortress as a church. Adjacent, the Governor's House is a ghost — only the foundations remain of a mansion that was destroyed when Spain seized the town in 1777. At least the Posada Plaza Mayor — a hotel in a former 19th-century home, where I'm to stay — announces a truce, flying both Argentine and Uruguayan flags above its door.

It'd be easy to tarry here. Many go no further before making the hour voyage back to Buenos Aires. But the joy of an unknown quantity is the chance it presents for discoveries. Charles Darwin visited Uruguay in 1833, filling a notebook with 'obliging, polite and hospitable gauchos' and the 'grand, green undulations' of the landscape. Two centuries on from the great naturalist's tour, Uruguay seems barely more charted. And so, on my second day, I hire a car, and forge north west.

As I go, there are further flickers of outside influence: the dramatic, decrepit Real de San Carlos bullring on the edge of Colonia — an arena built in 1910 by Croatian-Argentine businessman Nicolas Mihanovich to lure visitors from Buenos Aires, but left to rot when Uruguay banned bullfighting in 1912; the skyscrapers of the Argentinian capital's Puerto Madero district, visible across the river as I drive Ruta 21; 18th-century Spain's religious footprint in the ruins of the Calera de las Huerfanas Jesuit mission, just off the highway.

These hours of travel feel like an attempt to tune a radio caught between stations. I'm convinced I've reached the authentic Uruguay when I hit the pretty town of Carmelo, particularly the two wineries emphasising the potency of the estuary soil — family-run Bodega Familia Irurtia, with its leafy vineyard, on the outskirts; and elegant Finca Narbona, a little along the 21, where I nurse a glass of the house Tannat Roble 2010 on the veranda of the attached restaurant, as fireflies dart in the dying light.

But there's a burst of static and the sound of Buenos Aires on the airwaves as I pull up at the town's Four Seasons Resort Carmelo. It's a beautiful retreat, cocooned among woods close to the Plate — but its prime market is the Argentinian guests who hop over the river for weekends of spa refinement and gourmet food.

Twelve miles beyond Carmelo, I reach Punta Gorda. At first glance, there's nothing startling about this nugget of land jutting into the water. But in terms of South America, this is a significant location — the point where the River Plate effectively starts, fed by the Uruguay and Negro Rivers that meet 30 miles to the north. Thirty miles south of Punta Gorda, the Paraná emerges on the far side of the Plate and completes the picture.

By now I'm cutting north into Soriano, the most westerly of Uruguay's 19 Departments. I'm seeking a far-flung city whose name rings with curious echoes; an Eldorado of sorts. Uruguay may not be familiar to many, but Fray Bentos is — thanks to the British-Belgian meat-processing plant here that once filled cupboards from Dover to Dundee with tinned pies and corned beef. The brand still exists, though the plant shut down in 1979 after 116 years of hard service, and is now preserved as the Museo de la Revolucion Industrial.

A concrete complex, its location alongside the Uruguay River is Latin, but its guts are anything but: the cogs, iron and rust of the machinery are branded with British birthmarks: 'Bradford,' 'Leeds,' 'Glasgow,' 'Wakefield.' Walking through, I remember that colonial Britain also liked to meddle in Uruguay (capturing Montevideo in 1807), although on the quay, the eyes staring over the wall again come from Argentina — an almost tangible presence across the river. There have been tensions in these parts. In 2005, plans for a paper-pulp plant in Fray Bentos led to Argentinians occupying the international bridge that unites the two countries east of the city. It would take five years and a lot of diplomatic sweat for the blockade to be lifted.

From here, I could continue north along the river. But I'm keen to explore the interior. I turn east. And as Argentina fades in my mirrors, Uruguay bares its soul. Although Ruta 2 is a key artery, connecting Montevideo with the west, the scene is defiantly rural: cows staring at the occasional truck (traffic is sparse) and clouds of birds — woodpeckers, lapwings, even parrots. The towns in my way, José Enrique Rodó and Cardona, offer no disruption. And when I turn north onto Ruta 21 at Ismael Cortinas, there are so few cars that any encounter requires acknowledgement. Near Trinidad, a farmer waves and toots as we pass, glad of the momentary company.

This is the realm of Darwin's 'polite and hospitable gauchos'. The next three nights will see me rest my head at three different estancias (ranches) — each with a different style and story.

Estancia style

San Martin del Yi — north of Trinidad, but so far from the beaten path I have to drive 15 miles on rough tracks to find it — is a vast working estate where Biblical-sized herds are reared under the gaze of the Onetto family. I arrive at sunset. A barbecue is smoking in the garden; hearty steaks and chunks of liver sizzling. And when I awake in one of the five guest bedrooms in the main house, it's to the noise of cows lowing — the massed indignation of 100 females being inseminated in a long corral. The day begins early here.

Estancia Los Plátanos, 150 miles to the east in the Treinta y Tres Department, is also a family business, but on a smaller scale — run by Marina Cantera Nebel and her husband Andrés, the sole gaucho. "We're the fifth generation of our family to work this estancia," she says, as she leads me to my room in their 19th-century house. It's a happy, humble place, where I eat with the couple and their two young daughters in the kitchen, and ride out with Marina and Andrés the next day as he checks the estate on horseback, Marina glancing warily at the vultures — known to steal newborn lambs — that lurk on the fences.

