Uruguay is a small country of about 4m people sandwiched between Argentina and Brazil. Nearly half live in Montevideo, the capital. It sort of feels like an upscale, more laid back Argentina that actually works. People speak the same accented spanish as they do in Argentina, but with seemingly less slang. I took an eight day trip last month during Carnaval for a short vacation.
I arrived into the Montevideo airport, tried to rent a car, but couldn’t find anything, so I immediately took a bus directly to Punta del Este, hoping to find a car there. I hadn’t realized when I booked the flight that it was going to be Carnaval in Uruguay, but that explained why everything was busy.
Punta del Este is the French Rivera of South America. South Americans with money come from all over to play on the beaches, eat in top restaurants and hobnob with each other. As such, it’s really expensive, but there’s great food and good beaches. Nearly everyone there was in good shape, extremely tan and fairly well dressed. It wasn’t really my style, as Punta is very built up and feels a bit like Florida. After a day and a half it was time to move on.
I took a bus north along the coast to Punta del Diablo, a small town that gets overrun with tourists in the summer. One family used to own all of the land, but has now sold lots to developers for cabins, restaurants and small apartments. Since it was Carnaval and everyone had monday and tuesday off from work, the place was packed. It’s really close to the Brazilian border and you can tell: portuguese is everywhere, the merchants accept reales, caipirinas are on every menu. They also accept Argentine pesos, but at 10 pesos to the dollar, or 2x the official rate. Argentinians were happy to pay.
Punta del Diablo has two huge beaches that were full close to town, but if you walked 10 minutes, you could find beaches with hardly anyone. It was hot and sunny, maybe 90 degrees, in the morning, but every late afternoon it got cold. Try to stay at a cabin instead of a hostel, they’re about the same price.
The surf was pretty high, making the water seem colder than it was. There are tons of little restaurants, mostly catering to tourists. The best ones were farther into town, maybe 3 minutes walk. The first ones were touristy, kind of expensive and lower quality. My favorites were a mexican cantina through the center of town and Il Tano Cucino, an Italian restaurant where the owner makes his own pasta and gnocchis outside each day. It was so good I went twice in one day.
At night during Carnaval, the city came alive. Local kids filled up anything they could find to have massive water fights with each other. Others took to ambushing tourists. My favorite was a kid with a hose who hid behind some bushes to spray people. After I got hit, I watched for 20 minutes as other got destroyed by the water.
Later on in the night, there were two parades with local kids dancing, singing and riding around in floats. Everyone followed the parades, dancing, singing and drinking until they arrived at the beach, between three bars. It morphed into a huge outside dance party with the occacional spray of water from some kids. Everyone was happy. You could tell the Brazilians apart from everyone else by how quickly they moved their feet.
After a few days in Punta del Diablo I went on a day trip to Velizas, about an hour to the south. It’s a tiny town, much less developed than Punta del Diablo, but the beach was beautiful. The water was warm and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Looking to the south, you can see the huge sand dunes of Cabo Polonio national park. I wished I’d spent a little more time there.
I spent my last two days in Montevideo. I found a great hotel on booking.com that happened to have a 65% discount in the old section of town with a view of the “sea.” Although everyone calls it the sea, it’s really the rio de la plata, which at montevideo happens to be one of the widest rivers in the world. The old section is in the middle of being restored. There are boutique hotels, small shops, good restaurants and stores that are going into beautiful old buildings. Montevideo has some incredible arquitecture that is way better preserved than Santiago and the old city is going to be incredible in a few years as people start to move back.
I went for lunch at Mercando Central and sampled Medio y Medio, a half and half mix of white wine and champagne that really sneaks up on you. Uruguayans eat the fourth most beef per capita in the world and for good reason. Their steaks were incredible. Bar Fun Fun is a touristy but eclectic bar that’s been in business since 1895, complete with live tango and music. At night, hardly anyone is around in the old city, except at a few bars. It was a little creepy and felt like a zombie movie, especially compared to the day when it’s filled with people
I really liked Uruguay. The country seems stable, people are nice, the cities seemed safe and things seemed to work. People seem to have a really high quality of life. Montevideo is in the middle of gentrification and the old city will be incredible in about 5 years if they continue to make progress. I will definitely be back in the future.
Thanks Nathan I have always been interested in Montevideo and the beaches of Uruguay but I have never had a chance to travel there. I appreciate the time you took to write your experiences down for others.
Thanks Bill! You’ll enjoy them if you get a chance to go!