Estancia Balcon del Abra — 100 miles south, near Mariscala, in the Lavalleja Department — is another variation, a luxury hideaway, home to Ursula Heinen. A Black Forest German who lived in Ibiza for 34 years, she swapped the Balearics for Uruguay in 2004, and has no regrets. Does she miss Europe, I ask? "Miss it?" she laughs. "When I have this view…" Beyond the window and the swimming pool, her estate spreads into the picturesque distance.

The drive between these estancias showcases Darwin's 'green undulations' — a tapestry of olives and ochres dotted with picturesque towns. Each keeps to the template of a compact grid pitched around a main square — but with subtle garnishes. In Trinidad, it's the statue of José Artigas — the revolutionary figure seen as the father of Uruguayan statehood — on Plaza Constitución. In Durazno, it's the church of San Piedro on Plaza Independencia. Its sparse red-brick interior is the work of celebrated 20th-century Uruguayan architect Eladio Dieste. The city of Treinta y Tres, meanwhile, is a gateway to Quebrada De Los Cuervos, a lush 574ft-deep canyon that vultures swirl above as I hike into its depths.

Beyond the canyon, a sign on Ruta 8 explains I'm 99 miles from the Brazilian border — and I can almost feel the weight of a continental Goliath. Yet the highway calls me not north, but to the Atlantic. The south east of Uruguay — the Lavalleja and Rocha Departments — is a rare pocket of lofty terrain. On the tangled ribbon of Ruta 109, another sign indicates Cerro Cordillera, Uruguay's highest 'mountain'. Its height is only 1,683ft, although this creates enough elevation that, as I take a bend, I see the ocean.

The gilded stretch of seafront below is Uruguay at its most coveted. After the simplicity of the interior, driving into José Ignacio is a shock. But for the Hispanic accents, this pristine village could be a Long Island hamlet, the pale clapboard of its homes concealing hefty price tags. There are bronzed bodies on the beach, and a woozy affluence pervades the boutique cafes. By the time I reach Estancia Vik José Ignacio — a glorious art-hotel set in wetlands three miles from the ocean — I realise I've gatecrashed the neighbours' summer party.

Argentina basks on the sands of this southern strip during the New Year months, and the towns along Ruta 10 embrace their roles at the heart of the Uruguayan tourist industry: La Barra, with its busy bars and surfboards; Punta del Este, the kingpin of the coast, all mega-hotels and concrete apartment blocks. Here, a stroll on the promenade of Playa de los Ingleses brings me to the point where the Atlantic greets the River Plate, the estuary appearing incomprehensibly broad as joggers pound the pavements under blue skies.

Punta del Este also marks the beginning of the urban sweep into the capital. The highway drags me west until, at Atlántida, I notice I've entered the conurbation. For the first time in a week, there are exhaust fumes and pedestrians — the swell and surge of the city.

Montevideo is no Buenos Aires. Its late start — it was founded in 1724, 144 years after its rival — guarantees this. But its relative lack of size is offset by a rough-hewn vibrancy that's inescapable, whether you're admiring the upmarket barrios of Carrasco and Buceo, dozing on the curve of Playa Ramirez or inspecting the cluttered Ciudad Vieja (Old City).

On my last day, I launch myself at the maelstrom of the centre: the Amerindian artifacts of MAPI (Museo de Arte Precolombino e Indígena) — an emblem of the historic quarter's resurgence; the architectural majesty of the Palacio Salvo, a 1928 residential structure that rears over Plaza Independencia; the crowded shops of Avenida 18 de Julio.

As I await my ferry to Buenos Aires, I find a seat at La Maestranza — one of the barbecue parrillas at the dockside Mercado del Puerto — order a steak, and have a moment of clarity. Uruguay may be relatively unknown, but it has abundant, unfussy appeal. And here in this market hall — amid the crackle of meat and waiters' shouts — I've fallen for its charms.


American Airlines flies to Montevideo and Buenos Aires from Heathrow, via Miami, while TAM flies to both cities from Heathrow via Sao Paulo. British Airways and Iberia both serve Buenos Aires from Heathrow — Iberia via Madrid.

Local transport company Buquebus runs daily ferries from Buenos Aires to both Colonia and Montevideo.

Average flight time: 11h (Buenos Aires).

Rail travel in Uruguay is almost non-existent, but bus services like COPSA, Agencia Central and Buquebus cover most parts of the country. For travel to more remote parts of the interior, it's better to hire a car.

Summer is from November to February when the beaches and bars are packed with average temperatures of 27-29C, while lows of 17-19C prevail in winter.

Visas: British citizens do not require a visa to enter Uruguay.
Currency: Uruguayan Peso (UYU). £1 = UYU30.
International dial code: 00 598.
Time difference: GMT -3.

Uruguay, the Bradt travel guide, by Tim Burford. RRP: £15.99

Latin America specialist Last Frontiers offers a nine-day Uruguay itinerary taking in Montevideo, Punta Del Este, Colonia and a stay on an estancia from £2,467 per person, including flights (with TAM), transfers and all breakfasts.

Published in the April 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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